Part APart BPart C

A-1: Table of Contents and Introduction
A-2: Who Are God’s People?
A-3: The Book of Life
A-4: “Second Chance” for Unbelievers?
A-5: Death and Hell
A-6: Salvation by Works?
A-7: The Role of Grace

A-2: Who are God’s People?

The Book of Daniel contains a startling revelation about the future deliverance of God’s people. “At that time [the last days of our present Age] your people shall be delivered… And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” In the Old Testament this was the most obvious reference to the Resurrection of believers – their restoration and return to life in the earthly and/or celestial realm. According to the angel, this Resurrection is for “every one who is found written in the book.”

That is, it is for the people of God of all ages, and probably a much wider range of persons than what Daniel was thinking, or even what many Christians today may think. And as the angel goes on to explain, there are different levels of reward – from those who “shall shine like the brightness of the firmament [sky] or “like the stars” down to those who will have to endure “shame and everlasting contempt”. (Daniel 12:1-3)

As in the illustration of a mountain range, we should expect that there exist plenty of “foothills”, in-between stages, and varying degrees of resurrection and reward – lying between the extremes of “everlasting life” and “shame and everlasting contempt”. Or in other Scriptures: between “the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15); between “life and condemnation” (John 5:29)

So, rather than reducing the Celestial Realm into simplistic, black-and-white terms (either Heaven or Hell), a more mature perspective would understand a reality that is far more diverse, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional than our finite minds could ever imagine.

In Old Testament days, God showed His favor towards the descendants of Abraham who later became followers of the laws of Moses. These were the people of God in those days. Their laws, given to them by God, guided their behavior and government. As a result Israel served, in the midst of a pagan world, as the example of a nation that worshiped the God of Heaven. They were the “covenant people”, the “chosen people”.

And this feeling of exclusivity was very much a part of the Hebrews’ religion. To them God said, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people.” (Exodus 19:5; also Deuteronomy 14:26, 26:18) How proud the children of Israel must have felt to hear that – “above all people”.

No matter how humble we may think we are, there is hardly anyone who doesn’t secretly like to think of him/herself as special, better than others, and unique. True, each of us is unique and special to God, and God likes to bestow merit and distinction upon His children… as long as it is tempered with humility and the understanding that everyone else is also unique and special to God. Without that perspective it is easy for a group, denomination, fellowship, or even an individual to slip into the misguided belief that they are the one and only people of God.

God loves His image-bearing creatures, and He values us. Because God values human beings, each has intrinsic, essential value. This should cause us to value each human being. All humans, no matter what their gender, race, skin tone, or creed, are created equal. Each person bears God’s image and should be respected and treated as such. Neither one’s place nor one’s value in society diminishes a person’s intrinsic value.
        …Seeing others as God’s image bearers should rid us of racial, religious, and all other prejudices. It should cause us, as individuals, to view and treat others with respect, regardless of our differences.
        (“What Does It Mean to Be Human?” – Peter Amsterdam, Anchor April 28, 2015)

To some extent God goes along with human nature. That is, He confines Himself to work within our boundaries. Yet at the same time He invites us to stretch beyond them. In line with this we learn that, a few centuries after the Israeli nation had been established, the prophet Isaiah added some perspective, proclaiming that the Gentiles (non-Jews) would one day belong to the Family of God.

From chapter 42 on till the end of his Book, Isaiah several times mentions the inclusion of the Gentiles through the work of God’s “Servant” – Jesus Christ who made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:7) Perhaps the best example is the following passage in which God is speaking to His “Servant” (Christ): “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

To establish the Israeli nation in those days was a remarkable feat, a grand testimony of God’s power as recounted in the Book of Exodus and in the rest of the Old Testament. But in God’s way of looking at things, that was “a small thing” compared to His greater desire to reach out “to the ends of the earth” to bring His “salvation… to the Gentiles”.

