“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” [ Matthew 7 verse 21 ]
Are non-Christians barred Entry to Heaven?
See also After Death and Your Eternal Destiny
When it comes to entry to Heaven, or more accurately, entry to “the kingdom” of heaven, evangelical Christianity stresses the need to respond in a positive way to the teachings of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels.
But, even with today’s technology, hundreds of millions die without ever hearing the Gospel. They die without having been directly confronted with the truth about Jesus, and so they never consciously (intentionally, deliberately) rejected Him. Are these people barred from entry to Heaven simply because they lived in the wrong place at the wrong time, or never even saw a Bible? Or are they going to heaven alongside the sinner who hears the Gospel and repents?
A Real-Life Example
Two women (one Christian, one Muslim) run one of a number of child rescue projects in Bangladesh. Their objective is to rescue little girls from the filthy streets and slums of Dhaka, and to show them love and care. This is never-ending, exhausting work with only the minimum of resources, and probably they have little time to work out their religious differences.
Assuming they both adhere to their chosen faiths, we might ask: “Are they both going to heaven?” Evangelical Christians look to the Gospels for an answer. But are their answers often too simplistic?
Entry to Heaven – the Gospel Way
Jesus told His listeners to first look to Himself if they are seeking the one true God. He said:
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (John 14:6)
If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also. (John 8:19)
Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Matthew 11:27)
What is the significance of these verses? Answer: they underscore a common belief in orthodox evangelical Christianity, namely, that it is impossible to know the one true God (aka Father in Heaven) without first coming to Him through Jesus Christ. In other words, it is impossible to have a real relationship e.g. a dialogue with God without Jesus. The importance of knowing the forgiveness of Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus said:
Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born gain, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)
For God so loved the world that He have His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, emphasis added)
Here Jesus is talking to people who sincerely wish to follow Him, and so He omits parables and comes straight to the point: for them entry to the kingdom of heaven must be via a heart change and forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. A conscious effort is required upon the part of the seeker. In traditional terms, for ‘heart change’ read ‘repentance‘. When questioned about the suffering of some Galileans, Jesus put it like this:
Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will likewise perish. (Luke 13:2-3, emphasis added)
There are many who do not know God and are not known by Him, and yet their conscience convicts them of wrong within (Romans 2:15). They are aware of sin and of God and yet ignore God and deliberately carry on sinning (Romans 1:18-32). It is this majority of mankind that surely needs to hear the Gospel and repent.
There could well be a crucial difference between this complacent, sometimes rebellious unregenerate majority and our Muslim woman. It could well be that the majority has heard the Gospel – and rejected it – whilst the woman has not heard the Gospel due to her busy life and Islamic restrictions, and so has not rejected it.
For the people confronted by these teachings, reconciliation with their Father in heaven and entry to heaven was via repentance and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Having been confronted by Jesus, the listener’s only tenable option was to repent and follow Jesus.
What about the Rest of Mankind?
The Gospel route to heaven seems clear, and some find it. But, as Jesus admitted, many do not find this narrow route:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. (Matthew 7:13)
So what about all those people who have never been confronted with the Gospel? In 2020 it was estimated that only some 30% of the then world population of 7.8 billion was Christian, whilst Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Atheism accounted for some 60%, link. Many in this 60% will never have heard the Gospel.
Expressed in terms of “people groups”, it is estimated that approximately 7,400 people groups (about 42% of the world’s population) are still considered “unreached” by the Gospel, link. So perhaps 3 or 4 billion people have yet to hear the Gospel, link!
Given the following biblical statement, what hope do these people have?
It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many (Hebrews 9:27-28, emphasis added)
On what basis will they be judged? Will they all perish in the John 3.16 sense? Surely this would be unjust since they have never had the chance to accept or reject Christ? And what about our Muslim woman who is busy rescuing the little girls in Dhaka?
