Will Gandhi Burn?

Gandhi (pb130012)photo © 2010 Vards Uzvards | more info (via: Wylio)I have wanted to write this post for a very long time, but was too afraid of the possible backlash from some segments of the Christian tradition.  However, all the hype over, “whether Rob Bell is a Universalist or not”, finally gave me the courage to say what I have wanted to say for years:  “No one knows the mind of God.”

Despite those who will claim with 100% certainty that Gandhi is burning in hell, the truth is that God is not limited and God’s grace knows no end.  God is not even limited by the words we humans wrote down in a book we call the Bible.  While I believe the words in our sacred scriptures are indeed sacred, I don’t think God is bound by them or our very narrow interpretations of them.

I also do not believe that those who believe God’s grace is big enough to rescue Gandhi should be labeled Universalist.  I am not saying Gandhi is in heaven nor am I saying he is in hell, I am saying I am not arrogant enough to believe I know.  I believe God is mysterious, unpredictable, loving and powerful.  I believe as people of faith, we should walk humbly before our God.  I think the Apostle Paul felt the same and says as much in 1 Corinthians 2:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” the things God has prepared for those who love him – these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”  But we have the mind of Christ.

Like the Apostle Paul it is with humility, fear, and trembling that I say to you that, “I know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  I choose to believe in God’s power.  I will not place my faith in my own wisdom or that of those who claim to know the mind of God.

I don’t understand why some Christians find a stance of humility so threatening. Why is it so hard for some to admit that we do not know where others will spend eternity?  I don’t find a God who is easily understood and whose actions I can predict with certainty all that appealing.  If God can only do what I can explain, that is a pretty small God.  I like that God’s wisdom is hidden, mysterious and beyond my very small finite mind’s ability to comprehend.

So, why are Christians so afraid of a God powerful enough to save Gandhi from hell?

Does our only power as Christians lie in our ability to condemn people who do not believe as we do?  Do Christians really believe people choose Christ solely to avoid hell?  What does that say about the power of the love of Christ?  Does Christ become any less the savior of the world if God’s grace extends beyond our faith borders?  Have we become the Pharisees of our day?

I hope I get to meet Gandhi in heaven someday.  In debates like this I identify with his words, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

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25 Comments

Filed under Theology

25 responses to “Will Gandhi Burn?

  1. Joyce

    1 Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
    2 “Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
    3 Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

    4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.

    My favorite part of the Bible when I try to answer for God … when I hear others trying to explain God’s plans within the understanding of man … Job 38-40.

    I don’t have to worry where Ghandi went/will go … I don’t have to worry what you believe or if my neighbor is a “real” Christian … My job is to be the best Christian I can … to continue to strive for Christian Perfection/Sanctification … to answers God’s call for me and my life and trust that God is leading me in a direction that will advance His kingdom … I’ve decided my God is pretty derned smart and much much bigger than I. Thanks for addressing this issue that has provided a source of perpetual angst since my high school days of being “saved” every other week.

    • wmccaig

      Hi Joyce,
      I love your insight that each of us is to be the best Christian we can be and stop pointing fingers at everyone else. Thanks for your comment. I think there are a lot of people who have been in perpetual angst for many many years. I hope we can all simply move in a direction that advances His kingdom. Walking around predicting the eternal damnation of others does not seem to be be advancing anything accept hate.

      • wmccaig

        Also wanted to add that I too share your affection for the book of Job. I love how it messes up neat tidy easy ideas about being a Christian.

  2. Barbara

    God = Love. If we take all our thoughts about our Divinity and replace any words we have for Him/Her/ It and replace them with LOVE, well then… I think we are good. Love conquers all fear, all hate, all worries. LOVE is the answer. Love = God. Thanks Wendy for spreading God and therefore, spreading Love.

    • wmccaig

      Barbara,
      Thanks for your comment. There does seem to be two camps in this debate. One camp is driven by a fear of God and one by the love of God. Like you I think we should lead with love. I think it is the love of Christ that people see in Christians that leads them to the faith and not a fear of God’s wrath. At least that is the path Christ lead me on.

