Good tidings of great joy

Image by Tom duBois

At yesterday’s annual family Christmas gathering, my mom was asked to do the impossible: gather up my younger cousins and get them to sit still long enough for her to tell them the Christmas story. And, being the super woman that she is, she accomplished this task with seeming ease. She managed to capture the undivided attention of those eight rambunctious little boys and explain to them the beautiful message of Luke 2.

She closed with: “When I see those beautiful, shining lights on the Christmas tree I think of what the Bible says–‘I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people!’ I think of how Jesus came to earth so that we could all go to heaven, where everything is beautiful like a Christmas tree, all year ’round.”

The boys and I smiled, thinking of these “good tidings of great joy.” Until one of my cousins raised his hand and said, “But, if you don’t believe in Jesus, then you just go to hell.”

Now, my cousin is only 3 or 4 years old, and was undoubtedly just repeating what he’d heard from Sunday School teachers.

But his words made me think.

Good tidings of great joy? To all people?

If what my cousin said was true, than the words of Luke 2 don’t seem very accurate. In fact, if I’m being completely honest, they seem like bullshit.

If what my cousin said was true, then Luke 2 should say, “Behold, I bring good tidings and great joy, which shall be to those of you who were lucky enough to have been born in a time and place where you got a chance to hear about Jesus. To those of you who are lucky enough to not be on your death beds in China right now, devoid of any possibly of knowing Jesus. To those of you who were lucky enough to be raised in Christian, not Muslim or Buddhist families. To those of you who weren’t unlucky enough to die as a baby, before you were old enough to understand who Jesus was, and to those of you who weren’t unlucky enough to have been born with a mental illness that prevented you from understanding Jesus. To those who were lucky enough to not have been pushed away from Christianity by the deplorable actions of Christians, and to those that were lucky enough to have found a way to reconcile faith with logic…

For unto you is born, this day, in the city of David, a Savior of the lucky ones. A Savior of the privileged few…Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, fear and shame, judgement and eternal punishment toward the unlucky ones.”

That’s not a Christmas story I can stand behind.

I have to believe that Jesus came to unlock the doors to heaven, so that all could find their way in.

I have to believe that Jesus meant it when he said that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church.

I have to believe that Jesus was truly victorious over death.

I have to believe that Jesus means good tidings and great joy.

And not just to the lucky ones.

To all people.

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  • Amen, my friend. I’m not okay with the little God that I’ve always believed in. I think His ways are way, way, way better than mine. If this is unfair to me? Then why would it be good?

    • It bothers me when people say, “God’s love is not like our love!” Well, that God’s “love” sounds more like hate. It sounds like the opposite of everything that Jesus preached about love when he was on earth. I don’t buy it.

  • To say “I have to believe” instead of taking what you believe from what the Bible says as a whole is a great way to start a fantastic heresy.

    • If believing that God is both loving enough and powerful enough to save everyone is heresy, then I am a proud heretic.

    • And if the Bible really says that only the lucky ones go to heaven (I don’t believe that it does say that, for the record), then I cannot and do not want to believe the Bible.

  • abekoby

    I agree, Sarah. It’s very difficult to believe in something you don’t agree with.

    • It’s hard to believe that God would tell me to do good to those that hate me and then send those that hate him (or just don’t know him) to hell forever.

      • abekoby

        Yeah, God’s love can’t be unconditional if it’s conditional

        • abekoby

          And vice versa, and such and so forth

        • Seems so logical and yet…

  • This is so interesting — I was just talking with someone after church yesterday about the difference between “Peace on earth, goodwill to [people] on whom His favor rests” and “Peace on earth, goodwill to [people], on whom His favor rests.” A tiny little comma makes a big, big difference. (And biblical Greek doesn’t have punctuation, so the addition or omission of that comma is a translation choice, perhaps somewhat reflective of a translator’s opinion of God.)

    • yeah, that is really interesting. I wonder how much of our understand of the English Bible is effected by little things like that.

      • This little verse can be read either as “God sends peace and goodwill to all” (with the comma) or “God sends peace and goodwill to certain chosen people” (without the comma). As a new Christian in my late teens and early 20s, I was taught the latter. Now I look back and think, well, if that’s true, wouldn’t the original audience have assumed that chosen group to be Israel?

        • yeah, either way, I don’t think it was a phrase meant to limit peace and goodwill, but to describe the people toward whom the peace and goodwill was directed.

  • This is a big question and a very thought-provoking post..It’s a lot to wrestle with.

    Not all Christians believe that you are going to hell even if you never heard about God. The Catholic Church believes that God may/does have a possible pathway for salvation for those who never had a chance to learn about Jesus. Some Protestant Christians think that Romans 1 means that those who have never heard about Jesus, but worship some sort of creator instead of the created things, are going to heaven. Plenty of Protestants believe in an “age of reason” before which one will go to heaven no matter what. Catholics say that they don’t know what happens to those who die at that age without being baptized, but they trust those souls to God. I think that would also go for those who are mentally incapable of understanding Christianity.

    However…for those who consider Christianity, or *become* Christians, and then *turn away* – I do not believe God will force those people to spend eternity with him. I think that would be very *un*loving. Now, whether or not they are going to burn in hell forever is a different question – but I don’t think God will force everyone to go to heaven, either. I’ve heard it phrased something like this: God’s invitation is open, it is *us* who choose to accept or reject him – and he gives us that choice. That really makes sense to me. That being said, only God truly knows our hearts – and he is the ONLY ONE who makes the final judgment.

    In short, not all Christianity is hardcore reformed Protestant. 😉

    • Yes! Definitely, agree that God will not force anyone to go to heaven if they don’t want to. I think God loves us enough to let us choose. I have to believe that, if there is a hell and a heaven, the gates to both are open.

      And I am very attracted to branches of Christianity that aren’t hardcore reformed Protestant. Unfortunately, 90% of the people that I know and love are either Independent Fundamental or Southern Baptists. It’s hard to escape that thinking.

    • but, yeah. A big question. One that I’ve been wrestling with for months, and one that I’m not sure I’ll ever find an answer to. But I know what I can’t believe–I can’t believe that those “good tidings” were only meant for a privileged few.

  • Deanna D.

    Sarah, I am enjoying your blog. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. If you haven’t read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” yet, give it a read. It is one you would love. Some of the answers you are looking for are in Christian Universalism, others might be in the Eastern Orthodox views of the afterlife. Here is a question I wrestle with along the same lines: If we accept the “good news” that Jesus died on the cross in our place, don’t we also have to accept the “bad news” that His Father decreed that before He will forgive sin that there must be a blood payment–that someone must die for every sin committed? That, and with our inherent sin nature and being born creatures of wrath, that makes every human being destined for hell. The way some people present the gospel leaves far more than a bad taste in my mouth.

    • I’m actually planning on trying a Universalist church this week. I’ll probably write about my experience!

      And I haven’t read the Rob Bell book yet. The $22 price tag was too much, but it’s on my list! I need a job. haha