So when the “Servant” (Christ) did enter our earthly realm, He shifted the emphasis – by teaching that the true “children of Abraham” were those who did “the works of Abraham”. (John 8:39) He warned His fellow Jews that the “sons of the kingdom (pointing to those who were not doing the works of Abraham) will be cast out into outer darkness” while others (Gentiles) would “come from east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 8:11-12) He even went so far as to say to His Jewish enemies, “How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33 – KJV)

To understand this better, consider the following scenario. If one were to pick 50 people at random from a crowd and call them “God’s covenant people”, chances are that some or many of them will not be very “good” people. So one would have to apply strict rules of behavior to keep everyone in line. Essentially, this is what happened to the children of Israel with the laws of Moses. But the liberating “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” – the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit – served to re-establish what it meant to be a member of God’s family… and it served to open the gates for people all over the earth to enter into His Kingdom. (Romans 8:2)

Much of the apostle Paul’s writing was devoted to what was a controversial issue in those days: does one have to be Jewish or observe the Jewish laws in order to become one of God’s people? In many of his epistles, he spells it out, as in Romans 2:28-29, for example: “for he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision [initiation into the Hebrew faith] that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” This exhortation for the Jewish people sprang, no doubt, from Christ’s teaching that “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” (John 4:23)

Regarding the issue of whether the law was necessary, Paul’s answer to that: “You also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another – to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.” (Romans 7:4) The implication here is that the old system of the laws of Moses could not bring forth enough “fruit to God”. The new broader-based, more flexible approach and greater intimacy that Jesus introduced would succeed in bearing more “fruit” – the benefits and blessings that God desires to bestow on His entire Creation.

Now, with hindsight, it is easy to see. It is almost a matter of common sense: why, in His fairness and justice,  would God want to limit His benefits to one race of people to the exclusion of others? Why should not His favor extend to all?

Jewish people in those days were pretty sure their special covenant relationship gave them an inside track into the Kingdom of God. (See Appendix 1.) But the Laws of Moses couldn’t truly measure people’s motives and relationship with the Almighty, nor could they determine their fate in the Afterlife. “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham.” (Romans 9:6-7). What was true on a corporate level did not necessarily play out on the individual level.

But it would seem nowadays in the ranks of Christendom, there is a similar problem. As the Jewish people of old had to recognize that they were not exclusively the one and only people of God, so do Christians in this modern day probably need to stretch their boundaries of whom they consider should belong in the category of “God’s people”.

Theologians sometimes distinguish between the “visible church” (the church as Christians on earth see it) and the “invisible church” (the church as God in heaven sees it). This distinction emphasizes two truths. First, only God, who reads hearts, knows the ultimate makeup of the “invisible church” – those whom he has called (“The Lord knows those who are his.” 2 Tim 2:19) Second, there are some within the “visible church” who are not genuine believers, though they may look as if they are (cf. Matt 7:15-16; Act 20:29-30; 1 John 2:19). [from “The Church”, pg. 2532, ESV Study Bible, Crossway Bibles, 2008]

Christ’s coming into the world shattered the old framework of the Laws of Moses. That era had served its purpose, and the time had come to re-orient humanity’s relationship to God. “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” (John 4:23) For “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1Corinthians 15:50)

God prefers for His people to love Him voluntarily. He is a personal God who desires from us a personal relationship based on trust, rather than a rule-keeping, going-through-the-motions ritual. The loving relationship that God prefers to have with us has the additional benefit of causing His people to become stronger in faith and better connected to Him in spirit.

So who exactly are the “followers of Christ” – the “people of God” in this day and age? A delicate theological question perhaps. Basically, it should be anyone who loves Christ… but could also include many who are following the “true Light” but just haven’t connected the dots yet to see that Christ who is the “Word made flesh and dwelt among us” is the “true Light” which they have been following – “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.”. (John 1:14,9)

Every person has a conscience, that ability to discern right and wrong, that feeling that one should do what is right. Conscience is, in fact, the guiding voice of God in us human beings – something that distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. Many folks then, without realizing it, are following that “true Light”. And as one continues to follow it, he or she will eventually be led to receive the “Word” (Christ). This then would give them “the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

From this we may understand that many individuals will be following the “true Light” without tying it directly to faith in Christ. And if so, they too should be included as belonging to the family of God. Who they are would be difficult for us to determine, but God certainly knows who those people (His people) are.

