Q: A member of my family believes that people that do not believe in Jesus as our lord and savior will be denied eternal life and final salvation. I do not agree with this way of thinking since I was raised to respect other religions, choosing instead to accept and respect people who do not share my beliefs. We can't judge others for what they choose to believe. How do I construct a respectful answer based in love? — From M
A: I have never answered this question before now. The reason for this is that Father Tom Hartman and I never talked about it. We tried to avoid talking about beliefs that could divide us and we focused instead on beliefs that united us. Our motto was: "We know enough about how we are different and not enough yet about how we are all the same." But time has passed and Tommy is gone and your question is the most difficult obstacle to interfaith dialogue I know. Still, I would not have taken up your question except for your last line which was so kind and so sincere, "How do I construct a respectful answer based in love?" Let me try to help you.
The mountain we must climb is John 14:6: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."
We read the same message in Acts 4:12, "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved."
This is a very clear and very hard text from the Christian Testament. It is a hard text for both Christians and non-Christians. Your question shows how it is hard for Christians. You want to affirm your Christian beliefs, but you also want to show respect for followers of other faiths. And obviously the text in John 14 is difficult for non-Christians because it clearly denies heaven and salvation to all those who have other ways, other truths, and other lives.
Particularly difficult is that John 14:6 seems to exclude from heaven and salvation moral and spiritual giants like Gandhi, who was a Hindu. It is just not spiritually reasonable to imagine that Gandhi and other non-Christian saints would be barred from heaven while morally flawed professing Christians are let through the pearly gates. It seems foolish and cruel. The John text also contrasts with the specific beliefs of other faiths like Judaism and Hinduism. To quote the Jewish text, "The righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come."
There are several approaches to John.
The first is the belief in "anonymous" Christians. This was developed by Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit theologian, who was influenced by a Catholic doctrine of the second Vatican council called lumen gentium, which teaches that those "who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation." Rahner called these righteous non-Christians anonymous Christians. Another way to salve the sting of John 14:6 is to quote the first part of the verse, "In my Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2). Many mansions means many ways to God.
The Christian Testament has passages that offer a much more accepting view of the Jewish covenant with God particularly in the writings of Paul. We read in I Corinthians 12:4-7, "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal."
The main point here in my view is that the God worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the same God with the same love and the same salvation. Until we work things out in heaven, that foundational truth ought to be enough for us to make our journey to God together in love and hope.