Five Scriptures We Christians Should Ponder
[In the following sermon/article, the author, a member of the Christian clergy, calls on his fellow Christians–on the basis of their own scriptures–to be more gracious, less judgmental and more reticent to engage in dogmatic pronouncements when dealing with those of other faiths and no faith.]
By James Coffin
Five or six years ago, the rabbi from the synagogue next door to the church I was pastoring asked if he could bring a group of Jewish youth to my church for a tour and a question-and-answer period about Christianity. I was happy to oblige.
The questions the Jewish youth asked were well-considered. But I quickly noticed a pattern: “What is hell?” “What does it mean to ‘be damned’?” “What does it mean to ‘be lost’?” “What does ‘not saved’ mean?”
It soon came out that at the schools the Jewish youth attended, they were subjected to a steady stream of comment and innuendo from Christian students about their eternal destiny–because they hadn’t accepted Jesus as their “Lord and Savior.”
It was disconcerting to me as a Christian to see those Jewish youth so distraught by the “unchristian” taunts of the pro-Jesus majority in their schools. Although I use the word “taunt,” the Christian students–and their parents–would probably say they were just “speaking truth.” Bearing the straight testimony. “After all,” they probably would say, “facts are facts.” But such an approach didn’t endear them to the Jewish recipients of their judgments–quite understandably, I’d say.
What the Jewish youth faced wasn’t Golden Rule behavior–at least, not according to my understanding of the concept. In great measure, the militant Christian students who felt so free to pass judgment on their Jewish counterparts were no doubt parroting what they’d heard at home, in scripture classes and from the pulpit at church.
Granted, the Christian scriptures do claim that Jesus is the sole path to salvation (see John 14:6, Acts 4:12). However, there are other verses in the Christian scriptures that help provide a much fuller perspective, verses that too often we overlook–and that certainly were overlooked by the Christian students in their taunts. I’m going to consider just five such verses here.
Verse One. Let’s start with John 10:16. Jesus says: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.” That’s a radical statement. Jesus is saying that there are truly spiritual people who don’t wear the labels and have the trappings that most of his listeners would have associated with being part of “the elect,” “the saved,” “the chosen,” “the remnant,” “the saints.”
His statement is more than a little frustrating to us–curious creatures that we are!–because it means that, even based on Christianity’s holy writings, we don’t have a clue just who and where those “other sheep” are. Did the youthful Christians stop to think that all or some of the Jewish youth they were taunting could be in that spiritually OK group that Jesus himself identified?
Verse Two. The Christian scriptures provide certain “job descriptions,” and one of the most important is recorded in John 5:22: “The Father judges no one but has entrusted all judgment to the Son.”
For Christians, this text has deep significance and provides a great sense of relief. God the Father, a being beyond our comprehension, isn’t the one who will judge us. Rather, Jesus, who lived, worked and rubbed shoulders with humans for some 33 years, is the one who will decide our fate.
In Jesus, we’re truly facing a jury/judge of our “peers.” We’re not being judged by some being who has no personal understanding of what the human experience is really all about. Rather, we’re being judged by one of our own.
But the main point I wish to emphasize is that the scriptural job description says all judgment falls under Jesus’ purview. No exceptions are stated or implied about any humans having been commissioned to the task of judging the eternal fate of their fellow humans.
Verse Three. The preceding verse about Jesus being the sole judge contains no ambiguity. But humans are slow learners. So in Luke 6:37 we have a sort of reminder memo about who’s supposed to be doing which tasks, plus a bit of the rationale: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
If the Christian students who taunted the Jewish students about their assumed salvation/damnation status had truly taken Luke 6:37 to heart, their approach would have been altogether different. The text makes it clear that judgment begets judgment and condemnation begets condemnation. Had the Christian students stayed out of the judgment business altogether–as the job description in the Christian scriptures calls for–there would have been no condemnation bouncing back at them.
Most traditional Christians teach that some people will be saved and some will be lost, even among Christians. But few preachers would presume to look out across a congregation and specify who’s in and who’s out. So why do we as Christians feel so free to look out over the totality of humanity and speak as if we know who are in the group of “other sheep” and who aren’t?
In our conversation, in our preaching and in our religious writing, we as Christians repeatedly label anyone who isn’t “us” as being “lost.” We often couple the word “lost” and the word “souls”–“lost souls.” However, according to our own Christian scriptures, making such pronouncements is w-a-a-a-a-y above our pay grade. To use such judgmental language is trying to play the role that’s unique to Jesus’ job description, and his alone. That’s solid Christian-scripture teaching.
Verse Four. It’s widely believed in Christian circles that God is relatively tolerant toward people who haven’t heard the Christian version of spiritual reality. But when it has been heard, each individual must make a choice. Refusal to believe at that point seriously calls into question the likelihood of salvation. But is such a stance scripturally justified?
Would-be evangelizers often fail to take into account the complex array of factors involved in accepting a new spiritual paradigm. Does the person being evangelized already have a satisfying faith? While a new belief structure might answer some previously unanswered questions, does it also raise new and even more disturbing questions? What does the collective behavior of the adherents of the evangelizing faith suggest about the power and benefit of that belief system? How does the new paradigm line up with all knowledge gained to date? So many questions.
All of the foregoing and much, much more are involved in “conversion.” So the evangelizer shouldn’t be surprised when certain obstacles are seen by the evangelized as insurmountable–when a person, in good conscience, simply can’t buy into the new spiritual paradigm.
Which, I believe, is the reason the writer of the little book of Jude said (verse 22): “Be merciful to those who doubt.” Could it be that the designated sole judge of our Christian scriptures–Jesus–recognizes that belief isn’t as simple and straightforward as some assume. Therefore, we should be merciful toward those who don’t see it our way, keeping in mind that they may well be part of that “other sheep” group that Jesus talked about positively.
Verse Five. My final text is Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We call that passage the Golden Rule. It’s such a simple concept. But it’s so hard to apply–especially when you’re dead certain that you are right, and equally certain that “they” are wrong.
But if the tables were turned, and if we Christians were in the minority, and the students in the schools were taunting Christian youth about their eternal destiny, I think we might be just as concerned as the Jewish youth were when they talked to me. So, in harmony with the Golden Rule, let’s be willing to share the reasons for our belief, but–as our own scriptures call for–let’s leave to Jesus the determinations about who’s damned and who’s saved, and who has the right heart relationship with Unltimate Reality and who doesn’t.
I’m not asking any of us as Christians to water down our certainty about Christianity. I’m not seeking to negate the gospel commission, which Jesus himself gave. I’m just saying that there’s a time to speak and a time to keep silent.
But there’s never a time for us to presume to know anyone else’s eternal destiny, because, according to our own Christian scriptures, that job has already been assigned. And it definitely wasn’t assigned to us.
James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.