Note to my readers from other religions: Please try to be tolerant of my disagreement with you on religious pluralism. I am not saying that you are bad people. I am not saying that I am going to treat you badly because we disagree. You are just as valuable a person whether we agree on religion or not. I think that I am serving you, though, by urging you to consider whether you have focused on truth in your search for God. Is truth your number one concern? Anyway, please forgive me if you are offended. I mean well.
Dennis Prager is probably my favorite talk show host, along with Hugh Hewitt. Recently he wrote a fine article defending traditional marriage, which caused someone I know and like very much to ask me how Christian doctrine could forbid such a good, effective man from going to Heaven when he dies? Isn’t God mostly concerned with having his human creatures do “good” things? Isn’t that the point of religion – to make us all be nice to one another so that an ordered civilization marches in safety and happiness? Well, what’s the answer?
(The friend I am talking about is a Catholic-raised non-Christian, by the way)
So I talked to him about it, and recommended that he read a short article.
He answers the question “Am I going to Hell if I don’t believe in Jesus?”.
Sometimes we have to reframe a critic’s question in order to give an accurate answer. The questions, Am I going to Hell if I don’t believe in Jesus?, is an example. As it is asked, it makes it sounds as though Jesus were the problem, not the answer. As though failing a theology quiz sends us to Hell. Instead, we need to reframe the question to answer accurately and show that sin is the problem, and Jesus is the only way because He alone has solved that problem. Sinners don’t go to Hell for failing petty theology quizzes.
While giving a talk at a local Barnes & Noble, someone asked why it was necessary for him to believe in Jesus. He was Jewish, believed in God, and was living a moral life. Those were the important things, it seemed—how you lived, not what you believed.
To him the Christian message depicted a narrow-minded God pitching people into Hell because of an arcane detail of Christian theology. How should I answer?
Remember that the first responsibility of an ambassador is knowledge—an accurately informed message. What is our message?
One way to say it is, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’ll go to Hell. If you do believe, you’ll go to Heaven.”
That’s certainly true, as far as it goes. The problem is it’s not clear. Since it doesn’t give an accurate sense of why Jesus is necessary, it makes God sound petty.
So how do we fix this? Here’s how I responded to my Jewish questioner. I asked him two simple questions.
Christians all need to understand how to explain why sincere beliefs and good works are not enough to satisfy God’s moral demands on us. My friend thinks that if a person is a “good” person, then he should go to Heaven. But God is not the flapping Tooth Fairy. God is more concerned that we understand the truth about his existence and character – that is the whole point of sending Jesus to die as an atonement for our rebellion. The problem isn’t that we lie, cheat and steal. The problem is that we want to get our own happiness apart from God, without wanting to know him as he is, and without having to care about his goals and his character in the relationship.
Here’s what God wants us to know about ourselves:
- we have to realize that what we really are is rebels against God
- rebels don’t want God to be there
- rebels don’t want God to have any goals or character different from their goals and character
- rebels don’t want God to place any demands on them
- rebels don’t want to have any awareness that God is real or that he is morally perfect
- rebels want to be liked as they are now – they don’t want to change as part of a relationship
- rebels want to conceive of their own way to happiness, and to use other people and God for their own ends
- rebels don’t want there to be a mind-independent objective reality, they want to invent their own reality that allows them to be praised and celebrated for doing whatever makes them happy at every point along their lives
- rebels would rather die that put their pursuit of happiness second
- rebels have no interest in rules, judgments, accountability or punishments
Here’s what God wants for us to be saved from our rebelling:
- we have to know his real character so we have a genuine relationship with him
- the best way to know his character is by taking time to study what Jesus did in history
- what the incarnation tells us is that God is willing to humiliate himself by taking on a human nature
- what the crucifixion tells us is that God is willing to die in our place even though we’re rebelling against him (Jesus is Savior)
- part of being saved is to trust God by allowing his character to transform our desires and actions (Jesus is Lord)
- as we grow in letting the character of Jesus inform our actions, we build a set of experiences that are like Jesus’ experiences – i.e. – we obey God rather than men, and we suffer for our obedience – just like Jesus
Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for our rebellion against God, and the most important thing we have to do in this life is to come to terms with who he was and what he did. Your own good deeds don’t justify you before God, because he isn’t interested in what you can do unless you are first interested in knowing who he is. A Christian’s good deeds are the result of identifying Jesus as Savior and Lord, and then following him by making decisions in your own life that respect his character. God doesn’t need you to solve all the world’s problems – he could do that himself. It’s not what you do, it’s who you know and trust that counts. The good deeds are just your way of trying to be like him and trying to feel the same thing he felt when he gave his life for you. You have a friend and you want to be like him in order to know what he feels so you have sympathy with him.
