This is the fifth post in a series on heaven, hell and the relentless love of God.
It’s hard for many of us to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the doctrine that he would condemn millions of people to eternal torment in hell.
Mind you, we also want justice. God should hold Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot accountable. That goes for unrepentant rapists and murderers, too.
But do you have to believe in Jesus to avoid eternal punishment?
I mean, what about good people like Gandhi? He was a Hindu.
Weren’t there non-Christian children who died in the earthquake and tsunami in Japan? Do they spend eternity devoured by flames because they grew up being taught the wrong religious beliefs?
Let me just start by saying that these questions are a dodge, or at the very least they lead us in the wrong direction for understanding God’s mercy and God’s judgment.
Do you remember that Jesus told us not to judge?
We’re quick to interpret his teaching to mean that we should be accepting of others. It’s the default setting of our era to equate judgment with a fear of or repulsion from difference just because it’s different. Judgment, for us, has become a synonym for narrow-mindedness and ignorance.
Well, that’s not at all what Jesus was getting at.
Instead, Jesus was calling us to live within the limits of our moral judgments. God has given us the capacity to judge specific actions in a very limited way:
- We can see that an action adheres to or transgresses against the moral law.
- It is more difficult, but we can begin to make out patterns of behavior that suggest the outlines of someone’s enduring character.
- With less clarity we can discern extenuating circumstances.
- Standing on even shakier ground, we can speculate about motives and intentions.
When Jesus teaches us to withhold judgment, he’s reminding us that we don’t know as much as we are tempted to believe we know.
Our original sin was to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In other words, we frequently slip into assuming greater moral authority and spiritual insight into other people than we can genuinely have. Only God has infinite, flawless judgment and insight.
To put it simply, it’s not our place in life to determine whether a person is hell-bound. Conversely, our powers of moral and spiritual discernment are not great enough to determine who should go to heaven.
People have done bad things. People have done good things.
We may loathe some people and wish to spend eternity somewhere far distant from them. Our affections for other people may lead us to yearn to be with them forever.
None of this amounts to being able to say with any justification who has chosen hell and who has surrendered to heaven.
We peek at the infinite expanse of the spiritual world through a keyhole. At best we catch but a partial perspective.
We cannot see where someone’s choices will lead them, how God will use even the smallest opportunities to intervene, the turning points in their future, or the hidden thoughts of their heart. Only God can.
We are not privy to Christ’s approaches to people in their twilight consciousness on the threshold of this life and the next life. But I’ve been at enough deathbeds to believe that mysterious things happen there.
This is all to say that the question about Jesus and salvation should be asked first and foremost about myself. Can I trust Jesus with my eternal destiny? Once I answer yes, I see that I can entrust him with the eternal destiny of others.
In an earlier post I told the story of my daughter Meredith’s open-heart surgery. The possibility that she might die sucked my wife Joy and me into a kind of emotional quicksand. The turning point for me was the realization that if I could trust Jesus with my life, I could trust him with her life.
Let me be clear about this insight.
I did not assume that my faith would prevent Meredith from dying on the operating table. Instead, I realized that his love for her—like his love for me—is stronger than death itself. Jesus does not promise to save us from heartbreak. His resurrection promises that life will come even from death, joy from sorrow.
So, what about Gandhi and those people who die in ignorance of Christ? What about those who can’t believe because of abusive Evangelical parents or predatory Catholic priests?
I don’t know. But I know Jesus, and I trust him.
I know that some readers will say, “Well, how can I trust someone who would condemn these good, innocent people?” My response is that this question will lead you to a dead end. It helps you to delay the basic question.
As it turns, Jesus asks the basic question: Will you trust me? He reaches his hand out to each and every one of us in some way. Each of us can take his hand or refuse to take it.
And we can be assured that he reaches his had out as far, and as persistently, as he can. In ways that baffle, astound and maybe even scandalize us.
Still feeling unsettled? How does Jesus save? From what? For what? Who is Jesus anyway and why do I need saving in the first place? What’s heaven like? That’s for the next post.