A youth pastor friend of mine asked me if when I speak for his young people in December I would be willing to answer the question, “Are Christians the only people who go to heaven?”
And, of course, I am willing. But first I wanted to make sure that my position is palatable so I responded by including a ‘cliff notes’ version of my current stance. Here it is (note that the below will include much generalization for the sake of simplification):
The three most prominent positions of course are exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism (in their various degrees and types). Exclusivism leaves no room for anyone other than those who have both heard and confessed to the truth of the Gospel to be saved, exclusivism leaves the option open for God, in his sovereignty, to save someone by different means though still on the merits of the work of Christ , and universalism argues that in the end God will redeem all, including all souls. I am personally an inclusivist on the basis of the fact that I believe, as an example, that babies, children, and the mentally handicap that can not accept and/or reject the Gospel, nor understand what it means to be sinful (contrary to those in Romans 1 through 3 who never hear the Gospel but are still guilty because they know of God through general revelation and still reject what they know), will be saved (I know exclusivist can hold particular position as well). Because of this I leave the option available for God to save someone else because, for one reason or another, according to His divine will, He chose to save that individual.
I am not an exclusivist because of the above reasons and I am not a universalist because I think that the concept that all will be saved is contrary to the witness and metanarrative of the Scriptures.
On to the subject of heaven: I find that a Platonic view of heaven as something of a cloudy, harp playing state of existence to be too popular in Christianity today. Part of my understanding of “heaven”, as seen through the Jewish prophets and the message of Jesus, is that it is the realm of God (contrary “earth” to which God gave man dominion in Genesis 1 and then was lost in Genesis 3 during the Fall only to be regained by the God-Man, Jesus, through His death and resurrection). There is a sense that believers go to heaven (e.g. when they die and are disembodied). But eschatologically speaking there is also a time when heaven comes here (e.g. the Second Coming and the judgements). At that time God purges and restores the earth (New Creation) and those who are part of the newly reunited heaven and earth are only those who have been saved by the God revealed through Jesus Christ because they willingly accept the universal rule given to Him by the Father (Ps. 2). Those who in this life would not accept Christ, or YHWH’s revelation prior to Christ, are not allowed to live on the restored heaven-earth. My central tenant to this is the doctrine of resurrection (especially Romans 8:18-23) that affirms God’s approval of the material world, especially when He restores it (think of God’s approval of the created order in Genesis 1).
As for unbelievers, the prophets spoke of judgement. Jesus used Gehenna as an example of judgement. And the biblical witness does seem to indicate that unbelievers still exist in a state of permanent Godlessness for all of eternity, otherwise known as “hell” to most Christians. This I affirm. On the other hand I do not agree that the fire imagery used by Jesus and the early church should be read through the lens of Dante’s Inferno as a multi layered BBQ pit for humans. C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce has probably shaped my view of hell as much as anything.To further summarize:
(1. All those who by faith accept the work of Christ are saved and God may save others on the merits of the work of Christ that He has chosen to save, for whatever reason, according to His own mercy.
(2. Those who are saved are part of the New Heaven and the New Earth that God will restore and where Jesus will reign as Supreme for all of eternity.
(3. Those who are not saved exist in a permanent state of Godlessness, known as hell, that is so bad that the biblical authors used the analogy of a burning garbage heap outside Jerusalem (Gehenna) to convey the seriousness of rejecting what God has done through Christ.