We live in a pluralistic society. Our neighbors, co-workers and friends come from many different religious backgrounds. They seem just as religious and moral as do Christians, if not more so. It seems the height of arrogance to think that Christians alone have the right religion and that everyone else is lost forever.
We live in a climate of relativism. The present pluralism and worldview of many is that truth, morality and religion are relative. According to this view, cultures and individuals subjectively construct ways of thinking and acting that give meaning to their lives. There is no objective truth.
“That may be true for you,” we hear, “but it isn’t true for me.” Truth is not discovered but personally constructed. Morality is a matter of “values”—that is, behavior that particular individuals or cultures value—rather than objective absolutes. Religion has to do with subjective choices and experiences that give meaning to a person’s life. Religion is perfectly acceptable—as long as it is kept private and experiential. But religious claims, doctrines and absolutes are out of line. Since religion is personal, “no one has the right to impose his or her religion on anyone else.” Such are the times we live.
Don’t all roads lead to Heaven?
Two Bible passages that can offend people are John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” And Acts 4:12 – “There is salvation in no one else; there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” These are two of many verses that assert the same truth. If different spiritual roads lead to the same destination then something is amiss. Somebody is wrong. All the religions may be wrong but they can’t all be right. And if they all are not right, then how does one discern the one that might be right from the ones that are wrong?
Different roads do not always go to the same destination. If you are trying to go to the Grand Canyon, heading north out of New York may allow you to experience beautiful scenery but it won’t get you to the Grand Canyon. Similarly, the world’s different religions will not get you to the same place. In fact, they don’t even claim to be headed to the same destination.
The Christian “heaven” is quite different than other religions. In the Bible, heaven is referred to as a realm of eternal life in which the individual person survives after death in a state of perfect joy. It includes the belief that the body will be resurrected and all of our personality, memories and relationships will live forever without our sins and weaknesses. We will be able to know our loved ones and be in communion with Christ Himself.
In contrast, most Eastern religions—such as Hinduism, Buddhism and the Westernized New Age versions—reject the survival of individuals’ altogether. In Hinduism, souls are reincarnated until they are purged of their distinctions and ultimately merge all together into a vast cosmic oneness. Hinduism uses the metaphor, “when a drop of water falls into the ocean the individual drop ceases to exist.” The destination of Buddhism is “Nirvana,” meaning literally, “nothingness.” When after much meditation and personal sacrifice, the soul finally loses all of its desires and finds enlightenment; it will escape the bounds of this material world to experience Nirvana, “nothingness.”
Religions that believe in one God (monotheism) teach of an afterlife that has similarities to Christianity but is significantly different. Mormons teach that when you die you will be a god of your own solar system, giving birth with your wife to spirit children who will inhabit the planets in your solar system. Muslims teach the existence of a paradise in which inhabitants enjoy sensual pleasures, including those their religion forbids here on earth. Most orthodox Jews believe in an afterlife similar to how the Old Testament speaks, but many Jews today believe that life is final, with no survival beyond the grave.
Isn’t it unfair for God to condemn people who do not believe in Jesus?
It does not seem fair that God would condemn people to hell just because they do not know Jesus. Many people throughout the world have never heard of Jesus. It would be unjust for God to condemn them. And surely, as long as they are a good and moral person who follows another religion they should not go to hell but should receive an eternal reward.
This may sound surprising, but no one is condemned for not believing in Jesus! People are condemned for their sins! The Bible says that at the end time, everyone will be judged by their works. “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done . . . If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” –Rev. 20:12, 15. Everyone’s deeds are recorded in the books. It is on this basis judgment comes. But there is “another book,” The Book of Life, which records the names of those saved by Christ (Phil.4:3). Only those names will enter Heaven!
It is true that God would never condemn a good, moral person who has no faults. A person without sin has no need to fear God’s judgment. However, you and I both know that such a person does not exist. This is why Romans says, “None is righteous, no not one . . . All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Rom. 2:12-16. We are all in need of receiving God’s grace. No other religion extends grace to their followers, but rather, requires some form of human merit or display.
