This post first appeared in slightly different form in April of 2004. Since then, the blog post I was commenting on has disappeared, and I’m now Catholic rather than being a rather evangelical Episcopalian. The main point, however, remains.
Lynn Sislo (the link has decayed) comments on an article about a young preacher who has been charged with heresy by his denomination. It seems that the preacher has been teaching that non-Christians might still be able to go to heaven; the denomination’s position is that that’s false doctrine and that he ought not be teaching it.
I don’t intend to speak to which of the parties is correct. Nor do I intend to speak to Lynn’s contention that if the preacher is really called by God that he has no reason to care what the denomination says (though I could say a few words about human frailty, as well as the fact that if God called the preacher, he equally called the preacher’s superiors). Nor will I go into the various means the Church has used over the last 2000 years to determine the truth of various doctrines.
No, what I want to talk about is an interesting contention of Lynn’s. She says this about the article:
I like this part:
…said the Joint College in a statement March 29. Despite “repeated, compassionate and loving overtures,” it added, Bishop Pearson refused to quit preaching that doctrine.
“Compassionate and loving overtures” to force a preacher to stop preaching according to his beliefs, which are more compassionate than the official version.
It’s that phrase, “more compassionate than the official version.” What Lynn is saying, clearly, is that it’s more compassionate to say that non-Christians can go to heaven than it is to say that they can’t. And I’m trying to understand the logic here, because it purely doesn’t make sense. Where does compassion come into this?
It’s not as though the preacher’s contention that non-Christians can be admitted to heaven actually admits them to heaven, or that the denomination’s contention that they can’t be actually bars them from heaven.
Either there’s a heaven, or there isn’t. If there isn’t, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans what either the preacher or his denomination says. If there is a heaven, as Christian doctrine teaches, then either non-Christians can be admitted or they can’t. This young preacher is either right or wrong. But whether he is right or wrong has no bearing on whether God admits non-Christians to heaven or not. So in what sense can he be held to be compassionate? Compassion that doesn’t lead to acts of mercy is just a cheap feeling.
Now, on the other hand, let’s suppose for a moment that there is a real heaven, and a real hell, eternal joy on one side, eternal torment on the other. And let’s suppose for a moment that Christians go to heaven and non-Christians don’t. I don’t care for the moment whether you believe this or not—just, for the sake of argument, suppose that it’s true. Let’s think about the implications.
The preacher is saying, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or not, you can still go to heaven and have eternal bliss.”
His denomination is saying, “That’s not true. If you’re not a Christian, you’re subject to eternal damnation.”
Now remember, we’re assuming, for the moment, that his denomination is correct. In that light, which of the two is the more compassionate? Is it more compassionate to tell people what they want to hear, and make them feel good, at the possible cost of eternal suffering? Or is it more compassionate to tell them things they dislike, and make them angry at you, in the hopes that some among them will win through to eternal bliss?
I know which of those two positions has the greater personal cost.
I don’t know what’s in Lynn’s mind. But when I hear this sort of thing, that somehow it’s more compassionate to tell people that their actions do not have eternal consequences, I always feel that I’m being maligned—that the speaker assumes that I like consigning people to hell—that it’s a bowl of cherries to me. That I think that the God that I believe in loves me and those like me, but hates the people whose actions I disapprove of.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t pretend to any moral superiority; God offers salvation and the hope of heaven to every man and woman. The Christian who calls people to God is like a man in a power boat, rescuing flood victims from the roofs of their houses. When he says, “If you’re not a Christian, you can’t go to heaven,” all he’s really saying is, “The waters are rising. If you don’t get in the boat, you’re going to drown.”
Meanwhile, our popular young preacher is telling folks to stay on the roof, the flood waters aren’t going to go that high. Maybe he’s right. Me, I’d rather be in the boat.
And frankly, I’d rather you were in it with me, because I really don’t want to watch you drown.
For the record, the Catholic Church teaches that in certain specific situations, those who have not met Christ can in theory go to heaven. Whether that happens, and how often it happens, God knows; I won’t speculate. But the usual way, and the safe way, is to follow Christ there.