Around this time of year, religious denominations in the U.S. tend to hold their annual conferences, while I tend to hold my breath, hoping that they do not embarrass themselves, or the Church at large, in the process. The embarrassment often comes in the form of moral pronouncements about cultural trends or paternalistic calls to pray for a particular group of lost or morally reprobate souls. These resolutions often prompt some response from the groups in question who are offended to be considered lost or morally reprobate. This kind of public discourse accomplishes nothing, and I almost never agree with any claim to know who is “in” and who is “out.”  Here’s why.

As a Christian theologian, I recognize that the formulas religious denominations use to make determinations about the salvation of others derive more from Church history and practice than carefully considered biblical interpretation. For example, in some traditions God alone elects those who are saved, while in others, you make a “personal decision.” In some traditions, you participate in a “confirmation” process that may include a particular recited prayer or baptism. Some baptize infants or very young children and some baptize adults.  Some traditions consider any sincere religious adherence to be enough. Others think that no particular religious inclination or behavior is necessary since in the end, all will be included in God’s love.  And here’s an important point – most Christian traditions would cite the Bible as a reason that they think about salvation the way that they do. Each have particular texts that they cite to defend their view of who is on the way to heaven or hell.

Here’s a quick summary of the continuum of viewpoints on the subject, from the widest to the most narrow view of salvation:

  1. Universalism  – everybody goes to heaven.
  2. Pluralism – sincere adherents of other religions go to heaven.
  3. Inclusivism – only follower of Jesus go to heaven, but some may be unconscious or vicarious Christians, meaning that they follow Jesus in spirit if not in actual name. Additionally, some Inclusivists believe in an after-death opportunity to accept the truth of Jesus before the matter is finally settled.
  4. Exclusivism – only those who consciously profess Jesus as the only way to salvation go to heaven. This means that by implication, and based on history and demographics, the majority of the people who have ever lived will go to hell.

Now my point here is not to defend a particular position (maybe I’ll address in another “Theology Thursday” post) but rather to make one simple point. In the final analysis, I personally have no idea who is in heaven and who is in hell. I have opinions and even preferences, but I’ve never been to either place (if it’s even accurate to call either a “place” in time and space) and my knowledge of the hearts and minds of particular individuals is extraordinarily limited. For that matter, my knowledge of myself is limited. I do believe that I can know something about where I stand with God, and I can perhaps make an elementary assessment of what others think of God based on their beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, etc. But to claim that I know the final eternal destiny of another person is short-sighted at best, and arrogant at worst.

So maybe we should avoid all-together claims to know who is in heaven and hell, and who is going where and when, and treat people with the kind of compassion that Christ modeled. I suspect that would do more than religious resolutions to point people toward heaven.

[Footnote: This post was inspired by a conversation with a good friend, Joel Busby, who is a thoughtful theologian and blogger in his own right. Read his blog here.]

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