Have they no hope? Well, let’s not rule that out.
Yeah, this is gonna be a bummer of an article. Sorry. It needs saying.
When Christians die, it’s sad. ’Cause we’re never gonna see those people again in this lifetime. We often say, “We’ll see ’em in heaven,” and that’s true—though not quite as pop-culture Christianity imagines it. We’ll see them in the kingdom of heaven. Once Jesus returns to establish that kingdom, we Christians are all getting resurrected, and they’ll be back, better than before. As will we. That’s our hope.
But it’s not pagans’ hope.
The Latin word paganus meant someone from the country, and therefore not from the city. Christians adopted it to refer to people who don’t live in the city of God, or civilians who aren’t in the Lord’s army. By definition a pagan isn’t in the kingdom. Not going to heaven. They’re outside—and outside isn’t good.
So when pagans die, it’s a profound loss. Not only are we not seeing them again, we’re likely not seeing them in the age to come. Because they resisted a relationship with Christ Jesus, they don’t inherit his kingdom. They don’t come back with us Christians. They don’t get resurrected till Judgment Day,
I know; it’s awful. I don’t wish it on anyone. But it’s the path they chose.
Pagans are fond of denouncing us Christians for “concocting” this story, as if we invented it as some sick ’n twisted revenge fantasy. Which stands to reason: If you don’t believe in Jesus, of course you’re gonna think Christians invented this scenario. And it’d say all sorts of things about our lack of compassion, graciousness, and love—especially as your typical pagan believes in
But this is no mere story. And we Christians didn’t concoct it. If pop culture ideas about hell are any indication, our ideas would be way worse. Popular depictions of hell don’t involve dark fire; they involve torture. Devils with pitchforks, jabbing people as if being burnt weren’t torment enough. Or ironic psychological horrors. Stuff that increases the suffering. Sick stuff.
True, some of those warped ideas were invented by Christians who wish all manner of hateful, painful stuff on pagans. And these people have serious problems with unforgiveness, and need to repent. We’re supposed to love our enemies,
But again: The fire wasn’t our idea. And no, it’s not God’s idea either. He wants everybody to be saved!
Then why’s it there? Because if people don’t wanna be anywhere where God is—if they wanna get so far away from him, nothing he created will be around to remind them of his very existence—there’d be nothing left but chaos. Darkness. Fire. Plus all the other people who likewise wanna be apart from God, so they’ll be serious downers. Hence all the weeping and gnashing. It’ll be awful.
It’s why Jesus described it as fire, and warns us away from that. Nobody has to go there! Don’t go there! Save yourselves.
When pagans die—and they’re good people, or loved ones, or family members—we really don’t want fire and damnation to be their destiny. Who would?
Years ago I attended the memorial service of a pagan who died unexpectedly. We’ll call her Ione. She was my roommate’s ex-girlfriend. She’d grown up in church, and that church was where her family held the service.
Thoroughly depressing service, too. Everybody was in denial. Her parents were certain Ione hadn't really dismissed the religion of her youth. She showed so much faith in her childhood, they figured she must certainly be in heaven. That’s what they believed; that’s what everybody in their church told them.
But I had known Ione more recently, and knew better. My roommate had tried to lead her to Jesus, and she wasn’t interested. At all. Thought Jesus was fiction.
At best, Ione never actually had believed in Jesus. Lots of kids who grow up in church are that way. Their parents had flubbed the job of sharing Jesus with them, and figured the kids had picked it up by osmosis, or that their pastors converted ’em. Instead the kids were faking it for their parents’ sake, and the instant they moved out of the house, they simply became the pagans they always secretly were. That’s the circumstance I encounter most often. Dumbfounds the parents, too: They had no idea. (They also had no idea their kids were drinking beer, smoking weed, having sex, or any of the other things kids get into. Parents and their blindspots, I tell ya.)
At worst Ione was Christian—but quit Jesus, and rejected God’s grace. “Worst” because it’s not just horrible that she knew God but wanted nothing more to do with him; it’s that people who knowingly quit God, tend to do so because something horrible happened to them, and they blame God for it. So it’s twice as sad.
Either way I knew Ione wasn’t what—nor where—her friends and family desperately wished she was.
