Bobby slammed his coffee cup on the counter a little bit harder than he intended to: “You see, this is what frustrates me about you Christians. You all think that only Christians will be in Heaven. What about other people, like Gandhi, Buddha, or any other number of good people?”
Greg was a little surprised a Bobby’s intensity. They had connected a couple times previously in the semester getting coffee before their Philosophy 301 class and had always enjoyed asking each other what they believed. Greg tilted his head a bit and suggested somewhat teasingly, “Well, Bobby, I’m glad that you at least believe in Heaven.”
“Now, I didn’t say that, I consider myself open to the idea. But…," and then he hesitated.
They both sat down and poured packets of sugar into their coffee. “But…if there were a heaven, Christians are wrong about it?” Greg offered.
“They are wrong about it if they think that only Christians will be there. That’s just too…too…?”
“Exclusive? You think Christians are too exclusive.”
“Exactly,” nodded Bobby. The two college juniors sat in the corner where the sun was shining through the blinds.
“Okay,” said Greg, pausing. “It sounds like you’ve spent some time thinking about this. Let me ask you a question.”
“What kinds of people will be there?”
Bobby didn’t hesitate. “All kinds of people will be there, young & old, rich & poor, Jews, Christians, Muslims & non-religious folks.”
“What about Atheists?”
Bobby looked up for a moment weighing the question. “Sure, I know many Atheists who are good people. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be there, even if they don’t believe in God now.”
Greg took an unusually slow slip on his coffee, gathering his thoughts. “So you believe that good people go to heaven?”
“Yes! And—I must say—that’s much more inclusive and open-minded than you Christians,” Bobby said with a smile and a bit of satisfaction.
“Okay, now I’m confused,” Greg said throwing open his free hand.
“What do you mean?”
Greg leaned forward in his sofa chair. “I thought you were worried about Christians being too exclusive, but your view takes the cake!”
“I’m not sure I’m following you,” Bobby said hesitatingly, not wanting to take the bait. “What do you mean?”
“Well, maybe you can clarify this for me. You say that all kinds of good people—Muslims, Jews, Christians, and even good Atheists—will be in heaven because they have been, well, good.”
“Yes…?” Bobby was wondering where Greg was going with this.
“That view is much more ‘exclusive’ than what Christians believe.” Greg threw himself back into his chair shaking his head.
“What about the bad people?” Greg said protesting. “I mean, people who’ve broken the big commandments: liars, cheaters, murderers, adulterers? According to your view, they have no hope of heaven.”
“Okay. What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that your standard requirement for getting into heaven is that people have to be ‘good,’ but that excludes a lot of people.”
“Hmmm…okay. You got me," Bobby answered, somewhat sarcastically.
“Bobby, I’m not trying to get you. I’m just trying to understand your view."
"But that doesn’t exonerate Christianity’s exclusivity.”
"Look, everyone is exclusive on this issue, unless you want to say that everyone goes to Heaven when they die. But not many people want to say that. I mean, do you believe that Hitler will be in Heaven? There has to be an accounting, somehow. There has to be some kind of judgment for those folks, don’t you agree?”
Bobby nodded his head in agreement setting his coffee on the table. “Yeah, I can’t see God throwing open ‘the golden gates’ for the likes of Hitler, Moa-Tse Tung, Lenin, & the like,” he said as he threw open his arms in a big welcoming gesture.
Greg leaned forward again. “But here is the deal. Christianity says that there is hope for everyone, even for the really bad people too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if we take seriously what the Bible says, everyone has sinned against God, and nobody is perfect, not even one. Yet God requires perfection.”
“Well, if that’s the case, then what hope is there for anyone?”
“Well, that’s just my point. Here’s the heart of the Christian message: God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. He lived the perfect life, which means he loved God and others perfectly. And he voluntarily gave up his life when he died on the cross for people like you and me.”
“Okay," said Bobby as he was looking up tracking the argument. "I think I’m following you.”
“Do you know what the Apostle Paul said that I find so encouraging?”
“No, what?” They both stopped and looked up at a group of co-eds who entered the coffee shop laughing hysterically.
Greg & Bobby looked back at each other and busted out laughing, shaking their heads. After a moment, Greg continued, “He said something along the lines of, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”
“An Apostle of Jesus Christ said that he was the worst of sinners?” Bobby asked incredulously.
“Why would he say that?”
“Well, before he became a Christian, he was hunting down Christians and killing them. Speaking of his pre-Christian days, Paul said that he was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.”
A light seemed to be going off in Bobby’s mind, “And Jesus somehow made the difference?”
“Exactly,” Greg said with a smile. “Paul went on to say that it was because of this very reason—that he was the worst of sinners—that he was shown mercy, so that the Lord Jesus might use him as an example of his patience towards those who would come to believe on him.”
Bobby leaned forward, “You mean to tell me that Paul was saying that his hope of heaven was not because he was good, but because he was bad.”
Greg chuckled reassuringly. “You're starting to get it. Paul wasn’t good, even though he excelled as a Pharisee—that is, a religious teacher,” he clarified. “In many ways, he had to abandon all hope in his goodness and throw himself at the mercy of Jesus.”
Greg paused to make sure Bobby understood. Bobby was nodding his head like it was all sinking in. “Go on,” he said.
That’s why I said earlier that a standard that says, ‘All good people get into heaven,’ is actually very exclusive, much more so than Christianity. Christianity says that even bad people have reason to hope for mercy if they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for only bad people.”
“I think I’m getting what you are saying.”
“Let that sink in. I truly believe that Christianity is unique, because it doesn’t tell you to go out and make religious pilgrimages, or to pray a certain number of times per day in a certain direction, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, or do x, y, & z. It tells you to abandon all hopes of impressing God with your goodness—because you can’t—and to believe in the Lord Jesus who actually saves people like us and people who are ‘worse’ than us and people who are ‘better’ than us.”
“Well Greg, this has been an interesting conversation. I have never seen things that way before.”
“I used to not, either. I’m glad we had this time to chat in between classes.”
The two rose and put on their backpacks.
“Me too. Maybe we can carry on this conversation later?”
“I’d love to. Because our hope is not really Heaven, but Heaven on earth.”
“Wow. We’ll definitely have to carry this conversation on later.”