We’re on the topic of “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” For me, as for most evangelical and/or conservative Christians, this was the easiest question in the world to answer. “Believe in Jesus as your Savior.”
Until my paradigm was challenged.
Living overseas for a decade, I traveled to dozens of countries (mostly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East). The experience was rich and the people were awesome – but my soul became more and more troubled. “How, God, could you punish the people of India/Kenya/Malaysia/Egypt/etc. for eternity? They never really had a chance to know Jesus. Even for those who encountered Christian missionaries, the odds were pretty low.”
Turns out, my husband (who was raised in a very conservative Muslim culture) was developing the exact same belief – only substitute “Mohammed” for Jesus: the prophethood of Mohammed, he’d been taught, was the litmus test for heaven. Maybe people who’d never heard about him could be saved, but it was iffy.
We accepted the “fact” that, as things stood, one of us was definitely going to hell. We weren’t looking for an easy answer. We were too devoted to our faith to accept a quick fix that would allow us to stop trying to convert each other. We never expected any solution that didn’t involve one of us renouncing the religion we’d treasured all our lives.
As I described in my last post, we eventually came to understand God’s love and mercy in a whole new way (new to us, at least).
Questioning the Formula
If God reaches out to all people right where they are (which I believe God does), then God is reaching out in as many different ways as there are people. How would God demand the exact same response from every person in the world?
I’ve been scolded for asking that question. Who am I to interrogate God? But I’m actually questioning the formula that claims, “the only way to God is through accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior.”
This formula is so ingrained in our brains that we think it’s God’s actual words, instead of a manmade theology invented hundreds of years after Jesus left the earth.
(Not for nothing the formula would let lots of white, Western Christians into heaven, but few people of color – in many of the so-called “s—hole countries,” the percentage of Christians is low.)
It wasn’t easy for my husband and me to leave the safety of certainty that each of us had. But it was impossible to stay where we had been: we had seen a way that matches better with God’s character of love and mercy – and that takes into account the incredible diversity in our world.
Diversity is something that white American Christians might not even think of (or acknowledge), but we need to.
What I mean by “diversity” is that no two people’s circumstances are alike. Each one’s ethnic, racial, economic, social, and religious background and experience, and each one’s family and social dynamics and history – a billion big and small details – make us unique.
This issue of diversity requires a more nuanced approach to salvation than the formula allows.
A few fictional examples that defy the simplicity of the formula:
- Talal was born in Pakistan to a very religious Muslim family. He learned from an early age that God will punish you eternally if you leave Islam. Talal is not going to convert, no matter how many missionaries come to his village. Is that his fault? Will he spend eternity in hell for something that he was born into – for being faithful to God as he knows God?
- When Brianna was very young, her mother used to bring her to church on Sundays – but when they got home, her father always ridiculed them. Every Sunday, all she could think about was her father’s upcoming insults. As soon as she was old enough, she refused to go to church, and never had any interest in things of faith. Will she be punished eternally for her response to her early trauma?
- Ahmed lives in Egypt, and is part of a nonreligious family. Ahmed might be a good candidate for conversion, and has even spent time in conversation with a missionary. But the missionary never explained salvation in an understandable way, and then he moved back to the States. Is God going to punish Ahmed for the missionary’s shortcomings? Will the missionary be answerable for his mediocre efforts?
- Brad was born in Chicago to a very religious Catholic family. For years, Brad was sexually molested by his priest. This finally caused him to walk away from God. Who is to blame? Who will burn in hell? The priest who believes in Jesus as savior, but destroyed Brad’s faith? Or Brad, who was completely repelled by God’s minister? (Or the bishop who allowed the priest’s behavior to continue?)
- Kimberly was born into a loving, Christian family, but has severe cognitive impairment. Even though her family has talked to her about God, she is unable to understand the concepts of faith and eternity, and she does not know who Jesus is. Will she face eternal punishment? Or will she get a free pass to heaven because of her disability?
If she can get a pass, don’t Ahmed, Brad, Brianna, and Talal also qualify for a free pass because something outside their control has kept them from being able to receive Jesus?
I bet you could come up with half a dozen scenarios that defy the formula’s simplistic approach.
Why would one single rule would be applied to all of these people (and billions more)? How could God demand the same thing from all of them – and punish them for eternity if they don’t/can’t pony up?
Related question: why aren’t more people asking this very obvious question? (Tentative answer: we don’t think critically. That’s a whole separate topic!)
We’re just scratching the surface of this issue – next time, I want to point to Jesus’ own words that contradict the formula. Stay tuned. (If you’re not already subscribed to my newsletter, there’s no time like the present!)
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