Do You Have to Believe in God to Go to Heaven?

Last year, Pope Francis wrote a long, open letter to the founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, addressing a list of questions Scalfari posed about Christianity. News outlets highlighted one passage from Francis’ letter in particular because it raised the question of whether people who don’t believe in the Christian God can go to heaven. “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith,” Francis wrote. heaven“I start by saying—and this is the fundamental thing—that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.” This ambiguous passage led to rampant speculation that the pope was denying the need for faith in God. But we shouldn’t be so quick to assume Francis was overturning traditional Christian doctrine—because both the Bible and historic Christian confessions are plain regarding this matter.

For 2,000 years Christians have taught that no one who refuses to believe in the God of the Bible can go to heaven. The fourth-century Athanasian Creed affirmed that “whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.” The Church of England’s 39 Articles state, “Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” According to the Westminster Confession Faith, “The wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments.” More recently, the Baptist Faith and Message put it this way: “There is no salvation without personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.”

The Bible is as clear as the confessions.1 It says God counts humans as worthy of heaven—even though we’re not worthy in ourselves—if we believe specific content about Jesus known as the gospel. In particular, we must believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, that He died to pay the penalty for humanity’s sin, was buried, rose from the grave, and ascended to heaven, where He reigns and saves. Peter outlined this message on the Day of Pentecost, and all who believed it and turned from their sins received forgiveness (Acts 2:38). Likewise, Paul said people are “saved” from eternal judgment if they “hold fast” to this message (1 Corinthians 15:2).

Many other Bible passages also teach that a person must believe in order to have eternal life in heaven. In every instance, the implied content to be believed is the gospel: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Of course, good deeds are required of every believer, but those good deeds are inevitable fruit of Christian faith, not a means of earning salvation (James 2:14-26).2

Can someone who doesn’t believe in the Christian God go to heaven? No. Some may consider this bad news. In reality though, it’s the best news imaginable because it opens heaven’s doors to even the worst sinners if they will only turn away from their sin and trust God’s Word.

 

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Endnotes:

1 Confusion can arise, at least in part, because some Scripture passages speak of people going to heaven or hell based on their deeds. For example, John 5:29 says that “those who have done good” will experience the “resurrection of life” and “those who have done evil” the “resurrection of judgment.” If such passages were the only teaching we had on eternal life, we might infer that a non-believer could go to heaven if he or she just did enough good deeds and abstained from enough bad deeds. But the Bible says more, warning that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) and describing all humankind as “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In other words, it is theoretically possible to earn a spot in heaven by righteous deeds. But in practice, no one is good enough to do that. It would require moral perfection (Matthew 5:48).

2 The life of Paul illustrates the inability of good deeds alone to save. Before Paul came to personal faith in Jesus Christ, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.” But all those things were “rubbish” to Paul with regard to their ability to earn him eternal life (Philippians 3:2-11).


The Holy Land, Where the Bible Comes Alive in a Bittersweet Way

I’m just back from my seventh trip to the Holy Land, where it’s said “the Bible comes alive.” Indeed, it does, but in a mixed way, for there were, as always, both edifying and dispiriting aspects of the tour—for the Bible is not just a “happy talk” book, but also one of stern declaration.

Jerusalem1. The Land Itself. From the Sea of Galilee to the Kidron Valley to the Judean Wilderness, the topography and scale bring color to Scripture. Modern development doesn’t change the bracing effect of a first look at Jaffa and Maritime Caesarea, the expanse of Jezreel, the rushing streams of Dan, the waterfalls of En Gedi, alongside the Dead Sea desolation, viewed from Masada.

2. Judeo-Christian Culture. You’d have to be literally or willfully blind to miss the differences between a culture oriented on the Bible and one oriented on the Koran. In Israel, much of the desert Arava blooms; not so in Jordan. From my earlier visit to the region in 1966, I’ve felt like I was traveling from ancient Decapolis to Southern California when crossing from Jordan to Israel.

3. Pharisees and Sadducees. Hasidic Jews (modern Pharisees if you will) are photogenic, with their earlocks, shtreimels, tzitzit, and fedoras, but they’re an unsmiling bunch, quick to raise a ruckus if you transgress their sensitivities. (Just ask our ladies who got too close to the Wailing Wall). The Sadducees were the secularists, and they abound in Israel today.