Unless they’re nontheist, pagans firmly believe every good person goes to heaven. Without exception. Not that they have a thing to base their belief upon; not that they need a thing to base their belief upon. They figure if God is good, or at least benign, he’ll let everybody have a nice afterlife, no questions asked, no strings attached. ’Cause grace. And they don’t know why we Christians can’t be just as gracious as they. Or imagine a God as gracious as theirs.
I’ll say this much: They definitely have a point when it comes to certain Christians who claim God isn’t gracious; that God deliberately created humans for the sole purpose of letting them horribly perish, all so that he can look benevolent when he pulls some of us out of the fire. Those people got issues.
But the pagan idea of God actually isn’t a gracious God. See, here’s universalism’s dirty little secret: If everybody’s going to heaven, that includes all the people who don’t wanna go to heaven, or want nothing to do with that heaven. And the only way such people are gonna enjoy heaven is if God reprograms them to enjoy heaven. Wipes their memory, or brainwashes them, or gets them incredibly stoned, or puts ’em through some kind of conversion therapy so they’re “fixed.” However he does it, they’re no longer themselves. Because conformity is the only way universalism can ever truly work. Pagans seldom follow their reasoning that far—and if they have, you’d be surprised how many of them are totally okay with it. Or maybe you wouldn’t be; I’m not.
Ione’s family figures she’s headed for heaven. I doubt it’s because they don’t know who she really is—that she faked Christianity so well, they’ve no idea she didn’t want heaven. More likely it’s because they’ve bought the pagan idea: She’s a good person; her youthful acts of faith can’t have been for naught; God’ll make her go to heaven. She was resistant to him in this life, but he’ll fix that. Transform her mind. Make her see reason; make her love Jesus. It’s what they would do.
It’s not who God is, though.
But God is gracious.
So do I figure Ione is doomed and damned? Not necessarily.
Yeah, from what I’ve seen, Ione wanted nothing to do with Jesus. So that doesn’t bode well.
But I’m not omniscient, and hypocrisy works both ways: Sometimes people wanna appear contrary, but aren’t really. Wanna appear skeptical and hostile, but are inwardly crying out for a savior. Wanna appear tough when they’re inwardly broken. Wanna look like they don’t believe when really they do.
Sometimes it’s a pride thing. They want Jesus, but don’t want you to lead them to Jesus. Or they wanna be one of those go-it-alone, do-it-yourself Christians who won’t go to church lest the church boss ’em around, who won’t be accountable to anyone lest they actually have to practice religion. Or they’re afraid of getting hassled by their pagan friends.
For all I know (and I don’t know), Ione could’ve had a come-to-Jesus moment in the months or days before her unexpected death. Or even minutes before.
Though she’s died, various Christians would have no qualms about praying for Ione’s salvation after the fact. Sometimes because they believe in purgatory, so there’s still a chance she could confess Jesus in purgatory, and go from there to heaven. (Perhaps I should point out the churches who believe in purgatory, don’t believe purgatory works like that whatsoever: Purgatory is for believers, not unbelievers who were nonetheless good people.) Other times it’s because they really have no idea how anything after death works, and if there’s any chance of Ione making it to heaven, they wanna pray for that.
Me, I believe we can pray for stuff in the present… and God can answer those requests in the past. Weird but true: God’s not at all limited by time like we are. If I pray for Ione’s salvation in the present, there’s nothing whatsoever stopping God from stepping to a point in time where she was still alive, and nudging her towards salvation. Again, I don’t know whether she had a come-to-Jesus moment before she died. So it doesn’t hurt to pray that she had one… because having an unlimited God means we always still can pray she had one.
We have an infinite God. Which means absolutely nothing is outside the realm of his ability.
The problem is we look at our own limitations, and assume God is similarly limited. It’s part of the reason we have a bad habit of reducing our relationship with Christ Jesus to formulas. “If I believe this, God responds with that,” or “If I have faith, God considers me justified.” We look at how salvation is described in the scriptures, and figure we can deduce all the steps we gotta take in order to get God to respond and save us.
We forget in real life, people are complicated. Relationships are messy. God foresees everything we’re gonna do within these relationships—including all the mistakes we make and sins we commit. And he’s not only willing to work with us: He’s willing to work with lots of people who make greater screw-ups than we do.
I cannot, with absolute certainty, claim Ione is doomed and damned. Not because I’ve embraced her parents’ pipe dream, but because I know God. He patiently wants everybody to turn to him.
I’m still gonna be realistic though: God is love,
That’s why I still warn people away from the fire.