Death is Not the Last Word

I said last time that if Jesus is who the gospel says he is, the eternal Word of God, then it’s almost self-evident that Jesus is the only way to God, for the simple reason that people can only come to God through the Word of God. According to classic Christian theology, Jesus is not some arbitrary gatekeeper to God. Jesus is God, and more specifically, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. So the biblical texts that affirm the uniqueness of Christ as the way to salvation are only drawing out the logic of who Jesus is.

That said, some Christian preachers have claimed that unless people “accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior” before they die, they cannot go to heaven. It’s worth noting that this phrase is nowhere to be found in the Bible; rather, it’s a kind of evangelical shorthand that seeks to draw people into a personal relationship with God in Christ. Such a relationship is, of course, an important part of Christian faith, but the claim that not accepting Jesus in that way before one dies excludes a soul from heaven does not follow at all.

Christians believe that the death of our earthly, physical bodies is not the last word about our existence. The soul, the essence of who we are, can live on in what St. Paul calls, rather vaguely, a “spiritual body.” If that’s true, then what is to prevent a person who does not know Christ in this life from meeting him on the other side of death?

There are all sorts of reasons why someone might not come to Jesus here and now. Among the most obvious reasons are that a vast number of people lived before Jesus was born, and millions today live in parts of the world where the gospel is not heard, and might even be suppressed. Are we really to imagine that the God we know in Christ would condemn millions of souls who never had a realistic chance of finding Christ in this life? The very idea contradicts what we know about God’s love, and there’s no reason to believe it, as long as everyone has the opportunity to encounter Christ, if not in this world then at least on the threshold of the next.

C. S. Lewis imagines exactly this possibility in The Last Battle, the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. In that story, a soldier who has worshiped another god, based on what his culture taught him, meets Aslan, the great golden lion who is to Narnia as Christ is to our world, just on the other side of a door that turns out to be death. When he sees Aslan, the soldier recognizes him as the one he’s been seeking, though he did not know of Aslan; and the great lion says that he counts the soldier’s previous worship as though it was worship of him, because he knows the desire of the soldier’s heart.

That makes perfect sense to me. It preserves the uniqueness of Christ as the way to salvation without attributing to God some grossly unloving and unfair judgment against everyone who doesn’t come to know Christ in this life. Questions remain, though, about what to make of other religions in the meantime, and to some of those questions we’ll return.

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