It is the question that has derailed more than one well-meaning Internet apologist. Skipping along the vast digital superhighway, our hero, the intrepid Internet apologist, cruises from atheist bulletin board to skeptical blog responding to the all too common ill-informed objections to the historicity of Jesus or the existence of God. Suddenly, he runs into the incensed atheist (the second most common of the breed next to the loud-mouthed boor) who says something akin to what this forgotten atheist on some forgettable infidel bulletin board said:
The whole idea that anyone who doesn't ascribe to belief not only in a higher power, BUT in this one particular 'God' over all others, when there is no real evidence that this god is right or the others wrong, would go to hell for eternity...this whole idea just seems to me idiotic. Like not only atheists, but all Hitler's Jewish victims would be in hell, Gandhi and the Dali Lama in hell......but Ted Bundy could say "I'm sorry Jesus."
Our hero gasps. How can he respond? Here is someone accusing God of having a cosmic pop-quiz that sends everyone who fails to believe that Jesus is God to a fiery pit where they will burn forever in agony while all of the slovenly Christians, including nasty mass murderers who knew the magic phrase, lounge idly on puffy white clouds, playing harps and eating soy-based escargot. The only thing that the poor non-believer is guilty of is not believing in God, right? And look at the list of really good people ordinarily cited by these atheists who are going to spend eternity in hell just because they didn't believe in God: Gandhi (the most common member of this list of really good people going to hell), the Dalai Lama (which one in particular is never stated) and ... uh ... other people like Gandhi. (Side note: Oddly, I've never seen a atheist on the list of people who should somehow be entitled to get into heaven because of what a great life he or she lived. I wonder if that's oversight of Freudian.) It's so totally unfair. What can our hero say in response to such criticism?
When I read this objection, I wonder exactly how much traction it got (if any) before modern times. At its heart the objection is based in the entitlement mindset which arises out of our modern societies' belief that we are all entitled to whatever we think we need. It is a belief that society owes things to us. Thus, under this mindset, you are entitled to free speech. You are entitled to freedom of conscience. If you get fired from your job, you're entitled to unemployment benefits. When you get older and can no longer work you're entitled to government support in your old age. If you get sick you are entitled to free health care.
When you die, you are entitled to go to heaven? Is that right?
I hate to shatter some delusions, but in my world there is nothing that I am entitled to that hasn't been paid for by someone else at some time -- often in blood. If I get sick, the government may have to pay for my health care (if I live in a country that has a universal health care system), but that isn't really free health care. The government is paying for it out of the taxes that it levies against its people. If the government pays for my support in my old age, that also comes from taxes. Freedom of conscience and speech? As the sorry history of the world shows, not everyone in every country has these precious rights. In America, where I sit, these freedoms were earned (and continue to be earned) by those willing to stand up and die in fights against tyranny. My ability to sit here and write what I please on this blog about my religious beliefs is owed, in a very large part, to the lives sacrificed by our forefathers and by those presently serving in uniform so that I could live in this free country.
So, if someone has to pay for any entitlement, who paid the price that says that everyone can go to heaven? Obviously, in Christianity the answer is Christ. His death on the cross was the price paid in blood that bought our way to heaven. And if we have an entitlement to heaven that was purchased by the blood of Christ then that entitlement comes through Him. Equally importantly, that entitlement comes on His terms, and those terms may not be open to everyone. But then, we instinctively understand that.
But wait, one might argue, if I have universal health care, then everyone should be entitled to health care no matter how poorly they care for their own health, shouldn't they? And if I have an entitlement to free speech then everyone should have free speech regardless of how stupid or sick their speech may be, shouldn't they? So, if I have an entitlement to get to heaven, shouldn't that mean everyone should be entitled to get to heaven, too? Or is there some limit?
It seems to me that everyone recognizes a limit to this. The incensed atheist quoted above implies that there is a limit when he says, "Like not only atheists, but all Hitler's Jewish victims would be in hell, Gandhi and the Dali Lama in hell......but Ted Bundy could say 'I'm sorry Jesus.'" You see, this atheist does not believe that it is right that Van-Morrison-look-alike Ted Bundy should be able to get into heaven after killing 30 (or maybe as many as 100) young women. And I certainly concur. I don't think that Ted Bundy, Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse Tung (or whatever phonetic spelling you choose), Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin Dada, Jack the Ripper, or any of a long list of tyrants, felons, serial killers, rapists, child molesters and other bad people should be entitled to get into heaven either. In fact, I am certain that everyone would agree that if there is a heaven there are certain levels of degradation and evil that should disqualify people from going there.
