John 14:1-6 (New Living Translation)
“Don't be troubled. You trust God, now trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father's home, and I am going to prepare a place for you. If this were not so, I would tell you plainly. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know where I am going and how to get there.”
“No, we don't know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We haven't any idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”
I came across an interesting survey recently done by Beliefnet.com. According to the survey of 10,000 on line members:
“Conservatives are more confident than liberals that they'll avoid hell--and that they know someone who won't. Liberals are less confident about their own chances of escaping hell and less sure they can identify the damned.”
The survey went on to note that the primary line of demarcation was the ages old debate over faith versus works:
“For instance, 60% of born-again Christians (almost all of them Protestants) said the unfortunates were going to hell because they didn't have the “right beliefs,” compared to just 19% of Catholics who said that. Eighty percent of Catholics said it was because of the person's immoral actions, compared to 40% of born-agains. The same split persisted politically: liberals said damnation was determined by bad behavior; conservatives, by a smaller majority, thought beliefs mattered most.”
So, just who does get to go to heaven in the end? Will our good works get us there? Or will our belief?
A year or so I was at a civic meeting and a friend, noting that I was a member of a Pentecostal church (Foursquare), said that she was a Christian. I expressed my happiness for her. She followed on by saying that while Jesus was her way to heaven, He wasn’t everyone’s. “Jesus is my way, He just isn’t everyone’s.” I then told her that I did not believe that she was a Christian. She, quite naturally, became offended. “What do you mean by that? I just told you I was.” I reminded her that she also had said that Jesus was only one of the ways to heaven and explained to her that the statement flew in the face of what Jesus had to say about Himself, what His disciples believed about Him, and what the Christian Church has historically believed. Then I asked the crucial question. “Do you believe that you’ll make it to heaven when you pass from this life to the next? “I think so,” she said. “Well, it depends.” “On what?” I asked.
“Whether or not I’ve done enough good work to merit heaven.”
I once again reminded her that her thinking was not Christian thinking. And, once again she became offended.
Our conversation ended when I told her that she didn’t need to take offense. Christians interact with all sorts of people with all sorts of beliefs. We interact with Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Humanists, Agnostics, Atheists, and folks with other belief systems as well. While I try to listen to them and understand them, I don’t assume that their belief system is Christian. We read philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Sartre, Nietzche, Hume, and Bertrand Russell. While we find often find their work interesting, we do not find it Christian. These are not statements of offense; they are statements of fact.
Does one’s belief system matter? Absolutely.
Years before my encounter at the civic club a work associate complained to me that the Catholic church was being unreasonable with her. “How so?” I asked. “They’re telling me that in order to be a Catholic in good standing I need to believe certain things.”
“That Jesus was the Son of God?”
“You don’t believe that?”
“Well, this is really easy. Just don’t become a member of the Catholic Church.”
“But I want to become a Catholic in order to make the man I’m going to marry happy.”
Our conversation ended cordially enough, but I never could get her past the point of seeing that the Roman Catholic Church had every right, indeed an obligation, to expect its members to believe certain things. It seemed to me then, as it does now, an eminently reasonable position.
I suppose that in polite conversation the easiest route to take when situations like this come up is to do the “friendly thing.” We’ll all make it in the end. Right? After all, why make social interaction uncomfortable? The problem with that point of view, from a Christian perspective, is that it skirts the real issue. Jesus said things about life and about Himself that do make us feel uncomfortable. I often read the Sermon on the Mount and sometimes it makes me feel very uncomfortable. As I once heard, “The Sermon on the Mount is one of those places where the comfortable are afflicted and the afflicted receive comfort.”
Jesus said that He was indeed the Son of God. And, Jesus also said that He was The way to heaven, not one among many. While it may seem comfortable or fashionable to incorporate any believe system into the Christian umbrella, it won’t work. As C.S. Lewis once observed, “Jesus either was who He said He was or he was a poached egg.” Those are the choices we have – belief or unbelief. There is no neutral ground.
A couple of days ago I wrote about Christian belief, highlighting the Nicene creed. I did so because I believe that belief is critical to this question of heaven or hell. What we believe does matter. As J. Gresham Machen observed in 1923:
“From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name “gospel” or “good news” implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened. And from the beginning, the meaning of the happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine. “Christ died” – that is history; “Christ died for our sins” – that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.” (See I Corinthians 15:3-7)
I believe in Jesus as He is revealed in Holy Writ, and I believe in Him as He is revealed to us in the doctrines and creeds of the Church. I believe He is the only way to heaven. One day I’ll shed my mortal coil. When that time comes I’m not going to trust my eternal fate to my own goodness, intellect, or wiliness. I determined long ago that if left to my own devices, even at my very best, I would never make it past the pearly gates. Like everyone else I will one day stand before the Supreme Judge of the Universe. When I’m called before that bar of justice I know I’ll need an advocate and I have no intention of representing myself. That’s why I am supremely confident that I will make it to heaven.
How about you?
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J Gresham Machen