Does Jesus save Buddhists?

I was once a Christian, and on my way out of the club, I remember reading passages from one of my favorite Christian authors, CS Lewis:

“But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. … There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position”
–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco edition, 2001, pp. 64, 208, 209

CS Lewis was one of my favorites. He was a classicist (a scholar and a fan of the ancient Greeks and Latins) before he converted — he loved the ancients.  But his new religion taught him that all the ancients who had not heard of Jesus or heard and rejected would burning forever in a lake of fire (Revelations 20:14-15).  But Lewis would have none of that.  His mind helped him come up with a liberal theology where nonbelievers could be saved — as you can see by the quote above.

Many Christians consider CS Lewis’ pluralist views on salvation to be heretical, but if there is a God, maybe these writings ironically illustrate that “God’s secret influence” were leading CS Lewis away from the mistaken notions of the ‘orthodox’ Christianity that surrounded him.

In Lewis’ Chronicals of Narnia there is a similar pluralistic story where Temeth, fervent servant of the false god Tash, meets the true God, Aslan, and realizes that he has erred and will surely die. But Aslan welcomes him and explains,

“I take to me the services which thou hast done to [Tash], for I and he 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.”
–C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle”, New York: Collier, 1956, pp. 164-165

Of course, as a nontheist, God-stories don’t move me much. But looking behind these stories, I am moved to find CS Lewis transcending his own “Christian” identity label. Fundamentalists are right to see his thought as heresy. Praise Tash!

Related Post: My Favorite Type of Christians


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

31 responses to “Does Jesus save Buddhists?

  1. When Jesus said ‘Unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins’ he did say what will happen. The I AM in the passage is YHWH as identified in the OT. There are lots of exclusivity passages in the bible and that particular message is clear. Hence the directive to make disciples, and spreading the word. If Jesus wasn’t key, all tha first century martyrdom of the Apostles for refusing to recant makes little sense. They obviously had reason to believe there was something vitally important about Jesus that no other way could provide.

    Though Lewis was a great defender of mere Christianity, his theology was tainted with Anglicanism, which is for all intents and purposes, Roman Catholocism for people who don’t want to be Catholic.

  2. @ John Barron

    I agree, “there are lots of exclusivity passages in the bible.”
    I think there are passages that point the opposite direction too. That is because the Bible is not homogenous (see my post on that issue: “The Homogenized Bible“). The Bible has lots of different authors with different theologies.

    You are right, many early Christians saw Jesus as the only way. But there were many different sorts of Christianity in the beginning and not all had the same soteriology. Even today we have Christians with different views on this issue. Your view is just one, though I know you think it is the true “Biblical View”. You illustrate this by your condemnation of Anglicanism and Catholicism (“tainted”).

    Like Christians, many Muslims died for their faith and other people for their faiths. They too “must obviously had reason to believe there was something vitally important” about their faith. People die for their countries too, they feel their country is vitally important. People die for all sorts of silly reasons. It is often hard to sort out silly from important reasons to die.

  3. My point about martyrdom wasn’t to “prove” the belief system as true. It shows they believed Jesus was the only way.

    The earliest recorded “version” of Christianity is not that of centuries later Gnosticism, but what many people today pejoratively call “fundamentalists”. Sure many people have different understandings of what the bible means when it says…. but that happens as time passes. The early church had the first Apostles and their direct understudys.

  4. @ John Barron
    I don’t think we can assume they died because they thought that Jesus was the only way, but they did obviously die for an identity in their faith (as people do for their countries) and whatever that meant for them. To use their martyrdom to support your theology seems a bit misguided.

    So, to re-phrase what I wrote in my last paragraph:

    if there is a God, maybe these writings ironically illustrate that “God’s secret influence” were leading CS Lewis away from the mistaken notions of [John Barron’s] Christianity.”

  5. It seems Lewis was trying to run away from having bad feelings about his god roasting the Buddha, Socrates, etc. But I’ll give Lewis credit for at least feeling bad about it. I know folks for whom innocent pagans tortured in eternal hell would not be a problem.

  6. Like what Paul says, I too give Kudos to Lewis for that view. It’s not surprising to come to that conclusion either, if you believe in the love and justice God supposedly possesses. How could that kind of God repay bad for good?

    Anyway, it seems like just about any fully defined faith is heretical, given the non-homogeneous biblical construction.

  7. @ Wise Fool: “Anyway, it seems like just about any fully defined faith is heretical, given the non-homogeneous biblical construction.”

    I hadn’t thought of that, but I believe you are right!

  8. Gary

    I love this post Sabio. And in spite of what my fellow believer stated in an earlier comment…I do not believe fundamentalism even remotely resembles what the early church practiced.

