This marks the first appearance of this article in English, translated exclusively for Orthodoxy in Dialogue. The original Arabic version appeared on June 22, 2002 in An-Nahar, one of Lebanon’s leading daily newspapers.
The humility of knowledge demands that no one appoint himself as judge, for only God judges hearts. However, many believe that they are the sole agents of this mystery, instead of focusing on the salvation of their souls. Many sects claim to know who is to be saved and who will perish. This has occupied a good margin of thinking in more than one religion. The large confusion in the Christian milieu is caused by the great Saint Augustine, who said: “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” In his defense, though, he said what he said against heretics in Africa who appeared in his time. His dream was to return them to the correct faith. We can positively deduce from his negative quote that “salvation is in the Church,” in the sense that it is the grace of God.
What confuses this research is that most Christians who pose the question pose it as follows: “Do non-Christians go to heaven?” The answer to this question is another question: “What is heaven?” In the popular belief heaven is the space above, manifested after the destruction of this world. But there is nothing in our Scriptures that confirms that this world will be destroyed and that we will occupy a margin in space beyond which there is no other space. God does not dwell in space, and if you’re with Him there will be no space that could limit you. He is neither above nor below; He is not in a location. The heart of the matter is a mode of existence in which your resurrected face will be in front of the face of God, who does not have a material existence.
In that regard, Islam does not use the word “sky” to talk about people after they are reborn; it uses the word “heaven,” which has a different concept. The concept is material in almost all Islamic sects apart from a few interpreters, especially Sufis. On the other side, Indians and Chinese do not believe in “sky.” Jews only believed in it after the Talmud, therefore centuries after Christ. The concept of “sky” is therefore a purely Christian concept. The question now is transformed to: “In the Sky of the Christians, are there non-Christians?” My immediate answer is that the Gospel passage on the Last Judgment does not talk about Christians. The Master says: “I was hungry, and you fed me…. Inherit the kingdom that was established for you before the world was created.” There is no mention at all of believers and non-believers: it focuses on good works.
Moreover, in the New Testament there is a different mention of judgment. The decisive saying here is: “All who sin apart from the law (i.e., the law of Moses) will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Rom 2:12-14). It’s only logical that this also applies to the people who came after Christ. Those who followed Him will be judged by His Gospel, and those who did not follow Him will be judged based on their conscience.
Evidently, we still have the harsh saying in the Gospel of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16). However, this should be understood within the dialogue that was established between the Master and His contemporary Jews who were supposed to believe in Him based on their Scriptures. They refused to obey the law that was established in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Bible confirms: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Rom 10:17). Or, “How would they believe if they’ve not heard the message?” There is no belief if not preceded by hearing the message. There is no responsibility for denying Christ without knowing about Him. Truth is that, in the past, the Gospel did not reach many. Four billion people never heard of Christ. It is not true that these billions were convinced of Christ and then denied Him. Also, what is the power of a preacher and what is his ability to convince? If believing is a grace that comes from your God and it did not come—it is a mystery of God—how could you judge all these people?
In this regard, who can convince me that thousands of those so-called Christians are purer than Rabia Al Adawia, Hallaj, or Ghandi, who will be judged by what they believed? That these holy people who are outside the visible Church are tortured in fire for a sin that they did not commit? The deeper question is, “Who is a member of the Church?” Is the Church exclusively those who are baptized, or is it the body of Christ? The body of Christ in the sense that it extends to wherever He wishes to extend? The Byzantine saint, Nicholas Cabasilas, said, “Whomever the Church did not baptize with water, the Bridegroom of the Church baptizes without water.” The church organization joins Christians together but does not limit Christ, who works in a non-material way.
The confusion happening around salvation is the common belief of attaining “sky.” The truth is that man attains salvation in the kingdom, but starts here by knowing Christ the Saviour. It’s vision, and love, and determination. If we say salvation is in Christ we do not think of “going to the sky.” We think of life in Christ here. All the Bible’s confirmation is that Jesus saves people from their sins and that this happens by knowing the Gospel. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Also, “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes 5:9).
Christians believe truly that spiritual completeness is by obtaining Christ. And that what God declared is a final revelation of God. They don’t see Christianity as a partial divine revelation or as a revelation susceptible to increase, decrease, or editing. In that logic they believe that the divine Word is between the books of Genesis and Revelation. Therefore, they measure the truth of any other sayings by the Book that is within their hands. This is so clear in the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom also He made the universe” (1:1-2).
This is why Christians do not have to form a judgment on what is said outside Christianity. This is Christianity as seen by Christians. This should not stop them from venerating every truth and right and majesty that they read in other works of religious or philosophical thought. Saying that Christianity is relative, and that all religions are equal in depth, is against the known Christian heritage.
The question remains: “Can anyone go to heaven? Would he be completely saved without going through Christ?” The sure answer from a Christian perspective is that somehow you have to pass through Christ. He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This requires preaching; it is a command in the New Testament. However, we saw that Christ saves whom He wishes to save, with or without baptism. In other words, the work of Christ is achieved, through the Church, for those who have seen and joined the Church, and can be achieved by Christ loving whomever He wishes to love. In that, Christ does not need the church-establishment to save whomever He wishes to save. He has the ability of invoking His Spirit, His vision, and His love for all human beings, whether they belonged to organised religion or not.
In this reading you might be for Christ by His knowledge, not by yours, and therefore you have come through Him to the Father. Only the Father knows that. Your soul will not be saved in the last day unless you see the vision that Christ poured into you. In simpler terms, you will be a Christian in heaven and non-Christian on earth.
This agrees with the thinking of St. Gregory of Nyssa that evil cannot hold in front of God forever, and that God will destroy hell. This also agrees with the clear thinking of St. Ephraim the Syrian, who prayed for the salvation of the devil. The Church never declared these two saints heretics, and never rejected their opinions. This is not a Christian dogma, but it is a subject of hope. Christianity does not discuss other religions. It searches the souls of people and desires their salvation in a manner that only God knows.
Metropolitan George (Khodr) of Biblos and Botris (Mount Lebanon) in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East is one of the world’s best known and most beloved Orthodox hierarchs. Born in 1923, he obtained his diploma from the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris in 1952, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1954 and to the episcopate in 1970. Across his long life he founded the Orthodox Youth Movement in Lebanon (a spiritual renaissance movement in the Antiochian Church) and has been deeply involved in pan-Orthodox and ecumenical dialogue, Christian-Muslim relations, and theological education at the University of Balamand’s St. John of Damascus Institute of Theology.
Najib Coutya is the godson of Metropolitan George, son of Dimitri Coutya who studied under Vladimir Lossky, and First Chanter of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Britain. A computer consultant and musician, he reads theology extensively in Arabic, French, and English.