As I was reading the scripture for my sermon in church this evening, a dimension of the text jumped out at me that I hadn’t zeroed in before. The text is the parable of the workers in the vineyard: Matthew 20:1-16. If you’re unfamiliar, in this parable, Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as being like a landowner who hires a bunch of workers, some at 6 am, others at 9 am, and still others at noon, 3 pm, and 5 pm, and he pays them all the same amount. When the early birds get angry that the latecomers got the same wage, the landowner responds in this way:
‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Usually when this parable is read by evangelicals, it’s only allowed to have one meaning: people who say the sinner’s prayer, accept Jesus as Lord and savior, or “get saved,” in whatever other way you think that happens, can have this conversion experience on their deathbed or when they’re ten years old, and they’ll receive the same salvation. Since the parable describes the different responses to God in a temporal way, it makes some sense to map it allegorically onto time periods in life. A 6 am worker is like someone who becomes a Christian when you’re a kid while a 5 pm worker is like becoming a Christian at the end of your life. But this doesn’t really respect the meaning of the parable. There wasn’t just a difference in when the workers came to the vineyard; there was a difference in what they did as well because the 6 am worker really did a whole lot more work to get the denarius. If all it takes to get God’s denarius is say a 90 second sinner’s prayer and “mean it” with all your heart, etc (regardless of whether this response to God is the result of free will or predestination), then you’re doing the same “work” whether it happens when you’re 10 or 80, so it’s inadequate to make this parable entirely about differences in when you get saved and not also about how.
Is God allowed to give a denarius to people who don’t say the sinner’s prayer out loud but feel it in their hearts even if they never go to church? Or even more uncomfortably, is God allowed to give a denarius to Muslims who somehow “accept Jesus” even if they never officially convert to Christianity? What about people who never learn Jesus’ name but God chooses to elect them anyway? I’m not saying does God have to let them in, but is God allowed to if He wants to? Does He have your permission? Does God have the right to do what He wants with His own salvation?
Usually the self-proclaimed champions of “divine freedom” talk about how God has the right to burn most of humanity in hell even if it doesn’t make sense to us because God’s allowed to be God. In Francis Chan’s book Erasing Hell, he says, “I know you don’t want to believe in a God who sends people to hell forever, but could you?” I actually think it’s a lot harder to believe in a God who chooses to offer salvation to people I can’t stand who have hurt me and sinned against me.
I’m not sure you really believe in divine freedom if it’s not okay with you for God to let people into His eternal presence who don’t fit your formula for “exhibiting the fruits of regeneration” or “getting saved.” What if Osama Bin Laden were in heaven? Would you choose to spend eternity in the outer darkness over God’s heavenly banquet if he was? I’m absolutely not making any authoritative claims here. I don’t believe that Osama’s in heaven, but I don’t have the right to tell God what to do about Osama. There are people like him whose presence in heaven would make me angry with God. I think the real test of whether I consider salvation to be a gift (which is the only way to adequately receive it) is whether I could share heaven with people whom I consider to be completely evil and unworthy, not just people who accept Jesus when they’re 80 along with people who accept Him when they’re 10.
God is free to let in who God chooses, and that is a whole lot harder to swallow than to accept God’s freedom to burn billions of people I don’t know or care about even if I’m philosophically offended by it. I think it’s irresponsible to presume that God lets everybody in, and it also seems obliviously cavalier about the suffering of millions of people who have been the victims of hideous acts of wickedness over the history of humanity. As I’ve written elsewhere, God’s judgment makes a lot more sense when we recognize that He judges in solidarity with the victims of sin whom He loves. But does God have a right to do what He wants with His salvation? Or will we Hate him for His generosity enough to walk out the gates of heaven and never come back?