Photo Credit: flickr/andhong09. Usage does not represent endorsement by the photographer.
Christian pastor Rob Bell just released a harmless video promoting his upcoming book. In that short clip, he simply asked the question: are we really sure about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to heaven and hell? The neo-reformed Christians didn’t enjoy the video one bit. Now an important dispute has reignited over the theology (and application) of God’s judgment and hell.
As an evangelical Christian, I believe that it was accurately recorded, and literally true, when Jesus said He is the only way to God, and if true, that it cannot be just a keepsake or a bit of trivia; it must be the highest truth in all of human history. Jesus didn’t stop there. He was a scandalous guy, after all. And he spoke at great length about judgment, repentance, hell, the wide path and a more narrow route that his followers will take, and provoked the religious and political know-it-alls who were certain of their traditions, rules and beliefs. He broke religious law for the sake of compassion. Jesus went further, and challenged our desires, by flipping conventional wisdom on its head over and over again. The greatest threat, he argued, is not outside of us, but rather what’s on the inside. We will have to die to ourselves in order to really live. The least will be the greatest. To lead is to surrender. That kind of stuff. As a result, some walked away disappointed, some doubted, some conspired and some wanted him dead. It was troubling then, and it’s troubling now, because humans are self-centered and comfortable creatures, and we seek to preserve that which comes naturally to us, sometimes at horrific costs.
You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him a replica of yourselves, double-damned…You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment- the absolute basics!- you carelessly take it or leave it.”- Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 23 (The Message translation)
Jesus was also generous. He opened his arms to the “least of these,” hung out with the “bad” crowd, and spoke of God’s love for ALL of the world. He held a special place of honor for the poor and outcast. He healed, he fed, he conversed, and he loved through his ultimate demonstration of brokenness and sacrifice on the cross. In his generosity, he told us that he stands at the door of our hearts knocking, and that we need only answer. He won’t barge in and take our lives by force. He is patient with us, even while carrying an urgent message. That must be hard to do.
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Photo Credit: bisbohemian. Usage does not represent endorsement by the photographer.
Christians tend to fall into theological and political camps, and bend the ideas of Jesus, God, judgment, heaven and hell around preexisting worldviews. The temptation for the progressive end of the church is to cling to the generous aspects of Jesus while minimizing the scandalous, and that temptation for the conservative end of the church is to cling to the scandalous aspects of Jesus while dismissing the generous. As Christians, with all of our varying beliefs, we have to live in the tension, and remember that Jesus was both scandalous and generous.
The most profound thing I’ve ever read outside of the Bible related to heaven, hell and judgment can be found in quotes by C.S. Lewis (from his book Mere Christianity, if I remember correctly). He wrote: “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” and “Though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life.”
I resent the idea that Christians know God while those in other religions don’t. I resent it because I believe that God is by definition bigger than the expectations we have for Him. Notice I’m not saying all other religions are automatically worthwhile, or free of danger. But is it possible that others can know Jesus while not knowing his name? Can’t they live for him and receive him, know him and be known by him, without taking our version of the proper steps? Are we so sure God’s grace isn’t that generous? Perhaps a person rejects Jesus verbally, because the version they’ve been told about is a false one, but they receive Jesus in their life and respond in their actions. Is it possible that such a scenario is more acceptable to God than the person who receives Jesus verbally while accomplishing all of the churchy stuff, but does so because of selfish reasons like fear or pride? It is ironic that many of the very Christians who preach that God will do as he wants are also the fastest to determine who he accepts and rejects. Is God just a dull-minded doorman, waiting to be duped or paid off by our formalities and processes?
What I am describing is not universalism. Nor am I going soft on doctrine, theology or The Bible. What I and many others are arguing maintains that God is righteous and that God will judge. But it also is a belief that the human experience and the human heart are far more complicated than we can know, and that’s why judgment should be left in God’s hands. I would rather land on the generous side of God’s grace than share a version of it that disgraces His reach and His perfect love.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” -1 Corinthians 5:12
So I don’t know who’s in or who’s out because I’m leaving that up to God. I refuse to be a gatekeeper trying to regulate God’s wild grace. God can decide what constitutes “receiving,” and what “belief” really truly looks like. His spirit will surely reach souls outside of our comfort zone, whether we give Him approval to do so or not.
If you are interested, here’s a link to the best sermon I’ve ever heard on hell, by pastor Tim Keller. He addresses the misconception that God “sends” people to hell, and argues Biblically that, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “hell’s doors are locked from the inside.” Those who find hell wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else. Backup link right here.