The best thing about having a club is who’s not allowed to be a member. Little kids figure this out pretty quickly. The first time boys get a tree fort or similar hideout, the first thing they do is hang a sign on it that says “No Girls Allowed.” Girls themselves have elaborate qualifications to join what secret clubs they have, usually requiring several oaths of fealty and pledges of the utmost secrecy.
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
May 10, 2020
Acts 7:55–60; John 14:1–7
As adults we still recognize the attractiveness of exclusivity. It was the initial appeal of Facebook—that it was limited to college campuses—that drove its early success. Its continued success is that it allowed limited access to view people’s profiles, creating a sense of being “in” that was coveted. “Membership has its privileges” reads a famous marketing slogan from American Express, suggesting that belonging to this particular club (for which you even have to be willing to pay an annual fee), there is a benefit not available to just anyone. In fact, it is the exclusivity of clubs that makes them attractive. Clubs where just anyone can belong don’t hold the same appeal. It’s why Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”
Sometimes it seems that the same phenomenon holds true with our understandings of heaven. It’s the ultimate club, isn’t it? It’s got all the best food, everyone is really happy, lots of celebrities like the Apostles and the Prophets. Beautiful landscaping. And soooo exclusive. I mean, they don’t let just anyone in. No, this club is reserved only for Christians and even then, we’re not sure it’s all Christians. I’m reminded of the old joke where a man dies and goes to heaven and is given the tour. The angel walks him past the grand halls where the Buddhists are meditating, the Jews study the scriptures, the Muslims are praying, until finally he comes across one room and the angel says, “Now, we have to be very quiet around this next room. It’s full of Christians and they think they’re the only ones here.”
That joke wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t true. In fact, the whole reason we talk about this issue today is because this question—what happens to people of other faiths—is one of those questions of faith that resurface time and time again. And it does so because the presumption is that non-Christians do not have access to eternal life and instead are cast off into the outer darkness. That presumption is shared by many Christians and non-Christians about what it is that Christianity actually believes. But is it? Need it be?
We’ll take a look at this issue using the time-honored Methodist tradition of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, exploring the question through the lenses of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
When we look at scripture, we are surprised to discover that the Bible doesn’t speak much of anyone going to heaven. In the Bible, heaven is God’s dwelling place and has little to do with where we wind up after death. No, in the Bible, to the extent life after death is talked about, it is usually described in terms of a resurrection of the dead that takes place here on earth. The Kingdom of God comes to earth, the dead are raised to new life, and God dwells with us forever.
In the same way, the Biblical understandings of hell are not quite the same as our contemporary ones, much of which have more to do with Dante than the Bible. The earliest versions found in the Hebrew Bible speak of “Sheol” or the Pit—the shadowy afterlife where the dead exists as mere shades of their former selves. It was much more akin to Hades, but was neither a place of rest nor punishment. It was a shadow. By the New Testament era another metaphor was used to describe the final resting place of the wicked. The garbage dump of Jerusalem was in the Valley of Hinnom outside the city, where fires burned constantly. In Hebrew, Valley of Hinnom was “Gei Hinnom” from which the word “Gehenna” comes—which is usually translated in the New Testament as “hell”. As a metaphor, it did not refer to eternal punishment, but to annihilation and destruction. Luke does refer to Hades in one place as a place of torment, but, from the majority Biblical point of view, no one goes to Heaven or Hell, they are either resurrected in the Kingdom of God here, or they are cast into the fire and consumed.
Having said that, “heaven” and “hell” are a convenient shorthand to talk about those who attain life with God after this life and those who do not.
It’s somewhat surprising to note that in the New Testament hell (either “Hades” or “Gehenna”) is mentioned only 23 times. Among the things that get you thrown into hell are: Calling a fellow Christian a “fool” (Matt. 5:22), sinning via hand, foot, or eye (Matt 5:29-30//Mark 9:43-47), failing to recognize and repent after witnessing ‘deeds of power’ (Matt. 11:23), and murdering the prophets and persecuting the righteous (Matt. 23:33), and for not taking care of the poor (Luke 16:23). That’s pretty much it. There is not nearly as much description on the damnation of the wicked as we imagine there is in the Bible.
