Whenever I watch famous TV preachers being interviewed for news shows, I can always count on them being asked at least two questions. In fact, I could most confidently place bets in Las Vegas and set my clock by it.
The first question is, “If God is good and is all powerful, why does evil exist?” The second question usually follows soon after the unsuspecting minister has stated he believes Jesus is the only true path to God—to which reporter retorts, “So if a good person on a deserted island lives a good life but never hears about Jesus, would God send that person to hell?”
Let’s first understand something basic to this discussion. The goal of these questions is inevitably, without question, to make the pastor, minister, reverend, Reverend Doctor, etc., look like an intolerant, blustering Bible-thumper. It’s not that the questioner has gone through some personal tragedy and truly wants to understand the mysteries of God’s ways.
No, the interviewer is delivering a “Gotcha question!” You know, like the ones they ask political candidates to get them to look narrow-minded or ignorant. The questioner knows that probably any answer the pastor gives will make him look bad to someone. And that’s the whole point. The reporter isn’t at home mulling over these questions into the late hours of the night, tossing, and turning in his bed.
I’m always surprised how, when I’m asked these same questions, the questioner seems to think I must have never been thoughtful enough to wonder those things myself. Instead of the truth-seeking missile they expect them to be, they’re actually the stuff of a college Philosophy 101 class. They’ve been answered ad nauseum throughout the past 2000 years.
This is why, quite frankly, I don’t even bother with them when a skeptic on Twitter sends them to me out of the blue. These are questions that, in my own heart, have been put to rest long ago. It’s like challenging a professional pianist to play Chopsticks or, heaven forbid, “Heart and Soul.”
Nothing wrong with it, he’d just probably rather play something he actually finds challenging. But just for the record, here’s my answer to Question One.
“If God is good and all powerful, why does evil exist?”
The quick answer is “because we have a choice.” We claim in our enlightened age to be all about choice and our rights. And surprisingly enough, Christian theology teaches that God has given us a choice between doing things his way or our own way. He doesn’t force us to do right, and he offers us a choice of whether to follow him or not.
When people choose to do wrong, the Bible calls that sin. And sin brings pain and misery to all people, which is why God hates it so. Christian thinker A.W. Tozer explained that God hates sin the way mothers used to hate the polio virus—he hates whatever hurts and destroys the ones he loves.
The creation story in Genesis says God gave us a perfect world initially. The Garden of Eden was the way he wanted the world to be—no death, no suffering, just beauty and friendship with him. He gave us the deed to that world and told us to trust and follow him. But we were seduced by sin when an adversary planted the idea in us we could be “like God” ourselves. In other words, we could be the boss of our world, not God. If we followed his advice, nobody could tell us what to do anymore. We could call our own shots and make our own choices, thank you very much, God!
So our first parents rebelled against God’s authority. With that rebellion, mankind turned over the keys of this world to God’s adversary, and put all of creation into a free fall. We now labor under the curse of that Fall. From that day forward, each of us has repeated that same rebellion—we have taken charge, asked Daddy for the keys, and in doing we welcome all the things our selfishness creates—pain, suffering, war, hatred, death.
So why would God allow such an awful event to occur in the first place?
Because without a choice of whether to obey him, we would be robots and our love would not be real. Here’s a disturbingly bad example: say a man points a gun at a woman and says, “Make love to me.” While he may get her to comply, and even demand that she say out loud “I love you,” does she really love him? Of course not! Why?
Because the woman never had a choice whether to be intimate with him or not. She had to be able to say “no” before the word “love” could ever truly mean anything.
God allowed evil to come into being because without the choice between evil and good, our love would never be real. But God is ultimately in charge and one day will return to put everything right again. The book of Revelation actually ends with the Garden of Eden coming back down to earth and the Tree of Life restored to us.
But as for now, the world is a mess. It’s not in line with God’s perfect will, and it is enduring the consequences of our rebellion. That’s why I find it odd when people ask “Where is God?” during tragedies and disasters. My answer: “He’s right where you told him to be—minding his own business!” If you choose to give him back control of your life, that’ll help quite measurably. But you’ll still be living in a fallen world until Christ returns.
