'If Christianity Is True, People I Love Will Burn in Hell'

A pastor struggles to answer his daughter's question about the fate of those who don't accept Jesus.

BY: Brian D. McLaren


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I had been taught exclusivism since childhood: everyone was excluded from heaven after death unless they were included among the personally, individually, consciously "born again" or "saved." In college, through the writings of C. S. Lewis, I encountered a kinder, gentler modification of exclusivism that acknowledges that it is possible to be saved by Christ without ever having "prayed to receive Christ." Somewhere in Mere Christianity, Lewis had written a few simple lines that comforted many of my friends, even though they made me a little nervous:

The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name.... There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by him that they are his in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.

His words "led by God's secret influence" always reminded me of Paul's Words in Romans 8-"Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God"-and that always kept the inclusivist back door secretly open for me, even though most of my colleagues and nearly all of my parishioners considered me an orthodox exclusivist.

Also growing in popularity was conditionalism, or conditional immortality-exclusivism or inclusivism minus the idea of "eternal conscious torment" (abbreviated ECT by its critics), which meant that the unredeemed would be punished for their wrongs and then would cease to exist or that only the redeemed would be resurrected from the unconscious sleep of death. I guess you could say that I was, in reputation, at least, an exclusivist who had secret inclusivist leanings and who could tolerate conditionalists. But universalism was another story. It went further than I was willing to go. It asserted that everyone would ultimately be reconciled to God through Christ, so hell would ultimately be empty, which is tantamount to saying it wouldn't exist, at least not for humans. There were many variations on how and when and so on, but the happy ending, it seemed to me, was too good to be true. Or was it too good not to be true? When such questions came to mind, I'd wave them away as quickly as I could, like a cloud of bees.

"Well," I thought, trying to console myself as Jess and Kincaid backed out of the driveway later that day, "if Jess becomes a universalist, at least she'll still be a Christian. That's better than her giving up her whole faith." But then I thought, "But she won't be able to be a member of Potomac Community Church." Our church's doctrinal statement, which I couldn't remember verbatim, may have allowed wiggle room for a mild case of inclusivism, but universalism? No way. The idea that my daughter could be a Christian but not be welcome in my own church stuck like a thorn in my thoughts. I couldn't shake the unacceptability of that. Of course, then it dawned on me that my own status there was far from secure. I'm not sure if that realization made me feel better or worse.

I leaned against the door frame, watching through the storm door as Kincaid's faded red Honda putted up the hill and passed over the crest and out of sight, leaving a bit of blue smoke in its wake. For several minutes, I just stared at the road at the summit of the hill, watched the blue smoke rise, fade, and disappear, and noticed as a few snowflakes began to fall from the blank gray sky. I felt a pang in my soul, something painful and dangerous, hard to define, but something I couldn't ignore. The pang formed into words: "If Jess isn't welcome at PCC, I don't want to be welcome either."

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