God’s Judgment is Just
When asked ‘which is the first commandment’, Jesus gave the two most important ones (which embrace the rest):
You shall love the Lord your God … (and) … You shall love your neighbour … (Mark 12:30,31)
There are no doubt some (and the Muslim woman may be one) who genuinely wish to love God and love those around them, and yet do not know God. They have never encountered a personal Father in heaven, or Jesus, or heard the gospel in the Matthew 28 sense, yet they may well be known by God because they implicitly do His Will. It seems to be written on their hearts. Paul alludes to this idea:
For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law who will be justified.
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law instinctively perform the requirements of the Law, these, though not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience testifying and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them. (Romans 2:13-15, emphasis added)
Here Paul implies that even those who are ignorant of God can implicitly follow His Law since it is written on their hearts.
Paul says those who have never heard the law or the gospel will die (and be judged) without the law, but those who know the law (have heard the gospel) will be judged by it (Romans 2:12). God is just and judges righteously:
He is coming to judge the earth. He shall judge the world with righteousness . . . You who judge righteously, testing the mind and the heart (Psalm 96:13, Jeremiah 11:20)
Being Accepted by God
God tests the heart. So someone like our Muslim woman who (we assume) has never encountered Jesus and yet has unknowingly lived a ‘just’ life in the Luke 15:7 sense, may well be acceptable in the eyes of a just and righteous God. After all, what does God really require of us?
He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
The Muslim woman seems to be doing this, although we assume she has no real loving relationship with God since Islam claims God is unknowable. Formally, the Muslim has a ‘master-slave’ relationship with God, rejects the concept of sinfulness from birth and hence rejects the work of Christ on the cross.
Nevertheless, if this woman was truly ignorant of Jesus’ work on the cross, the foregoing texts could imply that she is ‘just’ in God’s sight through her compassion and good works, and therefore goes to heaven.
Doing God’s Will whilst not Knowing God
Let us elaborate on the concept of implicitly doing God’s Will. We all know people who appear to live a just and upright life (at least in our eyes) and yet do not know the forgiveness of Jesus. They appear to be doing God’s Will (loving others) without knowing it and without knowing God! Is there more scriptural justification for assuming they are acceptable to God? Consider:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Mark 2:17, emphasis added)
I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7, emphasis added)
So who are the ‘righteous’?
We can view these texts in two ways:
EITHER: Jesus is referring to those already in His ‘fold’ (those already made righteous) and to the few sheep that have strayed from the fold. He could also be having a cynical dig at the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees.
The theology would be that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and that it is essential to be “born again” by believing in Jesus in order to secure entry to Heaven and have eternal life (John 3:5,15). This is the only way to be accepted by God under the New Covenant.
OR: Jesus is making the point that some do indeed have God’s Law written on their hearts – and do it – even though they have never encountered the Gospel. They may be following their heavenly Father’s Will, and hence be accepted by Him, without really knowing Him. They may have never heard the words of Jesus and so, in His sight, have no sin. In Jesus’ own words:
If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin … (John 15:22)
The concept of doing God’s Will without knowing it is also implied in the parable of the separation of the sheep and goats at the final judgement (Matthew 25:31-46). The parable first focusses on those who clothe the naked, feed the hungry and take in strangers, just like our Muslim woman. They are really doing it for Jesus, but don’t know it. These people ask:
When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? (Matthew 25:38)
And Jesus replies:
Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren [aka the little children of Dhaka], you did it to Me. (Matthew 25:40, amplified)
Again the implication is that it is possible to do God’s Will and hence be known by Him, without even recognising it and without even knowing Him. The Muslim woman may be in this scenario. The difference between the two women in Dhaka seems to be that one may indeed be known (favourably) by God, but has no relationship with Him (the Muslim), and the other is both known by God and knows God (the Christian). The latter has truth revealed to her, the former does not. The latter walks in spiritual light, the former walks in spiritual darkness.
