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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Friday, July 02, 2010

"The way, the truth and the life..."

Someone asked me That Question the other day. Clergy peeps, you know the one. Christians all get it at one time or another, and priests and pastors with a certain regularity.

"What happens to Them after death?"

("Them" can include Jews, Muslims, other sorts of non-Christians, or even *low whisper* non-believers, agnostics and atheists.)

Now, I realize that some of my esteemed brothers and sisters in Christ believe they have an easy answer to this one. They quote a favorite verse, John 14:6, as Jesus' definitive answer to that question:

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

And they assume that settles the issue. Christian believers will be welcomed into Heaven, while all others get a ticket on the fast train to Elsewhere.

The thing is, the Bible has this pesky foible: there's more in there than just one verse. There are actually lots of verses, and they say lots of things about Jesus, God, faith, life, and so forth. Which means, as my favorite NT professor often notes, it's more complicated than that.

Even after learning a little in seminary about a couple thousand years of discussion and debate, the short answer is, I don't believe we really know. No one does for sure, except God. But I can tell you what I believe...

First, yes: I believe that Jesus matters. Knowing the Messiah makes a difference. I do believe that. It's why I'm Christian, and a priest.

However, we hear a few other things as well.

1a. We know that for thousands of years before Jesus, God had a covenant with the Hebrew people-- a connection, a relationship, affirmed and reaffirmed, repeatedly. Jesus did not erase that-- as he said, he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17).

1b. Throughout scripture, over and over, we see that ours is a God of second chances. Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Rahab... all the way forward through Samaritans and sinful women and even wayward apostles in the Gospels, God is always giving people another shot, another chance, another opportunity. I could quote verses all day-- it's a consistent theme, from Genesis to Revelation.

So why wouldn't it be true that the people beloved enough to be the ones with whom God's first covenant was made, not have the same sort of second chance option offered them yet again?

2. I believe this is also true for many sorts of non-Christians, especially when you consider what a lousy witness to Jesus we his followers have often been. Never mind history; think about the Christians that make the press in our own day with mean-spirited announcements and/or bad ("UnChristian") behavior: pedophile clergy, money-grubbing televangelists, Ted Haggard, Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, Donald Wildmon, etc. Let alone the far-less-than-perfect rest of us! With this sort of witness to go by, I can see why it would be very hard for a non-believer, looking at the Body of Christ, to accept Jesus as a Savior worth following.

But of course, that is not the fullness of Christ, not by a long shot.

Given all that, I have to believe that God, who so loved the world that he came in the flesh to live with and die for ALL of us, would provide an opportunity at some point to see clearly what Jesus was/is all about-- if not in this life, then perhaps in the next. I do not know how it happens, nor can any of us on this side of eternity; but that's what I believe.


Anonymous Mark J. said...

And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

July 02, 2010 8:29 PM  

Blogger Di said...

I'm right there with you, Jane Ellen.

July 03, 2010 6:49 AM  

Blogger Ecgbert said...

Right, we don't know. Part of the range of opinion in Catholic doctrine re: John 14:6 and its add-on, extra ecclesiam nulla salus. The strict position (sort of a cartoon of Catholicism made famous by the late Fr Leonard Feeney) is allowed but, thank God, not the only one; universalism (a cartoon of the mainline?) is not because it doesn't make sense as it would violate free will.

I'm not in the Protestant right even politically but what strikes me is almost all of your list of Christian bad guys comes from it. Mainline bias? Nobody from the Christian left? As far as I know, nobody, thank God, takes Fred Phelps seriously but Jim Wallis's views for example (hooray for the peace positions but...) are widely accepted so they're much more dangerous. Of course I'm not presuming to say he's hellbound - ! - but a bit of balance seems only right.

July 03, 2010 9:00 AM  

Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

YF: Point taken. What I reflexively tend to find objectionable is less a specific stance, than the tendency-- more, the eagerness-- to wield perceived standards like a weapon, as though the Bible were a brickbat intended to beat one's opponent into submission. Violence, perhaps especially the verbal or emotional sort, committed in the name of the Prince of Peace, is appalling.

That said, perhaps the fault of the hardline Christian left (who are not guiltless in the area of poor witness) is the opposite: the idea that Jesus is cool, but every belief system is equal, and there's no real need for a Savior so long as one lives a good life, so why bother?

July 03, 2010 10:05 AM  

Blogger Unknown said...

I love this story...

Once upon a time the archangel Gabriel heard the voice of God speaking from paradise, blessing someone. Gabriel said “Surely this is some important servant of my Lord, God the Father. He must be a great saint, or hermit, or wise man.”

The archangel went down to earth looking for the man, but he could not find him, neither on earth nor in heaven. Then he addressed God and said “Oh Lord, my God, please show me how to find the object of your love.”

God answered him, “Go to this villiage. And there, in a little temple, you will see a fire.”
The angel went down to the temple, and he found a man praying before an idol. Then he went back to God and said “Lord, how can you look with love upon this idol worshiper?”

God said “It is true that he does not understand me properly. Not one living is capable of understanding me as I am. The wisest of the whole human race are just as far from really understanding me as this man is. I look not at his mind, but at his heart. The heart of this man searches for me, and therefore he is close to me.”

After saying that, I believe that Romans 2 does a fine job of answering this question, "12All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares."

After setting this "excuse" (that's what it truly is) aside, I generally turn to a question Jesus asked, "But who do YOU say that I am?" It is here that the discussion can get quite interesting!

July 05, 2010 3:17 PM  

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