  3. Vickie

    Wendy, I am sitting here, sobbing my eyes out. Thank you.

    I have needed someone to say these words, someone who represents, to me, a ministering member of the church… Umm, that is not coming out right, but I can’t seem to craft the words in a way that make sense to me, so I hope my meaning comes through there…

    Anyway.

    I have had a lot of challenges in my life and I have to say that out of disgust at what I heard and remember from the church of my childhood, which left me with a LOT of scars, and I will leave it at that. Out of frustration at the church of my youth, which provided ministering when it was easy, comfortable, or rewarding enough-and the rest of the time you were on your own. Out of fear for my children being exposed to the damaging parts of religion and what is called Christianity, which has me unwilling to risk them being hurt even more. I have turned from church, God, and religion. If *that* is what it means to be a Christian…I have to say, “no thank you”.

    Most of my pain comes from those who take their interpretation of an ancient text and pick and choose what they want to use to make their point and they use the double edged sword to cut people to ribbons and leave them bleeding and dying on the side of the road. Those who use the Bible to exclude and as an excuse to sit in judgment of others. To stand on a throne and tear their silken garments so the world can see how pious and humble they are.

    I see people who preach messages of hate-and I am not talking about those who are famous for their messages of hate, but also those MANY who hide their messages in a cloak of “love” and who hide their judgment in a mantle of acceptance.

    I needed to read this kind of message. It was very brave of you to write it. I thank you. I wish that I could find a church that I could take my children to that had THIS as their message… Maybe that is a place I could take my children to…and not be in fear for them.

    Alas, I am also afraid that a church that would hold this perspective, would it be successful? The cynic…strike that…The damaged little girl inside of me is looking solemnly straight ahead, with broken eyes and shaking her head in sad defeat.

    But, perhaps your words will reach someone in an establishment position of a church and they will challenge them to look into their leadership and consider what they teach and how they teach it. Maybe there is hope…?

    • wmccaig

      Vickie,

      I dream of the same kind of church and like you I have watched my children be assaulted with theological perspectives that are damaging and just plain wrong. I have found many churches in my work with Embrace who lead with love. It took a lot of searching and discerning to find them but please don’t give up hope. You can spot them, they are the ones that give of themselves with no hidden agenda. The church after all is a body of believers and I believe the majority of believers share your desire to worship in a space that is safe and welcoming to all. I pray you find people who share your convictions whom you can enjoy the blessing of Christian community with. That is the real church, the gathering of the body.

    • anewcreation

      I agree with all you say Vickie, and if you and Wendy continue exchanging and sharing your views, and praying for each other, you have already found the church you are looking for, because the spiritual bond of sharing the love of and for Christ has already brought you together, to a place where you can be the church together, maybe not in the natural world, but most certainly spiritually, and isn’t that the Church the Bible speaks of?

  4. Sam Shupe

    I to as Ghandi like Christ but have a problem with Christians. Jesus said He was the way the truth and the life. The Apostles in Acts said that Jesus was the only way of salvation. When we get away from that we are getting too far away. Jesus is the only way of salvation plain and simple. The Church is led by imperfect people, I am sorry for all the hurts that has caused. I say that, “You have never been hurt until you are hurt in church” I have been hurt but refuse to let it turn me against the Church. I have to continue on in love and forgiveness. If someone has been hurt it needs to be discussed forgiven and reconcilled. If a group is unwilling to do that there are plenty of loving Bible believing churches who are not pharasical in disposition. Do not believe in Universalism. Follow the teachings of the Bible! I say these things with great love and concern. Don’t sterotype the church just because of a bad experience in one or more. You be the one who shows the love of Christ. You be the church!

    • wmccaig

      Sam,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with you, the church is not an institution but a body of believers. There are plenty of loving churches out there filled with loving Christians.

  5. Jay

    Wendy: I recall a text that says something like: “Judge not lest you be judged”. Romans 14 has a lot to say about this. It is good to let God be God.

    I think dialog about what Scripture says about salvation and redemption is really important. Discovering what scripture describes as the condition of the unrighteous is also important discovery.