No doubt, the strongest members of God’s family are those who have come to Christ and know Him intimately. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be other voices or deeds from people who may not consider themselves officially to be Christians but who, whether they realize it or not, are following “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.”

Christ said He was the “Light of the world”, and in this aspect of His nature, He resembles the Holy Spirit. (John 8:12, 9:5) And this bears some relationship to Christ’s statement in Matthew 12:32, “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Because of cultural misunderstanding and indoctrination, because Jesus came in human form, not in a glorified form, people could be forgiven for misunderstanding who He was or for speaking “against the Son of Man”; but the Holy Spirit cannot be mistaken in this way. The Spirit of Truth cuts through those barriers of fleshly misunderstanding, speaking directly to people’s minds and consciences. And those who follow that Spirit of Truth, those who “come to the Light”, will be forgiven and accepted, while those who resist the Spirit will be rejected.

So it is a serious matter to reject the voice of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who “hates the Light and does not come to the Light,” those who love “darkness rather than Light” will face “condemnation”. (John 3:19-20) That Scripture identifies the “light” with the “Word” (Christ). But that term “light” resembles what we would think is supposed to be a function of the Holy Spirit. This sounds like a deep theological question. But to put it very simply, if we understand that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all part of the same Godhead, it should be no surprise if at times they seem to share the same attributes and functions.

In a sense, the Holy Spirit was sent as Jesus’ successor, to be His constant presence with the disciples… Once Jesus ascended into heaven and was glorified, the disciples were given His continuing presence in their lives through the Holy Spirit… We can see that much of what is said about the Spirit was also said about Jesus, and thus the presence of the Spirit in our lives reflects the presence of Jesus within us… (“Jesus, His Life and Message, Discipleship 6” – Peter Amsterdam, Directors’ Corner, Oct 24 2017)

After Christ’s Resurrection and final departure, the disciples continued to have His presence through the Holy Spirit.  The Gospels portray the Holy Spirit and Jesus in much the same way: 1) both came from and were given by the Father 2) both not received by the world 3) both teach 4) both convict the world 5) both speak only what they have heard 6)  both glorify their Sender. (For more information on this point, see Jesus – His Life and Message: “Discipleship, Part 6” by Peter Amsterdam)

Since they are part of the same Godhead, we can see why it counts a great deal in God’s eyes to yield to the Holy Spirit of Truth – maybe even more than it does to yield to the Name of Jesus Christ – at least in those cases where there is apt to be a good deal of cultural misunderstanding. Of course, the Holy Spirit guides people towards Christ, and once that knowledge becomes planted in a person’s mind, then he or she is responsible to come to Christ because of the direction given them by the Holy Spirit.

Once a person comes to Christ, at more or less the same time he or she also receives a more complete and powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit. The two go hand in hand.

At this point it might help to interject something that Christ said about Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) If that’s what the name of Christ stands for, then that covers a lot of territory. It implies a huge variety, breadth, and flexibility in the kinds of trajectories that people may take as they journey towards the Light. Conceivably, someone might be led of the Holy Spirit to proclaim God’s “truth”, without realizing it is the “truth” of Christ, and God would count this as righteousness. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

But it is also true (from the same passage) that “no one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) That is a “narrow gate” and “there are few who find it” – in this life at least. (Matthew 7:13-14) But Christ is not limited to welcoming new believers in this life only – although that is certainly preferable. For “most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” (John 5:25) (More on this subject later.)