The Book of Life: a key to Entry to Heaven
Although our Muslim woman may well be accepted by a just God on the grounds that she implicitly does God’s Will, there is one more hoop she has to jump! According to the Bible there is a Book of Life and only those reconciled to God will have their names written in it (Psalm 69:28, Philippians 4:3, Revelation 3:5).
This is the Lamb’s book of life – a book foreseen from the beginning of time that contains the names of all God’s people (Revelation 13:8). Revelation 13.8 does not imply predestination; rather, it is just one more illustration of the foreknowledge of God (like all prophecy). So everyone has the opportunity to have their name in this book. It is our choice.
Other books are written to record the things we do in this life (Revelation 20:12); they are a permanent record of our earthly activity. These books are testimony to our failings and wrong deeds in the sight of God. In contrast, it is interesting to note that the Book of Life records none of the failings of the righteous since their sins have been erased by Christ’s atonement on the cross. They are born again and the slate is wiped clean!
The Second Resurrection
At the ‘second resurrection’ – the resurrection of judgement (John 5:29), those whose names are not in the Book of Life are raised from Hades and stand before God (Revelation 20:12,13). The books are opened, their written deeds are used as a testimony against them, and they are found guilty:
And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15)
This is not annihilation. Jesus was quite explicit. All those who deliberately reject the offer of reconciliation to God through Christ, all those who deliberately refuse to believe Jesus when He said “You must be born again”, all those who just ignore Christ’s teachings having heard them – these spend eternity in the absence of God:
“And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46)
Now the Key Question
Will the Muslim woman have her name in the Book of Life?
It is interesting to note that both the Old Testament and the New Testament refer only to the erasing of a person’s name from the Book of Life (Exodus 32:32, Psalm 69:28, Revelation 3:5).
Does this imply that all names are initially written in the Book of Life and only those who deliberately reject the gospel are removed from the book? If so, her name would be in the Book of Life, and she would go to heaven. In essence, the woman’s compassionate deeds and ignorance of the Gospel are judged righteously:
(God) will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honour, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness – indignation and wrath.
(Romans 2:6-8, emphasis added)
Does this Muslim woman fall into the same category as the Old Testament saints who, of course, never met Jesus but were nevertheless accepted by God for their “persistence in “doing good”?
Summing it all up
Will this Muslim woman be going to heaven?
This article examines a real-life case of a Muslim woman working in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She works alongside a Christian woman in one of a number of child rescue projects, their mission being to rescue little girls from the filthy streets and slums of Dhaka, and to show them love and care. It is assumed that:
- She is a dedicated follower of Islam, and a worshipper of the God Islam points to
- She shows God’s love by dedicating her life to helping others, whilst never knowing God
- She leads a busy, purpose-filled life, and has never had the time or inclination to research Christianity
- She has never heard the Gospel, or been challenged with the words of Jesus: “you must be born again”
This scenario must be typical of many followers of Islam, male or female, and so it is important for Christians to grapple with biblical truths here. It is all too easy for evangelical Christians to adopt a naïve, simplistic approach to such cases which is at variance with a wider biblical view. So, for example, in answer to the question “what happens to people who never hear the Gospel?” some Christians reply:
Men and women who have not heard the gospel are not sentenced to hell because they have never heard of Jesus. Instead, they are sentenced to hell based on the fact they are sinners [ Crosswalk ]
The foregoing discussion suggests this is an over-simplistic view of New Testament teaching. Before making such statements it is important for Christians to bear in mind that:
- God’s Will (aka to love others) can be written on a person’s heart (mind) even if they have never come to know Him. It seems that, in the absence of the revelation of Christ, it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law who will be justified
- God is “just” and judges righteously. So those who have never encountered the Jesus of the Gospels will be judged according to the revelation they have received
- Jesus underscored the need to respond positively to Himself once confronted with the truth, namely:
He who believes in Him (God’s Son) is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18)