Stanley Jones was last century’s predominant missionary-statesman. He came as a young missionary pastor to the Lalbagh Methodist Church in Lucknow in 1907, and after a spiritual renewal in 1917 went on to become a world evangelist. He knew Gandhi and others of the Indian independence movement personally. In 1938 Time magazine designated Jones as “the world’s greatest missionary evangelist”. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 and received the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1963.
Jones preached at the Mar Thoma Syrian Church’s Maramon Convention several times. Once during a convention someone asked Jones whether Gandhi would be in heaven. Jones gave a politically correct answer, probably something like, “I wouldn’t be surprised to find Gandhi in heaven”. When the story got reported, it was twisted a bit and every time it was retold, it got more and more twisted, till people were saying that Jones had claimed that Gandhi would definitely be in heaven.
Jones made a mistake answering the question. He should have said, “I don’t know and it’s none of my business. God is the one to decide on that.”
Many Christians are troubled about people they know—who are not Christian— whether or not they will be in heaven. Some say: “Is God going to keep my neighbour out of heaven just because he hasn’t accepted Jesus as Saviour? I tell you, he is a better Christian than many Christians I know.” It may be a friend, a non-church-going, but loving aunt; an uncle or a cousin, or an exceptionally just and kind employer.
On the flip side, all those who talk this way, subconsciously or consciously think that they themselves are okay to get into heaven and that all are okay to be admitted to heaven. They think that if God doesn’t admit their friends to heaven because of a mere failure to acknowledge Jesus as Saviour that would be wrong. God’s judgement would be in error.
All such thinking reveals that people have the idea that entry to heaven is merit based. That if you score high by doing good work you’re a sure-fire candidate for heaven, irrespective of what you believe about Jesus.
If entry to heaven is merit based, then no one needs Jesus as Saviour. Then He need not have taken the trouble to become incarnate, taking on Himself the evils and infirmities of humanity. He need not have given His life in sacrifice. However, Jesus did come and He did die to atone for the sins of all people. That can only mean that there was no other way for humankind to be saved and get to heaven. How then do we face the issue of the fate of those who do not put their faith in Jesus?
Everyone before the time of Christ, was a non-Christian. All the “heroes of the Bible”—Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Daniel—were non-Christians. They did not know about Jesus and so they did not turn to Him for their salvation. Aren’t they going to be in heaven? Clearly there’s more to the rule that entry to heaven is based on believing in Jesus as Saviour.
When Abraham was told that God intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he was worried because his beloved nephew lived there. Abraham started to plead with God about sparing the city for the sake of the righteous who live there, and ends his petition with the question, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Gen 18:25). Abraham didn’t doubt that. It was just a rhetorical challenge. We must not think that we ourselves are kinder and care more for the people whom God fathered by creating them.
We must not speculate about what will happen to people at the Judgement. That is none of our business. That is God’s domain. However, we do have some hints in the New Testament about how God will judge people.
Romans 1:16–17 gives us Paul’s thesis: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’.”
The gospel is that God offers salvation to all as a gift. They can’t buy it with any good deeds. They can only receive it, and receiving is simply a matter of believing God and taking His gospel as true and trustworthy. In the next few chapters of Romans, Paul argues the case for seeing Jesus as fitting the gospel of salvation by faith and in his arguments we can see hints of what will be the criteria for judgement at the end.
A Question of Brains
Did people use the brains God gave them? That is going to be a question they will have to answer when facing judgement and eternity.
Paul said that God had revealed all that was needed to know Him as God: “…what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (vv.18–20). This echoes what the Psalmist said: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (19:1–4). God has been communicating non-verbally with all humankind.
Our world is full of manufactured artefacts and goods. For generations humans have proudly claimed to have made all the buildings and tools, gadgets and trinkets that surround our lives. We acknowledge the existence of makers of all things even though we do not see them in action. Yet, there are people who deny that there is a Supernatural Being who created our world. None of the things manufactured by us have the kind of complexity that exists in the raw in the world around us. The eye as a camera, the ear as an auditory device, the brain as a library for all sorts of records including smell, taste and touch! And, that’s just the wonders of the human body. Multiply the wonders of all nature around us. Truly, one has to acknowledge that there is an immensely superior power behind all existence. How can anyone reasonably deny a Creator’s hand?
