In the wake of the tragic July 20 massacre at the Aurora, Colorado cinema where a lone gunman killed 12 people and injured 58 others, one notable evangelical Christian public figure famously (or infamously) observed that any among the dead who happened to be Christians would be going to heaven, whereas any of those killed who might not have been Christians were already bound for hell.

Commenting on the deadly shootings in a radio interview, Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries (formerly Coral Ridge Ministries, a national media outreach ministry founded by the late megachurch pastor and televangelist D. James Kennedy) had this to say:

“If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic; but really, it is not tragic, because they are going to a wonderful place… on the other hand, if a person doesn’t know Jesus Christ… if they knowingly rejected Jesus Christ, then basically they are going to a terrible place.”

Newcombe additionally offered the following suggestion:

“For those who are not in Christ, and see this incredible tragedy, this would be a good time for soul reflection, and consider why have you not accepted Jesus Christ… I would urge anyone who is not in Christ to repent of your sins.”

Widespread public reaction to those sentiments, as expressed by Newcombe in that radio broadcast, have been both mixed and passionate.

Some view Newcombe’s remarks as religiously arrogant and monstrously insensitive, bordering on par with the notorious public demonstrations of Fred Phelps’s extremist Westboro Baptist Church, whose members march at or near funeral services while waving picket signs proclaiming that the recently deceased subject of the funeral is currently burning in hell. Others view Newcombe as merely affirming perhaps unpleasant or uncomfortable but nevertheless essential and undeniable religious truths which urgently need to be heard — or so at least Newcombe, and others who share his particular brand of theology, presumably see the matter.

Newcombe’s bluntly stated views may indeed be representative of at least one particular segment of Christianity. However, they are not necessarily representative of all segments of Christianity. And they most certainly are not representative of all (or even most) other, non-Christian religious views on this highly sensitive matter.

Contemporary Christianity in general — and contemporary American Christianity in particular — is currently distributed along a broad theological spectrum, ranging from the theologically very conservative to the theologically very liberal. The widely varying theological stances held by adherents at each end of this wide spectrum subsequently shape and guide their respective adherents’ views on matters of all sorts, ranging from sociopolitical issues to beliefs regarding salvation and the afterlife.

Christian theological conservatives, by and large, tend to regard the Bible as a divinely revealed (and hence inerrant) product, being nothing less than the literally divinely inspired (and therefore perfect) “Word of God.” Such theological conservatives accordingly tend to read and interpret the Bible in very literal-minded ways, generally taking the plain sense of whatever scripture might have to say on any topic whatsoever as the absolute truth, and therefore as the final word on any matter, universally applicable in all historical eras and in all situations or circumstances. (A frequently seen bumper sticker concisely sums up this position thusly: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.”)

Conversely, Christian theological liberals tend instead to regard the Bible as a very human (and hence fallible) product, as perhaps deeply inspiring but nevertheless not necessarily literally “divinely inspired” or “divinely revealed” per se, and as therefore ultimately a less-than-perfect, all-too-human collection of “words about God”. Such theological liberals accordingly tend to read and interpret the Bible in much less literalistic terms, generally taking whatever scripture might have to say on any given topic in light of the context of the cultural mores and assumptions of the Bible’s own historical era. As a product of genuinely deep and sincere (but necessarily culturally and historically limited) religious reflection and understanding, the Bible’s insights remain a valuable guide, but may not necessarily remain the final authoritative word on all matters whatsoever for all time. (Bumper sticker wisdom from this side of the divide may, for example, critically question ancient biblical passages and positions regarding such matters as the sanctioning of slavery, or the rights and roles of women.)

So, Christian theological conservatives frequently take at face value those biblical passages which warn of eternal punishment for the sin of unbelief, and they also take very seriously biblical admonitions to make believers out of unbelievers. In their view, there is simply no uncertainty or ambiguity possible in any of this; it’s all quite cut and dried, all very black and white, with no grey areas whatsoever. Such theological conservatives may well maintain that if faith in Jesus is required for eternal salvation, then they are doing favors of inestimable value for all of those unbelievers whom they attempt to convert. It may even seem morally incumbent upon them to make every effort to save every soul possible from what they see as a fate literally worse than death — a postmortem fate of eternal torment.

Christian theological liberals, on the other hand, are by no means so sure about any of these literalistic views regarding what the Bible actually has to say. From their perspective, there is plenty of room for uncertainty and ambiguity in all of this, with far more shades of grey in play than most theological conservatives seem able to recognize, or are willing to acknowledge. Such theological liberals bring to the table a much broader range of possible interpretations of the actual meaning of the primary Christian message, and do not necessarily view it as essentially just a simple and straightforward matter of “getting saved” in order to go to heaven with Jesus when one dies. (Bestselling religion author Karen Armstrong has gone so far as to declare religious concerns about the afterlife a mere “red herring,” so far as what she considers authentic faith and spirituality to really be all about.)

To be sure, traditional doctrines about heaven and hell have been associated with Christianity since its earliest days, and such doctrines remain closely associated with many branches of contemporary Christianity today. Many conservative evangelical Christians — and, of course, probably most (if not all) Christian fundamentalists — regard salvation from sin through faith in Christ as being essentially the main, or most important, raison d’etre for Christianity as they understand it. But to outsiders, this chief emphasis on the mere avoidance of hell can make such versions (or interpretations) of Christianity seem to amount to little more than acquiring a “get out of hell free” card.

Other sorts of Christians, then, can and do hold widely different views regarding such matters. And of course the views of the many adherents of non-Christian faiths can be even more radically different.

(To be continued, in Part Two.)


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