Is there only one way to heaven?

Tim Challies wrote a short piece a couple of days back explaining why there is only one way to heaven. I had originally thought to discuss his argument in the recent post on Progressive Christianity under the final statement: “It does not claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God.” But there wasn’t space.

Challies, no doubt, represents many of the things that Progressive Christians dislike. His sort of conservative Christianity sees life ultimately as a personal existential quandary: how do I ensure that when I die, I go to heaven and not to hell? The Bible says that there is only one solution to the quandary: believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. The “audacious claim” made by Christians, Challies says, is that “No one comes to relationship with God, no one comes into the presence of God, no one gets to heaven, except through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Why should that be the case? The answer is quite simple: “There is only one way into heaven because there is only one way out of heaven.”

One man got us into this mess, one man will get us out of it.

Progressives choke over the exclusivism. Such an account of salvation is intolerable to the rational, liberal mind exposed to other religions and cultures.

We are all descendants of Adam, Challies argues, therefore we are all at enmity with God. So because we are all in the same condition, we all need the same salvation. Obvious.

Ultimately, there is only one way into relationship with God because there is only one way out of relationship with God—sin. There is only one way to heaven because there’s only one way to hell—rebellion. There is only one way to be saved because there is only one kind of person who needs to be saved—sinful rebels like you and me. The only path to heaven leads through the only Savior, Jesus Christ.

Progressives choke over the exclusivism. Such an account of salvation is intolerable to the rational, liberal mind exposed to other religions and cultures.

Progressives have rejected the reductionist solipsism of conservatives—the seeming obsession with the final destination of the individual self—in favour of the well-being of communities in the here-and-now. The mission of the church is not to get family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours into heaven. It is to help “society”—as something more than the sum of the individual “sinners” who constitute it—to attain peace and justice.

Resolving the polarities

So we have two models for mission. Conservatives are driven by the relentless logic of personal salvation to present people with a stark choice between eternal life and eternal punishment. Progressives are inspired by the example of the very down-to-earth Jesus from Nazareth to bring peace and justice and reconciliation to the world.

How do we resolve these polarities—between the individual and society, between the immediate and the eternal? My argument is that most of our contemporary theological disagreements arise from the fact that we fail to take into account the historical dimension. The Bible is neither a handbook for personal salvation nor a manifesto for social transformation. It tells the story of the people of Israel from the call of Abraham to be a people for God’s own possession, all the way through to the New Testament period, and beyond.

The proper dimensions of biblical theology are not individual but social. Progressives are right about that. But the dimensions of biblical theology are not just social, they are also very importantly historical; and because history isn’t plain sailing, biblical theology is necessarily eschatological. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most biblical theology is prophecy. It is the narration, interpretation, and projection of corporate historical experience.

Now let’s go back to the question of whether—or what it means to say that—salvation is through Jesus Christ alone.

No other name under heaven

Around 30 AD it was becoming apparent to certain far-sighted Jews that in the coming decades there would be a revolt against the occupying power, which would inevitably fail, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter and dispersal of the Jews in Palestine. Given Israel’s theology, this was bound to be interpreted according to the covenant as God’s judgment—perhaps a final judgment—on a rebellious people. That insight determined the scope of the “good news” that Jesus from Nazareth brought to Israel.

The early church in Jerusalem believed that God had made Jesus—the stone rejected by the builders—Lord and Christ over his people. Therefore, the apostles proclaimed to the people and leadership in Jerusalem that only by repenting of their rebellion and being baptised in the name of Jesus could they hope to be saved from this coming judgment (Acts 2:36, 38-40). There was “no other name under heaven given among men” by which Israel must be saved (Acts 4:12).

Rebellion would lead to the Gehenna of war and slaughter. But God was willing to pass over the long history of disobedience and to accept Jesus’ death as a propitiation for Israel’s, for the sake of the future of the family of Abraham (Rom. 3:21-26). I take it that all through Romans Paul either explicitly or implicitly has at the forefront of his mind the state and destiny of his people; he speaks as a Jew who has come to believe that YHWH has given to the risen Jesus supreme authority over the fate of the nation.

So now we join Challies in Romans 5.

