What About Them? (Part 1)

Last week I provided you with my message from the “Connecting our Faiths” event that Northway was pleased to host.  This was the first of four scheduled conversations between Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, Imam Yahya Abdullah and myself about the founders of our faith traditions within the Abrahamic Family – Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.  Each conversation will consist of the three of us making a presentation about what our sacred books tell us about the particular faith founder who is under consideration, and then letting those presentations open up a time of conversation between ourselves and the audience.

 Last week, during the conversation that followed our presentations on Abraham, I was specifically asked about whether or not I thought that my conversation partners were going to hell because they do not believe in Jesus Christ.  This is the rub for us who are Christians isn’t it? As Raymond Brown put it so well in his commentary on the New Testament book of Hebrews (Christ Above All, IVP, 1982) –

 However sensitive one chooses to be to the claims of other world religions, it is impossible for any serious student of the New Testament to escape what has been called the “scandal of particularity.”  By this phrase we refer to those clear and uncompromising assertions of the New Testament Scriptures that the only way we can come to God the Father is through Jesus Christ His Son (John 14:6).   Other religions testify most eloquently to man’s basic spiritual needs, but the Christian gospel asserts that only in Christ can those needs be met (Acts 4:12)  In a day when many people may try to discern some form of acceptable syncretism, whereby Christ and His gospel become merely one expression among others of the idea of salvation.  (But) Hebrews directs us to the uniqueness of Christ’s redemptive work. (21)

 So, “What about them?”  What will be the eternal destiny of my friends, Rabbi Schlesinger and Imam Abdullah, if they fail to come to believe in Jesus Christ as I believe in Jesus Christ – as Lord and Savior?  Are they going to hell?

 Well, it is widely thought that Christianity makes no room for non-Christians in heaven.  This position is called “hardline restrictivism,” and it was stated well by the 20th century evangelical theologian and leader Harold Lindsell – “In order for men to be converted they must hear of Jesus Christ and respond to His invitation in faith. If they die without the knowledge of Jesus Christ, they perish.”  “Hardline Restrictivism” limits salvation only to those who have (1) “heard the message of Jesus Christ about the person and work of Jesus Christ,” and (2) “have exercised faith in Christ,” (3) “before they die” (John Sanders – No Other Name – 37). That many Christians believe this is not in doubt.  But that being a Christian requires you to believe this is something that I believe must be doubted, especially in this pluralistic world in which we now live.

 We who are Christians are not the only show in town anymore.  Once you had to go to the library or the lecture hall over at the university to learn about the other religions of the world.  Now you only have to go to your doctor!  My Internist is Buddhist.  My Dentist is Baptist.  My Psychiatrist is Hindu.  My Dermatologist is Jewish.  And my Optometrist was once an Assembly of God evangelist!  My annual round of check-ups feels like a Parliament of Religions.   Some Christians I know lament this pluralism of the modern world, but that’s like spitting into the wind if you ask me.  It is what it is, and it’s just stupid to pine away for the good old days, or to pretend that the world is something other than what it is.   Instead of resisting the pluralism in which we now find ourselves, or fearing it, I’m all for embracing it.  This is why I’m such a passionate advocate of and participant in interfaith conversations like this series we are now a part of as a community of faith with our Muslim and Jewish relatives in the Abrahamic family of faiths. There is nothing to be gained spiritually by isolating ourselves and pretending that we are the only people who want to know God and do His will. 

 If I needed justification for cultivating interfaith relationships and making interfaith connections, then I would go to the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts.  In Acts chapter 14, while ministering in Lystra in Asia Minor, when the crowds began calling Barnabas “Zeus” and Paul “Hermes, because he was the chief speaker” (14:12), Paul responded –

“Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God,who made the heavens and the earthand the sea and everything in them.In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (14:15-17)

And in Athens, on Mars Hill, Paul preached in front of the altar inscribed with the designation’ “To an Unknown God” (17:23).

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.In the past God overlookedsuch ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judgethe world with justiceby the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (17:23-31)

These texts both tell me that the world into which Christianity was born and first thrived was religiously pluralistic.  And they show me that instead of dodging this reality, Paul met it head-on.  He practiced what I’ve heard described as “theological ju-jitsu.”   He used the force of the other’s arguments to the advantage of the gospel.  Rather than ignoring their claims, Paul repackaged them as the very questions that the Gospel answers, and this meant that Paul first had to hear what others were saying.  In order to be able to talk with people, Paul first had to listen carefully, thoughtfully and respectfully to what they were saying philosophically and theologically. Paul, in his ministry, held in tension a “total respect for the religious beliefs of others” together with his own powerful sense of obligation and urgency to share the Gospel, the Good News of what God had done for them in Jesus Christ.  

