Christians are to proclaim Jesus Christ as “the way the truth and the life” (John 14:6). This raises questions and objections these days. In 2004 this issue made the news with the controversy over Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. There are some things I really like about that movie. It is a gripping film, but there are some things I do not like. Scourgings and crucifixions were indeed awful, but the violence in the film was so overdone that it became for me a distraction from its legitimate intensity. But my purpose now is not to criticize or praise the movie; rather, I want to consider one reaction to it.
No matter what one thinks of the film, I think the pounding that Mel Gibson took in producing it was unfair. Hollywood can produce a steady stream or crude and disgusting films, and it can twist historical fact at will, and its right to do so is vehemently defended as artistic freedom. But Mel Gibson produces a film on an event believed to be true by a majority of Americans, and he does it in a way that is true to the historical record, and he got put through a media meat-grinder. In an hour long interview with Diane Sawyer, he was interrogated about his religious beliefs, his father’s anti-Semitic beliefs, and the beliefs of the conservative wing of the Catholic Church of which he is a member. One part went something like this:
Diane Sawyer said, “Gibson’s conservative group rejects the reforms of Vatican II, one of which was to be more inclusive of other faiths. We asked him, ‘Does this traditionalist view bar the door of heaven for Protestants, Jews, and Muslims?”
Gibson’s response was to say: “That’s not the case at all. It is possible for people who are not even Christian to get into heaven– it is just easier for Christians.”
Diane Sawyer then said: “So you have the ‘non-stop’ ticket?
And Gibson replied, “Well yes, I got to believe that…”
Diane Sawyer’s question about who and who does not get into heaven is a common one these days. I have been asked it many times, not only by unbelievers, but also by life-long Christians. It is a significant, valid, and troubling question. It is also a complex question, and a TV interview that edits each response to less than a minute is not the place to deal with it. Even at that, there is nothing I like about Mel Gibson’s answer. But Gibson is an actor and director, not a theologian.
When I am asked if Christians believe that heaven is limited to those who believe in Jesus, my response is to question the question. I say, “Where have you heard about heaven? Do you mean some sort of resurrection of our dead bodies, to be then whisked off to an eternal home of everlasting bliss? Who told you about that? On what do you base such an outrageous concept as life after death in some perfect place? Where on earth did you ever hear about such a thing? I have never seen such a thing happen, have you?”
A common, broadminded answer is, “Well, every religion and culture has its beliefs about the afterlife.”
I reply, “Yes, but are any of them true? And how might we decide? This is a huge question, and we don’t want to be wrong about this. Which of those beliefs have you looked into?
The usual response is a silent shrug of the shoulders, so I continue. “Actually, whatever we know about heaven we have learned from the Bible. Do you believe in the Biblical promise of heaven? If so, what else in the Bible do you believe in? And on what basis do you decide what parts you will believe and what parts you will not believe. Or is your belief in heaven based not on the Bible, but on something else? I have always been very interested in checking out all the possibilities for life after death, because I don’t want to wrong about this. But I have never found anything else worth my faith and trust. Have you? And if you don’t believe in heaven at all, why would you be concerned about what I believe about who does and doesn’t get into a place that isn’t even there? If you think my belief in heaven is a false hope, wouldn’t a better question be ‘How can you believe in something so outrageously foolish?’”
“If you would have asked that, then I would tell you that I believe in heaven because I believe in the Bible and I believe in Jesus, and, I believe in what Jesus tells me in the Bible about heaven and how to get there. Then you could ask me why I believe in the Bible, and we could talk about that. The Bible is the only place that I have found that offers a believable hope of a life after death, and so if that is the source of that hope, then we need to look at what else the Bible says about it. If we wish to maintain a belief in what the Bible says about such a future hope, we must also be willing to look at everything the Bible says about heaven and how to get there. All I am trying to do is to take the source seriously, looking into everything that source says about the subject and not just the parts I want to hear.” (continued…)
II Peter 1:15-18 — I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.