On the other hand, if we look at verses that speak of salvation we find that those who will be saved include: the one who “endures to the end” (Matt. 10:22; 24:13//Mk. 13:13), those who ‘lose their lives for the sake of the gospel’ (Mk. 8:35), those who enter through Jesus (Jn 10:9), everyone who calls on the ‘name of the Lord’ (Acts 2:21), ‘believing on the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 16:31), everyone who has faith (Rom. 1:16), “all Israel” (Rom. 11:26), loving the truth (2 Th. 2:10), for those who obey Jesus (Heb. 5:9), and those who have faith (Heb 10:39). Those who will see the Kingdom of Heaven include: those who follow the commandments (Matt. 5:19), being more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), and doing the will of God (Matt 7:21).
Now, it is not a stretch to say that people of other religions would, by default, be denying Jesus’ deeds of power or failing to ‘call on the name of the Lord’ (if you interpret ‘Lord’ here as referring to Jesus, not God), or obeying Jesus.
Add to that a lesson like the one from this morning’s reading from the Gospel:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.John 14:6
And so, those who claim that non-Christians fall outside of those who are saved is not an irrational argument from the basis of these verses.
But, it is instructive to note that much of the distinctions between who is saved and who is lost is internal, among members of the community. Much of the condemnation of others is usually of others within the same religious group. That is, one group of Jews (or, later, Christians) declaring particular members of the same group as unworthy of inheriting the kingdom of God. It’s important to remember, that for most of the time when the New Testament was written, Jews and Christians were considered to be members of the same religion. (This is how we might understand Jesus’ statement that “Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will see the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”) There are sometimes references to the ‘ungodly’ or the ‘heathen’ but the modern question of what the fate is of other people who practice other religions, particularly those who ‘call on the name of the Lord’ such as Judaism or Islam is not really contemplated.
And so the question of what fate befalls a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or Sikh, didn’t really occupy much of the attention of the Biblical authors as compared to the competing claims of the various sects of First Century Judaism (among which, Christianity was one).
And when we look elsewhere in the scriptures, not just at questions of heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, we discover some interesting things.
In the book of the prophet Joel, there is an oracle concerning the restoration of Israel. In the middle of the guarantees of restoration and plenty is this verse, “Then afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” All flesh. That’s a fairly expansive category and along with Isaiah’s “all flesh shall see it together” suggest a God whose purpose is to reconcile not with some small group of people, but with all people. In fact, it may even include all creatures. I confess, I’m a big fan of that verse from Joel. I have it embroidered in Hebrew on the stole I was ordained in.
But it is not a solitary sentiment in the scriptures. There is a passage from Colossians that reads:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.Colossians 1:19–20
This is even more expansive than Joel and Isaiah’s “all flesh”. Here we understand that God was pleased to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” Through the blood of the cross, God has, through Jesus, already done this.
Even in the Gospel of John, the most sectarian of the gospels, the most likely to draw a high wall of separation between insider and outsider, we read: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” This is not a narrow vision of God.
We find other evidence of a broader inclusion throughout the scriptures. In Acts, Peter is quoted as saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And then in one of the great scenes before the throne in the Book of Revelation is the author’s vision of “a great multitude that no one could count” from every nation, tribe, people, and languages. Revelation was written at a time when the Christian church was very small indeed and therefore the vision must have included so many more than just those who professed themselves as Christians.
And so what are we to say ultimately about the scriptures? The same thing we are forced to say about virtually every other issue: the scriptures do not speak with one voice on the topic. There are verses that are narrow and verses that are broad and expansive. Some that would limit salvation to a chosen few, or an elect, and some that would include the whole of creation. And so, in the final analysis, we can come to no one conclusion by looking at scripture alone.
And so we move on to look at the traditions of the church.
The first thing that should be noted is that prior to relatively recent history, the question of what fate befell members of other religions was not really one that Christians asked very often. For so long, the only people a Christian would have encountered in daily life were other Christians. In the early going, there were a lot of pagans around, but as Western history progressed, the overwhelming majority of people in Europe were Christian with occasional Jewish minority populations. So, it’s fair to say that Christians didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on this issue. And when they did, their answers might surprise us.