The reason we need God’s grace is that contrary to most religions that teach some form of works to be acceptable to God in order to make it into heaven. Christianity is radically different.. The doctrine of grace by faith through Jesus is at the heart of Christianity and leaves no room for another road to heaven. Another uniqueness of Christianity is that no other religion is based on a historical figure, including Islam. Mohammad never claimed to provide the way to paradise nor a solution to sinfulness.
What about those who have never heard?
What about people who die without hearing about Jesus? Do people who lived before Jesus was born, or heard false information about Jesus have any hope? YES—Precisely because the Christian gospel is the gospel of grace, people are saved by God’s grace and not by pronouncing the name of Jesus. Jesus died for the whole world (2 Cor. 5:14, 1 John 2:2).
We know that no one will ever be able to say they did not have a chance to respond to God’s gift of grace for the Bible says God wants everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Most come to faith in Christ through Christ-followers who share the good news of the Gospel. Others, through natural revelation, call out for the mercy of God to save them.
Romans 1:18-20 says everyone has enough knowledge of God to know moral right and wrong. If they are honest, they know they fall short of their own standards let alone God’s standards. Because Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross covers past, present and future sins, it doesn’t matter when or where one lived, if they admit their need for God’s grace and mercy, God will grant it, based on the finished work of Christ, even if they never knew anything about Jesus. Paul writes in Romans 3:25 “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed . . .” Paul goes onto explain why those prior to Christ (those in the Old Testament), were still saved even though they did not speak the name of Jesus. They were saved or justified by God’s grace and mercy. They were looking forward in faith and they acknowledged their need.
In the same way today, even if someone might not know of Jesus, if they know they need God’s grace and mercy and that their own works don’t even meet their own standards, God will provide salvation through Christ if they call upon God.
The uniqueness of God’s grace vs. all other religions
If Jesus is one of many ways to Heaven, we have a contradiction. Such a position contradicts the Christian faith and changes the nature of God and of Jesus. Regarding Jesus, it makes him either a liar, saying He is the only way to God when He knew he wasn’t, or he’s a lunatic to think He is the way to God when He isn’t. Those types of people we put in mental institutions. But the life that he led, the miracles he performed, the lives that were changed and his resurrection from the dead are all historically documented. They point to the fact that he was not just mere man, but was as He Himself claimed, the Son of God, and Savior for the World!
Regarding God, to believe there are other roads to God denies His primary two character qualities: His holiness that requires grace and His love that demonstrates grace through Christ. There would be no point in Jesus needing to die for anyone’s sins. God’s holiness would not be needed if God were to accept people into Heaven who are good and reasonably moral. But the truth is that everyone, no matter how personally good and holy they believe they are must admit (if they are honest) that they have at times never met their own personal standards let alone God’s standards. This is why the major monotheistic religions of the world would never agree to other roads leading to heaven because it tramples on the holiness of God.
Christianity, Islam and Judaism are the only religions that teach the holiness of God. In Islam, God is too holy to be personally known and experienced. This is why you are expected to practice Islam’s five pillars (Oneness of God & Mohammed is the final prophet; praying 3x a day; giving to the poor; fasting; and finally a pilgrimage to Mecca). But even if one does these five things, there is no assurance they will be in Paradise. Only if they die in a Jihad war for Allah are they assured according to their religion.
However, in Christianity God is personally known in Jesus as the Son of God. He provides the only atoning sacrifice that everyone needs. He is the unique channel of God’s grace and salvation. And one can be assured of heaven not because of their righteousness or good works, but because of their faith in Christ’s death for their sins. Jesus is exclusive and inclusive at the same time—the narrow way and the Savior of the entire world—the only way to salvation, yet available for all.
Ultimately every person in one way or another will stand before God and rather they have heard of Jesus or not they will need to call out for God’s grace and mercy. God’s grace is exactly what everyone needs. The fact that we can’t earn it or deserve it is what makes our salvation through Christ’s sacrificial death truly good news!
Dirke Johnson has a doctorate in Church Leadership and is a professor for the Ministry Degree program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also teaches at Cru’s Institute of Biblical Studies and specializes in Leader Development, creating high performing teams. He has years of experience at ministering in urban cross-cultural and international contexts.