Sunday, January 02, 2011

Who is Going to Heaven? Enquiring Minds Want to Know!

Before anyone decides to register a complaint about the phrasing of the question, suggesting that heaven is metaphor and not fact -- let me just say that for this exercise we're going to err on the side of tradition!  So, then, the question is, according to the studies, who is going to heaven?  Is it just members of the one true religion (whatever that might be) or is everyone going to make it?  Remember that in my last posting I noted that the American people, by and large are faithful, but not fanatical!  Ours is a moderate faith.

The context here is understandings developed within a context of religious diversity.  And the answer to the question -- who gets in?  Well, according to the Faith Matters Survey undertaken by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, 89% of Americans say that people outside one's own faith will get to heaven.  They write:

Their hesitation to adopt a "members only" perspective on who goes to heaven illuminates their positive attitude toward religious diversity.  It is not just that they have adopted Jefferson's minimal standard of avoiding picked pockets and broken legs.  Rather they endorse the legitimacy of others' religious beliefs.  Large majorities of even stricter religious traditions believe in an equal opportunity heaven.  Eighty-three percent of evangelicals, for example, say that other religions can bring salvation; eighty-seven percent of Black Protestants believe so.  (American Grace, p. 535).
Indeed, their studies show that the group with the highest percentage of people saying that a good person not of your faith will get to heaven are Mormon at 98%, with Mainline Protestants coming in second at 96%. 

What is even more interesting is that they're not getting this openness from their clergy.  Indeed, whereas laity by and large have an open view of heaven, even mainline Protestant Clergy take a predominantly exclusivist view.  Consider that 63% of Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) clergy say that salvation is through Jesus alone, while 59% of United Methodist and 57% of PCUSA clergy agree.  Now, it's possible that these mainliners have a more nuanced view -- that salvation come through Jesus, but one need not confess Jesus in this life to be welcomed into the presence of God.  This view is often called inclusivist rather than universalist.  I myself would sort of fit into this camp.  But what is clear is that one's view of salvation for those outside one's religion is being determined not by one's clergy, but by one's context living in a pluralist society. 

So, what should we do?  Should we work harder to teach people the "truth"?  Or do we admit that maybe the pluralists have a point?  The fact that even Missouri Synod Lutheran Clergy, one of the most conservative Christian denominations, can't convince their people is telling. 

10 comments:

Gary said...

The New Testament tells who is going to Heaven. But you have to understand, and believe what it says. And those obsticles are too hard to get around for most people.

dcsloan said...

As a believer in the God of grace and love instead of an abusive oppressive God of conditions; for me it is "everybody in!"

"But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace."
(NRSV Romans 11:6)

"Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law."
(NRSV Galatians 2:16)

"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast."
(NRSV Ephesians 2:8-9)

Brian said...

There's always been a disconnect between officially sanctioned religion and popular religion.

For instance, the Bible says consulting mediums is a serious sin that must be avoided.* This tells us that there were probably a lot of Israelites consulting mediums.

I wonder if popular religion tends to be more grace-filled than officially sanctioned religion.

* For instance: Leviticus 19:31, Lev. 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:10-13

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Brian,

Popular religion can go either way, but I think in this case it's relationships that matter. One of the things that the book really demonstrates is that in many areas, including politics, clergy don't have a lot of influence. Instead it's the social networks that get created in church. Those can be positive or negative.

John said...

Bob,

My take on this question goes in a different direction. As far as I am concerned whether I get into Heaven is irrelevant to my faith, and irrelevant to my obligations as a disciple.

Jesus has said that kingdom-living is immediately available to me, while I live - requiring only that I choose to live out the kingdom in my life. So I am invited to taste and see - now.

What happens to my soul in eternity is God's concern and not mine. It is not for me to covet eternal life, or to impose on God an option which is wholly within God's discretion. I am content that God will be and God will do what God will be and what God will do.

My obligation as a disciple is to live out the kingdom, embracing others, having compassion, forgiveness, and love for all and to do so without condition and without expectation of reward or benefit, other than the knowledge that I tried as best I could please our God and Creator.

If I am not bound for Heaven, even if I were to learn that with a certainty, that changes nothing; my obligation as a disciple applies anyway. My opportunity to live a grace-filled life every day, that is my blessing.

As for whether Heaven will eventually house only some, only right thinking Christians, or everyone, I can only pray for the latter option. To desire anything less inclusive, to imagine anything less inclusive, to pray for anything less inclusive, is to ignore the commandment to love one and all, enemies included. In fact it is an absolute perversion of Jesus' teaching. Heaven may be more exclusive. Even so, we as disciples of the Lord, should still be praying that doors are thrown open wide, praying that even the worst, most degenerate of persons, is ultimately forgiven, healed, and brought home to rest in a peace-filled eternity with the God of Love.

How it actually turns out is one thing, what we hope and pray for is another: the former is the ultimate will of God, the latter is the true test of the extent of our Christian love. Did we take Jesus' teachings to heart?

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

I think that this is where most people are at. They're not worrying about who gets in and who doesn't. But the question is why?

Some may make this based on theology, which is a position that can be made and has been made. But that's not why most people take this position. It doesn't seem to be a question of the nature of God, but is instead an unwillingness to see one's relative, co-worker, neighbor, etc. not be in heaven.

And as an aside, there is an interesting moment in True Grit (both versions) were the young man caught up in a criminal escapade but now lies dying from the knife placed in his belly by his partner. He speaks of seeing his brother, the Methodist circuit rider on the pearly streets of heaven. Rooster acknowledges this possibility, but tells him not to expect to see his former partner in crime.

The assumption is that God will show mercy to those who are good and repentant, but those who continue to do evil, well they'll get theirs eventually. This is why we ultimately have a conversation about whether Hitler will be there or not? But I'll not go there!!

John said...

But the desire to see one's loved one's in Heaven is no better than coveting the honor for oneself.

I think from a theological position, my assignment from God is to pray that all my enemies, as well as as all of God's other children someday receive only the best and most loving treatment from God. Not just those who I obviously care deeply for, but especially those for whom no one prays, including one such as Hitler - "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
Jonah 4:11. God cared even for the evil Ninevites, and even though they "do not know their right hand from their left".

It is not from mere whim and fancy that we should wish salvation on others, it is because that is what God wills for his followers.

John

John said...

As for the divergence between pastors and their flock on the issue of relative exclusiveness of salvation, I think that may possibly be explained by examining whose paying the pastor's salary. It seems as a practical matter that a pastor can safely be too conservative, allowing the congregation to get a little ahead on the theological curve. But woe to the pastor, especially one who is relatively new to a congregation, who discloses himself to be too liberal - there is no backing away from that ledge.

And the fact that the survey was anonymous is irrelevant - I don't think someone who teaches and models kingdom living can safely model one position and anonymously claim another. I am sure it happens, but ultimately the disjunct has to begin to take a toll personally and professionally.

John

Mystical Seeker said...

Maybe this is one of the advantages of living in a multi-cultural society. When people run into contact with, and make friends with, people of other faith traditions than their own, it gets pretty hard for them to swallow the idea that they will get to enjoy the benefits of the afterlife while friends and neighbors and coworkers whom they care about and like will someone not be so privileged. If you live a sheltered existence where everyone around you is just like you, it is a lot easier to believe that your own group of people is privileged above all others.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Mystical Seeker -- yes, that's exactly it. Social networks are key, and in our culture there are fewer homogeneous ones. Clergy, it could be said, can and often do live within fairly narrow social networks, unless, as I have done, they very intentionally enter into interfaith conversations.