Last week, Dr. Jay’s sermon homed in on one of those $64,000 questions: do non-believers go to heaven? He asked about Gandhi, a man of undeniable good works, is he condemned to hell for failing to believe in Jesus? He told the story of two teenaged girls, friends who died together in a car accident, one a practicing Christian, the other not. A minister extolled the believer and suggested that the non-believing girl would not be going to heaven.
His audience at First Church audibly gasped when it learned of the minister’s unkind words to the girl who had not gone to church. And I dare say that his audience wholeheartedly accepted his message that Jesus’s message was inclusive, not exclusive. Jesus did not set out to create in-groups and out-groups. He did not bring the good news to only those who think and worship like us, however one defines “us.”
In support of this message, our scripture readings included John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8. The passage from John begins, “For God so loved the world . .” and from that it is clear that the love of Jesus extends to the whole world. It does not discriminate, and it does not confine or limit itself. The passage from Ephesians stated that we are saved “by grace . . . it is the gift of God.”
I believed every word of Dr. Jay’s message. As someone who chooses an open and affirming church, who chooses a denomination that extends the sacrament of communion unconditionally, these words rang true. Of course, Gandhi is saved. Of course, a teenaged girl who lived a good life is not condemned to eternal damnation for a deficiency of church attendance or of faith.
But still. As right as the message felt, as true as it seemed, deep down, there were still nagging questions. Does it really not matter whether we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or maybe the questions arose just because I had opened the Bible and followed along with the Scripture reading. Starting with the famous text from John 3:16, it does say, “For God so loved the world,” but the very words that follow say, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Wait–God loves the world but “whoever believes in him shall . . . have eternal life.”
The text goes in opposite directions, does it not? This is not a matter of finding disparate passages from the Bible and finding contradiction; the tension exists within the same sentence. God’s love is inclusive, but eternal life is conditioned on belief. Ephesians 2:8, the text also chosen by Dr. Jay, seems to point in opposite directions too. The full text reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Again, there is God’s expansive grace and yet salvation seems to be premised on faith.
Beyond these textual ambiguities lies the broader question: was Jesus indifferent on whether people subscribed to his teachings? Surely not. (The Children’s Bulletin the week of Dr. Jay’s sermon called on kids ages 3-6 to trace the words “Believe in Jesus.”) The notion of being saved because of belief, because of faith, occurs repeatedly in the gospels. Indeed, this notion is central. As part of Pastor Marisa’s sermon this week, we heard the story of Lazarus. At John 11:25-26, Jesus tells Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
Given this repeated message, that people who believe in Jesus will have eternal life, it is hardly surprising the minister in Dr. Jay’s story might have concluded that salvation is conditional. Open to all but dependent on faith.
I can only conclude that there is ambiguity in the Bible on this basic issue. Biblical scholars and our pastors and those who have studied the Greek and the Hebrew biblical texts surely have better answers than I could ever provide in resolving this ambiguity. But rather than trying to resolve the ambiguity, perhaps it is better to ask why these confounding texts exist in the first place.
The mixed message I have identified is hardly unique. In this week’s Scripture reading, we had John 12:8 as part of the story of Mary using an expensive ointment to wash Jesus’s feet. Judas takes the opportunity to chide Mary for not using selling the ointment and using the money for the needy. Jesus defends her, saying, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” It does seems like Judas, for whatever his motives might have been, was on to something. It does seem Jesus-like to sell a luxury good and provide for the poor. Jesus, a few chapters earlier in the Bible, might have suggested such a thing.
But that’s just an example. Instances of confounding text and mixed messages abound. Certainty is in short supply in the Bible. But why?
Did God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit mean to be opaque? Did the human authors of the books of the Bible err as historians and story tellers?
The notion of uncertainty in the Bible is distressing to many people. If the Bible, on its central points, is open to interpretation, then are we not unmoored? In a world filled with moral dilemmas, an inconstant guidebook hardly feels like a solution. Unlike many literalists and absolutists, I am OK with the ambiguity and the need for interpretation. I feel no need to square the circle when I encounter confounding texts.
But again, why? Why would Jesus speak in an inherently contradictory fashion? If eternal salvation is all it is cracked up to be, then why not mark a clear path for the imperfect men and women who are to follow it?
Coming back to Dr. Jay’s $64,000 question of whether heaven depends on Christian faith, it seems that Jesus’s mixed message serves a practical purpose. On the one hand, Jesus has abundant, radiating love to all the world. On the other, He needs to, shall we say, incentivize people to take up his standard, to believe, to spread the word. And so He suggests time and again that those who believe will have eternal life. It sounds like a very human solution to a very human problem.