    We diminish Jesus death and resurrection if we do lean fully into His great big, grand salvation plan (the redemption of all things Col 1). This is the same plan God has been about since the fall. The challenge for Christ followers is to imagine all that God will do through us as His ambassadors of reconciliation (II Cor 5:18 ff), and to align our lives so we have redemptive impact. While we have breath it is our joy and privilege to live into His ongoing redemptive work.

    • wmccaig

      Jay,

      You always want me dig deeper don’t you! I actually think from the brief reviews of Rob Bell’s book that he may be playing with some of these concepts which as you know are way bigger than the personal salvation question and way deeper than a Universalist view. What you have posted here will require prayer and unpacking but I think it would make an interesting follow-up post to this one. I will work on that this week and see where it leads. Of course you are far more qualified to write it.

  6. It’s amazing how commonly people base character judgments on someone’s beliefs, as if hateful people believe in bad things and good people believe in kind things. For those of us who still believe that there is some kind of reality “out there,” beyond our minds, this does not make sense.
    I believe that cancer exists as do torture, infanticide, genocide and even human sacrifice. I haven’t actually seen any of them take place, but my understanding of reality, based on what sources I listen to and trust, indicates that these unpleasant things are true. Does this mean that I am a hateful person and do not understand God’s love and power?
    Whether or not I believe in hell has not the slightest effect on the destiny of Ghandi or anyone else. So it makes no sense to label a person hard or even hateful for such a belief; of those believing in hell, or being particularist, I doubt that any think that their beliefs have any impact on its existence.
    Conversely, I recognize I can’t base my beliefs about God’s judgment and the existence of hell on what I would like to be true. I haven’t the slightest desire to see Ghandi (or Hitler, for that matter) suffer eternally. However, it’s clear that my own desires and little mind are not what matters to reality.
    Now I am not arguing here against universalism or for Ghandi being damned, I’m only pointing out that the way to investigate such things is with the same tools we use to learn about other things … revelation and rationality (in whatever mix). If one believes that the Bible does not teach such a thing, then that needs to be developed rationally and in conjunction with other parts of our understanding of God and the Bible. If one believes that perhaps the Bible does teach hell for Ghandi, but that we’ve progressed beyond that revelation, then likewise such a basis must be set out and explained. In any case, however, the issue cannot simply be solved by wishful thinking any more than we can solve the world HIV crisis by pretending that it does not exist.

    • wmccaig

      Hi Mike,
      I certainly am not implying that people who believe that non-Christians are going to hell are hateful. I spent some time on your blog and you appear to be a very compassionate person. I was particularly moved by your post about the suffering of your Muslim brothers and sisters.

      I also am not saying that no one is going to hell nor am I using “wishful thinking” to fuel my argument. I am simply saying that I don’t know the mind of God and that God is bigger than any theological statement we humans have developed to explain God.

      I am not arguing for or against any particular eternal destination for Gandhi or anyone else, I am simply pointing out that no one really knows the answer to this question except God. Spending time laying out my own rational for one side or the other would be futile because no one knows with certainty the answer to this question which was the point of this post.

      I wish you God’s blessings on your ministry.

      • Sorry, Wendy, I didn’t mean to imply in any way that you were making such a connection (between belief and character, belief in hell and hatred), and especially not about me, since I haven’t declared a side in the issue. That was directed toward other responses not only here but on other sites discussing the issue. I do think that false argument is something to be aware of as this debate continues. My comments are mainly meant as a contribution to the discussion in general.

        I’m sure the doctrine of eternal punishment is a problem — even stumbling block — for many Christians, at least if they take the time to think about it. It is for me. Since our traditional (and even progressive) ideas can be wrong in any area, it’s always good to keep re-examining them, considering other views, and so on. My main point was simply that in order to do so, we need to engage at the level of evidence without impugning the motives of those who disagree with our own conclusions. Again, I’m not suggesting that you made that mistake–I think it’s great that you have a space to start conversations on the topic & others.

