My friend, Lucy, has recently lost her mum. Her father had died when Lucy was two, and her sister a baby, and her mother had brought them up on an army pension. “She was a shining example of selflessness, and strength in adversity,” Lucy says.
Now, Lucy tells me she is having very awkward conversations with her teenage daughters who adored their lovely grandmother.
You see, Lucy is an evangelical, and her mother was an atheist.
* * *
“What?” I say, appalled. “You can’t believe the Jesus we both know would consign your lovely, kindly strong mum to Hades, to torment, desperate for a drop of water to cool her tongue because she was in agony in the fire?” (Luke 16:23).
“Well,” Lucy says, a trifle doubtfully. “It does say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
I sigh. I am silent. Who am I to argue against John 3:16, Tim Tebow and the massive evangelical tradition?
But I am dubious about pastiche theologies built on selected verses. Especially on a verse which says, “God so loved the world that he sent his son to redeem” not “God so hated the world that he sent his son to condemn it.”
We need to look at the entire revelation of God in Scripture, at the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6). We need to look at Jesus, who modelled mercy and compassion in his life, and in every parable he told, who showed us God as the shepherd looking for the one strayed sheep, the Father on the battlements, looking out in hope for the return of the son who had rejected him.
* * *
A man, MY man, writhes on a cross, dehydrated, asphyxiated, his head pierced with thorns. The pain from his nail-pierced hands and feet is excruciating.
In a haze of exhaustion, he lifts himself on that nail, and says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Sorry, wait a minute, forgive whom? The believers?
Pontius Pilate and the Romans who flogged and crucified him callously, carelessly, because he was too much trouble.
The Pharisees, who delivered him up because of envy because all the people flocked to him. (Matt 27:18).
The crowd who shouted “Crucify him,” the very crowd he had miraculously fed, and who had feted him.
His own disciples who abandoned him
The thief who mocked him
The mockers who said, “He trusteth in God, let God deliver him; let him deliver him if he delights in him.”
* * *
Were all these people for whom Jesus requested forgiveness believers?
The night before he had said, “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.”
The sins of the world.
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John cried. (John 1:29)
My sins, your sins, Lucy’s mother’s sins, my departed father’s sins, the sins of the world.
Jesus taught us to forgive aught against any when we stood praying. Would he do less? Jesus taught us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us, and do good to those who hate us. Would he do less?
Oh, when will we get the shattering, cosmic significance of the Cross of Christ?
The Father agreeing to send his oldest son as a scapegoat, paying in full for the sins of mankind, everyone, because fathers can be lovely like that.
* * *
So do I believe in hell? Yes, of course, I do. Hell and money were Jesus’ most frequent subjects.
Am I certain of its demography? No. Of course not. But I believe it will be far more sparsely populated than some evangelicals think.
For I do know that Jesus said, “All sins and offences shall be forgiven men,” (Mark 3:28) , except the sin against the Holy Spirit.
* * *
The Jesus I know from the Gospels is a God of mercy, of compassion, a bleeding-heart (liberal, perhaps), with a sharp eye and a sardonic tongue for religiosity and religious hypocrisy which really got him.
When I talked about the Jesus I know, an evangelical friend told me, “You can’t say “the Jesus I know”. You can’t pick and choose.”
But, of course, I have to go with the Jesus I know from my careful reading, study and near-memorisation of the Gospels over the last decades.
How stupid it would be to go with the Jesus someone else knows! With the Jesus of the evangelicals, or the Jesus of the Calvinists, or the Jesus of the liberals, or the Jesus of the liberation theologians, when the real Jesus both lives within the pages of the Gospels and within my heart, ready to step out of the pages and wreak havoc in my life, should I let him?
* * *
All these people had seen and heard Jesus—Pontius Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees, the Saducees, the Jews, the adoring crowd, which later bayed for his blood, the disciples who loved him, and then abandoned him, the women who stuck by him. They made vastly different things of him.
I mean, Jesus is GOD, for heaven’s sake. None of us can comprehend him wholly and entirely. We all have blind spots, blue-spot cataracts, in our comprehension of him.
Why, why, why, are we privileging Calvin’s merciless reading of who goes to heaven, and who doesn’t over our instinctive moral sense and our instinctive knowledge of the Jesus revealed in scripture? We cannot use theology as a stronghold to ensure we are in, and safe, and excused from the rigours of thinking.
WHY should we accept someone else’s pre-digested Jesus, the Jesus of the Catholics, or the Evangelicals or the Jesus of the Calvinists who sends the vast majority of people to hell, the Jesus of those who believe that most of Africa, and Asia and Latin America and Europe will burn in hell, while, they, you see, they accepted Christ in Sunday School aged six and prayed the sinner’s prayer, and so despite a lifetime of greed, cupidity and self-indulgence, they will be in a nice, quiet white heaven.
The Jesus I know is a God of inclusivity, not exclusivity.
Well, all sins and offences shall be forgiven men, Jesus says, so let me not get worked up by stupidity.
* * *
We are made in God’s image. Christ dwells in our heart. When other people’s theology conflicts with our instinctive moral sense, we have to quietly agree to differ, and not sacrifice our common sense, and our instinctive knowledge of God and Christ, to fit in with the dominant theology of our day. Which well may shift within our century.
Salvation is not a theological examination. The sinners prayer is not a shibboleth.
I have family members who are good Catholics, but may not have made a profession of faith Calvin might recognize. Am I afraid that they are in hell? No! I have faith in the goodness of God.
It’s not our works that save us, and it’s not our confessions of faith that save us. And it’s not Scripture that saves us either. It is Christ who saves us because he can, because he is good, and perhaps all our faith contributes but a mustard seed to our salvation, and perhaps all our works contribute but another mustard seed, but ultimately, our eternal destiny, like our earthly destiny, depends on the goodness and mercy of God. Because he is a Father. Because he loves people who are made in his image. Because Jesus shed his blood to atone for the sins of the world.