Here’s the latest installment of my friend Nicholas’ interview with me about Christianity.
Nicholas wrote: In response to a post on my blog, you once stated that “whether you like God’s plan or not, He gets to set the rules.” This in mind, are there any aspects of “God’s rules” which you reluctantly follow or wish were different? As an example, even when I considered myself a Christian, I ridiculed the notion that according to strict Christian beliefs, a Muslim who spends his life clothing the naked, feeding the poor and healing the sick will burn in hell while a mass murderer can gain entrance to heaven by accepting Christ and repenting on his death-bed.
The more I’ve learned about God the more I realize that two sayings of James MacDonald’s are true: 1) Choose to sin, choose to suffer and 2) When God says, “Don’t,” He means, “Don’t hurt yourself.” Of course we should avoid hurting others, but by sinning against God we are also hurting ourselves.
God wired us a certain way and told us the best and wisest way to live, and He offers to give us wisdom if we ask for it. When we violate his rules bad things happen, just as if I ignored my car’s owners manual and put water in the gas tank. That would be my fault, not the designer’s.
What rules do I follow reluctantly or wish were different? When I think of that I tend to go in a circle: I think of something I’d want to be different, but when I take it to its logical conclusion it typically results in God having to take away or override our free will.
But I actually wrestle with the same major issue you do: People going to Hell. I don’t want anyone to go to Hell, which is one reason I’m passionate about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with anyone who cares to listen. I have Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, New Age, agnostic and atheist friends, among others, and it grieves me that if they died today that they would go to Hell.
But let’s dig deeper into your example – which at first glance makes God out to be profoundly unfair – and see how the Biblical worldview applies to it. The truth is that no sin goes unpunished and no one is punished more than they deserve, though some may accept God’s free gift of grace to avoid eternal punishment.
So could “a Muslim who spends his life clothing the naked, feeding the poor and healing the sick will burn in hell while a mass murderer can gain entrance to heaven by accepting Christ?” Yes. We already discussed the question of what happens to those who haven’t heard the Gospel, so to keep things simple I’m assuming that the hypothetical Muslim heard and rejected the Gospel. I’ll also assume that the murderer’s death bed conversion was authentic, meaning that he truly repented and believed in Jesus.
The seeds of this answer are actually sown in the question itself. The question is a common one, where an extremely good and an extremely bad person are juxtaposed, only with the “good” person going to Hell and the “bad” person going to Heaven.
One nice thing about the question is that it is one no postmodern would ask, unless in a truly hypothetical sense. After all, it clearly presupposes that there are “good” acts that deserve rewards, not punishment and “bad” acts that deserve punishment, not rewards, and that to punish good and reward evil would be grossly unjust.
In a serious way, the presuppositions are in line with God’s nature. The Bible teaches that there are rewards in Heaven for doing the right things and that punishment in Hell is commensurate with bad deeds committed.
However, God’s demand for goodness is far above the man-made standards we inject into the question. If the Muslim followed 100% of God’s laws 100% of the time, then he would indeed go to Heaven and would not need Jesus. But, as Romans 3:23 and other passages point out (not to mention countless experiences we all have had), “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
I have found that the closer I get to God the farther I realize I was away from him. I thought I was fairly good (by my own lame definition of “good”), but the more I learn of his holiness the more sinful I realize I was (and am). Consider Isaiah’s reaction when he was in the Lord’s presence, and keep in mind that he was a prophet of God (one of the “good” guys):
Isaiah 6:5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
That’s where Jesus comes in, with the grace of God. God loves us and wants to reconcile our broken relationships with him. But his perfect justice demands punishment. Unlike other religions, God leaves no sin unpunished.
Jesus took that punishment in your place – if you accept it. If you reject it, as the Muslim in question did, then you get to stand before him with your own righteousness. Your “good deeds” will be as filthy rags to him, as Isaiah 64:6 points out:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
And if any of you are like me, many of your good deeds weren’t really all that good. Many good things I have done were for my glory and self-interest, not God’s.
So is God inconsistent or unjust? Not at all. He is perfectly just and perfectly merciful and gracious. The Muslim will pay for her sins, whatever they were – no more, no less.
But what about the murderer? He opted to let Jesus pay for his sins. He’ll still encounter the consequences in this life (guilt, jail and possibly the death penalty), but his eternal consequences are completely gone. In God’s eyes he is as white as snow:
Isaiah 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
I’ve met murderers and other criminals in prison ministry who, by all appearances, are truly redeemed and forgiven.
So God is perfectly just: He punished the Muslim in perfect proportion for his sins, and He inflicted the punishment for the murderer on Jesus. No sin went unpunished, and no sin received a harsher punishment than was necessary. Of course, Jesus took the punishment for the Muslim as well, in a sense, but he opted to ignore God’s free pardon (even though he was under no obligation to offer the pardon). But he can’t accuse him of being unjust or even unmerciful.
Some might cry that it is unfair that God didn’t provide other options. But He gave his only Son (and himself, in the Divine sense, because Jesus is God) to provide a way back. Why should God have to provide another way if people reject the sacrifice He didn’t have to offer in the first place?
How is it just that someone could do whatever they wanted in life and have a death-bed conversion and go to Heaven? I did a Q&A on death bed conversions that addresses that. It seems unfair at first glance, as if the bad guy got to have a fun life and then still went to Heaven. But the truth is that less sin = less problems in life. Satan wants us to think sin = fun. How much more evidence do we need that he’s wrong?
Galatians 6:7-8 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
So while I have thought of things from time to time where I think God could have done a better job, a little reflection usually brings me back to reality. He is perfectly just, merciful and gracious. We reject that graciousness at our own peril.