        I would push back a bit, however, on your claim, Wendy, that “no one really knows the answer to this question except God.” Yes and no. Ultimately, no one except God knows any truth at all, given that our senses and minds are fallible and to an extent corrupted. We can easily find examples of doctrinal “certainty” that was later disproven or became irrelevant. But why should this uncertainty be greater about God’s judgment than, for example, eternal life or forgiveness? There are many, many things about which we don’t know the answer, which is why we need to keep debating and learning.

        Another way to look it is that our religious beliefs should not be something we pick and choose according to the way we would like the world to be. Nor are we supposed to hold certain beliefs because somehow just “believing” the right things makes us good or identifies us with the right crowd. Rather, the point is that we should see the world the way it is. Having “right beliefs” means we correctly perceive some aspect of reality. If there is eternal punishment and God has revealed that, then we will live more authentically and realistically if we perceive that. If there is not, then likewise we will do best if our thinking is not distorted by a false idea. If God has not spoken on the matter, then likely it is not something we should be preoccupied with.

        I am not advocating for a particular point of view on the topic, but trying to say what I think are prerequisites for valid dialog and answers. Furthermore, even having made all these arguments, my gut feeling is that I would rather push the question away and rely on God’s love and mercy, because (a) I do trust that God will do all he can for each person and (b) I don’t know if I can handle the truth, depending on what it is.

  7. Thanks for your thoughts, Wendy. I’ve come to realize that very few people actually believe in hell, especially as a place of eternal, conscious torture. Think about it: the people who most ardently preach the idea of hell can be found living their every day lives like any other American…doing house projects, going to soccer games, etc. If you really believed in a such a place and thought people who don’t believe like you are going there, you would spend every waking hour doing whatever it takes to convert people. But no one does that, or if they do, we think them crazy.

    This is all before we get into the difficulty of the modern version of hell versus the biblical one. If this Rob Bell stuff keeps exploding, I’ll probably write a blog post on it, but very few people know that hell is nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament, and when Jesus mentions it in the New Testament, he’s either making figurative use of an actual place where stuff was burned outside Jerusalem (Gehenna) or the people he consigns to “hell” are not those who believe the wrong things but those who don’t serve the poor or arrogant religious leaders who think they’re safe.

    A very muddled topic indeed.

    • Since neither the resurrection nor eternal life are clearly spelled out in the OT, it’s not surprising that neither is hell. Maybe we have to go back to the basic question of whether we are eternal beings at all.

      If you are saying that Jesus did consign certain people to hell, however narrowly defined you see that group, then you’re back to having a group of people who are not saved by God’s grace, so I’m not sure what has been accomplished.

      I know people in this discussion are probably all over the theological map, but do you think the issue of eternal punishment can be settled only by Jesus’ words, leaving the rest of the NT to the side, or are you engaging the whole thing?

  8. Thanks, Wendy, for opening this conversation. I hope many will respond. Let me have a go at answering your actual questions:

    So, why are Christians so afraid of a God powerful enough to save Gandhi from hell?

    I don’t think they are afraid of that, and am not sure where the question comes from. I don’t think it should be implied that this is a significant reason explaining why people believe in eternal judgment. If there is any fear involved, it may be that some of us are afraid to have the foundations of our belief system uprooted–foundations such as basic doctrines and the reliability of the Bible in areas of faith and living.

    Does our only power as Christians lie in our ability to condemn people who do not believe as we do?

    Of course not. How is this relevant? The issue is not whether we condemn, but whether God does and whether he has revealed that (or not).

    Do Christians really believe people choose Christ solely to avoid hell? What does that say about the power of the love of Christ?

    I don’t know anyone who believes this and haven’t read any books that teach it so I doubt it’s very common in reality. Even if you’re only speaking rhetorically, I think there is far more teaching about love, forgiveness of sins, the Kingdom of God, meaning in life, the abundant life, and so on than there is about avoiding hell. Seriously, how many sermons have you heard that focused on calling people to Christ simply in order to avoid hell?

    Does Christ become any less the savior of the world if God’s grace extends beyond our faith borders?

