Home » The Bible and Beyond » Blog » Do Only Christians Go to Heaven?
Do Only Christians Go to Heaven?
by Shirley Paulson, PhD
As soon as children begin to comprehend death, the question inevitably arises: what happens next?
This is the place where religion steps in because nobody knows the answer from any material-based source of information. You have to have faith in something, even if it’s faith in nothing.
My atheist cousin and I mused over whether our dads, who were very close friends, would be happy to be together again since they both passed on near the same time. She said, “No, they won’t see each other. It’s over.” I said, I wasn’t so sure. Since nobody has ever been able to explain how consciousness originates, I don’t think anybody can decisively say that it ends either.
In our human language, we have certain words that help us organize our thoughts around the question about what’s next. But even those words mean something different for different people. Whichever way we define such terms as ‘God,’ ‘soul,’ or ‘life’ probably shapes our views of what happens next. Heaven? Hell? Something in between? Reincarnation? Nothing?
Many of the world’s religions promise some kind of harmonious after-life with the provision that those who seek such bliss subscribe to their faith traditions in human life. Traditional Christianity offers the option of heaven or hell, depending on both good behavior and a profession of the prescribed faith. But it’s also a fluid concept. Remember the old doctrine of predestination? No matter how hard you tried, you’d fail because God didn’t pick you from the beginning. You’d better keep trying, though, just in case you’ve been picked.
But when we look back much earlier, to the earliest Christ followers, before there were any church councils or established doctrines, the ideas of the soul seem a bit more tangible and yet unrelated to any church affiliation. The Secret Revelation of John—a Christian text written in the 100s and well before the Council of Nicea—addresses several questions about the soul but says nothing about any religious identity, profession of belief, or unpardoned sins.
In this book, a fictitious disciple, John, asks Jesus,
1) “Lord, will all the souls be delivered into the pure light? (23:1)
In other words, he wants to know the conditions by which anyone might be excluded from the heavenly realm after death.
In fact, all of the questions in this section of the text relate to the future of everyone’s soul—with no reference to any particular community of believers.
2) Will the souls of those upon whom the power of the Spirit of Life descended but who did not do these works be excluded? (23:13)
3) When the souls of those leave their flesh, where will they go? (23:19) [possible paraphrase: “Where will those who leave their flesh go?”]
4) Where will the souls be who do not know to whom their souls belong? (23:25)
5) How does the soul become smaller and return back into the nature of its mother or the human? (23:32)
6) What about those who understood and yet turned away? Where will their souls go? (23:37)
The ‘Lord’ answers the first question about whether all souls will be delivered into the pure light:
If the spirit descends upon them, by all means they will be saved in any case, and they will migrate [or, be transformed]. For the power will descend upon every human being—for without it no one is able to stand upright (23:14-15).
What a surprising reply this is: being saved—from suffering, pain or sorrow—comes from the power of the Spirit that comes to everyone because it’s not even possible to stand up without this power. And, evidently, we not only get saved, or helped, but everyone will be transformed. So, the way Jesus puts it to John here, from Jesus’s intimate knowledge of the working of the Spirit, this power comes to everyone since we all need it. It has the power to save us from any kind of suffering, and it transforms us in the process. We’re not lost in the ethereal heavenly sphere, and our souls remain distinct.
However, John, the questioner, is still concerned about those who intentionally reject the gift of the Spirit. Paraphrasing question #2, “What about those who simply turn away or don’t do what they know they should do?” With this, Jesus paints no rosy path:
They will be admitted into that place where the angels of poverty go, the place where repentance does not occur. And they will guard them until the day when those who have blasphemed against the Spirit will be tortured. And they will be punished with an eternal punishment (23:38-40).
Surprisingly, even this description of torture and eternal punishment offers no hint of punishment due to a flawed, sinful nature. Rather, the punishment is self-inflicted. People suffer from their own choices, not from an almighty judge. And not even from sins that we can’t help committing.
Returning to the opening question about what happens next, or whether my dad and my uncle will be able to enjoy each other’s friendship after human life, the Secret Revelation of John implies that death has almost nothing to do with the continuity of one’s soul. Evidently you just keep on living, and your soul just keeps you being who you are because the spirit of Life descends on every human. Whoever is willing to receive its transforming power will always live by this pure light, whereas those who refuse it will suffer from their own stubbornness or willfulness.
At least according to this early Christian text, neither death nor the wrong religious affiliation can cause the soul to lose its way; only the wrong choice does. Heaven appears to hold the door open for every soul who wants it.
Surely the Gospel of John isn’t later than the “Secret Revelation” (Apocryphon) of John found at Nag Hammadi, yet it has an entirely different take on these matters. Seems like Gospel-John believed that yes, only Christians get to heaven.
Good to hear your thoughts on this, Mike. You appear to make a some assumptions when you conclude that the Gospel of John “has an entirely different take (from the Secret Revelation – or Apocryphon – of John) on these matters.” No doubt we could write a powerful monograph on this topic, but to keep it brief, a couple of surface points include: 1) Jesus was not talking to ‘Christians’ in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus (to whom he said no one comes to the Father except through me) never considered himself a Christian. 2) Jesus prophecies about his own ascent “to his Father,” rather than everyone going to “heaven.” 3) In the Gospel of John, Jesus tends to talk more about himself and his own identity rather than the fulfillment for his followers (who were not Christian, by the way).
