Who then can be saved?

Faith seeking understandingWill only Christians be saved and no-one else? Or will all people be saved, whether Christian or not? And is salvation only for human beings, or is there also a sense in which the whole creation shares in God's saving purpose? Dorothy Lee explores these questions.

March 3 2015 

  • “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6)
  • “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:6)
  • “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:1, 21)
  • For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Cor 15:22)
  • If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)
  • The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:21)
  • The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
    And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Rev 22:17)

Christians within and beyond Anglicanism have disagreed profoundly on these questions. At one end is the view that only those people explicitly professing the name of Jesus will find salvation, while those who have not confessed Jesus before they die will be condemned to eternal torment.

At the other extreme is the view that God’s intention is to save the whole world, whether explicitly Christian or not. The majority of the human race, this view holds, have never heard of Christ and have followed their own traditions or conscience; others have been alienated from the Church by the experience of abuse, indifference or judgmentalism from Christians.

Also becoming increasingly popular in Christian theology is the conviction that creation itself lies within the scope of God’s salvation, and is not restricted to human beings.

Our list of biblical texts (see above) captures something of the diversity of New Testament theology on these questions. It will depend on our point of view which ones we emphasise. Yet these (and numerous other) texts need to be held in tension. They make a number of essential points that need to be embraced if we are to be faithful to the diversity and depth of biblical theology.

First and foremost, the New Testament affirms that salvation comes in and through Jesus Christ: his incarnation, his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. He is the way to salvation, for the New Testament writers, the one through whom access to a holy God is alone made possible. Relationship with the Triune God through Christ lies at the centre of the New Testament witness. This relationship is primarily with the Church, the Body of Christ, which is where the individual believer belongs.

The priority and irreducibility of Jesus Christ in God’s salvation allows for the real possibility that, on account of the free will we have been given, human beings may reject God and God’s salvation. There is no simplistic view of ‘universal salvation’ for everyone in the pages of Scripture. People are not dragged willy-nilly into the kingdom against their desires or inclinations. God does not compel but freely offers and, in freely offering, allows the possibility of rejection.

There is thus a No that can be said to God, a No that ultimately and eternally separates us from God. But there are implications for this negation. How can any human being survive separation from God, in whom all creation lives and moves and has its being? Does God keep the soul alive only to torment and punish it for all eternity? Yet the more we turn from God, the more we turn from life itself and choose, in its place, annihilation and death. None of this is inconsistent with images in the New Testament, especially that of Gehenna: the scrap-heap, the rubbish dump outside the city, which fuels only death and where, in the end, everything comes to nought.

At the same time, the New Testament in its closing vision paints a picture of the gates of the New Jerusalem remaining open, the Spirit of God and the Church standing always together at the entrance calling those outside – the sinners, the unclean, the unrighteous, the separated and the alienated – to enter and receive the gracious gift of salvation: water for the thirsty, life for the perishing, connection for the disconnected, love for the alienated, forgiveness for the sinful, healing for all the wounds of the world.

In the last book of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, CS Lewis depicts the new Narnia as a radical renewal of the old Narnia, where all the familiar characters over many generations gather together in Aslan’s new and abiding world. Judgement for the creatures of Narnia takes place as they come face-to-face with Aslan and, after gazing into that glorious face, they choose either the doorway into light or the doorway to darkness.

In one scene the children find a young man, a Calormene, whose allegiance during his life-time was to the evil deity, Tash. Emeth has found his way, to his own surprise, into Narnia, because (as Aslan explains to him) no good deed, no act of true faith, can ever come to Tash, just as no evil thought or deed can be accepted by Aslan. The young man’s misguided allegiance can thus be re-directed to Aslan and so he attains salvation.

CS Lewis seems to have captured the way in which, ultimately, salvation is through Christ alone, yet in an inclusive rather than exclusive way. When we finally see Jesus face-to-face, we either recognise him with love and joy or are repelled by his very grace. Are there not Christians who may possibly find such radiance of love and grace repellent, just as there may be those outside the bounds of Christian faith who see in that face everything they have loved and longed for all their lives?

Seeing the face of Christ will confront us with our true identity, the real selves we have so often hidden: through pain, through stubbornness, through misunderstanding, through sin, through tragedy. In seeing him face-to-face, we will see the face of God, who knows and loves us through and through, and the die will be cast, the decision made. We will say Yes or No to the wondrous mercy of God; we will walk towards the light, however searing it may feel, or we will walk away into oblivion.

The New Testament envisages a salvation that embraces not just those who have loved and will love Christ, but also the whole of creation. In this final scenario Paradise will be restored, Jerusalem will descend to earth to unveil the presence of God, and all nature will be renewed and restored. Our ultimate destiny is not heaven but earth: not the disembodied soul but the resurrected body. The old hymn speaks in vibrant hope of a day coming soon ‘when the earth shall be filled/with the glory of God/as the waters cover the sea’.

Salvation is for all of us and for all the world of God’s creating. We can, however, refuse it and retreat into the terrible nothingness of life separated from God. But salvation cannot bypass the God revealed as Trinity or the Christ who became flesh for us in order to draw us into the glory of God. Nor can we narrow the scope of God’s love and Christ’s mercy; nor underestimate the transformative effect of that divinely human face when each of us, one day, encounters it.

In the end, salvation remains as much a mystery as is God the Holy Trinity. We cannot grasp the depth and breadth and scope. The work of salvation (thank God!) is not ours to dispense and only God is our Saviour and Judge.

Our task as missioners and evangelists is to be the body of Christ, to point to the God from whom all life, all love and blessing come; to pray fervently for the salvation of the world; to reveal, in word and deed, God’s true, saving and loving nature revealed in Jesus Christ; to refrain from the arrogance of judging others and restricting God’s salvation; and to invite others to discover Christ as the Saviour of the world and to find in the blessed Trinity the source of all life, all love, all forgiveness and all unity.

The Revd Canon Prof Dorothy Lee is Dean of Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity.