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Monday, July 18, 2005

Is It Just or Right That I Go to Hell?

Although I was at work when this conversation took place and therefore could not participate, it nevertheless captured my interest and I wanted to offer what would have been my answers to these questions and ideas. The names of the individuals are fictions that I created in order to protect the identity of the actual participants, because I do not have their permission to publish the conversation. If either one of them happens upon my blog and recognizes their comments, simply keep quiet and say nothing because no one else in the world knows that it was you who said these things.

I have named the first person Ethan, and he is an atheist. The second person I named as Cathy, and she is a Roman Catholic.
ETHAN: Here's a question. I'm an atheist. And as such I can't bring myself to believe in God or that Jesus is my savior. I'm told by Christians that I can only be saved from oblivion or hell by accepting—which first requires that I believe—that Jesus is my savior. Now, in your view, does this mean that I deserve hell and damnation? I emphasize the word 'deserve' here. Is it right or just that I go to hell?
It is interesting to note how he expressed himself here, when he said that he cannot bring himself to believe in either God or Jesus as the Savior. And the way in which it is interesting is two-fold, one of which actually goes toward answering his question.

The first way in which it's interesting is that it echoes a statement made by the apostle Paul, who explained that the sinful mind "is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom 8:7-8). How is this relevant? Notice something that John revealed in one of his epistles: "This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ" (1 Joh 3:23; cf. Joh 6:28-29). Paul affirms that the sinful mind neither does nor can submit to God's law, and one of God's commandments is to believe in the name of his Son. We see that Ethan unwittingly confirms this by his remarkably honest choice of words.

The second way in which it's interesting is that this actually provides the reason for his condemnation, or how it is deserved. He wonders how it is just that someone would be condemned to hell for simply not believing in God or his Son. The simple answer is, "It is just because it is a violation of God's commandment" (cf. 1 Joh 3:4), and most people recognize that if you are guilty of breaking a law then it is just for the judge to sentence you upon conviction. However, there are multiple violations of God's law recorded on Ethan's account for which he is guilty, not just this one alone. However, a sentence is warranted whether I am convicted of one charge or twenty. This is how his condemnation is just.

However, notice how Cathy responds:
CATHY: As a Catholic Christian, I do not believe that all atheists automatically go to hell, but that God will judge you when you die. And, if you have done good in your life, we know the source of that good is God (whether you acknowledge it or not).
Two things need to be mentioned here, I feel—one of which this astute atheist picks up on, as we shall see.

First of all, it is true that all atheists do not automatically go to hell, because it is true that God will judge the atheists. It is not 'automatic'. God is just: there is a review of the charges against them, a conviction of guilt, then the sentencing. This is when, and why, all atheists go to hell. If they are not in Christ Jesus, whose atonement provided propitiation, then God's wrath remains on them. As scripture says, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" (Joh 3:36). This is because the Son alone is the propitiation; the person who has not the Son bears God's wrath on himself. And earlier we see Jesus affirming that "whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (v. 18). There are many other passages from scripture which underscore this, but the point has been made.

Secondly, Cathy says that "if you [the atheist] have done good in your life," etc. And that's the sticking part, isn't it? If he has done good. The question immediately presents itself: what is 'good'? This is a moral question, is it not? What is the ground of our moral order? What is the final determinant and arbiter of moral order? Is it not God's authority, will, and law? I have said it before, and I will here say it again: "If anything is not informed and influenced by God's authority, will, and law, or grounded therein, it is sin. This is why even the apparent good that unbelievers do is nevertheless sin, because both their authority and motivation is something other than God." That "if" is a vastly empty hope, which is ultimately shipwrecked on God's righteous justice.