(Note to my friend: that is why sometimes it is good to love a person just because she needs love, and not because she is guaranteed to love you back – even if I get hurt loving her, I have the experience of loving her well, just like Jesus loves her well)
The main point is that knowing Jesus as the revelation of God’s character, and then following Jesus, is more important than doing “good things”.
The first commandment, according to Jesus, is found in Matthew 22:34-38:
34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.
35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
38This is the first and greatest commandment.
The second commandment which comes after that one has to do with loving your neighbor. But the second one is not the greatest commandment. You can’t love God unless you know God. That it, unless you make knowing about his existence and character a priority in your life to the point where you find out the truth about his existence and character. And not as your own opinion, or as the opinion of the people around you, or as the faith-tradition you were raised in. No. You have to value God enough to respond to his overtures to you. You have to know him in truth, not as a quick checkbox that you check off for an hour on Sundays to make your life “easier” because you are happier and the people around you like you. You have to respond to God like a Christian in an Iranian jail cell – out of allegiance based on gratitude and recognition. You have to know him before you can act to love him – who he is and what he’s done.
The way that Protestants like me draw the line is as follows – justification (how your rebellion is canceled) is God’s job. He draws you to him while you are still in rebellion, but you have a choice to resist him or not. If you resist his unilateral action to save you, then you are responsible for rejecting him. Sanctification (about doing good works) is not about canceling your rebellion, it’s about the later step of re-prioritizing your life, so that you make decisions that reflect the character of Jesus, so that you become more like him. Even your desires change as the relationship progresses. It is something you work at – you study and experience, study and experience. The whole point of studying apologetics is to build yourself into a love machine that fears nothing and holds up under fire, because you know the truth and the truth makes you free to do what you ought to do regardless of the consequences (e.g. – failure to be recognized and requited by someone you loved well).
The most important relationship is not the horizontal relationship with your neighbor, it’s the vertical relationship with God himself. And when you know God as he really revealed himself in history, then your desires – and consequently your actions – will change naturally. When you know God as a person, you freely make all kinds of sacrifices for him. You put yourself second because you want to work on the relationship. You start to believe that your own happiness isn’t as as important as working on the relationship. It’s like building a house. You don’t notice the sacrifices.
Sometimes, I think that the whole point of Christianity and that vertical relationship is so that we know God better. We sympathize more with him than we do with ourselves, because of how unfairly people treat him, how good and loving he is, and how right his goals are. It’s not that he needs help, because he’s God – he’s sovereign. But the relationship gets to the point where it becomes reasonable for you to put yourself second with God, and to let his goals become your goals – you want the relationship with a loving God more than you want to be happy. You get tired of ignoring the person who loves you most – you start to wonder what it would be like to actually respond to him. For Christians, the demands of this other being eventually seem to be not so terrible after all – and we try to put aside our own desires and to give him gifts and respect instead of worrying so much about being happy all the time.
It’s not irrational to be kind to the person who loves you the most – who sacrificed the most for you.
I happen to know Dennis Prager a little from his show, and his basic view of religion is that you can believe anything you want about God as long as you do good works. Many people in other world religions seem to judge religions based on the fruit they produce – not by testing truth claims using logic and evidence. (That goes for Michael Medved as well) And my point is that Prager’s view is the results of a decision that Prager has made about what religion is about – that the truth is not the criterion by which to judge religions. In another show, he was explaining how people should choose a religion, and his first rule was that you should consider the religion of your parents and family. Why does he say that? Because religion is not about truth for Prager, it’s about community and good works.
Dennis Prager is a far, far better man than I am. He has done enormous amounts more good than I ever will. But on that Day, he’s going to have to answer for his sins. But I have an Advocate who will answer for mine. And I am not indifferent to that Advocate – I am not indifferent to what he has done for me. He is not a stranger to me. He is not a get-out-of-jail free card that you just use and throw away once it’s used. I play for his team every day. I know him well. His existence and character are things I know through study, not things I have faith in, through uninformed credulity. I wear his colors the same in public and in private. And I know what it means to not be liked by people for being different than they are. I know what it is like to be hurt and alone, and to obey anyway.
Here is a series of posts I did on why people go to Hell.