After looking at the magnificence of the created world, it also doesn’t make sense to sit down and carve gods out of wood and stone. The Old Testament prophets ridiculed the idea of worshipping gods that cannot speak, hear, touch and have to be carried around as burdens because they cannot move (Ps 115:4–8; 135:15–18; Isa 44:9–20; 45:20; Jer 10:3–5). Again and again, they say that people are not thinking about the foolishness of it all. Paul also echoed the sentiments of the old prophets in Romans 1:19–23.
According to the Light
A second consideration in judgement will be whether or not a person has acted on the amount of knowledge received. A person who has not heard the gospel will not be judged for rejecting the gospel. However, a person who has heard and understood the gospel but does not accept the gospel will have to face the charge of not having acted on what was made known to him or her.
“God does not show favouritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (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)”—(Rom 2:11–15).
The Bible does record a few stories of how God’s light reached beyond those identified as God’s people. The prophets had messages for non-Jews too (Isa 10:5–19; 13:1–21:17; 23:1–18; Jer 46:1–51:64). Nebuchadnezzar received messages in dreams from God (Dan 2:1–45; 4:1–18) and even had a conversion experience after God had dealt with him (vv.34–37).
Jonah’s story makes it clear that God didn’t just announce the doom of non-Jews, but sent them messages to win them over. Jonah was told to prophesy to the people of Nineveh, and he didn’t want to, because he knew that God would forgive when they repented and then he would look like a fool for having prophesied their punishment.
Then we have the story of how Oriental astrologers studied the stars and set out to find the one born King of the Jews (Matt 2:1–12). God communicated with them even though they were doing something prohibited according to the Law of God (Deut 18:10–14).
Cornelius had not heard of Jesus, but he was a devout seeker after the truth, and so God sent an angel to him and he was told to send for a preacher of the gospel to make things clear to him (Acts 10:1–8, 30–33).
The light of God still streams into the lives of people who have not received the gospel because no evangelist has reached them. When people receive light from God and act on whatever light they have received God takes them further on their journey of spiritual discovery. Unreached people in remote areas and closed countries are discovering Jesus.
If we are truly worried about the salvation of neighbours, friends and relatives, then we should not be demanding that God lower the standards and rules of entry to heaven. Instead, we should pray that we or someone else will be able to get through to them with the light of the gospel. Once people die, we can’t enter pleas on their behalf. Whatever we want to do for their salvation must be done while they have an opportunity to choose Jesus.
Next, we consider what the Bible has to say about the judgement of those who have not heard the gospel of salvation through Jesus. We must conclude that they will be saved just like the Old Testament heroes. Abel found favour with God, Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, and Abraham believed God and so it was counted as righteousness. David didn’t seek forgiveness by offering blood sacrifices but by approaching God with a broken heart. None of them thought that they were worthy of salvation or that they could save themselves. All of them cast themselves on the mercy of God.
Paul argued that that is the way people are saved. “What shall we say, then, of Abraham, the father of our race? What was his experience? If he was put right with God by the things he did, he would have something to boast about—but not in God’s sight. The scripture says, ‘Abraham believed God, and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous.’ A person who works is paid wages, but they are not regarded as a gift; they are something that has been earned. But those who depend on faith, not on deeds, and who believe in the God who declares the guilty to be innocent, it is this faith that God takes into account in order to put them right with himself” (Rom 4:1–5, GNB). Paul then made the point that this was true of David because “…he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven; whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them’” (vv.6–8). Paul clinched his argument by saying, “We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!” (vv.9–10).
Paul’s argument was that Abraham was counted righteous before he did anything to earn points for good deeds. He simply believed God and God counted his faith as Abraham’s righteousness. Elsewhere Paul wrote, “God saved you through faith as an act of kindness. You had nothing to do with it. Being saved is a gift from God. It’s not the result of anything you’ve done, so no one can brag about it” (Eph 2:8–9, GW).
Thus, the question that everyone—Christians and non-Christians alike—will have to face is whether they are at heaven’s entrance claiming right of entrance based on their merit or believing in God’s grace and mercy. Whom have they put faith in—themselves or God? I believe God is just. You need not worry about people who didn’t receive Christ in their lifetime. What you do need to worry about is whether you yourself have acted on the light that has shone on your life. You have heard the gospel that salvation is through Jesus. Have you received Jesus into your life as Saviour and Lord? And that is a question you need to answer this side of heaven and eternity.