This opens up an entirely new way to approach this question. Consider the following mock conversation:
Skeptic: As a Christian, you think all non-Christians are going to hell, don't you?
Christian: Are you saying that Adolph Hitler should be in heaven?
Skeptic: What?! I didn't say anything about Hitler.
Christian: I'm sorry, I thought you were saying that everyone has a right to get into heaven. I mean, at least your question seems to assume that everyone has the right to get into heaven. So, I thought you might be saying that you thought Adolph Hitler had the right to go to heaven.
Skeptic: No, that's not what I was saying at all. I was saying that Christians believe that anyone who doesn't believe in their god should be sentenced to hell to be punished for all eternity.
Christian: Hold that thought about the nature of hell for a moment. We can get back to that. But I am more concerned with the assumptions of your question. After all, in generally-held Christian theology there are only two places to go: heaven or hell. You seem to be arguing that heaven is some type of place that we are all entitled to go to. Is that what you are arguing?
Skeptic: No, I am not arguing that. I am saying that people shouldn't be kept out of heaven for failing some spiritual pop-quiz.
Christian: Okay, we agree with that. But then that's not what Christianity teaches. You see, your question assumes that there exists some type of right to go to heaven that is taken away by God. Where do you get that idea from?
Skeptic: You're trying to twist things. What about devout Hindus and devout Jews? What about Gandhi and the Dalai Lama and ... uh ... other people like them? They don't go to heaven in your beliefs, do they?
Christian: Wow, you're harder to tack down then an eel. Look, I am asking a very simple question: why do you think that people start off with a right to go to heaven? Your question assumes that is the case. But since no widespread religious belief of which I am aware makes the claim that everyone has the right to go to heaven, I am wondering why you think that everyone should go to heaven. And if that's your belief, I am wondering why you believe Hitler should have a right to be in heaven.
Skeptic: No, you are twisting what I'm saying. I'm not saying everyone is entitled to go to heaven. I'm certainly not saying that Hitler should be in heaven.
Christian: Good, because, based upon what he did, I don't think that Hitler is entitled to go to heaven either.
Skeptic: But that's not the same as a good Hindu -- like Ghandi. If Ghandi can't get to heaven, then that's wrong.
Christian: Well, you know, I don't think that Ghandi has a right to get into heaven. But then, I can't think of anyone who has ever lived who has a right to get into heaven. So, I guess that I believe that no one -- Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Christian -- has that right.
Skeptic: Huh? No, you believe Christians will go to heaven, while the others will go to hell.
Christian: I don't believe that Christians are entitled to go to heaven.
Skeptic: Sure you do.
Christian: No, I believe that Christians are exactly like every other person who is a non-Christian. None of them are entitled to go to heaven. The only way that anyone gets into heaven is through the grace of God.
Of course, the conversation will never take place exactly this way. Skeptics are more unpredictable than quarks and enough of them think that "freethinking" means that they are entitled to make up facts in defense of their faith that the conversations take many unexpected dips and turns. But the mock discussion does bring out certain points that could be made.
The points are these: the skeptics who argue from this position fundamentally misunderstand the Gospel. Part of the Gospel message is this: all have sinned and fallen short of what God requires to get into heaven. Hence, no one -- no matter how good or Gandhi-like -- can earn their way into heaven. Once a person starts saying that someone like Jamphel Gyatso (the eighth Dalai Lama) should have an entitlement to get into heaven, then that person either has to draw a line saying what is good enough to get into heaven (and, concurrently, what is bad enough to keep someone out of heaven) or admit that her view requires that everyone be entitled to get into heaven -- even human slime like Theodore Bundy and Adolph Hitler. If they argue for the latter, then they are arguing against our innate sense of justice that would hold that people like 'Dolph and Teddy should not be allowed to simply have their tickets punched at the pearly gates. If they argue for the former, then we can ask why God cannot set the standards as He wishes -- after all, he's the one who paid the price that bought the tickets.