It's interesting to notice that Ethan picked up on this. Hear what he says:
ETHAN: Ah, that's refreshing to hear. But I'm puzzled, then, because more hardline Christians insist that I am doomed to hell because Jesus is 'the way, the truth and the light', and that no one enters the kingdom of heaven except through him. Now, that sounds pretty unequivocal.
Although Jesus is indeed the Light, the passage he's referring to actually says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (Joh 14:6). I think it was very astute of him to pick up on this point, even if it was only something he recalled other "hardline Christians" referencing. As Peter noted, "there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Act 4:12), one of the most attested to and consistent themes running throughout scripture. Ethan is quite right on this.

Cathy responds, however:
CATHY: Those same [hardline] Christians are called to go forth and teach, not go forth and judge. It is my duty as a Christian to teach you about Christ, by my words, my life, etc. To say that one must accept Jesus in order to get into heaven damns a great many good people who never have heard of him. For me, to say that you are damned because you do not believe is wrong.
This, I confess, absolutely astonishes me.

First of all, the Christian would not be judging him. The Christian would simply be answering his question. He asked how God can be just in condemning him, and the Christian would simply be answering this by explaining the truths contained in God's Word, those which defend exactly how God is just in this. The Christian does not judge him by quoting and explaining scripture; it's the testimony of God's Word that is judging him.

Secondly, to say that one must accept Jesus in order to be saved is to quote scripture! I am the Way, scripture proclaims of Jesus! No one comes to the Father but through Me, scripture proclaims of Jesus! It is scripture which says that whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him! It is the Word of God which says that whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son! Scripture proclaims that there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved! It is God's Word which tells us that to believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ is God's commandment!

To say that one must accept Jesus in order to be saved does indeed damn a great many people, but who are you to say that they are good? How are they good? Integral to answering that question is the answer to this one: What is 'good'? "God alone is good," Jesus said, because morality is grounded in God's nature, his authority, will, and law. Whatever fails to conform to God's holy nature, whatever is not informed and influenced by God's authority, will, and law, or grounded therein, it is sin. If someone's moral authority and motivation is something other than God, if their life is want of conformity to God's righteous and holy nature, then they are absolutely not good! To suggest anything to the contrary is to suggest a moral order that is grounded, even if partially, in something other than God. And what could that possibly be?

Nothing, for it is emphatically false, by virtue of contravening the clear word of scripture.

Ethan goes on to say:
ETHAN: Good point. But my question isn't about whether they have a right to judge me or point fingers. My question is about whether or not I, in fact, deserve hell simply because I can't muster a belief that Jesus was God, died for my sins, rose from the dead, and that I can be saved by believing in him.
Hopefully I have at least began to answer this question here, and have done something to defend God's justice and righteousness.



Ethan had one other interesting question which I wanted to address, apart from the above issue.

He said, "My question is a principled one about the conditions for salvation. The specific question of who gets to decide this, or whether I or someone else gets into heaven, doesn't concern me. It's a question about the very notion of what merits salvation, not who."

Except it is precisely a question of who, not what. And that 'who' is Christ Jesus. He alone merits salvation. We do not. Salvation is not a matter of merit but of grace, which by definition is unmerited favour. Christ alone lived a sinless life of righteousness in God's sight, and when he was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification, he reconciled those in him to God by virtue of these seven things: (1) he was their propitiation, turning aside God's wrath by suffering in his body the penalty due unto their sins; (2) he was also their expiator, having thereby removed the guilt of their sin with God having canceled the record that contained the charges against them, taking it and destroying it by nailing it to Christ's cross; (3) he imputes his righteousness to them in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in them, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit; (4) he is always in the presence of the Father, at his right hand, interceding for them; (5) he sanctifies them by the indwelling Holy Spirit, a sanctification which continually works to conform them to the image of the Son, a process he does not stop throughout their entire lives; (6) he empowers and edifies them with gifts of the Holy Spirit, to not only encourage and uplift one another but to also proclaim the gospel of salvation throughout the world with boldness and with the powerful conviction of the Spirit; (7) and in the end, those in Christ ultimately find themselves fully transformed into glorified bodies at his coming.

This is what merits salvation, and there is only one 'who': Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and one and only Son of the living God. There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.