Interfaith Dialogue and Salvation: Is There One Heaven in Our Future?

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Much of Interfaith Dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims rightly concerns those things they have in common. They do all claim to profess belief in the same one God. They all believe that this one God created all things, including human beings in His own likeness, and that there will be a Last Judgment for which all peoples will be held accountable for their beliefs and actions. The scope of this paper is to study how all three great Abrahamic religions understand salvation or life after death, the concept of heaven or paradise with the alternative concept of hell.

While it seems commendable, even civilized, for modern educated people to think that a belief in the same God should result in the belief that all peoples who believe in that God would find themselves in the same heaven, this has not been our history, nor is it the teaching of many believers in the God of Abraham today. While this should not be a cause for despair, it must be remembered that for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the concept of who can be saved and thus in heaven is a limiting and nuanced question. Not all Jews even believe that there is life after death and, for those who do, whether non-Jews are in paradise is often not part of the question. Christianity has struggled with the classic question, "Is there salvation outside the Church?", the famous dictum of Boniface VIII, taken from Cyprian of Carthage, "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus". (1) How non-Christians can be saved is a topic of great contemporary interest, for which there are various theological understandings. While Islam speaks with some respect for the "Peoples of the Book", how believers have been and are described in their writings would seem to leave Jews and Christians out of paradise. Our study will be to peruse both the history and the texts of these three religions in search of a clearer understanding of the question of salvation.

I will begin with Christianity since it is my faith and I speak as a committed Catholic priest and educator. The first statement that must be made is that for the early Church, the question of whether non-Christians, even Jews, would be saved and be part of the heaven to come, was a non question. (2)simply was beyond the scope of their concerns. It was not that they were unconcerned about those who had not heard the Word, they took the great commission to preach to all nations seriously (Matthew 28), or that judgment was not real, but that they believed that judgment was God's prerogative. The Christian would be judged on how they lived their life. God alone would deal with the others. Likewise, it was not that Christianity was unconcerned with the rest of the then known world. In fact, one of the most beautiful images of the Christian in the world comes from the famous second century letter to Diognetus which speaks of Christians being to the world as the soul is to the body. Justin writes of the Word as implanted in the whole human race. What was most helpful for the early Church was its understanding of Greek philosophy and how certain philosophical concepts could be used to explain Christian ideas, thus making them much more acceptable to a Greco-Roman world. While not all church leaders were as friendly to philosophy, it continues to be a major question, then as now; namely, whether the use of non-Christian concepts and terms can be helpful or harmful to Christian teachings as revealed in the Scriptures.

A second point reminds us that, while from the earliest days of the Church there were groups labeled as "heretical", Judaisers, Gnostics, etc., it was not until the Church began to evangelize peoples outside the confines of the Roman Empire, beginning with the Goths in the third century, that it became common practice to judge people who were not seen as orthodox Christians as worthy of damnation. This was followed by the growth of Christianity as the power of the post-Constantine Roman world, a power which grew in its judgment of Arian Christianity as heretical, as well as its judgment of Judaism as worthy of oppression. …