To conclude, we can understand that the boundaries of God’s “new nation” probably extend much further than we may think. This we can gather from Scriptures like Matthew 12:32 (explaining the difference between blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Spirit), John 1:9 (about the Light which lights every person), and others. Thus, it behooves Christian people to adopt an inclusive mindset when considering who they feel “God’s people” should be. “The Lord knows those who are His.” (2Timothy 2:19) And “those who are His” may well include people who are not part of a congregation, or even among those called Christian. 

Recent developments among religious groups in modern times bear testimony to this, which we see in the rise of ecumenism and inter-denominational and inter-faith dialogue. In spite of their non-Christian orientation, many groups, who aspire to the same ideals as their Christian counterparts, are willing to accept Christian leadership in various religious gatherings and worship services. (See Appendix 2: news article for an interesting example of this.) In an increasingly secular world, it is not surprising that the forces of Light, as they oppose the growing forces of Darkness, are burying their differences and starting to cooperate more with one another.

At the end of the Age, Scripture states,

        Then the king [Antichrist] shall do according to his own will: he shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, shall speak blasphemies against the God of gods… He shall regard neither the God of his fathers nor the desire of women, nor regard any god; for he shall exalt himself above them all. (Daniel 11:36-37)
        The man of sin… the son of perdition… opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped… showing himself that he is God. (2Thessalonians 2:3-4)

The “man of sin”, also known as the Antichrist, will be opposed to any form of religion (“all that is called God or that is worshiped”). He will rail against those belief systems that oppose his “blasphemies against God”.

In particular, many of the world’s religions will oppose him because he is a man of war (“who is able to make war with him?”), and they share the Christian ideal of making peace rather than war. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Revelation 13:4, Matthew 5:9) And of course, they will be opposed to having to worship a man and/or system instead of worshiping God.

To conclude: It is not up to us to decide who belongs in the Family of God and who doesn’t. God knows who His people are, and about the best we can do, from our limited earthly perspective, is to judge by the fruits of what a person does or says: “By their fruits you will know them”. (Matthew 7:20)

Christ did not come to grant His favor to a select group of people. Even though His work focused mainly on the Israeli people of His time and location, He stated plainly, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice.” (John 10:16) And true to this statement, Jesus bestowed His favor upon all He met who were worthy – including Samaritans and Gentiles. (Matthew 8:5-13, 15:21-28, Luke 23:34, John 4:5-26)

Both the apostles Peter and Paul expressed the same sentiment that God “desires all men to be saved” and is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (1Timothy 2:4, 2Peter 3:9) Likely, these passages were directed to certain false teachers who were limiting the growth of the Early Church through their insistence that new believers should keep the laws of the Old Testament. 

Exclusivism was a problem in the days of the Early Church, and the Jewish  disciples then had to come to grips with the fact that God’s favor was being extended to the Gentiles. And so, in spite of themselves, Jewish Christians expanded their boundaries and began to accept Gentiles into the family of God, and that without synagogue attendance or law-keeping rituals.

And it is an ongoing process. Like the Jews of old, we in modern times may also need to expand our boundaries. We need to recognize – in spite of whatever we may think constitutes salvation – that many people outside of Christian congregations will wind up in the family of God.

The Reverend Billy Graham ushered thousands of souls into the Kingdom through his inspired preaching. But even he acknowledged the reality that souls would enter the Kingdom, people who had not the opportunity to become Christians officially.

GRAHAM: “I think there’s the Body of Christ. This comes from all the Christian groups around the world, or outside the Christian groups. I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ …
“The Apostle James in the first council in Jerusalem… said that God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name. And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ, because they’ve been called by God.
“They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”
SCHULLER: “What I hear you saying is that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into a human heart and soul and life, even if they have been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?”
GRAHAM: “Yes it is, because I believe that.
“I’ve met people in various parts of the world, in tribal situations that they had never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, never heard about Jesus. But they believed in their heart that there was a God, and they tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.”
SCHULLER: “That’s fantastic! I’m so thrilled to hear you say this! There is a wideness in God’s mercy.”
GRAHAM: “There is, there definitely is.”
(from Hour of Power’ interview between Robert Schuller and Billy Graham, 1997)

And because of this statement, a storm of criticism arose from the usual herd of conservative evangelicals who, like the Jews in Paul’s day, felt threatened by and/or jealous of such a possibility – that they might not cornered the market, that some of God’s people might exist beyond the bounds of their denominations and scope of influence.

