"He drew a circle to shut us out. Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout; but love and I had the wit to win; we drew a circle that took him in." — Edwin Markham, American Poet
A recent survey released by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that 70 percent of religious Americans believe their own religious tradition is not the only way to eternal life. Here was the breakdown: mainline Protestants (83 percent), members of historic black Protestant churches (59 percent), Roman Catholics (79 percent), Jews (82 percent) and Muslims (56 percent).
If I were part of the poll, my answer would probably have been thrown out. Answering both "no" and "yes" is difficult to tabulate. I agree with Clive Staples Lewis’ position here. He wrote, "The Bible is clear that there is no salvation outside of Christ, but it is not clear that you have to know Jesus in order to be saved by him."
In his very popular children’s series, "The Chronicles of Narnia," Lewis illustrates his theology. In the series, Lewis imagines how children of this world would respond if magically transported to a world of intelligent animals where Christ is revealed as a lion named Aslan.
The last of the seven volume series is titled, "The Final Battle." In it Lewis imagines the end of Narnia and the passage of the good characters — the children and good creatures of Narnia — into Aslan’s Land, or heaven. The children are surprised to find a Calormene there. The Calormene were a people who had worshipped the false god Tash and had been enemies of Narnia. The Calormene himself is surprised to be welcomed in Aslan’s Land and tells his story to the children.
"I fell at [Aslan’s] his feet and thought, surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honor) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die. … But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘son, thou art welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ But I said also (for the truth constrained me), ‘yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’ ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘unless thy desire had been for me thou shouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’"
Lewis believed all those who seek God sincerely can in fact be saved by God, even if they are largely ignorant of the revealed truth of God.
I think the name the angels gave to Joseph and Mary for our Lord suggests Lewis is correct. Jesus’ name in Hebrew would have probably been, "Ya-Shua," which means "Yahweh’s Salvation" or "Yahweh Saves." Literally, to believe in the name of Jesus is to believe that somehow, someway, God will save his people. If, to believe in the "name of Jesus" is to believe that "God saves," could you not also say that to believe that "God saves" is to believe in the "name of Jesus?"
Surely this is how God’s people of the Old Testament found salvation. Two-thousand years before the revelation of Christ, Abraham loved, trusted and followed God. Abraham believed God saves, even though he had not yet met Jesus.
If the Pew poll had called and asked, "Is there salvation outside of Christianity?" I would say "no" and "yes." No, there is no salvation apart from Jesus. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, the life, no one comes to the Father apart from me" (John 14:6). But yes, there probably will be those who sought God and trusted God in this world, whom Jesus will save, and who will meet him for the first time in heaven.
The Rev. John Donaldson is the pastor at Newborn and Mansfield UMC’s, and may be reached at email@example.com.