Whether we answer yes or no to the question whether non-Christians can be saved, we seem to be in a dilemma. If we answer no, the objection fairly leaps out: Then all non-Christians go to hell, even a good pagan like Socrates. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t live in the right time or place to meet Jesus or a Christian missionary. How unfair and unloving of God to consign most of the world to hell! If we reply that non-Christians like Socrates can be saved, then the question naturally arises: Why then become a Christian?
If whatever Socrates had is enough to get to heaven, why add the narrow claim about Jesus being the only way? In other words, if Socrates is not in heaven, God is not just, and if Socrates is in heaven, then Jesus is not the only way there. Objective salvation versus subjective knowledge of salvation. The dilemma is not just a tricky, technical, theological problem; it is about the most important of all questions, “What must I do to be saved?” To answer it, we need to make a crucial distinction between the objective and the subjective dimensions of the question. The New Testament gives a clear, uncompromising and narrow answer to the objective question, but not to the subjective question.
Objectively, the New Testament insists that Christ is the only Savior. Jesus himself insisted, “I am the way. . . . No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Christians believe Jesus is the only Savior because he said so. If this is not true, he is no Savior at all, but a liar, a blasphemer and an incredibly egotistical fool. Subjectively, what do we need to be saved? The New Testament says we need faith in him to be saved, but what does this mean? What kind of faith? There cannot be different kinds of Jesus, but there may be different kinds of faith. The line between Jesus and all others is clearly drawn; the line between the faith of Peter and the possible faith of Socrates is not so clear.
What might it mean to say Socrates could have had faith in Christ? To have faith in Christ, you must somehow know Christ.
How could Socrates have known Christ? In the same way every- one can: as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9); as the preincarnate Logos, the divine Word or Light or Reason.
No one can know God except through Christ (Jn 1:18; Lk 10:22). But pagans know God (Acts 17:28; Rom 1:19-20; 2:11- 16).
Therefore pagans know Christ. For Christ is not just a six- foot-tall, thirty-three-year-old Jewish carpenter. He is the second person of the eternal Trinity, the full expression, or revelation, or Logos, of the Father (Col 1:15, 19; Jn 14:9). Thus, the doctrine of Christ’s divinity—classified as “conservative” or “traditionalist” by liberals—is the very foundation of the liberals’ hope that pagans may be saved. Explicit knowledge of the incarnate Jesus is not necessary for salvation. Abraham, Moses and Elijah, for instance, had no such knowledge, yet they were saved. (We know that from Mt 17:3 and Lk 16:22-23.) The same person—the second person of the Trinity—is both the preincarnate Logos who “enlightens everyone” and the incarnate Jesus who was seen only by some. Those who know either one know the other too, because both are the same person.
To summarise our solution: Socrates (or any other pagan) could seek God, could repent of his sins, and could obscurely believe in and accept the God he knew partially and obscurely, and therefore he could be saved—or damned, if he refused to seek, repent and believe. There is enough light and enough opportunity, enough knowledge and enough free choice, to make everyone responsible before God. God is just. And a just God judges justly, not unjustly; that is, he judges according to the knowledge each individual has, not according to a knowledge they do not have (see Jas 3:1).
The objection to the salvation of pagans. Conservatives often object that this position, which allows the possibility for pagans to be saved, undercuts the motivation for mission work. Why spend your life, why risk your life, to tell the world about Jesus if people can be saved without that knowledge? It is a good question, and it deserves a good answer.
There are three possible reasons for mission work, that is, for telling others the gospel, the “good news” of Jesus. (By the way, all Christians are commanded to be missionaries; the Great Commission [Mt 28:18-20] did not come with a “clergy only” tag.) First, there is the reason given by many fundamentalists: We know that the world is going to hell unless they accept Christ as their Savior. Second, there is the reason given by many modernists: We just want to love our neighbor and share whatever we have with them, do a sort of super social work. We don’t believe in hell, and if we did, we wouldn’t think anyone went there, and if they did, we’d think it was only a Hitler or a Stalin. We are not in the salvation business, we are in the social service business. Third, there is the traditional reason: We do not know exactly who is on the way to hell, that’s why we risk all to save some. A mother doesn’t need to know that her children are going to fall through the thin ice and drown before she is motivated to shout, “Get off the ice!” All she needs to know is that she doesn’t know that they won’t drown, that they may drown.
We know that anyone may go to hell, because Jesus said so. So we are not modernists. But we do not know exactly which children are going to be lost, because Jesus didn’t tell us. So we shout the warning and throw out the life preserver just as insistently as the fundamentalists.
There is a parallel here with abortion. There are three possible attitudes to abortion, parallel to the three reasons given above for mission work, distinguished by what you claim to know. Some claim to know that the soul enters the body at conception, making the fetus a person, and therefore that abortion is murder. Some claim to know that this is not true and therefore that abortion is not murder. And some do not claim to know when the soul enters the body, when the fetus becomes a person. Though this skeptical claim is most often found among pro-choice people, it is a compelling reason for being prolife.
If you don’t know for sure that an unborn baby is not a person and has no soul, how horribly callous and irresponsible to risk the possibility of murder! It’s like shooting a gun into a busy city street, or running over a human- shaped pile of clothes with a truck.
Ignorance and risk can be as compelling reasons for action as knowledge and certainty. If you think your child may be dying, you will rush to the doctor at the same speed as if you know your child is dying. Thus, the open-minded skepticism of the liberal and the passionate total commitment of the funda- mentalist are perfectly compatible.
There is something more to be said about the motivation for mission work that is more important than all this calculation of possibility. Our motive for preaching the gospel is not only to increase the population of heaven and decrease the popula- tion of hell but also to invite others to a deeper spiritual life in this world: intimate knowledge and love of Christ that brings deep trust, hope, joy and peace. Without an explicit knowledge of Christ it is probably impossible to have these. And without them, though salvation may be possible, the assurance of salvation is not.