I don’t know how many of you may have seen news reports of the latest flap circulating in evangelical circles these days. Now, I don’t mean the obvious fact that Jesus did not return in glory yesterday – no mature Christian, Catholic or Protestant takes these kinds of “predictions” seriously.
No, this has to do with a new book written by Rob Bell, the young pastor of a huge mega-church in Grandville, Michigan, called the “Mars Hill Bible Church.” Rob is the founder and producer of the “Nooma” film series we have been using for the last several years as part of our Adult Education offerings on some Sunday mornings.
His new book is entitled “Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Not a very modest title, which may be one reason that the book has caused such an uproar in some circles. He has been accused by some of denying the existence of hell and of being a “Universalist” – that is, one who believes that everyone will eventually make it to heaven. He has denied both accusations and staunchly defends his book as not denying the reality of hell, but questioning some of his fellow-evangelicals’ certainty that they know just exactly who is going to hell and who is not!
In one exchange, he argues with a fellow pastor who claimed that Gandhi was certainly in hell. Rob replied, “Gandhi in hell? Really? We have confirmation of this? Without a doubt?”
Of course, those who claim that only Christians — or even only born-again Christians – will make it into heaven often quote the very passage we have from John’s Gospel this morning: in response to Thomas’ question about how they can know “the way” to where Jesus is going, he replies, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
The first part of that citation is Jesus’ primary point and he goes on in the rest of our Reading today to elaborate on what it means to say that he is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is the way to God because, as he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father?” (John 14:9)
The point here is that the fact of the Incarnation means that Jesus is the “human face of God.” God is really quite beyond anything we can touch or feel or see or even comprehend fully. But the Christian claim is that all we NEED to know about God can be discovered in Jesus. When we look at Jesus, we know what God is like! Does that exhaust everything about the nature of God? Probably not. But, again, all we NEED to know about God, we believe we have found in Jesus Christ. He is “the way” for us.
Next, we are told that Jesus is “the Truth.” And John’s Gospel goes on to quote him as saying “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10) So, when Jesus teaches, he is not just teaching on his own, he is conveying “the truths” he learned from his Father.” Jesus is speaking the truth about God because God is speaking though him.
And finally, we hear that Jesus is “the Life.” Well, I don’t know anyone – Christian or non-Christian – who does not believe that Jesus lived an exemplary life and that if more people lived more like Jesus, this would be a considerably finer world. Or, as Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do…” (John 14:11-12) We are to live life like Jesus!
So, we believe that Jesus shows us the way to God…teaches us the truth about God…and exemplifies for us the kind of life God would have us live. He is, therefore, the way…the truth…and the life! But does that mean that only Christians will get to heaven? And, if so, what kind of Christians? Practicing Christians? What about non-practicing Christians?
Catholic Christians? What about Protestant Christians? Conservative Christians? What about Liberal Christians?
Yet, John’s Gospel does quote Jesus as saying: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” What does he mean by that? Well, Peter Marty (our colleague up the street at St. Paul Lutheran) puts it this way in a recent review of Rob Bell’s book in The Christian Century magazine: “the glue holding Bell’s project together is the firm conviction that Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He is the cosmic Christ who will not be co-opted or owned by any one culture. He is supra-cultural.”
“The apostle Paul wrote, ‘In Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself’ and Bell is not willing to say that what Paul really meant was a reconciliation of the Christian world. Similarly Bell thinks that when Jesus announced that “God so loved the world…’ he actually meant the world. Had John been interested in shrinking the gospel or lessening the scope of the cross, he might well have proposed that ‘God so loved only Christians.’ But John did not.” (May 17 Christian Century, page 25)
No, John did not propose that…but sometimes Christians seem to wish that he had! Some of this debate is new to evangelical Christians, and that’s why Rob Bell has been so roundly criticized by some of his fellows. It’s not a new debate to Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican theologians. Roman Catholics believe in Purgatory which may allow a way for former unbelievers yet to be recipients of the gift of heaven.
Orthodox and Anglicans often speak of an “intermediate state” called Paradise where we will continue to grow in grace after death while we await the final judgment, and where those who have never heard the word of Christ or who have had it so poorly presented that they rejected it, likewise may have the opportunity to be introduced to Jesus and walk through that “door of the sheepfold” into eternal life with God.
I remember my professor of systematic theology at Seabury-Western once saying “We absolutely must posit the existence of hell…because God will not force anyone to spend eternity with Him who doesn’t want to. BUT,” he continued with a smile, “ if you and I do our jobs, it is not necessary to posit that anyone will actually end up there…finally!”
Well, to be honest, I expect there actually will be those who choose to turn their backs on God once and for all. There are some people who seem actually that self-centered. But let us not join those who criticize people like Rob Bell who at least hold out the hope that, in the final analysis, Love does indeed “win.”
And that those who – knowingly or unknowingly – follow the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus will one day see him face-to-face and (like us) will receive the Gift that neither they, nor we, deserve.
The Gift of Eternal Life!