So we need to understand that while God is in ultimate control of the direction of eternity, he allows us free will working within that sovereignty. He is, quite simply, a gentleman—he would never dream of forcing his love upon you. Reject it if you will, but don’t blame him when we tell him to “take a hike” and he does just that!
That’s why I find this question so hypocritical. It’s as if we keep calling 911, asking the police to come save us from an intruder. And then, when they get to our door, we obstinately ask them what right do they have barging into our private residence. We want them to defeat the evil inside without ever setting foot inside the front door!
We are the definition of double-minded. We have no idea what we want, and when we get what we ask for, we blame God for giving it to us. It would be the stuff of a slapstick comedy sketch if it didn’t have such devastating and eternal consequences. As C.S. Lewis posed, the door to hell is locked from the inside.
“Will only people who believe in Jesus go to heaven?”
The problem with hypothetical questions is two-fold. First, you get a set up that may not truly represent the truth. Second, and more of a detriment, is the fact that it treats the subject matter impersonally. That is my biggest problem with queries about “who’s going to heaven and who’s not”—these are extremely personal questions.
When we ask this question, we are talking about real people who are loved and matter. Rob Bell points that out in his notorious book Love Wins. He caused a stir because he basically attempted to explain away an eternal hell, and claimed his view was in harmony with Scripture. Just so you know, it’s a book that I mostly disagree with…and strongly!
We can do theological gymnastics all we want, but we will still be faced with the reality of heaven or hell if we truly believe the Bible. And I believe the Bible, truly and deeply.
So back to our scenario of the TV preacher’s interview and the reporter hoping for a world-class blunder. The interviewer asks, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only way to get to heaven?” Since the subject of the interview is a Christian pastor and this is a basic tenet of the faith, the expected answer would be, “Yes Larry, I do believe that.”
But this question is usually the interviewer’s coup de grâce, and now it’s time for him/her to go in for the kill. The reporter has dug down deep into his arsenal and unleashed one of the most strategically impossible questions any religious person can be asked. For the follow up question is a no-win scenario:
“But what about all the other good people in the world who call God by a different name than yours? Tell me, ‘reverend’ (that title is spoken smirkingly with mock respect), when those decent people die, will God send them to hell?”
If the interviewer has a really good cameraman, this is the moment for the tight shot on the good reverend. If he wasn’t sweating before, he’s now showing the tell-tale signs of a “Richard Nixon sweaty upper lip” in front of a nationwide TV audience. That’s because this question is the “Kobayashi Maru” of religion.
Okay, you remember that episode of Star Trek, right? The Star Fleet cadets are put in a crisis simulation where they are given command of what is truly a “no-win scenario.” They don’t realize it when they enter the simulator, but there is literally no way to resolve the presented scenario, and catastrophe is unavoidable.
In that episode, Captain Kirk actually figures a way around the Kobayashi Maru scenario…well, actually, he cheats! But for Christians, this question puts them in the unfair position of judging the world and playing God themselves. Unfortunately, most take the bait and enter a scenario out of which there is no good escape.
Quite simply, if our TV preacher answers “Yes, the person will go to hell,” he will:
- look like an extremist blowhard
- appear to delight in damning people to everlasting torment.
- project the image that he thinks he gets to decide people’s eternal fate.
- be seen as intolerant of other faiths and as arrogant in thinking his particular religion is the only way to heaven (for today there is no longer such a thing as “absolute truth,” only opinions).
- all of the above
But if he answers, “No, they’ll go to heaven,” he will have denied direct biblical teaching, not to mention the actual words of Jesus. He said, “No man comes to the Father but by me.” Most all of Christendom will label him a heretic—and rightly so in my opinion.
So what’s the right answer? Actually, the right answer is that, as far as Christianity is concerned…to begin with, you’re asking the wrong question!
