Reader Response: When Hell is OFF the Table...

I got an e-mail several weeks ago:
* * *
I am interested in in the statement you made, "I do not think those who reject Christianity are doomed to hell." Could you explain why? Is there another way to Heaven? If so, then why did Jesus have to die? Why would the Father put His Son through all that if there were some other way? Didn't Jesus ask the Father in the Garden of Gethsame, "Father, if there be another way, let this cup pass"?

Thanks for the things you brought up about Paul's views on women. I am definately going to look into all that you brought up.
* * *
My response:
Dear XXXX,
Thanks for the e-mail! I realize this is tough stuff - and I don't take it lightly, or with disrespect toward my theology-of-origin, which was much more exclusive. I don't expect or intend to change your mind, but I appreciate that you're asking questions, and always enjoy making new friends online.

I agree that historically, Christianity has taught a fairly exclusive doctrine of salvation: those who don’t accept Christ are condemned to hell. That teaching is easier to accept when you’re (a) an oppressed believer, living under violent Roman persecution, or (b) part of a theocratic medieval society where everyone is Christian. In either scenario, it’s unlikely that typical Christians faced the dilemma of a neighbor or loved one who did not believe.

That's probably a core reason our soteriology developed and cemented as it did. In the 21st Century, however, we confront this problem daily with friends, family, coworkers and classmates.

What's complicated is that biblical testimony is not singularly conclusive on this issue. There are plenty of scriptures available for constructing arguments in favor of exclusivism, inclusivism and universalism. I don't believe anyone “wins” the fight if it comes down to "arming" oneself with proof-texts that validate whichever position. The truth is, on a very personal level, we all choose to believe what seems true to us (even if we refuse to admit it). Many of the most conservative Christians I have known still make special allowances for people they care about – people who “couldn’t possibly go to hell!” Objective truth is one thing, subjective relationships are another. My friend Jim Henderson ( says, “When people like each other, the rules change.” Many of these changed rules remain secret because people are scared of risking judgment or reproach from their churches. I have decided to accept the backlash and make my rule-breaking public because I think it’s helpful to talk about these things openly. I know my salvation is in Christ, but I don’t demand that of others. If Jesus came only to offer exclusive salvation through himself, then he actually made things worse for folks; not better. I believe Jesus flung the door to God wide open! George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, referred to an "Inner Light" that every human being carries: God's immediate presence. I affirm that spiritual connection in us all, and believe it is inherently salvific.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, "the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."

As for Jesus having to die, typically, the Christian economics of sin and forgiveness demand a price for humanity’s wickedness. There are lots of theories as to how this works: Jesus paid our ransom, took our punishment, etc… but they all generally agree that sin creates a vacuum in the universe that must be filled.

Jesus Christ’s mission on earth undermined all the conventional wisdom of justice, salvation, power and hierarchy that the world so naturally accumulates. It was gentle, counter-intuitive, and it frustrated the motives of selfishness, ambition and dominance. Jesus told people what was true, not what they wanted to hear. At first they interpreted it the way they wanted to, and dreamed of a new Davidic kingdom. When they realized Jesus wasn’t going to deliver what they envisioned, they turned on him. Broken, scared, selfish people did what broken, scared, selfish people tend to do: they ravaged and brutalized what was pure.

I believe that the miracle of Jesus is the portrayal of a God who suffers: a weak and dying God, who chooses to identify with humanity firsthand.

Did Jesus have to suffer and die? I honestly don’t think God demanded it. Was it an inevitability given the innate conflict between darkness and light? Absolutely. In that way, I agree that sin creates a vacuum in the universe: it is inherent dysfunction. In the natural order, actions have equal, opposite reactions. In the supernatural order, Jesus Christ’s interruption into history created an overcompensation of light that continues to grow and swell through the ages, into today. We are invited to participate in this movement: to save, and to be saved. Jesus of Nazareth showed us that God promises to be our advocate, a participant in our salvation, literally our savior, and also our empowerment to "do even greater things than these..." (John 14:12)

At a very personal level, there’s something about Jesus more compelling than a moral philosophy or historic "high point" of humanity. There’s more to Jesus than wisdom. I have committed myself to loving Christ, not because I think he is my only available option, or because I think his miracles uniquely prove his truth, or even because I find other religions uncompelling. I remain in this relationships because I have the audacity to believe I know Christ. Rather than passive belief, faith is a miracle I choose to participate in.

Thanks again for your e-mail, XXXX. Blessings to you on your journey, and please feel free to e-mail any time.

Peter Walker
* * *
 I regret that this reader has not responded to my e-mail, but the invitation for further dialogue is open.


Chad Holtz said...

great word, Peter. Thanks.

Peter J Walker said...

Thanks dude.

Popular Posts