 Someone who understood and appreciated this delicate balancing act that the Apostle Paul performed was the late Missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin.  His essay on “Pastoral Ministry in a Pluralist Society” (http://www.newbigin.net) is as concise and insightful statement on how Christianity ought to operate in a pluralistic world as anything I’ve read.

 First, Bishop Newbigin urged clarity about the Gospel –

 There is a tremendous emphasis on the need for absolute fidelity to the Gospel. These apostolic writers do not talk about ‘Christianity’; they talk about the Gospel. The Gospel is an account of things which have happened. It is about events in the public life of the world, about what happened ‘under Pontius Pilate’. It is about ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have handled’ (I John. 1:1). It is about how ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and was buried and that he was raised again on the third day according to the Scriptures’ (I Corinthians 15:3). It is about ‘the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). The Gospel is an account of facts, of things which have happened and which therefore cannot be changed. What has been done has been done. ‘Christianity’ is what we have made of these facts.

 …In that multi-religious society it must have been very hard to resist the arguments of those who would say ‘Of course we can respect your beliefs, but – after all – yours is only one among many beliefs, and Jesus is only one name among many’. The only answer to this is to tell and tell again the story of what God has actually done. It is always possible, of course, to disbelieve. But if the story is true, if almighty God has really done what the Gospel affirms that he has done, then there is nothing in all the religious ideas and practices of the world that can be put into the same category as this. In all these pastoral letters, therefore, the writers remind their readers of what God has done in Jesus Christ and call for total faithfulness to him.

 And second, Bishop Newbigin urged a respectful engagement with the adherents of other religions –

 The second feature to be noted in this apostolic pastoral ministry to congregations living in a religiously plural world concerns the proper attitude to those of other religious communities. Here we may look first at the attitude which is to be taken towards the Jewish people. Here, just because the relation was so close, the tensions could be most acute. The great majority of Jews had rejected the Gospel. It is very understand-able that there should be hostility on both sides.

 Those who had accepted Jesus as the true fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel could be bitter about this rejection. Those who remained with the synagogue could resent an upstart cult which was so successfully ‘sheep-stealing’. In his most sustained discussion of the relation between the Church and the Jewish people, namely chapters 9 to 11 of the Letter to the Romans, Paul reminds the congregation of their permanent indebtedness to the Jews. In the famous illustration of the olive branches he reminds the Gentile Christians that they are only wild slips grafted (in contradiction of all normal practice) into the true olive tree which is Israel. For Christians to adopt an attitude of superiority to Jews is therefore quite shocking (Romans 11, especially 17-21). The position with regard to Gentiles who are not believers is different, but here also Christians are reminded to show proper respect. God has not left himself without witness in the hearts of any people (Acts 14:17), and there are pagans who do the works of the law even though they are outside the household of Israel (Romans 11: 14-16). The worship of the pagan Greeks is, even though they do not know it, directed to God. (Acts 17:23).

 This respect for those who follow a religious path other than the Christian does not mean that we have no message for them. In every one of the cases just referred to, when we read a little further, we find that the Gospel is being announced. The Jews who are still God’s chosen people must be the first to hear the Gospel. The pagans who do the good works of the law, but who, like all of us, share in the sin which has all humanity in its power, are told (‘But now….. ‘ Romans 3:21) of the new thing which God has done by which all people — Jew or pagan – can be liberated from the power of sin. The Athenians, who are worshipping an unknown god, are told of the new thing that God has done to make the unknown known (‘But now…..’ Acts 17:30). Cornelius, the pagan Roman soldier who has been told that God has accepted his worship (Acts 10:4-6) is nevertheless told that he must send to Joppa to hear something which he does not yet know, and when, in response to the summons, Peter comes to Cornelius, it is simply the facts about Jesus which are told and believed and which bring Cornelius and his household into the family of God. (Acts 10:34-48).

 I can’t answer that question that I was asked at last week’s interfaith conversation about the eternal destiny of my friends on the dais with a simple, confident and direct “heaven” or “hell.”  My initial instinct when the question was posed was to try to deflect it with the standard “that’s above my pay grade” answer that I inwardly know to be the theological version of the fight or flight reflex.   But that’s a weenie response, one that minimizes the seriousness and urgency of the question, and one that ignores the seriousness and urgency of how the Christian community has thought about this question long and hard right from the beginning of her life.  And so, fully appreciating and experiencing Bishop Newbigin’s paradox of being absolutely clear about the Gospel and deeply respectful of the religious convictions and practices of others, let me now try to answer the question. 

 Are Rabbi Schlesinger and Imam Abdullah going to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?  (To be continued…)



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