According to the recent study, “The State of Theology” by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research, 46 percent of self-identified evangelicals in America believe that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” So the question, “Does a person really have to go through Jesus to get into heaven?” is clearly a divisive one within evangelical Christianity today. Some might wonder, “Why is Christianity so exclusive?” This is a good question, but there is an even better question to ask.
Why is Christianity so inclusive? If we pause for a brief moment, it is shocking to hear the good news that the gospel of grace brings: God tells us that he doesn’t justify the godly. (Well that’s good to know, at least I qualify now!) God actually justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). In other words, God includes the “despicable me’s” of this world, and he decides to call them acceptable—they are counted as righteous instead of wicked in his sight.
That’s a pretty inclusive message! God in Jesus Christ reached out to the sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors—society’s greatest misfits and outcasts—and he was personally associated with their kind. He was even labeled among them as a “drunkard” (Luke 7:34).
That God would save anyone is itself a marvel. But that God would save the dirty, rotten, neglected, marginalized, hated, and scorned is a true mystery. Personally, I’m grateful for his decision to save those who are undeserving. With Paul I can easily say, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Right after the fall of humankind in Eden (Gen. 3), God could have said, “All right, I’m done with the human race.” He didn’t have to save anybody. Everyone was suddenly under the curse of sin. Instead of judgment, however, God offers mercy. The story continues with his seed of salvation when God promises to send a savior. He announces a gospel that will undo and redo what had been done.
Christianity is both inclusive and exclusive. The gospel is open to anyone and everyone, but not everyone is going to take God up on his offer. The real rub is this: Jesus is the only way. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Shortly after his death and resurrection, his earliest disciples reaffirmed this truth by saying, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Statements like these make Christianity sound harsh and unloving—and even crazy. How could a good God let so many good people perish? The idea of Jesus being the only way sounds very offensive to some people. Won’t God accept someone who is sincerely trying to do good to others, even if he never hears about Jesus Christ or refuses to believe in him? Won’t God understand and be sympathetic?
This question misunderstands a very basic understanding of the world: no one is good, no not one (Rom. 3:10, 12). The hardest truth is admitting that all of us fall in this camp. It’s not that God is unjust and he refuses to accept all godly, good people when they die. It’s that God is just, and there are no godly, good people who die. Everyone is ungodly and guilty before God. No person has ever lived a life in which he or she has always done what is good for others—except Jesus. The reason Jesus is the only way to salvation is not because God is unjust, but rather because he is just. The only way that God can justify a guilty sinner is through Jesus the justifier (Rom. 3:26).
Some of you might still object: What about aborigines or natives who have never been exposed to this Western religion? How can God judge people for something they have never heard of—and for not acknowledging one person out of billions?
Well, God won’t punish anyone for not hearing about his Christ. That’s not the reason why God will condemn anyone. The reason he can justly punish someone is because a person is rejecting the God who has “been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). What this means is that no one is simply innocent—everyone is guilty before God by refusing to worship him as Creator.
Christianity can seem very frustrating to people because it is exclusive in this way. It clearly says that some people will go to heaven and others will go to hell. This sounds very offensive. It’s also painful for me to admit because there are people I know who could potentially spend eternity in hell. But, regardless of what I personally think or feel, this message of particularity is a clear claim that is consistent with the message of Christianity.
Jesus died on a cross, and he bodily rose from the dead. You can’t get more particular than that. It was in the first century (and in the small region of Palestine, of all places) that God chose to save a people for himself. He hung on a cross outside of the gates of Jerusalem with two other criminals hanging beside him. And this particular, exclusive work is exactly what God did to include and save ungodly people like us. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Do you believe in this Jesus who died exclusively to include people like you and like me?