This is the sixth and final post in a series on heaven, hell, and the relentless love of God.
Do you have to believe in Jesus Christ to go to heaven?
To frame this in a slightly different way, will those who die without faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior inherit eternal torment in hell?
Let’s recap some of what I’ve suggested in the previous posts in this series before leaping into the answer:
God created us to love him and to love one another. By design we yearn for eternal life with God and his children.
God loves us first. We respond.
God wants what is best for us: eternal life with him and his children.
Love requires freedom. We can freely accept God’s love or reject it. We can surrender to heaven or choose hell.
We develop spiritual habits of accepting or rejecting God’s love in our everyday life. The habits we develop have an eternal trajectory. They give us a foretaste of heaven or hell.
Even when we choose hell in our daily lives, God keeps reaching out to us in his Son Jesus Christ.
In the end, God loves us enough to give us what we want, even if it breaks his heart. He knows when our rejection of him is final.
This all may seem to tip my hand, but I ask that you hold off drawing your conclusion about Jesus’ role in salvation until we hear from Jesus himself.
These are very familiar passages to many of us:
When talking to Nicodemus Jesus says, “indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
And then he goes on to say, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16-17)
Just before his Passion Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14: 6-7)
Jesus came to save us. Not to condemn us.
There are many who believe in God who find this claim completely incomprehensible. Of course God doesn’t condemn us, they say. He’s good. He’s loving. Love never judges.
Besides, they continue, most people are good and good people deserve to go to heaven. Nobody’s perfect, but they’re good enough!
As you might imagine, this common set of theological assumptions has a name: Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD).
My Facebook friend Matt Kennedy told me that Christian Smith coined this phrase in “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” and Matt shared this summary from the web:
A god exists who created the world and watches over human life on earth. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by other religions. The goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. God does not need to be involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Here’s what’s missing from MTD. We are broken in ways that we cannot fix for ourselves and that make us unfit for heaven. If we lived for eternity just as we are we would make a hell of it.
Rape, war, murder, racism, lust, greed, hunger, torture, poverty, envious rage, and soul-numbing indifference would come right along with us into the afterlife.
Heaven would not be worth the price of admission if it were merely more of the same forever. Eternal misery and conflict sound much more like hell. And, indeed, that is just what it is.
God did not send his Son Jesus to assess our acceptability to God. Jesus does not administer admissions tests to see if we’ve been good enough to get into heaven. He does not come to condemn.
Jesus comes to save us. From ourselves. For a life we cannot construct for ourselves.
Jesus is not just a great teacher or political instigator or moral example. He is God. He is a man. Not a little bit of God or a little bit of man. He is fully God. Fully man.
Think of Jesus as God reaching out his hand to us in a way that makes it possible for us to actually take hold of it.
Much could and should be said about the atoning sacrifice of the Cross, Jesus’ victory over Satan and death at the empty tomb, and his Second Coming. But those thoughts must wait for different posts in some future series.
For now, let it suffice to say that Jesus is God’s love incarnate. Accepting or rejecting him is accepting or rejecting God’s love. And only that love saves us.
So, what becomes of those good people from different faith traditions? Especially the ones we love so much?
We all know people wounded by the Church who experience Jesus-talk as toxic and hypocritical. Who can blame a person abused sexually by a Catholic priest or mortally shamed by a Protestant preacher for rejecting Christianity? Are they just condemned to hell?
The Savior who has reached out his hand to me did so in a way that I could recognize despite my own history of hurt and betrayal, through the curtain of my cynicism, defensiveness, and fear.
He made himself known to me despite my unenviable habits and my shabby choices, my once fawning devotion to what passes for intellectual sophistication and my arrogance.
Jesus issued an invitation to me. For years, I could not see it for what it was.
He kept at it until it became a clear, recognizable invitation to me. He was clear all along. I was the problem.
Because of who he is, he has gone to remarkable lengths to get through to me. I could have turned his invitation down even once I knew it for what it is.
Accepting that invitation has changed everything. Over time. And according to that invitation there’s much more to come.
I have every reason to believe that he does the same for everyone. He finds a way to issue his invitation for what it really is: the saving love of God himself.