For a long time, this truth ameliorated some of the inevitable skepticism that arose from answers I had been given to the question about who gets to heaven. Growing up in a conservative Christian tradition, the answer was simple: Only those who confess with their mouth that Jesus is the Son of God and trust in him for the forgiveness of sins. (Romans 10:9-10)
"But what about people who never had a chance to believe that?" my adolescent self protested? "What about the kids who starve in Africa by the time they're five years old?" If, as I'd been taught, there will be someone from every tongue and tribe and nation (Revelation 7:9-10), what about those tribes and nations which had risen and fallen before the news of Jesus reached them, or which had passed out of existence by the time Jesus even walked the earth? "Well, God is God, and we are not" put the questions uneasily into the back of my mind.
Then, in the early years of adulthood, I started to travel. Simple answers to questions about the eternal destiny of most people in the world across its history lost their comfort in the ancient jungles of Peru, in the slums of India, in the centuries old habitations of East Africa, in the remote mountain villages of Nepal, and in a dozen other countries.
In the middle of one of these long journeys, I found myself in Bangkok for several weeks helping out with Baptist missionaries. I was tired of the huge questions, content in my newly deepened belief in Jesus, and ready to read some brain-candy. I picked up C.S. Lewis' children's series The Chronicles of Narnia once again, and in the final pages of the last of the seven books, The Last Battle, found harbingers of an encouraging line of thought about this question from one of the godfathers of evangelical philosophy and orthodoxy.
As creatures are being divided between those who will go to a new world with the golden lion, Aslan (the Jesus figure), and those who will go to their destruction with Tash (the Satan figure), a surprising character winds up in the company of Aslan. He is a good and noble servant of Tash, who, although looking for Tash, finds himself at the feet of Aslan and in awe of his glory. Still, he assumes that this is his moment of judgment, "for the Lion will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him." Instead, the Lion welcomes him as a son, and the man does not understand. "But I said, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done for Tash, I account as service done to me."
Lewis continues to muse through the voice of Aslan. "I and Tash are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him..if any man do a cruelty in my name, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Do you understand, Child?"
For me, I hold out hope that heaven will be inhabited by those whom my theology won't easily allow in. While I do believe that it is the forgiving blood of Jesus that is the ticket, I wonder if one has to conscientiously know that it is Jesus' blood that saves them in order for them to be saved. I wonder about the figures in the Old Testament whom I would expect to see in heaven who, while they certainly didn't know the name of Jesus, are saved by him. I wonder about how God has been effectually revealed to those of many tongues, tribes, and nations in miraculous ways that don't require a human messenger. I wonder about verses like 1Timothy 4:11 that speak of the living God, "who is the savior of all people, and especially those who believe."
And so I say again, God is God, and I am not. If God allows more people into heaven than I might expect, will I be upset? No! I'll rejoice in it and be glad. God sets the rules for whom God spends eternity with, and if they are broader than the ones I've been taught and those I believe, I will not complain. And if there are fewer people than I would expect, well then, at that point all things will be clear. Lewis famously said that everybody's first word in heaven will be `Ohhh..', with an air of "Now I understand."
I've often joked that if, at the end of my life, I stand before God and am told, "Well, sorry, Bill, nice try, but your list of sins is just too long to let you in," I won't be surprised at all. I imagine saying with a heavy sigh, "I totally understand, God. There is nothing about me that makes me worthy to be here, that's why I was hoping in Jesus." And at that, God would open the gate and say, "That's the answer I was looking for." Knowing that God is God, we are not, and that there's nothing righteous about us that gets us into heaven are good things to remember, regardless of who we believe gets to go.