    C.S. Lewis and I are quite close in our views. (Check out my response to you in the nakedpastor)

  9. @ Gary
    Thank you. You are obviously the kind of ‘heretical’ Christian I can sing comfortably with in the choir.🙂 Luke, who also graces this blog frequently, is similar.

    @ The Wise Fool
    Loved your last sentence. “Consistent theology” based on the collected works put together in Christian Scriptures would be an oxymoron.

    @ Paul Sunstone
    I agree with you that Lewis worked with his theology to give keep Socrates out of the brimstone.

    But actually, in all fairness, I don’t think many fundamentalist Christians (and certainly not John Barron) “rejoice” at their belief in Atheists, Pagans, Jews, Buddhists, heretical Christians and all of us non-believers roasting in Hell. They would perhaps describing their feeling a pity and some may even claim to feel pain for us. But they will claim that they don’t question the justice of their God no matter how sorry they feel.

    Some may even say that they wish that everyone could be forgiven and given a second chance in heaven but they don’t question their god’s plan which does not allow this.

    I think these beliefism religions sell exactly because they sell the fact that you have to belong while you are alive — how else would they grow. So it is inevitable that this this-is-your-only-chance-exclusivism theology would evolve as a best seller in the spiritual economic circles.

    On the other hand, part of me does think that some exclusivist Christians may get a small twinkle of happiness and feeling specialness at being above the slime of us Pagans. Part part of them may feel our damnation is well deserved and are glad for it. For they identify with their god and their god has willed it so. But I am sure this is not John Barron’s case.

  10. Interesting post, Sabio.

    What I also find notable is the way so many Christians are more than willing to reference C S Lewis as a source for credibility, but kindly distance themselves from details like this when pointed to it.

    Ultimately, the answer to your post from many is “no”. Many Christians will simply tell you there is no entry without Jesus. I guess it’s “belief before behavior”, but these Christians don’t prefer it put that way.

    When it comes to the demise of non-believers, many Christians (including John Barron I think) would simply blame the individual. They may or may not revel in it, as you point out, but they refuse to accept the notion that their deity is really the one who chooses where they are to go. Instead, they just say it’s the fault of the individual for not believing in the right religion.

  11. On the question/title of the post: Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16

    As for: “But looking behind these stories, I am moved to find CS Lewis transcending his own “Christian” identity label. Fundamentalists are right to see his thought as heresy.” I am confused… You’re happy CS sheds the tribal boundaries but then agree that fundamentalists are right to condemn him as heresy… why? Why are the fundies right?

    @John B: “Though Lewis was a great defender of mere Christianity, his theology was tainted with Anglicanism,”
    -so he wasn’t the right “type” of Christian and thus is wrong..?

  12. Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. When Israel (as a nation) rejected him, the gentiles were grafted in. The “other sheep” are gentile believers, not adherents of other religious systems.

  13. Max

    The idea that all that is necessary for salvation is to believe in Christ as the one true path to Heaven must be very appealing, but ultimately, it’s just lazy. According to this doctrine one can be the most despicable, cold-hearted, ruthless bastard on the planet, reveling in hedonism and maliciousness for 99% percent of one’s life on Earth, then have a deathbed conversion and receive God’s grace and spend eternity in heaven. The Bodhisattva, however, who devotes his life to alleviating the suffering of others for the entirety of his days, burns in a lake of fire.

    Something is just a teeny tiny bit wrong with this picture.

  14. Max

    Another thought on the contrast between the Heaven-directed Christian and the Bodhisattva. The latter is explicit rejecting the equivalent of heaven in his tradition, the enlightenment that frees him from the wheel of rebirth, in order to do what is right here and now in his life.

    I’ve spoken elsewhere about a “many doorways” hypothesis. Where the heaven-directed doctrine conceives of a choice at the end of one’s life to enter a doorway to heaven or one to hell, the many doorways approach is to realize that we make this choice in each moment of our lives, and heaven or hell is how we are rewarded for these choices here and now, while we are conscious beings. The bodhisattva’s choice could be seen as the most perfect application of this philosophy. Don’t tell me about some future realm, he says, it will only cloud my vision for choosing the right doorway to walk through at this moment.

    If as all the evidence indicates the only thing awaiting us beyond death is rotting in the grave, we should be focused on how to improve our consciousness while we have it, and maybe make things nicer for our fellow beings in the process.

  15. “The “other sheep” are gentile believers, not adherents of other religious systems.” -JB
    -Nice apologetics, but the scripture simply isn’t that clear. Plus if they convert and are Anglican, it seems in your book they’re still out of luck.

  16. Luke

    Actually it is pretty clear, in fact its pretty explicit. Perhaps later if you are actually interested in the issue we can pick it up on the discussion page on my site.

  17. Oh, and I never disqualified Anglicans as not being among believers. It depends on the Anglican.

  18. Gary

    @John Barron…

    “Actually it is pretty clear, in fact its pretty explicit.”

