The answer of where someone spends eternity depends on the denomination you ask.
“No man is going to be judged because they rejected a Jesus of whom they never heard.”
the Rev. Todd Wagner of North Dallas
On the stump the Sunday before last November’s election, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas wandered into a theological swamp.
He attended a service at a nondenominational church in San Antonio.
“If you live your life and don’t confess your sins to God almighty through the authority of Christ and his blood, I’m going to say this very plainly, you’re going straight to hell with a nonstop ticket,” preached pastor John Hagee.
After the sermon, the governor was asked if he agreed.
“In my faith, that’s what it says, and I’m a believer of that,” said Perry, who was raised Methodist.
While the event turned out to be a mere political blip — Perry was re-elected handily — it does raise an interesting religion question:
Who does go to hell?
Many people don’t believe in hell at all. Non-Christian faiths have their own take, of course. Judaism, the religion that birthed Christianity, teaches of the eternal nature of the soul, a divine judgment and a mostly undefined “World to Come.” But specifics are left up to God.
Islam is more like Christianity, with concrete traditions of paradise and hell. Who ends up where is a matter of how well the person submitted to God’s will while alive. Hindus and Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation, so the evil done in one life is atoned for down the road — a road on earth.
Modern Christianity, on the other hand, offers many answers to who goes to hell. On the one extreme are Universalists, who say that a loving God could leave nobody in eternal torment. On the other are strict Calvinists, who say that God picked a small elect for paradise and everyone else is simply stuck in the Handbasket to Hard Times.
The Christian discussion generally starts with this passage from the Gospel of John: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
But how does Jesus decide who he’ll take to the Father? Not every Christian claims to have a straight answer.
Let’s make the question concrete, with two examples that theologians actually chew over:
Imagine a man who grows up alone on an island and has never heard of Jesus. When he dies, does he go to hell?
Or consider Mohandas Gandhi. He was saintly but not a Christian. (He was once quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”)
Is Gandhi in hell?
Given the importance of the questions, it’s not surprising that denominations have official stands on the answers.
Most Methodists aren’t nearly as certain as Gov. Perry seemed to be, said William B. Lawrence, dean of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.
“We are far less interested in making the kinds of doctrinal claims that the governor seems to want to assert,” he said.
Methodism has a traditional belief in what it calls “prevenient grace,” God doing good for us before we know it. That means God could be offering a ticket out of hell to anybody, Lawrence said.
“None of us can make any doctrinal or rational decision about who has been touched by God’s grace,” he said.
The Southern Baptist position is basically “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”
“As for Mr. Perry’s comments €¦ I would have been even firmer about the necessity to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior in order to go to heaven,” said Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean for theological studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
“The Baptist Faith & Message,” the official statement of the denomination’s beliefs, says unambiguously: “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.”
So unless Gandhi accepted Jesus before he died, he’s in hell. The man on the island? Ditto.
But isn’t that unfair?
“There is no unfairness,” Yarnell said, “since we are all sinners.”
The Catholic Church has absolute doctrines.
The Vatican says one who truly believes in Catholic teachings and lives a life in accord with those beliefs is guaranteed a place in heaven, said Matthew Ogilvie, assistant professor of systematic theology at the University of Dallas, a Catholic school in Irving, Texas.
What about non-Catholic Christians? “Fifty years ago, if you asked your average parish priest or nun, they would have told you that non-Catholics are not going to heaven,” he said.
These days, the answer is maybe. The Catholic Church says it has the only complete instruction manual. Other routes may be harder or may end at a crevasse. But some who take a different route may still end up at the top, Ogilvie said.
Not even all who say they’re Catholic are guaranteed to stay out of hell, though. According to a document produced in 2000 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), salvation comes through grace. But “if they fail to respond in thought, word and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged.”
What about non-Christians? From a document issued by Pope Paul VI in 1964:
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
That covers the man on the island. But Gandhi did know about Christ, didn’t he? Maybe not, Ogilvie said. If he was driven away from the church by nasty Christians, he may never truly have understood Jesus.
The official Catholic catechism offers an even larger possible exception: God can do what God wants.
Presbyterian Church (USA)
The Presbyterian Church comes from the Calvinist tradition, said Warner Bailey, director of Presbyterian studies at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University.
That tradition includes a belief that God created some people predestined for hell.
Still, “most Presbyterians find that today to be offensive and theologically not attuned to the Gospel of God’s sovereignty and grace,” Bailey said.
The denomination’s official position is contained in its catechism: “The limits to salvation, whatever they may be, are known only to God. €¦ No one will be saved except by grace alone. And no judge could possibly be more gracious than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
How about Gandhi? “How God will deal with those who do not know or follow Christ, but who follow another tradition, we cannot finally say. We can say, however, that God is gracious and merciful, and that God will not deal with people in any other way than we see in Jesus Christ, who came as the Savior of the world.”
Church of God in Christ
The Church of God in Christ is the nation’s largest African-American Pentecostal denomination. Modern Pentecostalism was born a century ago in Los Angeles. Members of the Azusa church there believed that the powers of the early apostles — communication with God, healing and so forth — would be available in the modern era because of the urgent need to carry the Gospel to the lost.
The Pentecostal belief that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation means Gandhi is probably out of luck.
But the man on the island is another story, said David Daniels, a church history professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ.
Pentecostal doctrine teaches that the Holy Spirit routinely brings miracles to people and that God-sent visions and prophesies are happening this very day.
“God can work without a human instrumentality,” he said. “And therefore God can come to that person in a dream and tell him about Jesus Christ.
“A Pentecostal would not be surprised if someone stood up €¦ and said, ‘I never knew about the church until I got this vision.'”
Many Americans now attend nondenominational churches. If those churches wanted to hew to a particular denomination’s doctrine, they wouldn’t be independent. Therefore, they cover a wide spectrum of answers to the question: who goes to hell.
The Rev. Carlton Pearson was once head of a successful Pentecostal megachurch in Oklahoma City.
Then he decided the Bible teaches that everybody can escape hell — even Satan — through repentance and the love of God. His “gospel of inclusion” got him booted from his denomination. Today he leads a smaller independent congregation.
The Rev. Todd Wagner leads Watermark Community Church in North Dallas. He teaches that belief in Jesus is necessary for salvation.
But the man on the island isn’t inevitably damned, he said. Nobody is good enough to seek God on his own, but God will get his message to whomever he, in his kindness, chooses, he said.
“No man is going to be judged because they rejected a Jesus of whom they never heard,” Wagner said. “The character of our God is such that if he confessed the guilt awakened in his conscience and acknowledged his debt to his creator, I believe my creator will get Jesus to him.”
Gandhi has another problem, he said. If, in saying he “liked” Christ, Gandhi accepted him as the son of God and Savior of the world, then Gandhi is not in hell.
“But if his Jesus is not that Jesus, he will go to hell,” Wagner said.
“And that’s not my opinion. That’s Jesus’ opinion.”