*Note: This is Letter #9 from A Journey with Two Mystics: Conversations between a Girardian and a Wasttian. In the following, I attempt to answer what it means for Jesus to be Lord.
Well, first off, this was a very politically charged statement during the first few centuries. Caesar, at least in the eyes of the Romans, was lord over everyone and everything. He established this through war and conquest, the world being his perpetual battlefield. After the resurrection of Jesus, though, a group of followers began declaring Jesus as Lord over all. And because Caesar’s reign was believed to be over all, this was quite a declaration, because all means all. Thus, Jesus’ lordship was over even Caesar himself.
So, with that proper historical context in mind, allow me to point to what the Apostle Paul had to say about the phrase “Jesus is Lord.”
On two separate occasions, namely Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:10, Paul writes that all will declare “Jesus is Lord.” Furthermore, they will do so while bowing their knees to Christ as well. No Christian denies this. Of course, they would then go on to say that those who bow and confess last (i.e., unbelievers who die without first saying the magic phrase), will do so as if defeated soldiers on a battlefield. Or, one could say, they will bow and confess in the same way people bowed and confessed to Caesar. But that is the gospel according to Caesar, not of our Lord Jesus Christ. This eisegesis (or, reading into) the text is, in my humble opinion, tragic.
Now, because I don’t buy the stock line that some will bow and confess in an act of reluctance, like those who bow to petty tyrants, I will offer what I believe is the real reason for the universality of humanity’s confession.
What we must first realize is that as Lord, Jesus is the only rightful judge of the living and the dead (1 Timothy 4:2). And the reason that is, is because of what happened on the cross. To put it plainly, he earned it. So, we can never separate who the risen Christ is from who the first-century Jesus of Nazareth was. In terms of character, there is no difference before and after death. We see this most notably when comparing the dying Jesus in Luke 23:34 and the risen Christ in John 20:19–23. Peace and forgiveness pervades in both places.
With Jesus, then, as our most merciful judge, how should we approach Paul’s declaration that all will bow and confess Jesus as Lord? Well, Paul himself informs us how, and does so in two ways. First, in Romans 14:11, he uses the Greek verb exomologeó, which not only means “to confess,” but also “to give praise.” In fact, in the NRSV, the text reads: “Every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” Thus, when all confess that “Jesus is Lord,” according to Paul, they will be doing so with a grateful heart. They will be praising God! And why wouldn’t they? After all, an all-merciful judge is a good thing, is it not? I hardly think they will praise God and then, in spite of this, be roasted for time-everlasting, or annihilated altogether, like many believe. I mean, are we talking about Jesus’ Abba or the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl here?
I think this parallels with what you said in the previous letter, when you stated: “I am fully open to the idea of Jesus—or perhaps, this Cosmic Christ—working with me, in some mysterious way, to defeat sin.” In the same way, the Holy Spirit will work with everyone, in some mysterious way, until they give praise to God and declare Jesus as Lord. But this won’t be some “coerced” acknowledgement, as it will be the Christ in us (John 1:1–5)—or, in other words, our true identity—that freely chooses God in the end. At least, I see Paul as being convinced of such.
So, when it is all said and done, whether you are correct or incorrect when you say that we don’t have to believe in Jesus to be saved, I have to think all will be safe in the end. And by the way, I do think you are apt in your assessment of things. For, I must ask: what must “non-believers” such as Gandhi, or Rumi, for instance, be saved from? Surely, not the Father of Jesus! Are they also not included in Christ’s redeeming work on the cross? Well, if I am, they are. Or, to put it like Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once did: “If others are going to hell, then I am going with them. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that we will all be saved.”
 Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, 557.