by Mark Gutman

In a recent Sabbath School class discussion on witnessing, one of the class members stated that there is a “passage” that says people in heaven will ask Jesus what the wounds in his hands are. The member was probably referring to Zechariah 13, but Zechariah 13 refers to a false prophet,1 and it takes some stretching to get it to apply to Jesus. See my February 2012 column on “Reading Into Isaiah” for the issue of context for Old Testament texts. But this column is not dealing with the context of Bible verses; its concern is about why we care if people in heaven will ask Jesus about the wounds in his hands.

Some believe that people who have lived since Jesus lived on earth (in human form) and do not know about him will not be in heaven. They envision the same fate for those who lived before that time and did not offer some version of the sacrifices of the Levitical sanctuary system. When I was in college, a classmate pointed out a huge problem with any theory that allowed people to reach heaven without knowing about Jesus. “Why would we bother to send out missionaries?” Later, I took a religion class that got some publicity because the professor held this “restrictive” theory. The week of prayer speaker that fall used an Ellen White passage from Desire of Ages that seemed to disagree with the professor’s theory. “Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God.”2

My professor was quite distressed when “the other side” used this passage, and he asserted that it was a “clouded” statement because it disagreed with everything else Ellen White had written on the subject. He invited the week of prayer speaker to our class, an invitation that was accepted. As I remember events, both the professor and the speaker came away from the class with unchanged beliefs.

Will people alive today who die without ever hearing of Jesus be allowed into heaven? While I do not claim to have the definitive answer, I would point readers back to my earlier column, “The Good WHAT?” from Sept 2011. The sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 were not sorted by theology; they were sorted by how they treated people.

Uh-oh. That sounds like salvation by works. It certainly can sound like it. But to use an analogy I heard Morris Venden use: “An apple tree produces apples because it is an apple tree, not in order to become an apple tree.” Could the person in an African village who never hears anything about Jesus be living with Christian motives even though she doesn’t know all the specific rules? Might she be able to show evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched her heart? Or does that only happen if people hear the name of Jesus?

If hearing the name of Jesus is a necessity, I’m glad I chose to be born in North America. Wait a minute! I didn’t choose where to be born any more than I chose my parents or my eye color. I guess I’m just luckier than those sinners/reprobates who were born in the outback.

But doesn’t the Bible say that there’s no other name under heaven by which people can be saved?3 Sometimes we read too much (or the wrong meaning) into “the name.” For instance, some fear that God will ignore a prayer that does not have the words “in Jesus’ name” included somewhere because Jesus talked about praying in his name.4 Leaving aside the issue of what praying in Jesus’ name means, Jesus did not say that God would not listen to prayers that were not thus prayed. Can you imagine a loving God who refuses to listen to people unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong locality?

But let’s carry the question to the next step: what about the people who actually hear Jesus’ name? Or going still further, What about people who are baptized members of a Christian church? How clear does their understanding of “the atonement,” “justification,” “sanctification,” or “expiation” need to be? I remember struggling to answer something about that as I neared college graduation, as the college had just instituted a new test for senior theology majors. If my getting into heaven depended on how well I explained the plan of salvation that day… Never mind; I lived long enough to gain more understanding. On second thought, I’m not sure how good my theological understanding is even now.

So to summarize my problems with the belief that only those who know about Jesus get to heaven: You get to heaven only if (1) you are lucky enough to be born in a place where Christianity has a chance to be promoted, and (2) you get an understanding that would get at least a B+ in a theology test on “the plan of salvation.” I have trouble putting that with the sheep and goats story in Matthew 25 or the Good Samaritan story in Luke 15.

By the way, don’t confuse correlation with cause-and-effect when you read about the sheep and the goats. In one of my seminary classes, Dr. Elden Chalmers informed us that the more ministers there were in an area, the higher the crime rate. His statement, of course, caused some gasps, but he quickly explained. Usually more ministers in an area means the population is higher, which usually means a higher crime rate. The ministers do not cause the higher crime rate (we hope); more ministers and higher crime rate are both caused by higher population (or higher population density). In the same way, the sheep met other criteria but happened to have helped needy people without keeping score. Sheep are more likely to help others. But helping others doesn’t make them sheep. Borrowing from Venden, animals don’t help others in order to become sheep.

So if you encounter a person who has never heard of Jesus but who acts as the sheep do, might it be that the uninformed person will be classed as a sheep? Is that too shocking an idea? Or too disgusting? Sometimes we want to draw small salvation circles. To quote Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle that took him in.

In Mark 9:38, John tried to draw a small circle, but Jesus told John, “He who is not against us is for us” (verse 40). I have trouble picturing Jesus as then turning to Christians and saying, “But don’t you dare call a kind person a Christian if she hasn’t heard of me or can’t give a decent explanation of the atonement.” I similarly would picture heaven as more in line with Edwin Markham’s philosophy than with John’s theology in Mark 9. Holding to good theology does carry benefits; “bad” theology does carry disadvantages. But good theology does not ensure heavenly reward, nor does bad theology rule it out. Not every sheep will be able to expound on the scars in Jesus’ hands.

1Zechariah 13:2-6

2 White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1940), p. 638

3Acts 4:12

4John 14:13, 14