Several months ago, I had a conversation with a college student that left me distressed. As a professor at a small Christian university, I have the privilege of talking to students about all kinds of things, including spirituality and religion. On this particular day, a student had made an appointment with me to discuss changing his major to religion. The conversation, however, turned to much more important questions than what Sean should major in. As we talked, Sean opened up to me about some deep concerns. He had grown up in an evangelical Christian home. His parents were very involved in a church. Sean had gone through a period of doubting and rebellion, but in high school he got involved in a Bible study group that helped him reaffirm his Christian faith. I could tell, though, that his time in college continued to be a time of questioning his faith.
Sean told me that he had become friends with another student who called herself a Christian, but who was a member of a church that many evangelical Christians would say is outside of the boundaries of historical Christian faith. I could tell that out of his conversations with his friend, Sean had developed a deep respect for her conviction and faith. But it raised a question that was deeply troubling for him: “What if she is right in what she believes and I am wrong? Will I go to hell? Lots of groups of Christians who claim to believe and teach the truth about God. They don’t agree,”Sean worried aloud to me. “What if my beliefs are the wrong ones? What if I do not believe what I need to believe to get into heaven?”
I have thought about that conversation with Sean a number of times since. In ruminating about it, I was reminded of a day, many years ago when I was visiting an independent Bible church. I was reading their statement of beliefs. I don’t remember the exact words, but I am pretty sure it said something like, “We believe that a person can (only?) be saved by believing in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for his sins.” (I am pretty sure it didn’t say ‘his or her sins,’ but I suppose that is what they meant. That statement struck me as wrong at the time, and it strikes me as wrong today. The implication is that no one can be saved if he or she does not hold the correct doctrinal belief about Christ’s death. Salvation, in short, depends on having the correct theology. I would argue that this is unbiblical. What is wrong about the statement is not the doctrinal theory of salvation that is referred to, although we could discuss that. What is wrong about it is that it claims that one is saved by believing a particular doctrine, a particular formulation of Christian truth. I can’t think of any passage in the Bible that suggests that heaven has an entrance exam in theology. I know some, perhaps many, Christians will get upset when I say this, but I do not believe that anyone is saved by believing a particular doctrine or kept from being saved because they didn’t quite get their doctrinal beliefs in line.
Again, I remember many years ago reading an illustration of the nature of faith. It went something like this: Imagine that you have fallen off a cliff and are hanging on for dear life to a shrub growing on the side of the rock. A voice comes from below. “Let go of the branch. I am on a ledge right below you. I will catch you and keep you from falling.” You hear a real voice. You are not just imagining it or hoping there is someone there. You can trust the voice and let go or keep holding on. Trusting the voice takes faith. Faith is not just hoping there is someone below and letting go. It is responding to a real voice, trusting the person that is uttering the words of salvation. That’s something like what I remember about the illustration. But take the illustration a bit further. Just what does it mean to trust? Does it mean having the right beliefs about who the person is? Not at all! Faith is hearing a voice offering help and allowing the source of the voice to help you. Imagine that I am the one holding on for dear life and it is my best friend who is calling out to me, but the wind is obscuring my friend’s voice and in my state of mind I don’t recognize the voice. Imagine that I think it is a fireman or an emergency rescue person who has come to save me. Nevertheless, I hear the voice and am confident that the person who is speaking with me is ready and able to rescue me. So I let go. What is my friend going to do when it becomes clear that I didn’t know it was her? Let me go? Push me off the ledge and send me to my doom? Of course not. Surely we will hug and laugh and rejoice that even though I was confused and mistaken, I put my life in her hands and she saved me! And we’ll go back to our friends and family and party together because I am okay.
I didn’t have a very good answer for Sean as he sat in my office and shared his concerns. I hope that the fact that I listened to his worries was a help in itself. When students ask me questions or make comments, it is usually later on that I think of a response. To be honest, that’s probably fine, because it’s the answers we find for ourselves that really help us answer our questions. But I will say that Sean helped me think about my own faith, as students often do when they raise questions about such matters. And the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the God I believe in, the God I see in the Bible, the God who sent Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners, is not a God who gives an entry exam at the gates of heaven. Jesus did say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.” Just as there are some Christians who get upset when I say there is no entry exam for heaven, there will be others (both Christians and non-Christians) who will get upset when I suggest its true that Jesus is the only way to the Father. But what Jesus didn’t say is also important. He said, “no one comes to the Father but by me.” He didn’t go on, “and if you don’t quite get my name right, if you get confused about who I am, I’m going to let you go.” No, the God of Jesus Christ is a God of grace. The voice of God is calling out to all of us on this planet. There is a lot of yelling going on in our world that makes it very hard to hear the voice. Maybe we should quit yelling so people can hear God’s voice more clearly. There’s a lot of suffering and pain that make it very hard to think straight. Maybe if we can relieve some of the pain of others, they will hear God’s voice to them. There’s a lot of just plain selfishness that causes us to hear the voice say what we want to hear rather than what God wants us to hear. Certainly, we can be more open to learning from others, realizing that we might just have it wrong sometimes. In the meantime, is God going to let us drop if we don’t quite get it right? I really don’t think so. The God of Jesus is a God of grace who is waiting, longing to catch us. The New Testament claims that this God became a human being, suffered the most horrendous death to make it possible for us to come back to him. A God who loves us that much is not going to let anyone who trusts the divine voice slip from the ledge, no matter how confused. And one last thing: it says in the Bible that whenever Jesus catches one of us who would otherwise fall on down to death, there is laughter and partying in heaven.
I truly hope Sean will come to understand that God will not push him into hell just because he doesn’t quite believe the right things. I pray that Sean will grow to see the incredible love of the God who will hold him in grace and continue to believe in him, even when Sean is not quite sure what he believes himself.