Of course, there is a limit as to how far the boundaries of welcome can be stretched. And for those evil-doers who hope to find a shortcut into God’s favor, John the Baptist provided a sober warning. These self-righteous, religious rivals had to realize that they could not trust in their false security of bloodline descent from Abraham: “Brood of vipers!. . . do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones… Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Matthew 3:7-10) The only “shortcut” into God’s favor is a humble and receptive heart… which enables one to “bear fruits worthy of repentance”.

Now we might wonder, is there some definite procedure by which one can become a member of the family of God? In his controversial book Love Wins, Rob Bell explores this mystery. Before detailing a number of different examples of people who came to Jesus and trying to figure out what it was they did that brought them salvation, Bell expressed it thus:

“One way to respond to these questions is with the clear, helpful answer: all that matters is how you respond to Jesus.” (Love Wins, pg. 7)

How you respond to Jesus. This goes along with what Jesus said about His “other sheep”. They “hear My voice”; they respond. And that makes the door to salvation both easy, and not easy, to walk through. Easy if one responds to God’s call in whatever form it may take; not easy if one is hardened to God’s call. The Lord is reaching out to us, His creations, and He is gladdened when we turn to Him – “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:7)

But He is disappointed when we don’t respond, or even worse, turn away. “When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend. For the hearts of these people are hardened; and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes – so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.” (Matthew 13:14-15, NLT; and repeated in Isaiah 6:9-10, Jeremiah 5:21, Ezekiel 12:2, John 12:40, Acts 28:26-27)

By such lack of response, we tie God’s hands. If we “cannot turn to” Him, then He cannot turn to us. And this is how it is in any relationship; there has to be interaction, a mutual give-and-take process. Christ’s invitation to restore the Laodicean church expresses this well. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:20) God desires very much this interaction with us, His creations.

And for those who respond and “open the door”, He says, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear (they respond). (Matthew 13:16) “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear [respond] will live.” (John 5:25)  As for those who don’t “hear”, who don’t respond or respond negatively, the reason why they won’t “come to the light” is “because their deeds were evil,” and they’re afraid that their “deeds should be exposes.” (John 3:20)

How you respond to Jesus. It’s difficult, as Bell points out, to establish a one-size-fits-all procedure by which a person gets “saved”. The salvation experience is unique to each individual. Denominational credentials, religious observances, water baptism, genealogical descent from Abraham, and any other forms of outward show don’t get to the heart of the matter (although they can serve as a sign or testimony of inner transformation).

Coming to Christ is a spiritual journey, one that is unique to each individual. Jesus compared the process of being “born of the Spirit” to the wind which “blows where it wishes”. (John 3:8) So there is no standard formula.

Perhaps the best we can say is that if a person is coming “to the light”, then, by whatever means they make that journey, they will accept Christ eventually. (John 3:20-21) And those who are known as Christians can play a useful role to expedite this entering-the-Kingdom journey through the positive impact of their words and deeds. Unfortunately too, they can sometimes hinder that process when they neglect to stay inside the charmed circle of God’s presence and so wind up becoming a bad example to seekers and non-Christians. But “he who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit.” (John 15:5)

Whoever comes to Christ, regardless of whatever path gets them there, they become the spiritual descendants of Abraham – the followers of God in Christ. And for all we know, that may include many who do not claim to be Christian but are, nonetheless, following in Christ’s footsteps.

We might consider, for example, these individuals belonging to the Hindu culture: Mahatma Gandhi who tried to follow Christian principles, espousing non-violence, as he led the people of India in peaceful protest against British rule; Swami Vivekananda, a preacher of tolerance and concern for the poor, who always carried with himself a copy of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis along with his Bhagavad Gita; Rabindranath Tagore – eminent poet, songwriter, artist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner – who was much attracted to Christianity. None of these men claimed to be Christian and were thought by their followers to be devotees of Hinduism. But they were tolerant towards and attracted to the Christian way, and their influence upon their people was generally positive and uplifting.