When Israel was weak and at enmity with God, Jesus died for his ungodly people (Rom. 5:6-11). Here we have the orthopraxy that preceded the orthodoxy of Paul’s interpretation of the historical event. Conservatives tend to forget that biblical doctrine was about something. Before any attempt to formulate a soteriology—any doctrine of salvation or theory of atonement—Jesus’ death was a first century Jewish political event, a hurriedly contrived solution to a situation that threatened public order and perhaps the security of the nation.

What Peter in Acts or Paul in Romans say about the death of Jesus is an interpretation of this political event.

So when Paul sets about reasoning that sin and death came into the world through the one man Adam (Rom. 5:12), he has not suddenly shifted gear. He is still talking about Israel. Sin was present in the world and brought death with it, but it was not counted before the Law was given. People just sinned and died. But Israel’s situation was different because Israel had the Law, and the Law made the Jews liable to judgment (Rom. 5:12-14).

Therefore, Israel needed to be saved from the problem that it shared with all humanity because of Adam. Therefore, Israel needed to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus in order to be saved from the destruction determined by the Law for chronic rebelliousness (Rom. 9:22; 10:13). It is only incidental, theologically, that a growing number of Gentiles are also being included in this salvation of Israel.

So where does that leave us?

Conservatives like Challies are right to say that the New Testament church had a “doctrine” of salvation through Jesus alone. People were “saved” by coming to the express belief that Jesus died for their sins in accordance with the scriptures and that he was raised from the dead in accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

Conservatives do not give any thought, of course, to the historical contours of this argument—that Jesus died for the sins of his people, in anticipation of a dire political crisis, so that some Jews at least might survive into the age that would come after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

The other point to make here is that the goal of salvation in the New Testament, in general terms, was not going to heaven. The goal of salvation was the flourishing of God’s people in the future, eventually in post-pagan oikoumenē or “empire” in which Jesus was everywhere confessed as Lord. The exceptional hope of “going to heaven” to be with Christ was reserved for the martyrs, for those who lost their lives because of their witness to Jesus in the difficult transition.

Progressives are right to stress the social and political dimensions of the New Testament witness but wrong to downplay the critical significance of Jesus’ death as the singular political event by which YHWH’s priestly people would be saved from utter annihilation.

So both groups need to give more thought, I respectfully suggest, to the narrative-historical structure of New Testament thought.

Where does it leave us today? I think we can draw on the best of both perspectives and say that the church as a community, whose witness must embrace the fullness of re-created life in the presence of God, emerged two thousand years ago because—and only because—Jesus from Nazareth died to save his people from their sins. When people come to faith in Jesus today, they become part of this people with this story; they relate to the creator God on this basis and for this purpose.

What it means for people who do not enter this story depends on what we think the God of history is up to these days.

It is always the mission of the church, as a priestly-prophetic community, to mediate between the creator God and the peoples and cultures of the world in which we live, which means, among other things, that we happily affirm the goodness and God-consciousness of those who do not confess Jesus as Lord.

But it seems to me that over the next few decades the world will suffer the “birth pains” of a new age, as the Holocene gives way to the Anthropocene. A new apocalyptic discourse is taking shape, on a global scale—we are well beyond the dominant horizons of New Testament eschatology; and a different question about the “Gentiles” presents itself. What does it mean to know the God who will be there in this new future?

The church needs to begin to imagine that new future. Going to heaven, in any case, has nothing to do with it.

Thank you for this. I always enjoy your perspective, and the call to help us rethink our theological constructs in light of the narrative-historical understanding.

I resonate with your argument about the shift away from an (over)emphasis on the afterlife and soteriology as the primary frame which conservative evangelicals understand the Gospel, if not the whole Bible. In my view the biblical materials actually say very little about our post-mortem state. But as you developed this piece, for me it lost theological momentum when you got to the section on how the early parts of the post connect to the question of Jesus and other religions. I do think that good arguments can be made for God revealing himself (the “God-consciousness” you refer to) among other religions. At the same time, I wonder how this accounts for Israel as a light to the nations, the proclamation of the one true God in their midst, and the “scandal of particularity” in Christianity.

I’d be interested in your further thoughts.

When people come to faith in Jesus today, they become part of this people with this story; they relate to the creator God on this basis and for this purpose.

And thus the whole point and purpose, as I see it, of people coming to faith in Jesus is quite simply this… we are ‘saved to serve’ — in whatever capacity one might be gifted, i.e., salvation has zip, zero, and zilch to do with determining one’s post-mortem existence or reality.