Growing up I can remember how contentious, even confrontational, some of the churches seemed to be. “We are the true Way,” some would say while others seemed to claim, “Only by ascribing to our beliefs will you enter Heaven.”
For the longest time I really worried I was going to the wrong church and would burn in Hell for it.
And then a long time passed.
I grew up, got an education, started a family, moved across the country, had a career, went a year with no income, had grandchildren, suffered tests of faith, experienced betrayals, had great joys and, as you might say, I generally “had a life.”
Over all those years, I’ve met and talked with people of many different faiths, and to many of no particular faith, and to those without faith, without a belief in an almighty being or beings. A great many of these very different people living in different countries and having different faiths, or none, were married, had children, they worked to support their family, sometimes had passing difficulties with their spouses, struggles at the office, sickness of loved ones, the passing of parents and so on, all the things I think of as normal, everyday life.
I admired some of these individuals. Some were, I’m sorry to admit, better people than myself. They loved more, gave more, sacrificed more than my sometimes selfish self. Their lives, their efforts, their love and caring were inspiring and I often hoped and even prayed that, should circumstances arise in my life similar to those they had experienced, I might do as well, as lovingly, with as much caring as they obviously had in their heart.
Some of those Christian denominations I heard as a child — and which I am sad to say I still hear today — would say that these people are going to Hell because they haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their only true savior.
Sorry, but No, I can’t accept that.
Consequently, I’ve struggled for many years with the contrary statements in the Bible that seem to support that viewpoint.
Are those statements to be taken literally? Were the ancient words that have passed through one or more translations portrayed in a manner appropriate in contemporary life? Given that my world is so different from those in Biblical times, is it reasonable to expect that I can really understand what the different passages meant to the ancients, to those living in different lands, under different governing forces, … Is it truly possible for me to understand their hopes, desires and fears?
My world is so profoundly different than theirs. There is so little commonality between my life and theirs that I have to admit serious doubt to my having any real appreciation of their fears, hopes and beliefs.
And yet, reading the Bible, reading the words written in those days by, and in many cases, for those people (such as the New Testament letters written to specific churches and addressing their specific problems), my only window to the Way is through those very words.
It’s all so confusing.
At least it was until one day, sitting in my room at the Fengyi Hotel in Wuhan, the Peoples Republic of China, and gazing out at the streets below and trying to imagine the more than a billion Chinese in families of different structures, struggling to raise healthy and strong children who would be heedful of right and wrong, I opened the Bible I had brought with me to China and read in Romans 2:13-16:
13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
New Revised Standard Version (The New Oxford Annotated Bible)
Here was an answer to what I had been told was the otherwise doomed fate of the dozens of good people I had seen that very morning as I walked down a side street next to the hotel.
What matters is what is in a person’s heart, his unspoken but heartfelt words!
Using the example I know best, if someone adheres to the thoughts and heartfelt wishes Christ had which come across the years to me through the Bible, then they will be saved.
… but they don’t have to know Christ’s name or have read or heard His teachings. They don’t have to have gone to the right church. They don’t have to have been baptised by triune full-body immersion, sprinkled with water from the Jordan River, or been blessed by the Pope, a Cardinal or even a parrish priest.
What matters is what a person holds in his heart, his “secret thoughts”.
It is these “secret thoughts” that determine each person’s fate. Those are known only to the individual and, ultimately, to He who will judge. No one else can possibly know.
There is no way I or any other person on this planet can ever know the secret thoughts of another. The church they go to won’t tell me. The name of the God they worship won’t tell me. Even the presence or absence of an espoused faith of any kind won’t tell me. There simply is no way I can ever know, or judge, who will be saved.
Anyone from any church, any synagogue, any mosque, any house, hut or cave, can be saved. What matters are their “secret thoughts”, known only to them and to the Lord.
Today, I espouse and try to live, a Christian way of living. I pray for guidance and strength to do those things that will please the Lord and I look to Christ for the example of how to regard and treat my fellow beings.
Will my “secret thoughts” someday find the Lord’s acceptance?
I can only pray for the Lord’s forgiveness of my shortcomings, try to do what I think is right, fair and what furthers His hopes for the world around me, and beg His forgiveness for my failings and, finally, trust that my life is ultimately in His hands.
Science says that the Universe had a beginning. It seems to follow then, that it will also have an end. And my life also had a beginning and, it certainly seems, it will also have an end. Between its beginning and its end, a great many things are for me to decide. This is the gift of Free Will, a God-given power of awesome, and sometimes terrifying, potential.
But my human-power has its limits. Within the confines of the amount of Free Will that God has granted me, I pray I will do as will please Him.
And beyond those limits, I can only trust in His plan, and pray for His mercy.