The early church leaders, although they were unequivocal in their condemnation of paganism and idolatry, nevertheless did not see members of those faiths as outside God’s plan and purposes. Many early church leaders had an expansive view. Irenaeus wrote: “There is only one God, who from beginning to end, through various economies, comes to the help of humankind.” A sentiment echoed centuries later in recent years by the Orthodox Bishop of Lebanon who said, “There is a divine dialogue with humanity, outside the Abrahamic and the Mosaic, because of the covenant in nature with universal man. The liberty of the Spirit is not confined to the frontiers of the Church as the ‘New Israel’.” These attitudes are inherited from the Jewish tradition of seeing the peoples of the world as God’s people, even if they did not yet realize it.
In the Western Church, St. Augustine developed a doctrine known as the Magna Ecclesia, the “Great Church.” Augustine realized that the church included both good and bad people. In addition, there were a great many good people outside the church. As a result, the church is a mixed body and cannot be synonymous with “the saved.” In fact, Augustine would argue that it was not the church’s business to decide who is saved and who is not. (Of course, that hasn’t stopped us from trying.) It was also St. Augustine who provided a theology that defended the Jewish right to continue to exist as a separate faith who should be permitted to worship in their own way, something that modern scholars have seen as instrumental in protecting the European Jewish populations.
In the Methodist tradition, Wesley articulated an understanding of God’s grace that shapes our attitudes on this. Wesley believed that God’s grace operated in three distinct ways: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. The prevenient grace of God was that grace of God that was everywhere present, at every time, to every one. What that meant, practically, was that Christians do not bring grace to people who are not Christian. That grace is already present, and may have already been experienced in the ways that that non-Christian might have understood according to his or her own tradition. Affirming prevenient grace is affirming God’s universal jurisdiction over and care for the entire world, not just the Christian pieces of it. It’s why Methodist missionaries don’t try to go around the world and bring God to people, they try to help them to see where God is already at work in their midst.
Wesley himself one wrote about the fate of members of other religions saying:
Nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and [Muslim] world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to him that made them who is the “Father of the spirits of all flesh;” who is the God of the Heathens as well as Christians, and who hateth nothing that he hath made.John Wesley, On Living Without God
As it turns out, there is a wide diversity among Christians as to the fate of the non-Christian. Some believe non-Christians will be saved if they worship some deity (since God works through all religions) but that those who don’t (Buddhists, atheists, etc.) go to hell. Some believe that those who aren’t Christian are those who God knew wouldn’t accept the Gospel anyway. Some believe that after death everyone is given one last chance to accept the Gospel. Some believe that all the religions of the world offer salvation, and one need not accept Jesus to receive it. Some believe that everyone will be saved. And some believe that we just cannot know.
And so, while there is a fair amount of history in our tradition of being condemnatory to people of other faiths, we have often seen a fair amount of belief that God’s purposes are broader than the boundaries of the church.
If we put the question to the test of reason, we run into all manner of problems with an exclusivist position. First, we run into the question of whether it is just to condemn to eternal punishment the vast majority of the human race who never encountered the message of Christianity. If we, with such a limited sense of justice, can perceive that to be manifestly unfair, how can God whose justice is perfect, admit such a state of affairs?
Furthermore, one’s faith is largely shaped by one’s parents and upbringing. While many people come to faith later in life, there are very few who stray too far afield from the faith in which they were raised or the faith of their community. In fact, most people are members of a religion because they were born into it. And being born into something is about the least just way of obtaining something. It’s why Americans have traditionally been suspicious of inherited wealth and prefer people to earn their wealth themselves, rather than just be born wealthy. And so, I might rightfully ask, is it fair that I, born to a Catholic father and Methodist mother, luck out and get to inherit eternal life, while around the globe someone with the bad fortune to be born to Hindu parents or Muslim parents does not? This is the perfect system of justice established by God?
