We’ve been having a very stimulating conversation at our confirmation retreat that has completely derailed from my plans, but as I learned at the Missio Alliance, the Holy Spirit is a spirit of disruption. I’ve been so grateful that these kids have been bold with their questions because my presentation felt very flat and boring. And then they made me squirm by asking about people from other religions. Do they go to heaven too? Don’t we all just have different names for the same God? Oh boy…
The reason that I frame the confirmation retreat the way I do as a story of climbing out of the sea of wrath onto God’s island of mercy is to present salvation in a way that seems to me both more Biblically faithful and more credible to the sensibilities of kids in this generation than the individualized “getting saved” account of evangelicalism’s conversion industrial complex in which salvation is God checking the yes box in response to a display of “faith” (which definitively becomes a work by being something God evaluates).
I believe that hell is the eternal isolation of trying to justify ourselves like Adam and Eve did when they first got caught (“This woman you gave me handed me that fruit…” “I was just doing what the serpent told me…” etc). Self-justification is basically the default religion of humanity. It’s a lifestyle of CYA (cover your “actions”), which is what we naturally do when we haven’t been given the safety to confess our sins. We are saved from the eternal isolation of self-justification when we trust in the justification of Jesus’ cross and thus receive the basis for being reconciled into communion with God and one another. Salvation is our incorporation into the body of Christ, which starts the moment we climb out of the sea of wrath onto the island of mercy and continues through the sanctification process that conforms us into the image of Christ and absorbs us into God’s holiness.
Can people who don’t know Christ by name find their way onto his island of mercy accidentally? I say yes, because I interpret John 14:6 not to preclude the possibility that Jesus’ way, truth, and life can be stumbled upon, but the problem is just that: it’s something you might stumble upon like a path in the woods at night, but you have no assurance of finding it. Jesus says in John that he is the light and people without him are walking around in the dark. That’s the way I view the advantage of knowing Jesus and what he’s done for us explicitly versus discovering the mercy that allows us to live in truth and love accidentally. It’s like walking through a dense forest at night with a flashlight versus doing so in complete darkness.
So here’s where I went in answering the kids’ question about whether other religions are all worshiping the same God. I don’t think as some evangelicals do that Allah and Buddha and whoever else are demons sent by Satan who have created religions that are completely void of truth for the sole purpose of ensnaring billions of people into hell. Many true things about God can be and have been discovered in our world outside of Christianity. Paul stakes his claims in Romans 1 on this very basis.
So I told the kids that God is like the star quarterback of the high school football team. Everyone thinks they know him and will try to tell you all kinds of partly true stories about him based on hearsay and brief encounters in the hallway. But very few people really know him. Maybe he has an older brother in jail. Maybe his mom is an alcoholic. Only his real friends know that side of him. Obviously the metaphor is imperfect. But the point is that even if Allah is another name for the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I believe as a Christian that the way God is revealed through the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the only completely true story about Him. I don’t believe that Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or any other religion provides the adequate means of reconciliation that we need to enjoy eternity in the presence of God’s perfect truth and holiness.
So the question of the life after life is this. Do we know God well enough that spending forever at his party would be heaven to us? Or would it be hell? When I was in my third year of college, I fell into severe depression. I was actually a student leader at UVA so I had a lot of acquaintances and collaborators on projects, but very few true friends. I went to a lot of parties of other students whom I knew publicly and superficially. I would stand by the food table and eat, hating myself the whole time. As I reflected on those parties where I was absolutely miserable, I thought that must be what hell is: to be trapped in a party forever with people you don’t want to be with. And I really think that standing in God’s presence without having known Him through Christ would be like being stuck at a party where you don’t want to be.
I realize the metaphor is imperfect because a party is still a party; I don’t mean to trivialize a serious matter. The Eastern Orthodox say that God’s all-consuming fire is a lake of torture to some and absolute euphoria to others. That’s basically what I believe. Is Gandhi experiencing heaven or hell in God’s presence? I’m not going to answer that question absolutely, though everything I’ve heard about Gandhi suggests to me that his spirit was justified and sanctified in a similar way to the grace that saves us from ourselves as Christians.
I do know this much: if we entrust our lives to Jesus and grow into his body, then we’re going to a party forever that will be absolutely awesome where we will feel perfectly welcome and loved. I don’t think the Bible is as crystal clear as many evangelicals think (based on a misinterpretation of Romans 3) about heaven’s boundaries. I do feel like we should expect and trust God to protect people under His mercy from their unrepentant oppressors; that is absolutely a promise that He makes in scripture. All will be held accountable for everything we have done in some form, sinners prayer or not. The amnesty of Romans 8 doesn’t cancel out the final judgment in Romans 2; it rather explains how we survive standing before the One who sees our darkest secrets. But whatever else is true, we can be confident of finding our way to heaven through Christ and shouldn’t settle for anything less.