Whether these points indicate a comparison of dates for when one was written in relation to the other, I don’t see where that takes place. The point of my blog post was simply to indicate that in this text (which was probably written before the Council of Nicea), the point about who gets the divine privilege has more to do with one’s own decisions than a religious affiliation. If in the Gospel of John, Jesus is more of a model than a rule-maker, he could also be indicating how his followers should find their way.
Thanks for your response, Shirley. As to dating the two documents, that’s been done by others, and I’ve never seen ApJohn dated earlier than GosJohn. The main point as issue, however, revolves around your claim that “Jesus was not talking to ‘Christians’ in [GosJohn].” That could mean several things, and I don’t know which of those you had in mind. Of course, the term ‘Christian’ didn’t come into being until the time of Paul, as you know. So J’s original followers weren’t called ‘Christians’ during his lifetime. More important, though, is the fact that it isn’t Jesus doing the talking – it’s John and/or his school. And THEY were most certainly talking to Christians. That Nicodemus wasn’t a follower of Jesus is irrelevant. What Jesus is made to say to Nicodemus is what John wants to say to all non-Christians of his time. That, however, is not the only place where Jesus is made to say or imply that his believers had special access to the afterlife. Here’s others:
1:12 “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God …”
3:18 “He who believes in [the Son] is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already …”
3:36 “He who believes in the Son has eternal life, but he who disobeys the Son will not see Life …”
4:14 “the water I give … will become … a spring of water welling up to eternal life”
6:35 “I am the bread of Life …”
6:40 “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
6:47 “He who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life.”
6:51 “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”
6:54 “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
6:54 “… the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”
8:12 “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall … have the light of Life.”
8:24 “… if you don’t believe that I’m the one I claim to be, you’ll die in your sins.”
8:47 “The reason you don’t hear me is that you don’t belong to God.”
10:9 “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”
10:28 “I give eternal life to [my sheep] and they shall never perish.”
11:26 “… whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
12:48 “He who rejects me and doesn’t receive my words has one who judges him – the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.”
14:6 “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”
I like these passages from the Gospel of John, Mike. They are beautiful to me, and I see them as a clarification for how to think differently more than how to “go to heaven.” Thinking differently is about an awakening to life here and now that is eternal, not something that begins after death. It’s more about taking responsibility for what one thinks than being a passive recipient of an invitation to heaven. For example, in 3:18 that you quote, “He who believes in [the Son] is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already…” That indicates to me that what one thinks in the here-and-now life experiences judgment.
And “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (10:9) also indicates to me that learning the lessons of Jesus is something you do now. Being saved—soteria—was an idea of being healed and saved from present danger, just as much in present life as after death. So I think of this as Jesus opening the way (not shutting it) for anyone to realize how to experience this way of life, which is eternal.
I would summarize that these Gospel of John passages indicate how Jesus is showing the value and importance of thinking differently from the ordinary way of thinking more than “how to get to heaven.” He never mentions that he’s closing the door on the option for heaven after death.
I would also clarify that I never intended to claim that the Secret Revelation of John is dependent on the Gospel of John, nor vice versa. Although I do see similarities in these texts—such as a non-exclusive message concerning eternal life, I think the authorial relationship between the two is still quite debatable.
Perhaps it helps to look at the historical context for the Gospel of John where that unique community was in the midst of being severed from the Jewish community, and therefore seeking a way forward for their faith. (Read, for example, Raymond Brown’s book The Community of the Beloved Disciple.) There is, as Mike’s passages listed above indicate, much in John about belief or knowing. The author of this Gospel is helping his community to see that what Jesus has given them will save them – they no longer need to be dependent on Judaism for their salvation. That’s why Jesus says in 14:6 – “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” (The only translations that capitalize the ‘way,’ ‘truth.’ and ‘life’ is The Message and The Passion Translation.)
According to Gail O’Day (a scholar on the Gospel of John specializing in rhetorical criticism and who wrote the commentary on the Gospel of John for The New Interpreter’s Bible), the use of “the way,” as the use of logos in this Gospel, comes out of Judaism. “Within the Jewish wisdom tradition, ‘way’ denotes the life-styles of the ‘wise’ (those who live in accordance with the teaching of the sages [Prov 2:8, 20] and the ‘wicked’ (those who flaunt wisdom [Prov 2:12, 14]. In the Psalms, ‘way’ is used as a metaphor to describe a life lived either in accordance with the law or the will and desire of God (e.g., Ps 86:11, etc.) [This is how Shirley sees ‘the way’ in her blog above.] In this Jewish context… ‘way’ is not used strictly as the route to somewhere else… but as an expression of the faithful person’s unity with God” (vol. IX, 742).
