Sincere people worship God in so many different ways. Does a loving God look at all these paths as equal? If not, what does He have in mind?
It was a "get to know you" visit with my new doctor, and since I work for a church, the conversation touched on religion. The doctor didn't know much about the United Church of God, so he asked several questions trying to understand where it fit in the panorama of Christian religions.
He mentioned that as a Jew, married to a Catholic, he is fascinated by all the competing flavors of Christian churches, each with different nuances, as he sees it, of doctrine. "Yet they all think theirs is the way that leads to heaven, and everyone else goes to hell," he said. He said that's much different from what he is used to. In his synagogue people have lots of different opinions, but they all get along and meet together.
Today many Jews, and actually many Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas and lots of other people, believe that God is not exclusive -- that there are many paths to God. This "enlightened" view seems to be the culmination of man's quest for tolerance and true brotherhood, after millennia of hatred, bigotry, pogroms, forced conversions and inquisitions.
God certainly doesn't want hatred and bigotry. But is it possible the "many-paths-to-God" approach is not exactly what God wants -- that He has a plan that is even better?
Are there many paths to God? Those who believe in and study the Holy Bible run across many scriptures that seem to clearly say no. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus talks about the narrow gate, and says that only a few find it. Verses 15 and 16 identify false prophets who lead people into religious beliefs with bad fruits. God doesn't seem to be calling everyone to His way now (John 6:44). Acts 4:12 goes so far as to say about Jesus Christ, "For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."
But millions, even billions, throughout history have not heard Jesus' name or understood His message. Would our loving, merciful God allow so many to miss out on the promise of salvation? The Bible tells us that God does not play favorites (Acts 10:34-35) and "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). Many Christians struggle to understand how that loving fairness will be applied to the billions throughout history who have not professed the name of Christ.
An answer to the dilemma
How will people from so many different paths all have a chance? Studying the "feasts of the Lord" (Leviticus 23) and how Christ and the apostles discussed them gives a fascinating insight into how God plans to offer salvation to people of all paths -- animists, atheists, Buddhists, nominal Christians -- everyone!
Many Christians are unaware of the deep meaning conveyed by the Holy Days of the Bible. But a number of passages in the Old and New Testaments explain the steps in God's plan of salvation in relation to these celebrations that Christ and the New Testament Church continued to keep. Consider this brief summary.
The first festival in the spring is the Passover, which Paul explained represented Jesus Christ's sacrifice: "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5:7). This awesome gift makes salvation possible -- it makes it possible for sinful man to be forgiven and enter a relationship with God.
The second festival, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, continues to explain the process of conversion, as those who are called respond to Christ's merciful sacrifice by repenting and seeking to get rid of the sin, represented in many places in the New Testament as leaven. Paul discusses how sin acts like leaven in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. "Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (verse 8). Also, as the Israelites came out of Egypt during the Days of Unleavened Bread, Paul compares crossing the Red Sea with baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
Pentecost plays a major role in the New Testament as the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit, starting His Church (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit makes possible the miracle of writing God's laws on the minds and hearts of those who accept Christ's sacrifice, repent and are baptized (Hebrews 8:10).
A future hope
These first three festivals show the way being opened for salvation and the Church age beginning. The next four festivals summarize the prophesied events that will make it possible for all to have a chance for salvation. They demonstrate Peter's statement: "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
The Feast of Trumpets is an annual reminder of the promise that Christ will return to establish God's Kingdom at the sound of the last, the seventh, trumpet spoken of by the apostles John and Paul (Revelation 11:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52).
By comparing the sacrificial rituals of the Day of Atonement with prophesied events, many Bible students relate that day with the putting away of the instigator of sin, Satan, who has played a major role in separating man from God (Leviticus 16:21-22; Revelation 20:1-3). Also, this Holy Day again reminds us of the necessity of Christ's sacrifice for humans to be at one with God.
The prophecy of Revelation 20 continues with the peaceful 1,000-year rule of Christ and the saints (Revelation 20:4) portrayed by the harvest festival of Tabernacles. All those living during this time will have the opportunity to come and learn of God, and not learn war any more (Zechariah 14:16-19; Isaiah 2:1-4).
But what about all who have ever lived in the past who haven't had the opportunity for salvation? The last Holy Day provides an annual reminder of God's incredible love. Continuing in the prophetic summary of Revelation 20: "But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished" (verse 5, also see verses 11-12).
This resurrection and period of judgment is also talked about in Ezekiel 37, where God says "I will put My Spirit in you" (verse 14). So those who are resurrected will have their chance to repent, accept Christ's sacrifice and receive the Holy Spirit. No matter what path they had been on in this life, all will have the opportunity to experience the joys of God's path. Christ talked about the people of Sidon and Tyre, Ninevah and even Sodom having their chance in this period of judgment (Matthew 11:21-24, 12:41-42). All people of all times and all walks of life will have the chance to experience the truth, peace and fulfillment of following God's way.
This is a big subject, and this whirlwind tour can't do it justice. If you would like to explore this more in your Bible and learn more about God's merciful plan for everyone, click here to request a copy of the 62-page educational booklet, God's Holy Day Plan: Promise of Hope for All Mankind. It's available free of charge in the public interest.