09 August 2012

"We will never see another non-Christian."

The context: Ed Stetzer's book Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation, in his chapter on worshipping idols:

May we never grow comfortable with idolatry in and around us that not only ruins lives but, if not resolved, will send people to hell for eternity. We learn so much about Paul as a kingdom citizen by his response in Athens [Acts 17:16-17; context]. Paul was not driven by the duties, oughts, and shoulds of religious life. Those days were history for him. Paul was driven by lostness. He made some incredible from-the-heart statements about his obsession with lost people, talking about the "intense sorrow" and "continual anguish" he felt in his heart for them....

Wayne Cordeiro, pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, expressed his love for lost people and his involvement in their rescue. In explaining the greatness of spending eternity in heaven with Jesus, he presented a sobering thought:
But of all the trillions of surprises, there's one thing we will never see for all of eternity. We will never see another non-Christian. Right now, in this life, we have the only opportunity to usher people to the Forgiver. Our lifetime contains the only possibility for us to play an active part in God's plan of salvation for others.
This thought (in heaven "we will never see another non-Christian") was indeed sobering, maybe in more ways than Stetzer and Cordeiro intended. I'm familiar enough with evangelical theology to know what they are trying to say, but the bluntness of their summary provoked me into these late-night reflections.

First of all: We don't exactly know whom or what "we" will see: that is God's sovereign pleasure, and if God decides we will see non-Christians, that is entirely up to God. We cannot use arguments about the nature of God or the Bible or anything else to coerce God into one or another choice.

But I was troubled by more than that. Maybe I've always subconsciously assumed that labels such as "Christian" and "non-Christian," as important as they are to both groups, were somehow earthly, temporary conveniences, destined to drop away in the fullness of God's universal reign. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argued for the most basic use of the word "Christian":
The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts xi. 26) to "the disciples," to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were "far closer to the spirit of Christ" than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological, or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said.
So "Christians" are simply disciples of Christ and the apostles--any additional commentary as to the worthiness of their discipleship or their exclusive fitness for heaven is not contained within that label. But even so, I know a Quaker from India who told me that he refused to call himself a Christian, because he thought it was presumptuous; he preferred to be known as a "follower of Christ." To put him in Cordeiro's heaven, we must force the label on him.

I've never been totally comfortable with that branch of Christian universalism that says, in the end, nobody ends up in hell. If that's true, what happens to human freedom?--to everyone's right, in the "Day of Visitation," to say "no" to God? But I do hope that nobody ends up in hell just so that my labels and my theology can be proven right!

(For me, the best, most balanced treatment of all of these themes is in Barclay's Apology, especially the fifth and sixth propositions. A more recent book that I found very thought-provoking is Peter Cotterell's Mission and Meaninglessness: the good news in a world of suffering and disorder.)

Does my neighbor's eternal destiny depend upon me, and upon my taking my "only opportunity to usher people to the Forgiver"? I understand the urgency of evangelism, which continues to be the primary testimony in my understanding of Quaker faith and practice. All Quaker discipleship--pacifism, equality, simplicity, group discernment--and all of the discipleship we hold in common with other Christians are ultimately rooted in trust that God's promises are true and able to overcome any bondage. Does bondage in fact still exist in this war-torn, racially divided, poverty-plagued, polluted world? Do lies and spiritual counterfeits still abound? If so, evangelism is still vital!

But if we look at someone of different faith with crosshairs in our eyes or a sort of Christian tribalism in our heart, it's hard for me to imagine us as effective evangelists. Just this evening I had dinner with a friend who is repelled by Christians' "aggressiveness," as she put it. The way I experience the evangelistic impulse with a non-believer (realizing that others may have completely different experiences--do you?) is almost exactly the same as the impulse I feel when speaking with a believer--eagerness to open a conversation about things that are redemptive and eternal. To me, that's an essential part of friendship.

My discomfort with Wayne Cordeiro's sobering thought does have a useful dimension: a reminder that, in the Quaker community, I live in a sheltered world. It really has become my family. Once again at yearly meeting, I was reminded of how much I cherish our governance practices, the rhythms of our worship, our concerns for justice, even the way we deal with conflicts. But the more I appreciate my Christian family and our little Friendly corner of it, the more I should be concerned about access for others. And how can I work on access if I'm not in contact with those outside the community? A long time ago (38 years!!) I myself was outside the community, smoldering with suspicion of organized religion. I need to remember what that was like, and not lose all contact with those still in that place!

(By the way, there are many other quotable passages in Ed Stetzer's book. More soon.)

A follow-up to last week's post: Joel Bean, "Why I Am a Friend."

Books and Culture published an intriguing review of T. M. Luhrmann's new book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, in which she studies the role of imagination in prayer through fieldwork at two Vineyard churches. The review is entitled "Coffee with Jesus: An anthropologist at the Vineyard." (Subscription required--and recommended.) A sample of Luhrmann's thinking is in this Christianity Today article, "Why Women Hear God More Than Men Do."

On another subject, Christianity Today offers this group review: "A better conversation about homosexuality."

Pussy Riot, continued: The trial endsOn making fair comparisons. Miriam Elder's view of two of the divisions revealed by the trial. (She doesn't discuss the heartfelt conversations going on within the Christian community, sampled here and here.)

"Peace activists close nuclear facility..." This reminded me of a similar incident recounted in Peter Wagner's Churches That Pray.

"Guess who gets value for money out of this $2bn presidential election." And "Sheldon's wish list."


Anonymous said...

About hell -- and saying "no" to God. I think it depends on our definition of hell. If it is the absence of God -- then certainly some people can choose to live in hell (even forever). But if hell means eternal punishment -- as a believer in restorative justice (as opposed to retributive justice), I do not see that the just answer to saying no to God is to be subject to eternal punishment. The God of my Christian faith is a loving and just God -- but not a God of retributive justice.


Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Vail! The eternal flame, wailing, gnashing of teeth, and other scary biblical hints of hell could just as easily stand for regret and recriminations. Many generations of devout theologians--not just Barclay--have found it impossible to see God as an eternal torturer. I'm not just interested in the variety of interpretations, but also in the motivations behind the choice of which interpretation to emphasize.