Some years ago, a Jewish friend of mine told me of an unfortunate conversation she’d had with a Christian friend in college. Over the course of their conversation, her friend lamented the fact that they would not be in heaven together. “Of course,” the friend had said, “If it were up to me, you’d get in, but that’s just how it works, unfortunately.”
“If it were up to you, I’d get in?” my friend replied. “Tell me, do you think God is more or less merciful than you are?”
If we are to admit that God by definition must be more just and more merciful than we are, can we accept any system that fails to meet even our poor limited understandings of justice and mercy? No, our reason propels us toward another conclusion.
And finally, we come to experience. When we say ‘experience’ we mean ‘our experience of God in something. And it is here where the issue really comes to a head. For, as I noted before, up until relatively recently, Christians didn’t encounter people of other faiths in their daily lives. Jews were isolated into shtetls and ghettos. The only Muslims anyone had encountered were likely on the battlefield during the Crusades or the Reconquista.
But now we live in a society where it is not unusual to encounter people of different faiths on a routine basis. We have things like interfaith councils and interfaith beach parties. As children we go to our Jewish friends’ bar mitzvahs and sympathize with our Muslim friends fasting during Ramadan. We see the Hindus celebrating the Diwali. And suddenly the “other” isn’t so other anymore. Suddenly, these non-Christians who would have a couple of centuries ago been known as “Mohammedans” or “Turks” or “infidels” are now just Yasmin, and Amir, and Steve. They are people with whom we are in relationship, no longer just some religious stereotype of a people in some exotic corner of the world.
And most of all, in these people we experience the love and grace of God. Our experience tells us not just that people of other faiths are good people, but that they are Godly people, even if they would never understand it that way. We see in people of other faiths—and people of no faith—the same divine spark, the same presence of God, that we see in one another. And so our experience of the non-Christian is not one that can be defined by simple categories. It is defined by the spirit and presence of God that we encounter in them.
In fact, it is for this very reason that a majority—68%—of Evangelical Protestants now believe that people of faiths other than their own can attain salvation. 68%! Of Evangelical Christians no less! That shows that as we encounter each other, far from encountering a people lost and without hope, we encounter people through whom we ourselves encounter the living God.
We like clubs and their exclusiveness. They make us feel better about ourselves. Knowing that we’re “in” helps us to feel that all the uncertainty about the rest of our lives is okay. But we also like knowing that other people are “out”. This helps us to feel like we’ve accomplished something.
And therein lies the problem. Our salvation is not something we accomplish. It never has been. Our salvation, our hopes for restoration in this life and in the world to come, has always been dependent on God’s grace, on God’s initiative. Our responses to that grace are important, but ultimately it is God who does the saving.
Even when we sing hymns like “Christ is the World’s Light” and even when we look at that statement of Jesus’: “No one comes to the Father but through me” it doesn’t change the fact that the locus of salvation, the place where our deliverance comes from, is with God through Jesus, not with us. And so, what this all really comes down to is this: who do we imagine Jesus to be? Is Jesus one with his arms open wide “gathering all people to himself”? Or is Jesus the bouncer at the most exclusive club ever?
As Welsey said, “It is far better to leave them to him that made them…” to sort out their eternal fates. And if God is the God of grace, love, and mercy that we proclaim, then we should trust God to do precisely that.
And if we reflect on the mystery of God’s grace and the power of God’s love, we have to leave ourselves open to the possibility that God’s love is greater than we could ever imagine and that this includes people outside the narrow circles we are inclined to draw.
Ultimately, this is one of those questions we cannot possibly know and we often get in way over our heads. We like to imagine that God keeps a narrow list of who’s in and who’s out, perhaps because we, too, keep those same lists and for some reason we will not stop trying to make God in our image.
The answer to this question is wrapped up in the answer to another question that Jesus asked us long ago: who do you say that I am? If we understand Jesus to be a vengeful ruler, come to judge the sinful world and destroy those who oppose him, we will come to one conclusion. But if we understand Jesus to be the one who welcomed all, without distinction, who extended grace and mercy to those his contemporaries found objectionable, and who ‘came into the world not to condemn the world’, then we see a far wider reach of the purposes and love of God.
Acts 7:55–60 • But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
John 14:1–7 • “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
 Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.