It’s the wrong question because the premise contradicts a foundational Christian teaching. Compared to God’s standard of goodness, there actually are no “good people.” Romans 3:10 states unequivocally, “There is none righteous, no not one.” So the interviewer’s hypothetical scenario has described a person who, in Christianity, does not exist. We may think we’re pretty swell by our standard of “goodness,” which compares our lives to other people’s.
But by God’s standard, we are yet to be acquainted with even the definition of “good.” To him, we won’t know what true goodness and holiness is until we finally see it face to face when we meet God.
At that moment, we won’t be talking about our “goodness.” Instead, we will be dropping to our knees.
That’s one of the funny things about Christianity—it is the only religion I know of where you get to heaven by admitting you’re NOT a good person, while all the others are trying to convince some god how deserving they are. When someone argues they are too sinful to be a Christian, I argue back that their feeling of unworthiness is actually a prerequisite for coming to Christ in the first place.
Ironically, it’s all the people who think they’re good enough for heaven who are actually the most unlikely to ever getting there!
According to the Bible, we don’t even know how unholy we really are. We compare only our outward actions to someone like, say, Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. After looking at them, we conclude we’re just fine! We trumpet the fact we have not as yet killed anyone, that we’ve bought Girl Scout cookies from time to time, are kind to animals, or we recycle, etc. And we think we actually deserve an eternal reward dwelling in the presence of God for these remarkable achievements.
We whitewash our worst sins are minor, calling them personality flaws or mistakes. But the apostle Paul says that our best righteousness is “as filthy rags.” His terminology actually referred to oozing cloths full of disgusting human fluids and wastes. And those rags are the works we’re proudly thrusting into the face of the Almighty!
A second problem with this scenario is presuming that we get to heaven by being good. This is a false presumption found no where in Scripture. We don’t gain or lose heaven by our goodness, but by accepting or rejecting of Jesus as God’s payment for our sins. God saw that we were desperately selfish and could not save ourselves, so he paid our penalty by taking our punishment on himself. We actually aren’t required to do anything to earn this forgiveness, but merely asked to accept it as a gift.
So to reject his gracious act is not only the height of ingratitude, it is also the depth of ineptitude for those who’ve heard the Gospel of Christ clearly presented.
This extravagant gift seems like a philosophical no-brainer to me, and yet many still act like this simple acknowledgement is too much to ask of them. It’s as if the governor signs a pardon rescuing a guilty convict from the electric chair, but the prisoner wants to quibble over having been judged guilty.
It is the cosmic equivalent of looking a gift horse in the mouth while shooting yourself in the foot!
I’m afraid we’re simply way too in love with ourselves to understand how lucky we are even getting a chance at forgiveness. The contemporary man thinks everything in the world revolves around his axis. Even though atheists will argue we are not much more special than the animals, we still have quite a ego-centric view of the universe. We somehow believe we deserve heaven, a place that we have no inherent right to and that belongs to someone else—namely, God.
Without Christ’s forgiveness on the cross, we would be squatters in heaven. We have no business in that holy place. And if God offers us even the chance to live there for eternity, we should think we’ve just won God’s lottery!
My best answer to this scenario is, apart from repeating what the Bible says, this is simply not my call. Such a question is way above my pay-grade. I’m positively thrilled I don’t cast the deciding vote on anyone’s eternal destination. The person’s fate I can determine is my own. And God knows the hearts of all men and I believe he’s immeasurably fair.
In the end, I have faith he’ll do what’s right and just.
Though I believe God is infinitely merciful and fair, I also believe that salvation is only through Jesus Christ. We may question what would happen to some person stranded on a desert island who’s never heard of Jesus. But in reality, none of us reading this are secluded on a deserted island, are we? So what excuse do we have?
Neither you nor I have the right to judge another person’s life, but we must all answer for our own lives to the One who does have the right to judge. On that day of judgment, the interviewer won’t be a TV reporter, but instead the One who knows the hearts of every man and women completely.
And the answer you give to him today will be the only one that’ll really matter in the end…