For some reason yesterday I found myself imagining fundamentalists overseeing the final judgment, giving a “final exam” to make sure that only the truly saved get into heaven. It would have two questions:
1) Give your testimony of how you asked Jesus into your heart to become your personal Lord and Savior.
2) Construct a story that incorporates all the elements from (a) Matthew 28:10,16-20 and Luke 24:36-53 OR (b) Matthew 2:1-23 and Luke 2:1-40, leaving nothing out and containing no contradictions.
OK, so I’m mostly being facetious. Even if I were serious, I would fully expect fundamentalists to object, pointing out not only that the whole notion of a final exam to get into heaven is anathema to them, but also that they do not think God will evaluate people based on their ability to create a new story that attempts to harmonize seemingly contradictory Biblical stories. But it is important to note that so-called harmonizations are just that: not what the Bible actually says, but an attempt to reconcile various things in the Bible by creatively composing a more extensive narrative or worldview that can reconcile them. And eventually what happens is that “believing the Bible” is equated with believing in the narrative composed to achieve apparent harmonization, even details that are nowhere in the Bible.
I would also point out that it seems even more problematic to suggest that people do not need to devote their time and effort to harmonizing stories in the Bible, and yet at the same time claim that it is important to affirm that such harmonization is possible even without having tried to accomplish it. At this point, conservative Protestants can become remarkably like the Catholics they historically criticized, asking Christians to trust that certain ministers and authors who make certain kinds of affirmations about the Bible are telling the truth, while others (including the vast majority of people who have devoted their lives to studying the Bible, irrespective of their denominational affiliation) are not.
What seems to me more important, however, is that the notion that there will not be a “final exam” (or that Christians are saved or exempted from a final judgment based on what they have done) is itself a product of selective reading of the Bible. The Gospel of John, with its realized eschatology, emphasizes that eternal life begins now, and thus people don’t have to await a final judgment: they are already judged on the basis of their belief in or rejection of Jesus. This is something that “the Bible says”. But it is not the only thing the Bible says, and the vast majority of New Testament authors depict a final judgment in which one’s response to Jesus is not irrelevant, but it is certainly not the only consideration.
At this point, I would expect a conservative Christian to object and say that those depictions of the final judgment in Revelation, Matthew, and even Romans 2:6-11, cannot mean what they appear to, since the Gospel of John clearly indicates that salvation is determined by believing in Jesus, and other passages in Paul’s letters speak of salvation by faith alone. But the problem is that this approach simply cannot do justice to the passages depicting a final judgment where what one has done matters. And while one might say “Scripture must be interpreted in light of Scripture”, it still remains to be asked why one should start with the typical Evangelical prooftexts in Paul and John, and say that the others must be interpreted in light of them, rather than reversing the procedure and saying that the passages that seem to affirm “judgment” being on the basis of faith alone must mean something else.
My own Liberal Christian position is a result of struggling with these sorts of issues. It doesn’t seem to me that there is a single voice in the Bible, and we can simply listen to it and do “what the Bible says”. Jesus is depicted at one point as saying “Whoever is not for me is against me” – the meaning of which is choose Jesus or you are his enemy, a saying that fits nicely with the fundamentalist viewpoint that all is “us vs. them”, saved vs. unsaved. Yet elsewhere he is depicted as saying that “Whoever is not against us is for us” – not only placing himself as part of a community (“us”) but also taking a positive view of those who are merely not opposed to his movement. It is far from obvious that both can be true. And so we are left with the challenge not only to align ourselves with Jesus and follow him, but also the challenge that New Testament texts depict Jesus in different ways and seem to have created communities centered on him that took significantly different shapes. And so whatever it means to be a Christian, it cannot mean “believing the Bible”. Because part of the challenge of the Bible itself is that it presents us with conflicting voices, and in doing so forces us away from the easy path of simply picking texts and following them, making us instead recognize that we are part of a 2,000-year-old dialogue that requires us to figure out for ourselves what it means to be a Christian in our own particular time and context.
Let me conclude by asking in relation to this subject a question students often ask their professors: Why focus on something if it won’t be on the exam? Perhaps here there is something that Christians who believe in a “final exam”, and those who aren’t sure, can agree on. If there is a course in which there may or may not be a final, it always makes sense to study as if there will be a final. If it turns out there isn’t, you will still have learned a lot. And if there is, you’re prepared.
But what continues to separate various sorts of Christians is the question of what “course material” is important: What would be on the final exam if there were to be one? Is our Christian faith to be evaluated on the basis of our willingness to go to great (and at times ridiculous) lengths to harmonize discrepancies and defend the Bible’s inerrancy? Or is it to be evaluated in terms of how we live, our love for God and neighbor? Or is it something else? Here more than anywhere else, the plurality of Christianities attested in the New Testament, as well as today, can be disconcerting, because it is hard to prepare for an exam, even one that is only a possibility, if one is getting contradictory signals about what might or might not be on it. And in this instance, doing what I’d recommend my own students to do fails to solve the issue, since it is precisely those who’ve “asked the Professor” who disagree on this.