I expected an argument when I wrote something to that effect a while back. Well, it seems my devoted following of adoring readers understands that much of what I write might actually be tongue-in-cheek. And that was indeed the spirit of the remark. Nevertheless, I did mean it.
What is the central teaching of Christianity? The one absolute essential? It's that Jesus Christ died for your sins. That's it. That's what Christianity is. Not Churches and Good Samaritans and feeding the hungry and saying prayers. All of those things follow afterwards. They would be the evidences, although not the proof, of a converted heart. The thing that did the converting -- the thing to which one is converted -- has to do with the Cross.
The fact that Jesus died is supposed to take care of the sins of humanity. The fact that he rose is supposed to demonstrate that he had the power to meet the claim. The idea is that only God could raise himself from the dead. It isn't my point here to prove that Jesus is God, or that his death provides the only means for forgiveness, or that he rose from the dead. My point is that it is Christian doctrine that these things are so, and thus, it is Christian doctrine that everyone whose sins are not forgiven through Jesus, is going to hell.
Yes, there are awkwardnesses. What about babies who die in the crib? What about the pygmies who never got a chance to hear about Jesus? We have only inferential data for such cases. Jesus said, "Let the little ones come unto me." He said that anyone who caused a little child to stray -- well, it would go hard for them. We have the Old Testament idea that the minors of a household are under the authority of the father, and are not accountable, not liable under the law -- thus, there is an age of accountability. There is no explicit biblical teaching on the matter. But we have the words of Jesus and the precept of the Law to guide us. Children get grace. Maybe not -- but the case can be made for it, and it is consistent with what those who claim to know God would have us believe of His character.
As for those who never heard about Jesus, they would be in the same general class as the humanity that lived before the Crucifixion. Who was the first Christian to get to heaven? The good thief on the cross. He accepted Jesus' authority, and died just after Him. The bitter thief heard the same news, and scorned it. Here we have the two types of post-Crucifixion humanity. But humanity does not fall only into these two types. Not all have heard.
There is only one means to forgiveness. This is the key of Christianity. Only one. The blood of Jesus. Well that's all churchy sounding, but what it boils down to is that, from Adam -- or Abel -- all the way through John the Baptist, all of pre-Crucifixion humanity had to look forward to their forgiveness. Theirs was an anticipatory faith. Someday the means of grace will be available, and I have a claim on it. I know not when, but I trust in it. There was, again according to the Bible, a clear line of prophecy that pointed to a Savior. I wrote something about that here. But that worked only for those who knew about it. What about the rest of humanity -- which would have been in the same boat, although on a different ocean, as those of the present era who never heard about the one means of salvation?
The yearning for God is written in our hearts. If we can come intuitively to the fact that we cannot save ourselves, not by any means whatsoever -- then we have come upon the meaning of grace. We are not saved by knowing the name J-e-s-u-s. That wasn't even his name. We're not saved by knowing the details of his death. That would be knowledge, and we are not saved by knowledge. We are not saved by believing in the Bible or in the doctrines of any of the Churches. We are saved by one thing only. Grace. It took the form of shed blood, but it was grace.
By grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
Grace. Unmerited favor. The good thing you are given when you do not deserve it. You don't even have to know what you are accepting. You just have to accept it. How do you know to accept it? You've felt the craving for it all your life.
You sit there, some night, beneath the broad tropical starry sky, and you feel how small you are, and how great creation is, and how great its creator must be. You look at the cult of your childhood, of appeasing fractious spirits with petty sacrifices that they should do you no mischief. You come upon the sudden insight that this petty superstition cannot be the way of the great good God who with such power created such beauty. Your heart cries out for a way of escape from this grinding futility -- and you are blessed, you are graced with a searing insight. There is nothing you can do to please Great God. Embrace this fact, and that He loves you anyway -- and you have almost become Christian. The only other thing you need is that sin -- and you know what sin is -- must be paid for. If you come to the revelation that God will pay for it himself ... you are Christian.
It's not impossible. Somebody had to come up with the idea, after all. Whether God himself, or the Prophets, or Paul, or the Church Fathers -- somebody came up with the idea. If it was thought of once, it can be thought of again. It isn't after all such a difficult idea to understand. It just seems to be difficult to believe.
That's why everyone else goes to hell. They think they're good enough. All their prayers and alms-giving and fasting and hajjing and Prophet-believing is supposed to please God so much with their faithfulness that they earn their way into those virgin-filled oases. Or whatever -- fill in the details of any religion at all.
Is it arrogant, of these Christians, to suppose that they and only they get it, and nobody else? Yes, it does seem arrogant. And some guy in a weird collar or with a funny beard and nose-spectacles or a white shirt with a skinny black tie handing out tracts on a streetcorner -- they might not create the greatest impression. After all, they think they're right and don't mind telling you so. Arrogant. But I know something more arrogant. It's that you think you're so good that God wants to reward you for it forever. Or it's that you think you know there is no God and no so-called reward in Forever-Happyland and no firepits and pitchforks for "sinners" in "hell". What a stupid bunch of ideas. Right? But such a degree of certainty seems at least as arrogant as that other -- and it has the additional ego-factor about how smart you are.
It's not about arrogance. It's about humility. Only humility gets grace, which is after all the gift of God and not the wage of works. Lest anyone should boast. You know what boasting is, right? It's every other religion. And you know what boasting gets you? It gets you hell.