I am no Univeralist. There are certain definite truths, and there is only one path that leads to God: namely, the person of Jesus Christ. But it is worthwhile to ask: who is on that path? What do we mean when we speak of ourselves as 'followers' of Jesus Christ?
Most orthodox Christians rely on the relatively simple answer of Romans 10:9: "That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." Those who submit themselves to Him are "being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:24). Faith in Christ is the defining trait of the Christian doctrine of salvation.
But the simple answer does not fully satisfy, for it leaves several questions unresolved.
Before or after the Incarnation, there have been perhaps billions of people who live their lives in ignorance of the Gospel. What is the fate of the multitude who never heard the name of Christ?
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote of the concept of the "Tao" as a universal ideal, common to Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Eastern mystics, and the Christians. "It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes really are true and others really are false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are." This is at the heart of my point.
There is a universal conception of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful which every person possesses simply by virtue of being a human being created in the image of God.
Plato argued that we derive our standards for value-judgments from Forms; we can speak of things as "good" because we have experienced the Form of the Good. Christianity associates these Forms, and especially the Form of the Good, with God. Therefore, this takes our argument a step further.
Our knowledge and desire of the True, Good, and Beautiful is in fact the very essence of our humanity, and at the very heart of our identity as human beings created in the image of God. I would argue that the imago dei is precisely this desire for the true, good, and beautiful -- in other words, our rational, moral, and aesthetic capacities.
John 1:1 states: "In the beginning was the Word." This is a vital truth about Jesus Christ. It states: Jesus Christ may be "the Word made flesh," but when we confess the name of Jesus Christ, we are fundamentally confessing "the Word [as] God." But what is this "Word" (Gk Logos)? Is it not the Tao described by Lewis, or the "Forms" seen by Plato? Could we not say, in fact, that the Word is the ultimate manifestation of the True, Good, and Beautiful?
We are created in the image of God. We are born with a desire for these noble ideals; that is, with a desire for the Word. Human religiosity is thus driven by our common human need to sate the desire for these perfections. As Christians, we believe the satisfaction of that desire lies in knowledge of our personal and provident God. What's more, there is an even deeper satisfaction in knowledge of the Word made flesh, the person of Jesus Christ.
But for those who do not even know the name of Christ, how can they sate this desire? For those who know neither the transcendence of God the Father nor the immanence of God the Son, where are they to turn?
If special revelation fails, or if it is simply not available, could general revelation suffice?
Romans 2:11-16 suggests it would.
"For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who sinned under the law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus."
A similar point was made by Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ: "The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy."
These passages assert that we are judged and our salvation determined according to our degree of knowledge. As Jews were judged by their adherence to the Law, we as Christians are judged by our faith in Christ as the Word made flesh. But just as the Gentiles without knowledge of the Law were judged by the standards of conscience and reason, so too are those without knowledge of Christ judged by their desire for the Word.
I do not believe in salvation outside of Christ. I merely wish to argue that those who are ignorant of the Word made flesh can still be saved by their adherence to the Word.
Indeed, on the day of judgment when each of us is brought before the great white throne, those who have lived their lives in pursuit of the Word will see its incarnation before their eyes. If they have truly sought Christ when they could only perceive Him through a glass darkly, then their souls will leap at the chance to see face to face.
Some may argue that this doctrine diminishes the importance of "the Word made flesh" and of special revelation. I say, with Paul in Romans 3:1-3, not at all. "Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God." As Christians, we can enjoy intimately a relationship with God--we can in fact experience the good, the true, and the beautiful--when those without Christ seek such blessing from afar. We can see with clarity what others can only see shrouded in shadow.
We are held to a higher standard than others, for we have witnessed the power of the Presence of God. After all, the more fully we enter the Beatific Vision, the more we can see of the face of God, the more we ought to love and desire Him.
This should be profoundly disconcerting: the holier we are, the holier we are expected to become. Yet here lies the fear of the Lord, and the beginning of wisdom.
Before I close this note, I want to take a complicated and probably controversial detour. This argument I have outlined need not be limited to those who do not know of Christianity at all. What of those who know only a little, or whose knowledge is mixed with error?
We are imperfect vessels bearing the name of a perfect God. It should not surprise us, then, if our lives and sins prove to be distracting from the Gospel that we preach. But what can we say if those who have ears to hear are unable to hear, because of the deafening sins of the Christian?
What are we to say to the altar-boy who rejects Christianity because he associates the Church with the pedophile priest, with grotesque sins and abuses of authority? Are we prepared to say that he is damned for taking that stand? If he thought that this sinful priest was representative of the Christian faith, he would distance himself from that faith, even if he possessed a pure desire for the Word.
What are we to say to those natives of Africa and America who only knew Christianity in the context of imperialism, racism, and death? Indeed, here is a terrifying possibility: what if their rejection of Christianity was indeed an act of virtue? For it could not be praiseworthy to love a God of violence and hatred, and if that is all they knew the Christian God to be, then it might have been a deed performed by a gentle and loving heart to reject such a message. In this scenario, could we not say that they were closer to the kingdom of God, precisely because of their rejection of the Gospel?
Even if the error is entirely the fault of misperception, and is not the fault of any Christian's sin or moral failing, the point remain. If you are entirely motivated by desire for the Word, and you are confronted with a faith that seems to conflict with the ideals you seek, would you not reject it?
At the end of The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis places a Calormene soldier in the midst of the "real Narnia" with the company of true followers of Aslan. When this soldier first encounters the "great Lion,"
I fell at 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 [the pagan god] and not Him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the lion and die, than to be kind of the world and live and not have seen Him. But the Glorious One bent down and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, 'Son, thou are welcome.' But I said, 'Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but a servant of Tash.' He answered, 'Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me." Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, "Lord is it true, as the Ape [the false prophet] said, the thou and Tash are one?" The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, "It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services that thous hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man do a cruelty in my name, than though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed accepted. Dost Thou understand child?" I said, "Lord, Thou knowest how much I understand." But I also said (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 wouldst not have sought so long and so truly, for all find what they truly seek."
I do not believe that all people will be saved. I do not believe that all ways lead to heaven. I do not believe that we should be content to let error remain. But I cannot believe that errors of mind disqualify the yearnings of our hearts and souls, not when God sees every one of us in our inmost being.
And that is why I assert, with some trepidation, that salvation is possible even for those who do not believe in the Christian faith.