4. “Christian” Turfism. It is a disgrace to the cross that two of the most visited sites in Judea (the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) are showcases of “Christian” pettiness, where various sects guard their floor space with a vengeance.

5. Fellowship of Travelers. Holy Land tours are as much a matter of conversation as sightseeing, over meals, waiting in line, on the bus, etc.  And when one’s fellow visitors are Christian, the fellowship can be sweet, full of testimony, exhortation, encouragement, and insight—from, in our case, cancer survivors, late converts, veteran ministers, seasoned parents, and internationals.

6. Hocus Pocus and Simony. There’s a lot of magical thinking over there, with pilgrims kissing stones, scooping up dirt, and such. It makes you hunger for deeper transactions of the soul before God. And there no site too remote or implausible that someone is not willing to gin up a yarn and charge you entry, not only to the attraction, but also to the restroom.

7. Artistry and Craftsmanship (and Kitsch). From the Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives to the Elijah statue on the heights of Carmel, the Holy Land is a grand art gallery, the sort of place Bezalel could appreciate.1 Alas, some gift shops and churches are laden with tackiness, clutter, pointless flash, and ostentatious overkill—barriers rather than aids to devotion.

8. Textual Overlays. One of my favorite things is to be with a group reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) on the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking Gennesaret, or recalling the critical role of seats at the city gate2 as we come upon the one still in place at Tel Dan.

9. The Testimony of Ruins. Ruins evoke both humility and encouragement, for they testify both to the vanity of trust in human institutions and to the hope that enemies of the cross will fail.

10. The Remnant. The evangelical community is small, but alive and growing.

So yes, in the Levant, the Bible comes alive in all its teaching. Of course, “holy land” is found wherever the people of God stand and serve, on any continent. And the Christian’s physical body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” But it is exhilarating to walk where Jesus walked, and see what He saw, both the good and the bad, for it is all spiritually instructive.

 

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Endnotes:

1 In Exodus 31:1-5, we read, “The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

2 For instance, we read of David in 2 Samuel 19:8: “Then the king arose and took his seat in the gate. And the people were all told, ‘Behold, the king is sitting in the gate.’ And all the people came before the king.”


Can God Love Too Much?

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Jonah 4:11 (ESV)

Clouds and sunIn his book Bold Love, Dan Allender challenges Christians to think more deeply about a word they use so often: love. “We use the word so easily and might even think we know a bit about it. Surely it’s something we all want and, in our better moments, want to give. Yet there is no more demanding occupation than love.” It is certainly easy to say that God is love; it is another thing altogether to act lovingly toward our personal enemies or enemies of the faith. Furthermore, love is anything but bold when Christians ignore the Great Commission, when they fail to put their lives on the line and enter closed countries, learn difficult languages, and labor among the lost Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or animists. The Lord’s love, in contrast, is always bold, rich, and deep.

In the first three chapters of Jonah, the prophet flees God’s command to preach in the wicked city of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, located in what is now Iraq. In Jonah’s time (eighth century B.C.), Assyria was a marauding and powerful nation that had invaded Israel and Judah more than once. Their methods were infamous: when a people resisted becoming vassals, their nation was looted and destroyed. No wonder Jonah chose to flee instead of preach repentance in the capital of this empire. Not only was there cause to fear for his personal safety, Jonah also knew that God might convert and forgive them, and he wanted nothing to do with that. After all, who wants to introduce his enemies to a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2b)?

Nonetheless, Jonah’s flight was futile; he eventually obeyed God’s command (3:3) and preached repentance on the streets of Nineveh with resounding success. Just as he feared, “the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (3:5). By the end of the book, the prophet was downcast once again, clearly disappointed in the generosity of God’s grace. It is one thing for the Lord to choose to love His people, the Jews, but compassion for Assyria was too much for Jonah to take. Of course, Jonah should not have been surprised at the Lord’s bold love initiative beyond His chosen people, for years ago He had told Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). So instead of condemning a rebellious and unruly people who did “not know their right hand from their left” (v. 11), God sent a prophet to preach His Word—and, consistent with His loving character, He gave the city life.

