A couple of years ago about this time, I wrote a blog post that has been one of the most-visited I have ever written. I thought I would dust it off a bit and offer it to you again, from Zurich.
Not long ago I had some surprising theological discussions at a wedding. (Pastors can be like religious flypaper). Two strangers were surprisingly interested in the afterlife! It did not seem like the usual wedding chit chat, at all. But it was stimulating!
One man was wondering about Rob Bell, who had just written his book questioning typical interpretations of what happens when we die. In the promo video (everything Bell thinks seems to be accompanied by a video) he asks the question, “Would God send Gandhi into eternal fire?”
Just a few minutes later another guest, Who had not been a part of the previous conversation, said he was impressed with Christianity above all the other world religions. He especially admired the call to love one’s enemies (I felt complimented by making it to the top of the world-religion heap). But he just couldn’t get over the idea that Gandhi might be in hell!
Is the fear that Gandhi might be in hell the reason no one is becoming a Christian these days? Did I miss something? Why do I have only have a slight impression of Rob Bell when random wedding guests are asking pressing theological questions on a subject about which he has already made a video?
I have a lot to learn. One thing I learned, again, at the wedding is this: most people have a rather large commitment to defending themselves from any judgment. They are not putting up with a God who would send Gandhi, or them, to hell just because of Jesus. This is what the logic sounds like to me: Gandhi’s steps toward nonviolent political action — brilliantly adapted and applied by Martin Luther King, made him a secular/Hindu saint. His sainthood has been, predictably, deconstructed in a recent biography, but that doesn’t bother people that much. Everybody knows he was good and good people should not go to hell. This logic is important to people, because when they are defending Gandhi from any judgment that might send him to hell, they are also exercising the first line of defense against any sense that they, personally, might be sinful and liable to judgment. I am always amazed that people keep making this argument, especially after years of hearing how bad everyone feels about themselves! But so often another person will rise to the occasion and claim that we can be good enough to go to heaven – and if God judges us worthy of hell, that’s not a good God.
I think the question needs to be questioned a bit. Would God send Gandhi to hell?
Why do you care?
I think people care about whether Gandhi is in hell because they still think that good people are rewarded for their goodness with a blissful state of repose in heaven, which is “up there” somewhere (and maybe we get to fly like angels, which would be cool). And they take comfort that bad people, like Hitler (it is always Hitler) will burn in hell, as bad people deserve. They think, “While I am not as good as Gandhi, I am sure not as bad a Hitler, and I am about as good as most people I meet, so is God going to send us all to burn forever with Hitler?” I have heard this piece of logic repeatedly, and I heard a version of it as a reason not to have faith at the wedding.
Let me repeat after Jesus, “If you save your life, you will lose it.” The consequences of thinking you can save your own life are huge. Holding on to the hope that your goodness is enough to save you is going to result in loss — at least the loss of what might be more than one’s earthly life. That’s what Jesus says, but people still think they just need to tip the scales of justice in their favor to get into heaven. So my question about the question is: If you think you are good enough, why do you worry about heaven and hell? If you are good enough, be content with the good enough you are. If you can’t be content with that, then trust God to be good for you, good to you and good in you as Jesus.
Why would Gandhi want to live with God forever?
Gandhi’s was good at being good and saving lives. His whole philosophy was about people from oppression through direct, nonviolent political action. It was so much better than direct, violent political action (which immediately followed the success of his nonviolent action, big time) that he became a saint, or at least he became the image he worked hard to portray. In an era in which God has been banished from the public sphere, and in which there is hardly a sense of “public” at all, anyway, the endless competition of politics is all there is left. Gandhi succeeded in “saving” people without God through brilliant, moral politics. Why would he care about being in heaven with some Western, imperialistic “god?”
What’s more, Gandhi believed in reincarnation and believed he was already, at least metaphorically, living forever, in some form. He was well acquainted with the Lord’s claims and publicly rejected them: “I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, but I do not regard him as the only begotten son of God. That epithet in its material interpretation is quite unacceptable. Metaphorically we are all sons of God, but for each of us there may be different sons of God in a special sense. Thus for me Chaitanya may be the only begotten son of God … God cannot be the exclusive Father and I cannot ascribe exclusive divinity to Jesus” (Harijan: 1937).
Although Gandhi did not accept Jesus according to His own introduction of himself, I believe that God will accept Gandhi according to his own sense of himself. God respects us, even if we do not respect him. If we choose to die under our own terms, I think those terms are respected for what they are: death. Though we will undoubtedly realize this choice on the way to our permanent death in some way I do not understand fully (of course!), I don’t think it includes being eternally tormented in fire. The death is permanent; that is punishment enough. So my question about the question is: If one does not care to be with God, so what? Why be concerned about Gandhi`s or one`s own afterlife?
Are you sure about your image of hell?
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of the age when the sheep are separated from the goats. This is the line that bothers people, even if they have just heard about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” This seems to be a reflection of Enoch 10:13 (which did not make it into the Protestant Bible) in which evil angels are locked forever in a prison at the bottom of the previously mentioned fire, in the “pit of hell.”
I do not think that God, who absorbed the ultimate violence the world could offer on the cross in Jesus Christ, is waiting around to come again in order to send millions of people to unending judgment – to absorb the ultimate violence he can offer! Yet some people do not want to follow Jesus because they believe the Bible contradicts itself by calling on people to love their enemies, while showing plainly that, in the end, God will condemn his enemies to experience ever-burning fire. Maybe quoting Miroslav Volf again will help with this misunderstanding (I think Exclusion and Embrace is a great book, if you can take the dense arguing).
“The evildoers who ‘eat up my people as they eat bread,’ says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put ‘in great terror’ (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better, why not reasoning together? Why not just display suffering love? Because evildoers ‘are corrupt’ and ‘they do abominable deeds’ (v. 1); they have ‘gone astray,’ they are ‘perverse’ (v. 3). God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah” (p. 298).
Those who do receive what no one deserves are welcomed into a renewed creation under God’s loving reign. That is the goal. The evildoers are not imprisoned, screaming in agony, in some eternal land of unrenewed creation. I think they get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.
I am amazed that at one moment I could be singing a spontaneous duet to the bride and groom (oh yes, I did that) and then be talking about Gandhi and eternal torment the next moment. It was a my kind of evening. It also reminded me that eternity is never far away from our minds. We were meant to live with God in love and peace forever. May we not resist what we most desire out of some persistent perversity.