The writer of this Gospel is brilliant, and here, as with his use of the universal ‘logos’ he is building on, but expanding out from, his community’s Jewish heritage – to find a ‘way’ forward for them. And, yes, here, as in the other passages Mike quotes, the Fourth Evangelist appropriates the ‘way’ with a singular identification with Jesus. “Jesus is the way because he is the access point to God’s promise of life. This is the heart of the good news for the Fourth Evangelist, that in Jesus, the incarnate Word, the Son of God, one can see and know God in a manner never before possible.” (IX, 743) .
However, O’Day in her reflection on this passage (14:6) points out the pain that “the very clarity and decisiveness of the Fourth Evangelist’s conviction here have turned these words into a weapon with which to bludgeon one’s opponents into theological submission. …They are taken by some as the rallying cry of Christian triumphalism, proof positive that Christians have the corner on God and that people of any and all other faiths are condemned” (IX, 743). O’Day then speaks to this exclusive take on this passage:
“John 14:5 is not a general metaphysical statement about ‘God’; Jesus does not say ‘No one comes to God except through me,’ but ‘No one comes to the Father except through me,’ and the specificity of that theological nomenclature needs to be taken seriously. John 14:6 is the very concrete and specific affirmation of a faith community about the God who is known to them because of the incarnation. As noted in the Reflections on the Prologue, the incarnation changes everything for the Fourth Evangelist, because through it humanity’s relationship to God and God’s relationship to humanity are decisively altered. The incarnation has redefined God for the Fourth Evangelist and those for whom he writes, because it brings the tangible presence of God’s love to the world. . .. God is the One whom the disciples come to recognize in the life and death of Jesus. When Jesus says ‘no one’ he means ‘none of you’ ((See Paul Minear, John: The Martyr’s Gospel, 108:10). In John 14:6, then, Jesus defines God for the disciples; the Fourth Evangelist defines God for the members of his faith community.”
O’Day continues: “It is important to try to hear this joyous, world-changing theological affirmation in the first-century context of the Fourth Gospel. This is not, as in the case in the twentieth century, the sweeping claim of a major world religion, but it is the conviction …[that] has led them into conflict with the Judaism that previously has been their sole religious home, and so they have had to carve out a new religious home for themselves, a home grounded in the incarnation. It is possible to hear an element of defiance in the proclamation… a determination to hold to this experience and knowledge of God against all opposition and all pressure to believe otherwise. …The particularism of John 14:6-7 does de facto establish boundaries; it says, ‘This is who we are. We are the people who believe in the God who has been revealed to us decisively in Jesus Christ.’ To be included in the circle of Jesus’ ‘own’, one must recognize Jesus for who he is, which means recognizing the revelation of God in him” (IX, 744).
O’Day concludes: “The claim of John 14:6-7 becomes problematic when it is used to speak to questions that were never in the Fourth Gospel’s purview …[i.e., to cite the passage] as the final arbiter in discussions of the relative merits of different religions’ experiences and understanding of God.. …The Fourth Evangelist’s primary concern was the clarification and celebration of what it means to believe in Jesus. …The theological vision articulated here expresses the distinctiveness of Christian identity, and it is as people shaped by this distinctiveness that Christians can take their place in conversations about world religion. Indeed, the Prologue’s claims about the Logos (1:1-3) provide an opening for conversations about how one encounters the divine.
…at the heart of Christianity is this affirmation of the decisive revelation of God in the incarnation. John 14:5 can thus be read as the core claim of Christian identity; what distinguishes Christians from peoples of other faiths is the conviction given expression in John 14:6. It is, indeed, through Jesus that Christian s have access to their God” (IX, 745).
I have always found O’Day’s insights on this passage helpful. I also find it ironic that this passage has been used to exclude ‘non-believers’ both outside and inside the Christian community, because in the Fourth Evangelist’s day, it is the very Johannine community itself that was feeling excluded – not only from their fellow Jews, but also from the more traditional understandings of Jesus as found in the synoptic gospels – this tension between the two communities is played out in the Gospel of John in the tension between Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The Johannine community knew what it was like to be outsiders wanting to be included at the table sharing their gifts with other Christians.
Thanks for quoting O’Day, Helen. There’s a couple of mentions of 14.5 that should be 14.6, but other than that, it’s obvious that a lot of thought went into that piece and a lot of thought would be required to respond to it. If GosJohn were my major interest, I would do it, but it isn’t. Let’s leave it that I do think that John uses ‘God’ to mean “the true God”, and equates it with “the Father.”
Nice try, Shirley, but no cigar. The message of GosJohn isn’t the vague generality “think differently” that you wish it were. It’s to get folks of the time to believe that Jesus was the one-and-only “Son of God”. That’s stated specifically in 20:31. To believe that, of course, is to be a Xian. As to getting to heaven, John doesn’t seem to look at it the way we do. To him, “eternal life” seems to mean being “raised” on “the last day” – and “the Son” will do that. So I’m still convinced that ApJohn and GosJohn don’t have “the same message concerning eternal life”. As to authorship, there’s never been any debate that I’m aware of that the two had the same author(s).
Shirley – I’ve just noticed a couple flaws in your original posting. The part in ApJohn beginning “If the spirit descends upon them…” is in answer to Q2, not Q1. The part that begins “They will be admitted into that place…” is in answer to Q6, not Q2.