Like Jonah, Christians today may be tempted to wipe their consciences clean of any responsibility for the adherents of other world religions, some of whom wish the Church great harm. Nonetheless, Christianity leaves no room for hatred or apathy. When Jesus said “something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41), He was referring to Himself. He had come to be preached to all nations: the friendly and the militant, the safe and the dangerous, the open and the closed. May the Lord spare the Church today from the indifference, indeed the disdain of Jonah. May He also spare her from those who might think that if God were to convert even a terrorist, He would be loving too much.

What Does the Bible Teach About Singleness?

A biblical view of singleness has been hard to come by in church history. At one extreme, some have regarded the unmarried life as an elevated spiritual realm, a blessing that only the godliest can handle. At the other extreme, singles groups in some churches are seen as mere holding tanks where believers remain only until they can marry. In contrast, the Bible presents a third way of viewing singleness in 1 Corinthians 7, one that the church needs to recover.

SinglenessSingleness is a calling. Regarding marriage and singleness, Paul told the Corinthians, “Only let each person lead the life . . . to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). The word translated “called” is the Greek verb kaleo. It means “to choose for receipt of a special benefit or experience.” In the New Testament, being “called” by God to anything is an overwhelmingly positive experience. Believers are called to God’s kingdom (1 Thessalonians 2:12), to “eternal glory in Christ” (1 Peter 5:10), and to eternal life (1 Timothy 6:12). At times, God’s people are also called to an office of service (Hebrews 5:4). By placing singleness in this category of calling, God is obviously not classifying it as a position of second-class citizenship in His Church.

At the same time, singleness involves struggle. Paul’s statement that singles must exercise “self-control” and his accompanying exhortation, “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9), indicate that unmarried Christians face a battle to abstain from sexual intimacy outside marriage. God created humans as sexual beings, and singles are no exception. They experience sexual desire but are expected to fulfill the root need for intimacy by drawing near to Christ and being totally known only by Him. Yes, sexual abstinence can be a struggle. But obedience brings great blessing, and God empowers His single children for their calling. (Incidentally, Paul said married Christians also have unique struggles that singles don’t face [1 Corinthians 7:28-35].)

For some, singleness is a temporary calling. In 1 Corinthians 7:40, Paul advised widows to remain unmarried. But earlier in the chapter, he made clear that while their husbands are alive, God calls women to stay married (1 Corinthians 7:10). It would seem then, that Paul believed Christians can have different callings at different stages of life. God may call a believer to singleness for a season of life and marriage for another season. Because He has called you to singleness at age 30 doesn’t mean you will still be single at 40 or 50. As some have wisely counselled, “Run as hard as you can toward God, and if someone keeps up, introduce yourself.” Conversely, just because He called you to marriage at 20 doesn’t mean He won’t call you to live the final 20 years of your life as a widow or widower. The Lord has a perfect plan for each portion of each believer’s life.

Singleness is a gift that should be used to serve the church. In 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul calls singleness a “gift” (Gk. charisma) from God. Interestingly, this is the same word the New Testament uses to describe spiritual gifts, which are to be used for serving others in the body of Christ (1 Peter 4:10). Most likely, that is part of what Paul has in mind here, because he also speaks of singleness as an assignment (1 Corinthians 7:17) and an opportunity for “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). Indeed, single Christians generally have more freedom to serve others in and outside the church because they don’t have as much responsibility to care for their own families. So during your season of singleness, take advantage of God’s gift by serving your church in a variety of ministries.

Of course, marriage is also a gift and a calling. Married believers are not on a lower spiritual plane than singles. Still, it’s time for the church to rediscover the calling and gift of singleness so that unmarried believers don’t feel like they’re in a holding pattern until “real life” begins.


Every Christian Family a Little Church

As new believers in 1950, Bob and Fae Tripp were committed to raising their children according to the Word of God. Their children knew that Sunday worship “was a nonnegotiable part”1 of their weekly schedule and that each day began with a time of family devotion. Bob was not a pastor and not even a great teacher, but he was faithful in leading his family to understand what 19th-century Presbyterian pastor and Princeton professor James W. Alexander called the “feeling that God must be honored in everything, that no business of life can proceed without Him.”2

Family DevotionsThe Tripp family sounds as if it could have existed in Puritan Scotland during the 17th century when even “the humblest persons in the remotest cottages honored God by daily praise”3 and family worship. But Bob lived in the middle of the 20th century, when the practice of family worship had been largely dismissed, even among the best churches and best Christian men.4