    I must completely disagree with you here. The longer I study the bible the more the “explicit” and “clear” becomes unclear. Your explanation for Jesus intent in His “other sheep” reference is nothing more than your opinion based upon your chosen theology. In other words you believe that must have been what He meant because any other understanding requires you to change your belief structure. Not the most convincing argument in my book.

  19. Of course its a bad argument, its also not my argument. But thanks for telling me my reasons then dismissing them.

  20. Gary

    Seems as if your dismissal of my point is as thorough as your exegesis…grin.

    Since the passage in question is absolutely NOT explicit and clear to many learned theologians and scholars, that fact that you rule it to be clear can only mean that you summarily dismiss other possible interpretations as not possible and/or worthy of consideration.

    I have spent my life among fundies (not declaring you to be one btw) and they make a great many claims that their understanding on this that or the other thing is the only possible correct one. Those who claim the truths in Christ’s words are either clear or explicit are usually looking at Him through a very small window.

  21. @ zqtx:
    Thank you. Yes, I agree, I think John Barron would blame the individual and not God. I am not sure he deals with the fact that 98% of the world is the religion they were born into — I have never asked him that yet. Though I’d image he has thought of it and is very satisfied with his answer.

    @ Luke:
    I think you misunderstood me — but I invited it, perhaps, by using sarcasm. My last paragraph could read:

    “Fundamentalists are right to see Lewis’ thought as heresy. But it is a heresy I welcome. I know many Christians don’t consider pluralism as heresy at all. But one theologian’s heresy is another’s orthodoxy. Such is the world of believisms.”

    I hope that clears it up. Yes, I am glad Lewis “sheds his tribal boundaries” (great phrase!).

    @ Max:
    I agree that the atonement theology you criticize is bizarre. Not all Christians hold this view, of course. As I started blogging I quickly learned how naive I was about the variety of Christianities that exist. I use to be a Christian and had exposure to Evangelical and Charismatic circles but as I blogged I learned of so much more. Gary and Luke, in this thread, know this very well — I had not known Christians like them before I started blogging.

    Here is a post I did on the many different contradictory atonement theologies that exist among Christians: Atonement Theologies.

    So, since there are so many different types of Christians, unless a Christian on this blog declares which flavor he is, it is not surprising that atheists may misrepresent their particular flavor. Personally, I think a skillful Christian commentor on a site like this (Luke being a good example), would acknowledge that some Christians do hold the position you describe and then tell you how their Christianity is different.

    @ Luke, Gary and John Barron
    The pluralist (Luke & Gary) vs exclusivist (John) theological perspective is a complicated debate for Christians and could fill pages and pages. Exchanging verses and accusing each other of inadequate interpretations using quick comments will probably go nowhere quickly. Linking to your best arguments may be useful — but I have a feeling you will never settle it here.

    I am not shy is saying that I consider neither position “true” but that I consider the pluralist position the best for society and therefor pragmatically prefer it. I don’t consider many of my preference in life to be “provable truth” either. John thinks it is a matter of truth, of course. And John thinks that revelation gives him privy to truth. Again, I doubt we will make progress on that issue here either.

    Instead, focusing on one verse and sharing your exegesis and hermeneutics (as Gary alludes to) may be helpful to reveal your differences. Which may be the most instructive for those interested. For I doubt you will ever agree so illustrating difference clearly will be the best we get. Luke could do one on his site (with Gary as a guess posting, perhaps), and John on his site could expound upon the same very and invite us back to see the blood bath! So chose a verse or two, come back and tell us when you have posted. In the meantime, it is fun to see the battle here.

  22. @Sabio- Thanks for the clarification. The link below shed some light on it, but I’d rather ask and you confirm than assume and well, you know how that phrase goes.

    As for debating John, I have no interest. It is as you state a completely different starting point.

    There are some who follow the Christian religion because it helps them divide the sheep from the goats, the good guys from the bad, and the believers from the skeptics and atheists… and the REAL believers from the believers.

    But then there are the few who see Christianity as being good news for all people. It exists not to bring the world the bad news that we’re better than you because we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical, and ethical wickets. Instead we speak the Good News that ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.’ It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace and to love and serve our neighbor in the hopes that it makes a dark world a little brighter.

    Here I stand and cannot do otherwise. Merry Christmas (and Festivus for the rest of you ;-)).

