Does the Bible teach that only christians can be “saved”?
Three doctrinal views
Christians have held three main views on this question:
On this view, only those who specifically put their faith in Jesus and ask him for forgiveness can be saved. There are certainly Bible passages that appear to indicate this, including Romans 3:21-25, 1 Peter 1:18-21, Acts 4:12 (“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved”), and perhaps the strongest, from Jesus himself in John 14:6:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
However there are difficulties with this view.
- Taken strictly, none of the Jews before Jesus, even the heroes of the faith, could be saved, because none of them had believed in Jesus.
- It appears to be unjust that those who have never heard of Jesus, even newborn babies, would be condemned without opportunity to believe. Even if we don’t believe in a hell of eternal punishment (see Hell – what does the Bible say?), this seems to be way too harsh for a loving God.
Universalism teaches that because God is love and God is sovereign, in the end everyone will be saved. And there are passages that appear to support this view, perhaps most notably 1 Corinthians 15:22:
“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”
However there are many other passages that teach differently (such as those referenced above under “Exclusivism”) and Jesus’ warnings about punishment in the age to come (e.g. Matthew 25:41,46), and it seems that universalism must remain a hopeful but unlikely possibility.
Inclusivism teaches that while people can only be saved through Jesus, it will not only be christian believers who will be saved. Support from this view comes from several sources:
1. Many apparently exclusivist passages can be seen as supporting this view. Check out John 14:6, Acts 4:12, Romans 3:21-25, 1 Peter 1:18-21 and many others, and you’ll find that they say clearly that Jesus is the only means of salvation, and that faith in him leads to salvation, but they don’t say that others cannot be saved through him too, and they allow for the possibility that God’s grace in Jesus extends to more people than just those who specifically identify as christians. The exclusivist case isn’t nearly as strong as it first appears.
2. Quite a few passages suggest that God’s mercy is wider than we may sometimes think.
- Romans 2:14-16: “(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.”
- Acts 17:24-27: “God …. gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth …. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him”
- Acts 10:34-35: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
- 2 Chronicles 16:9: “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. “
- Other passages worth mentioning here are Matthew 25:34-40, John 1:9, Psalm 103:10-14, Isaiah 66:2 and Micah 6:8.
3. It makes sense of the fact that at least some people (the Old Testament Jews) were saved without knowing about Jesus. And it seems more just, for “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).
From all this we learn that although none of us can live worthy enough to earn God’s favour, that favour can come to us via our faith (Romans 3:21-25, Ephesians 2:8-9), or our heart attitude (Acts 10:34-35, Romans 10:13, 2 Chronicles 16:9) or our actions (Matthew 25:34-40, Acts 10:34-35, Micah 6:8).
What shall we conclude?
I believe the inclusivist view is the correct one. It is most in accordance with scripture (once we see that most apparently exclusivist passages also fit an inclusivist view), it seems more just and loving, and it was the view of CS Lewis and is the view of Dallas Willard (to name just two influential thinkers and writers).
So I believe we will live in eternity with many people who did not have the opportunity to believe in Jesus, but whose hearts were open to God. They will be there by the grace of God and because Jesus died for them too, just as we will. They responded to the light they were given, and that is what God was seeking. This is a wonderful doctrine!