Although some might think that in a sinister way these men were somehow undermining the cause of Christ, it is doubtful that such suspicions would hold up in God’s eyes who “looks at the heart” and not “the outward appearance”. (1Samuel 16:7) From John chapter 3 we learn that “condemnation” results because “light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.” (3:19)

So the question to ask is, “Were these men lovers of Darkness or lovers of Light?” God knows the answer to that one. But it shouldn’t surprise us, in some future day and age, to see them in the Kingdom of Heaven and well rewarded for the positive influence of their earthly lives.

Jesus once said, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.” (John 6:45) That seems to leave plenty of room for those who may not have known about Christ but had a general love for God the Father; “everyone” of them, Jesus says, will “come to Me”… even if that must happen in the Afterlife.

Christ said He was “the way, the truth, and the life.” Who Christ is and what He represents in human life encompasses a wide panorama of godly endeavor. Yet at the same time the gate is narrow; He is the door to salvation and the Heavenly Realm for “no one comes to the Father except through” Christ. (John 14:6, Acts 4:12) But this “door”, as we will see later, opens readily, not only in this life but in the next. 

In the Christian community great importance is attached to having the right belief system as the all-important doorway to blessing and acceptance with God (and escape from Hell). But when we look at how Christ interacted with those He met during His earthly ministry, it seems He was more concerned about their conduct than their belief system. For Him it seemed that entrance into the Kingdom was not nearly as important as being ready to make that entrance into the Kingdom.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, who appeared so right and righteous with what they thought was their right belief system, were far from ready. John the Baptist told them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Matthew 3:8) In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about false prophets who appear to be so righteous with their “sheep’s clothing” of belief systems but bear “bad fruit”. He counseled His followers not to look at the outward appearance of belief systems but to look rather at the fruits. “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:20)

       Many people in our world have only ever heard hell talked about as the place reserved for those who are “out”, who don’t believe, who haven’t “joined the church”. Christians talking about people who aren’t Christians going to hell when they die because they aren’t… Christians. People who don’t believe the right things.
But in reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word “hell”, what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t His point. He’s often not talking about “beliefs” as we think of them – He’s talking about anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of His listeners’ hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world.
Jesus did not use hell to try and compel “heathens” and “pagans” to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.
This is not to say that hell is not a pointed, urgent warning or that it isn’t intimately connected with what we actually do believe, but simply to point out that Jesus talked about hell to the people who considered themselves “in”, warning them that their hard hearts were putting their “in-ness” at risk, reminding them that whatever “chosen-ness” or “election” meant, whatever special standing they believed they had with God was always, only, ever about their being the kind of transformed, generous, loving people through whom God could show the world what God’s love looks like in flesh and blood.
(Love Wins, page 82, by Robert H. Bell, 2011)

In a similar vein the apostle Paul places emphasis on “conduct” (with no mention of belief system) in the following passage:

       “[God] will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness – indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.” (Romans 2:5-11)

Certainly it is not our business to decide who is or is not part of the family of God. That is God’s business. And as far as we Christians are concerned, it would be wise to keep in mind that God’s people may include a wide variety of folks whom we may think are not supposed to be our compatriots. For “God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” (Matthew 3:9)

And sober warnings also are there in the Scriptures that many, even though saved, will have to endure “shame and everlasting contempt”. This was a point that the angel Gabriel, in his dialogue with the prophet Daniel, mentioned would be a feature of the future Resurrection of believers. (Daniel 12:2) (More on this later.)