    Of course not. Again, how does that relate to the issue — have you heard people make the argument that Christ would not be the savior of the world if Ghandi were saved? I’m a little uncomfortable with the phrase “our faith borders,” however, which sounds is if the Christian faith is an arbitrary boundary we have defined. I can’t accept that the New Testament is inclusive in the sense of accepting opposing truth claims. If the Gospel as seen by the apostles is correct, it is God who perceives a faith border. Of course, many would say the apostles got it wrong, but that moves us into different territory.

    Have we become the Pharisees of our day?

    Well, who are “we,” and in what way “Pharisees”? It might be best to take some specific examples, since I’m sure we can all find people, ourselves, or even whole groups we disagree with, and label them Pharisees. Despite stated doctrinal beliefs, “Saducees” might be equally apt for a lot of Western Christians as we seem pre-occupied with this present world and engaging with its powers rather than preparing for any future life.

    • wmccaig

      Hi Mike,
      My questions were just me trying to figure out why some folks are so intent on creating “in” and “out” groups. I really don’t understand why acknowledging that “only God knows” is seen as an unacceptable answer. I think it is perfectly biblical for humans to recognize that God way’s are not our ways. I also think our insistence on being “right” in this matter is doing more damage not only to the Body of Christ but also to the spirituality of the non-believer than most are considering.

      I have gotten several notes, emails and fb messages from people saying this one issue and the insistence of some that all non-Christians are going to burn has driven them out of the faith or made them unwilling to walk in the doors. I think we need to create space where people’s questions, doubts and concerns can be shared and a culture that is willing to admit that we honestly don’t know some things. I am fine with people sharing their best guess based on what the biblical text says but when we make this issue an absolute, black and white thing, I don’t think we are being honest. As Corey pointed out, this is not presented in scripture as clearly as some would like to pretend that it is.

  9. Wendy,

    Thank you for this post and your comments on this issue. I’ll probably have some comments on my own over on my blog, but I consider it silly to discuss a book that neither I nor anyone reading my remarks has ever read, so my first sense of a reaction to all this Rob Bell stuff comes right out of Proverbs: “he that answereth a mater before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.” My suspicion is that Bell is not a Universalist in the oh-no-raise-the-red-flag-there-might-be-someone-without-firm-convictions-in-our-midst kind of way. I’m thinking he could be more the kind of Universalist you would suspect Charles Wesley of being if you read his hymns: “He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found”. But I won’t know if I’m right about that until I’ve read his book.

    You commented, “I have gotten several notes, emails and fb messages from people saying this one issue and the insistence of some that all non-Christians are going to burn has driven them out of the faith or made them unwilling to walk in the doors.” I find it interesting that what made the gospel offensive in the first century was not this sense of exclusivity, but just the opposite: people thought it was too inclusive. Paul was beaten and arrested for insisting that all the nations were included in the scope of God’s plan.

    As for the issue itself, here’s a brief, wholly inadequate introduction to my take. Someone has said, to this effect more or less: “If we read the Bible honestly, we cannot doubt that Hell is real; we might still hope, however, for it to be empty.” If someone needs a text for that last bit, here’s one of many: “….not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” How many is all? And is God unable to accomplish God’s will? These questions echo those you raise.

    • wmccaig

      therevr
      Thanks for your comment. I can’t wait to read what you write once the Bell book is out. I agree, I think it is nuts to label Bell for beliefs he shares in a book that is not out yet. For me, it just spurred me to write what i have been to cowardly to write for years. I was also struck by the irony of our current debate of exclusivity in light of the first century debate over inclusiveness of the faith. My husband is the historian in the family and says that throughout history when a group gains power it tends to create rules for who is in and who is out in order to protect it’s power. Not sure if that has any bearing on the present debate but it was an interesting observation. Please come back and post a link to your blog if you end up writing on the topic. I would love to read it.

      • anewcreation

        “My husband is the historian in the family and says that throughout history when a group gains power it tends to create rules for who is in and who is out in order to protect it’s power”

        This describes so very many churches today with their hierarchies and their committees lording it over the rest, and not letting every part of the Body of Christ function as it should and to its maximum potential.

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