Some of the fastest growing churches in the country have statements of faith that make it clear that believing in Jesus is the only way to avoid eternal punishment in Hell. The general tenor of these statements of faith leave little room for ambiguity. Although they may pay lip service to God’s unfathomable, mysterious nature, there is nothing ambiguous about their core convictions.
With all due respect to my brothers and sisters in these churches, I must say that I find such certainty—let alone the view that all non-believers are consigned to Hell—extraordinarily unhelpful.
First, there is the message it sends to non-Christians. How must this make 1.5 billion Muslims feel? What about Jews who have suffered for centuries at the hands of arrogant Christians? Won’t our attempts to build bridges of mutual respect and love with other faith traditions sound awfully hollow if they know we believe they are condemned for all eternity?
Secondly, there is the message it sends to Christians. As the New Testament evidence makes abundantly clear, Jesus was first and foremost concerned about making life on earth a little more heavenly. Eternal life in the Gospel of John is primarily about life here and now that has an enduring quality. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” This abundant life is what we experience when we love God and one another. Following Jesus is not about our reward after we die. It is about participating in God’s life here and now, and through that participation trusting that God’s life in us is stronger than death.
Thirdly, and perhaps most troubling, is the certainty itself with such claims about God are made. I obviously find this view of God too narrow and parochial, which is only compounded by the certainty with which it is stated. Is such a view really that obvious? Where in this view is the God of the Bible who refuses to be defined by our limited categories? Where in this view is the God of the Bible who is like the uncontrollable wind? Where in this view is the God of the Bible who works through non-believers like Cyrus? Where in this view is the God of Jesus who kept expanding the table to include everyone? At the end of the day, where is the God whose ways are always broader and more inclusive than we assume?
I am reminded of Mrs. Turpin, the proper southern lady in Flannery O’Connor’s story Revelation, who spent a lot of time evaluating people and putting them in proper order. In her dream about heaven, she was surprised to discover that there wasn’t anything “proper” about the procession into heaven. Leading the pack were “whole companies of white trash…bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics.” It was only at the end of the procession that she and the proper folk have a place. Furthermore, those at the end were shocked to discover that even “their virtues were being burned away.”
O’Connor points to the God whose ways are not our ways. Here is the God who turns things upside down. Here is the Kingdom where the first are last and the last are first. O’Connor’s story is a reminder that when it comes to making claims about God’s ways in the world, we all need a good dose of humility.