To illustrate this reality, we could look to a couple of examples from the Old Testament. As the children of Israel were entering their Promised Land, spies were sent to Jericho. While there, they were befriended and protected by the harlot Rahab “when she had received the spies with peace”. (Joshua 2, Hebrews 11:31) Despite being a harlot and a non-Jew, she was granted special favor and recognition among the children of Israel and, centuries later, had the honor of being named as an ancestor to the Messiah and one of the heroes and heroines of faith. (Matthew 1:5, Hebrews 11:31)

Then later, not long after their victory at Jericho, the children of Israel were to attack the city of Ai. Strangely, they began to experience defeat. God revealed to Joshua that He had lifted His hand of protection from the children of Israel because one of their own people (Achan) had kept some of the spoils of battle for himself. This sin of covetousness had to be rooted out before the children of Israel could continue with their conquest of the Promised Land.

From these examples we learn that God brings in the worthy “outsider” who has the fruits and removes the unworthy “insider” who has strayed from the path of righteousness. “For there is no partiality with God.” (Romans 2:11) We may be quite surprised to see who makes it into the Heavenly Realm or who receives places of honor there. God’s idea of righteousness often baffles our human understanding. However, being aware of the fairness and justice of God, it would not be surprising to see destinies pan out in the way Jesus said: “many who are first will be last, and the last first”. (Matthew 19:30)

Conclusion: We have the security of knowing we have entered the Kingdom of Heaven by coming to Christ, but it is important to beware of any false sense of security and self-righteousness. That can only hurt and limit us from the full expression of God’s plan for our lives. Nor does it serve God’s great endeavor and desire to draw the world to His Light and Love. A smug, holier-than-thou attitude on the part of those who are known as Christians will only repel and disillusion seekers who might otherwise be drawn to the Light of God.


Continue to A-3: The Book of Life

Appendix 1

        On the corporate level the nation of Jewish people had importance because it was connected to God’s “holy name”. But on a personal level, Paul observes, regarding some of his less obedient brethren, “Do you presume on the riches of His kindness?” In a note on this verse, the ESV Study Bible states,

“[Romans 2:4] is probably directed against Jews who thought that their covenant relationship with God would shield them from final judgment. After all, they had often experienced his kindness and forbearance and patience. They thought such blessings showed that they were right with God and had no need to trust in Christ, but Paul says the opposite is true: God’s blessings should have led them to repent of their sins.” [page 2160]

Going back even further, we find similar thoughts expressed in the Old Testament, where we learn that at certain times “the house of Israel profaned” God’s name “among the nations”. Nevertheless, God promised to restore Israel, not for their sakes, not because of their righteousness of which they had almost none, but “for the sake of My holy name”. “And the nations will know that I am the LORD… when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.” (Ezekiel 36:21–23, ESV; see also Ezekiel 43:7–8.)


Appendix 2:

Regardless of what one may think of the Catholic Church or the Pope, or what one may think of liberalism going overboard in some established Churches, it is interesting to note how various faiths are banding together in response to the rising tide of anti-religious sentiment in today’s world, as evidenced in the following news article.

Pope and World Religious Leaders Vow to Oppose Terror in God’s Name
By Philip Pullella, Reuters, Sept. 20, 2016

ASSISI, Italy–Pope Francis and leaders of other world religions said “No to War!” on Tuesday…
The head of the Roman Catholic Church closed a three-day meeting where about 500 representatives of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and other faiths discussed how their members could better promote peace and reconciliation.

Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, prayed in the basilica with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, and Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of up to 300 million Orthodox Christians around the globe.

In a final appeal that key representatives signed… they vowed “to oppose every form of violence and abuse of religion which seeks to justify war and terrorism.”
“No to war! May the anguished cry of the many innocents not go unheeded. Let us urge leaders of nations to defuse the causes of war: the lust for power and money, the greed of arms’ dealers, personal interests and vendettas for past wrongs,” the appeal said.
The narrow, cobblestone paths of Assisi echoed with the sound of different languages when Shinto priests in red-and-white robes crossed paths with rabbis in black and Muslims in white as each group converged outside St. Francis Basilica to join the Christians.

Continue to A-3: The Book of Life

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