  23. And Sabio, I didn’t thank you for the shout out earlier to Gary. Much appreciated.

  24. @ John Barron
    Below is summary of your comments on this thread, along with [my thought]:

    (a) I disagree with Lewis who is *tainted* by Anglicanism which is Roman Catholic essentially. [we could hear your “yuck”]

    (b) Christians wouldn’t have martyred if they didn’t feel Jesus was the only-way[which I countered but you ignored]

    (c) I am an exclusivist and so was Jesus. [yeah, we get that]

    (d) You invite Luke off my thread to discuss with you on your blog. [I guess every team likes to play on their home turf]

    (e) Instead of engaging your fellow Christian, Gary, you dismiss him with a snide comment and don’t explain your point:

    Of course its a bad argument, its also not my argument. But thanks for telling me my reasons then dismissing them.

    You make not effort to improve communication.

    I just thought I’d offer a mirror for you to see what you probably feel is excellent, faultless communication. You have much to offer, but an improvement in style would help. [And indeed, I am sure the same goes for me. For communication is TWO-ONE (not one-way).]

  25. Sabio

    I didn’t realize you find invites off your blog so offensive. I suppose I should take the same offense and remove all the links to your own you litter about my page.

    I apologize for not getting into an essay contest with your commenters while I am at work and through my phone. I thought I was clear that I would go into a little more detail after Christmas, but I suppose portraying me like this is more entertaining to your fans than taking being patient.

  26. @ John

    (1) If you supply a link to let someone read something pertinent on your blog, I consider that appropriate, but to invite to continue a discussion off the thread when the conversation is pertinent to the guest OP is probably another story. But maybe I am wrong. It just had an odd flavor (but maybe the flavor was biased because of your other comments). I’ll let others jump in on this. “Blogging Etiquette” is fuzzy, isn’t it?
    Actually, your reply to this point illustrates another rhetoric method you use: You take an extreme position in an almost pouting posture.

    (2) I wasn’t asking for an essay contest. I was suggesting that you avoid snide dismissals — being busy (like the rest of us aren’t) is no excuse for snide dismissals. If you are too busy to write a meaningful response, don’t write a snide one either.

    (3) “I suppose portraying me like this is more entertaining to your fans than taking being patient.” another rhetoric style: distraction on quibbling about non-crucial issues.

    Again, just hold up a mirror.

  27. Gary


    Very interesting discussion in these comments to say the least.

    One thing I have been avoiding as of late is getting into extensive debates over particular verses of scripture. I have seen so much “proof texting” by those who seem willing to base entire doctrines on a single verse or passage ripped out of context that I avoid quoting scripture as much as possible when making a point. I guess I do try to focus on Jesus words…but even there I find so much room for personal interpretation that making firm statements about what He meant by a particular statement to be troublesome at best. I may quote a verse, but usually it is to point out that a declared and rigid interpretation of scripture given by another may be open to alternate perspectives.

    What I try to do is look for themes in His behavior and messages. I believe the great command was His greatest truth and His interaction with others demonstrated it. My discussion with John was of course trying to make the point that believing one understands the mind of Christ is a bit naive.

    Though we got off to a bit of a rough start on David’s blog…grin…I have come to enjoy our discussions.

    I want to wish you a Merry Christmas Sabio. And I find it ironic that I know you will not be even the slightest bit offended by this. So many are offended by those who say it when they personally reject Him, and others are equally offended by those who don’t say it, as if it is a personal offense for them to be on a different journey. I just don’t see such taking offense as being one of the “themes” of Jesus. (Other than when He confronted those who took offense)

    So I’ll say it again…Merry Christmas…because the Joy and Love that is shared during this season of the year is open to all.

  28. @ Gary
    Thank you for the kind words. I must confess, I don’t remember getting off to a bad start on David Hayward’s blog (Naked Pastor) — but then I am an optimist and have a brain which fortunately forgets the negative much faster than the positive.🙂
    I indeed do return “Merry Christmas” to everyone who greets me like this. Likewise, when I lived in Japan, Pakistan, India and China, I celebrated local festivals with equal sympathetic and mutual joy. Heck, I even express joy when our local sports team wins though I care nothing about sports, nor align with any purchased teams!

    For as you said so well: “because the Joy and Love… is open to all.

  29. Earnest

    I have spontaneously decided that I am a Bodhisattva. And as such I will have every right, as a chimeric Buddho-Christian monstrosity, when I am dead, to wander right through the Pearly Gates and wave to St. Peter as I pass through.

    But what is this Heaven that we are all getting so bent out of shape about? How is Heaven any better than what I have around myself right now?

    Perhaps if Mr. Barron could show me a Heaven concept better than the here and now I could go down the road a bit further with him. But as it stands I find C S Lewis’ inclusivity more palatable. Perhaps my faith is just flabby and flaccid from too much easy living.

  30. Max

    Most concepts of heaven that I’ve seen are about as excruciatingly boring as the human mind can imagine. I wonder what heaven’s suicide rate is? Or maybe that is the true hell. An eternal boredom without the option of suicide.

  31. Earnest

    @ Max: well said.

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