Early in the morning, before the first light of dawn, the Tripp family was roused from their beds. They gathered with sleep still in their eyes because Bob was convinced that it was important for every member of his family to be involved. In these small gatherings, he would read from Scripture, they would pray for one another concerning the day ahead, and they would lift their voices in praise of their Savior Jesus Christ. The Tripp’s oldest son, Tedd, had recently been hired to work at a factory requiring him to leave the house long before the rest of the family would normally wake. So rather than let his son begin the day without the benefit of family worship, Bob woke the others, letting them return to bed only after Tedd had left the home strengthened by their corporate devotion.5

In the years to come, the younger son Paul could not remember much of what the family read during these early morning meetings, but he was always impressed by his father’s “unaltering commitment to family worship” because “nothing got in the way” of gathering them to participate in their “time of reading and prayer.”6 Bob’s efforts to teach his family to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33) played no small part in their later openness to the calling of God. Both boys came to a saving faith in Christ at an early age and later committed their lives to vocational ministry. Both Paul and Tedd have been pastors and seminary professors, and both have written books on Christian parenting.

It is possible that these young men would have heeded the call of God upon their lives had they not been trained to honor and worship Him daily at an early age. But without such benefits, the Tripp brothers might well have left the church in adulthood, as is the case with 88% of churched youth today.7 Surely it is time to revive the practice of family worship and to believe with Jonathan Edwards that “Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church”8

 

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Endnotes

1 Paul David Tripp, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (Philipsburg: P & R, 1997), 190.

2 James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Family Worship (1847; repr., Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1998), 33.

3 Ibid., 11.

4 Donald S. Whitney, Family Worship: In the Bible, in History & in Your Home (Shepherdsville, KY: Center for Biblical Spirituality, 2005), 1.

5 Tripp, 190.

6 Ibid.

7 Alvin L. Reid, Raising the Bar: Ministry to Youth in the New Millennium (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 44.

8 Quoted in Whitney, 15.

The Faith of the Demons

faith2You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.

James 2:19 (NIV)

Most overweight people are quite familiar with the cause of their condition. They know the butter-and-jam laden croissants they are about to eat are loaded with calories and fat. They know that the broccoli they shunned in the supermarket would be much better for them. They know which food would be kinder to their cholesterol count, but they consume the dangerous pastry just the same. Mere knowledge cannot help them; it all depends on what they make of that knowledge. The same is true of knowledge in the spiritual realm.

James rebuked those who thought that an intellectual grasp of monotheism gained them a sort of spiritual advantage. If they, so to speak, signed off on a rudimentary doctrinal statement, then they were somehow blessed by God. But the apostle had no patience for such trivialities, noting that demons themselves believed the basic facts about God—that He existed, that He was one. Indeed, they believed this so deeply that they were wracked with dread. But it availed them nothing, for faith is more than cognitive subscription to propositions. Unless the demons worship and obey God, they are condemned.

Incidentally, James 2:19 offers an example of prophetic sarcasm. When James exclaims, “Good!” (“You do well!”), he means it as an ironic “Whoopie!” This is the same tone one finds in 2 Corinthians 11:19, where Paul calls the church members “wise” for putting up with fools, and on Mount Carmel, when Elijah suggests that Baal might be sleeping (1 Kings 18:27). While sarcasm should be used sparingly, it is not sub-Christian and can be quite effective.

It has been said that evangelicals are doctrinal exclusivists, but functional universalists. They say they believe in hell, but their failure to evangelize is just the sort of behavior one would expect from those who believed that all will work out well for non-believers. Lacking a sense of urgency to witness, they show themselves skeptical of the Judgment.

Any number of church members will express disdain for immorality, hope for cultural reform, and faith in the power of God to change lives, but relatively few will act with boldness upon such stated convictions. Perhaps, if they listened carefully, they would hear the voices of the prophets thundering across the ages, “You believe that abortion is evil. Great! So do the demons—and rejoice.” Or maybe the preacher would hear, “You believe that the pulpit is strategic. Wonderful! So does the devil—and trembles.” But what will these saints and Church leaders make of these beliefs? That is the faith question.