Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Road(s) to Heaven

A basic tenet of many religious communities is that the pathway to heaven runs through them, and them alone. It makes sense. If you believe that your God or your understanding of God is true, then wouldn't people be required to confess truth to get in the door. It's kind of like the password.

But apparently a strong majority of Americans don't think that way. Reading through the online edition of the New York Times I came across a piece by Charles Blow entitled "Heaven for the Godless." Blow is reflecting in this essay on an August Pew Forum poll, recently released, that reports that 65% of Americans believe that other religions are just fine as avenues to heaven. Indeed, atheists might be surprised to know that a majority think they'll be going to heaven as well -- though Blow suggests that they might be dragged "kicking and screaming."

The question is why? Why do so many Americans think others will get there too?

One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. In fact, in the most recent survey, Pew asked people what they thought determined whether a person would achieve eternal life. Nearly as many Christians said you could achieve eternal life by just being a good person as said that you had to believe in Jesus.

It's an interesting thought, worth some reflection. My congregation is about to embark on a study of Martha Grace Reese's Unbinding Your Heart (Chalice Press, 2008), a book for mainline Protestants to learn how to do evangelism, even if they don't believe everyone's going to hell without confessing faith in Jesus.

Blow concludes his essay with this statement:

Now, there remains the possibility that some of those polled may not have understood the implications of their answers. As John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said, “The capacity of ignorance to influence survey outcomes should never be underestimated.” But I don’t think that they are ignorant about this most basic tenet of their faith. I think that they are choosing to ignore it ... for goodness sake.

I think he might be right, not because we shouldn't take our faith claims seriously, for we should, but we need to trust our futures to God's grace.


Gary said...

According to the Bible, including what Jesus said, only Christians go to heaven. What a dilema! Do I believe Jesus, or the the majority of people? I think I'll go with Jesus.

Gene said...

It's good that we have Gary here as the mouth piece for God.