I had 2 sermons planned, one for today and one for the end of the month. Today’s question is: What happens to people who have never heard the Gospel? The question I planned to address at the end of the month was: How is there no sorrow in Heaven if people we know aren’t there? I got to thinking. These questions are kinda the same question posed differently. I think the real question is: What does eternity hold for those who don’t know Christ? Or perhaps: Who’s going to Heaven?
I have a joke to tell. I need to preface it by telling you that Jehovah’s witnesses believe literally the word in Revelation Chapter 7 that says 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel will sealed as servants of God in the Kingdom of Heaven, meaning that only 144,000 people are going to Heaven. I’m not sure what they believe happens to the rest of them.
So, the joke goes. People were arriving at the gates of Heaven greeted by St. Peter. Peter asked each person their denomination and directed them to a place where they would be oriented to Heaven. To the Methodists he directed them to the 3rd door on the right. The Christians were directed to the appropriate door, and the Catholics further down the hall. Each person directed to a place to meet other Christians in their denomination. Peter directed each person to be especially quiet as they passed the 1st door on the left. That was where the Jehovah’s Witnesses were. Peter said not to do anything to disturb them, because they think they’re the only ones here.
What if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong and all Christians go to Heaven?
Some Catholics believe, at least the doctrine taught is, that only Catholics are going to Heaven. It is believed that the Catholic Church’s official member roster is the scroll of life which will be called upon by God to enter the Kingdom on the final day of judgment. Basically, if you’re not on the list, you’re not getting in.
What if the Catholics are wrong and all Christians go to Heaven?
Some Christians hold John 3:16 to be the sum total of the Gospel truth: 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 is the ground for the claim that only those who believe in Jesus will have eternal life. That chapter of John goes on to say that the evil doers are condemned.
What if only the evil doers are condemned?
What happens to people who do good but don’t believe in Jesus?
What if all good-doers go to Heaven?
What if Christians aren’t the only ones going to Heaven?
Before I came to know Jesus and believe in Him, I thought I was going to Heaven. I believed in God and prayed. I didn’t have a Bible so I didn’t read the Scriptures. When I watched a football game, someone would hold a sign up that said John 3:16. I wondered who John was and what 316 meant.
Would I have gone to Heaven?
In May, I read an article on the Huffington Post controversial that Pope Francis said. Pope Francis is the recently elected head of the Catholic Church. I saved the article with this sermon in mind. Pope Francis said in a homily that atheists who do good are redeemed, not just Catholics.
Pope Francis disturbed religious order when he claimed that everyone, everyone was redeemed by Jesus, even atheists. Francis said: ““Doing good” is a principle that unites all humanity, beyond the diversity of ideologies and religions, and creates the “culture of encounter” that is the foundation of peace…” He used Mark 9: 38 – 41 as the Biblical basis for his argument.
In the Scripture, the Disciples found someone driving out demons who was not one of them. John tells Jesus that the Disciples told this man to stop because he was not a Disciple. Instead of stopping the man doing miracles, Jesus suggests John widen his understanding of who can do good. Jesus tells John that no one who does a miracle can then say something bad about Him, because whoever is not against them, an enemy of them, is for them.
Jesus was upset with the Disciples for being narrow minded restricting who could do good and who couldn’t. The Disciples “had been closed off by the idea of possessing the truth convinced that those who do not have the truth cannot do good.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation.”
Pope Francis went further in his sermon to say: “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us.” The Pope goes on as if being questioned by and responding to various people. “‘But … this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘[what about] the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe …I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
This notion that all, everyone, is redeemed is a welcome idea for many, perhaps even a long held belief for some. Father James Marting, S.J. suggests that the Popes sermon is “a timely reminder that God cannot be confined to our narrow categories.” Father James said that even the Apostle Paul suggested that Christ’s sacrifice was for all in 1st Timothy.
The Apostle Paul was a stickler for sound doctrine and defended proper teaching to all the Gentile churches. He, in a number of his letters, taught that Christ’s death was for all. In Romans 5:18, 1 Corinthians 15: 22, and 2 Corinthians 5: 10 – 14, Paul wrote that just as one man, Adam, brought sin into the world, through one act by one man, Jesus Christ, justification and life were given to all. Jesus died for all that all may live is Paul’s message.
The Pope’s message and this interpretation of Paul’s teaching may be unpopular and hard to believe. But, even Christ said it. In John 10, Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd. In verse 16, Jesus says: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also,” indicating that perhaps there were more sheep than just Christians.
I was hesitant to quote various Scriptures to support this claim that Christ died for all and that all are redeemed by His grace. I didn’t want to take verses out of context and use them as proof that I was right – that is called proof texting and is dangerous. I did much research on these texts and found that in their context these Scriptures did, in fact, support my claim.
I don’t want you to think that we can stop spreading that Gospel because everyone is going to Heaven. I think we should share the Gospel regardless of one’s beliefs about Heaven. I’ve said before that we’re not all here because we’re waiting for our golden ticket to the pearly gates to be punched. We are believers in Jesus Christ because our lives have been transformed. We know the grace of Jesus, the love of God, in this life, here and now.
We should share the message of God’s love because we want others to experience the life transforming power of Christ. The Gospel is more than just eternal life. The Gospel is about salvation and I have been saved in this life. I have been redeemed from my sin. I have had relationships reconciled. I have turned my life around by the power of the Holy Spirit. I found my life’s calling through Jesus. I have peace in my heart. None of that has been possible without Christ.
Other cultures who have never heard the Gospel may know God as they do good. Unbelievers and atheists may know God by doing good. They may inherit eternal life, but they don’t know Christ. They don’t know Christ, so they don’t know the full story of who God is and what God does. Only Christians know the full story of God and know the fullness of life in Christ Jesus.