When Christians claim they know they’re going to heaven should they be regarded as conceited, boastful, and arrogant? Is it unfair of God to say you can’t get into heaven unless you believe, even though you’ve been a good person?
THE GUY ANSWERS:
Fellow religion reporters of a certain age will remember those throngs of “Jesus freaks” holding index fingers aloft to proclaim that their faith is the “One Way.” That attitude is no Christian eccentricity. All religions offer exclusive truth-claims although Christians — also Muslims — may be more outspoken than some, and admittedly they’re occasionally obnoxious about it. Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics are especially targets of complaints about being too exclusive.
One of the countless anti-Christians working the Internet levels the typical accusation: “Christianity breeds arrogance” because it “sets up a two-tiered divisin of humanity in which ‘God’s people’ feel superior.” Christians would respond that their belief is pretty much the opposite because it requires an honest admission by each person of being helplessly sinful and in need of the Savior. Atheists are likewise accused of being arrogant as they defy majority opinion and preach God’s non-existence as the only truth. A few superficial glimpses of this complex and important theme:
Why do Christians think belief is essential to salvation and ultimate bliss in heaven? This comes straight from Jesus’ words in the New Testament, for instance: “Every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40). “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Or Peter’s affirmation of Jesus to the Sanhedrin: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Yet, there’s widespread sentiment that you achieve heaven simply by being “a good person,” which was recently asserted by TV talker Bill O’Reilly, who’s culturally Catholic. But Catholicism’s catechism disagrees, seeing faith as primary and essential: “Believing in Jesus Christ and the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation.” Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft summarizes that good deeds “don’t save us. Jesus saves us. We don’t do good works to be saved; we do good works because we’ve been saved.” A Protestant scholar, Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary, responded to “Religion Q and A” this way: “It seems clear enough to me from the New Testament that both belief and behavior are involved when we are talking about who will have a nice afterlife, not just one or the other. A ‘good’ person who does not have faith or trust in God is, frankly, not a very ‘good’ person, since human beings are created in God’s image and made for relationship with God. On the other hand, as James says, faith without good works — or put another way, faith without its fruit — is worthless.”
Catholicism teaches that baptism is essential for salvation but, as O’Reilly correctly informed televiewers, it holds out hope for what’s called “baptism of desire.” Again quoting the catechism: “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of the Church but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved” through means known only to God.
More surprising, perhaps, is the related view of noted author-speaker Josh McDowell, whose conservative Evangelical credentials are impeccable. In A Ready Defense, he draws the following case from the Bible: Yes, as the verses cited above say, “no one can come to God except through Jesus Christ.” However, God does not wish “that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9) and we’re told he “will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). So McDowell concludes that “God will judge all mankind fairly,” which means “no one will be condemned for not ever hearing of Jesus Christ,” though we don’t know all the particulars.
The Internet and your local bookstore can provide endless material from skeptics attacking all of the above Christian assertions.
Exclusive truth was pondered in a July 26 patheos.com analysis by James Wellman, who chairs the comparative religion program at the University of Washington. He was responding to a New York Times article about his fellow “mainline” or “liberal” Protestants. In 1924, he noted, 91 percent of Americans thought Christianity was the only “true” religion, compared with only 41 percent today. Wellman said belief that the faith is true has collapsed especially among liberal lay Protestants, an “experiment” that raises this question for perhaps the first time in Christian history: “Can a religion, mainline or liberal, survive, much less thrive, with a clientele that doesn’t really believe that their religion is true, much less the only true religion?” As a matter of sociology, he’s dubious and unlike the Times finds liberal Protestantism’s prospects to be “dire.” See: