Thoughts On The Pope And The Atheist Dad
So there’s a video going around the Internet that recently went viral and is appearing all over the place on Facebook and various other social media platforms. Maybe you’ve seen it, but in case you haven’t I’ll summarize it for you.
A little boy is standing before Pope Francis with tears in his eyes as he tells the Pope that his atheist father recently passed away and that he (the boy) is afraid that he didn’t end up in heaven. After a moment, Pope Francis calls the boy up to the stage and tells him that God has the heart of a father and a father never abandons his children. In other words, he’s not in hell where he’ll burn for all of eternity, but he’s experiencing the love of his Father. Even though he didn’t believe, the Pope says, he was a good man.
So I’ve seen this video pop up on the walls of at least 10 different Facebook friends. Some have shared it because they love it while others have shared it because they hate it.
(Everyone has an opinion about it, by the way).
Either way, on a good number of the posts a church going Christian has spoken up against the Pope’s words, arguing that it’s not good deeds or works that get you into heaven, but faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
Some people quote Paul from various places in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians where he says things like …
“A man is justified by faith without the works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
“Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16)
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)
While others quote Jesus where He says things like …
“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (John 14:6)
“For God so loved the world that He sent His One and Only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
These (and other) verses, they argue, show that a person gets to heaven not by being a good person or by being nice or anything like that (not by good works), but by believing that Jesus died for their sins and rose again on Easter morning; anyone who doesn’t believe those things, on the other hand, will perish in hell where they will suffer and endure eternal punishment.
I’m not really sure how to say this because I’m still thinking through it, so I’ll just say it:
I don’t think that’s the best reading of Paul’s words.
And I don’t think that’s the best way to read Jesus’ words.
And, (I’ve been asking myself) what if there’s a different way to read them?
It’s not that I don’t believe what those above verses (and many others) say and it’s not that I’m “too weak to accept the hard truths of the Bible”, it’s just that I don’t think those verses are referring to the things we so quickly assume they’re referring to. And so I don’t think we can use them to make sweeping assumptions about a person’s eternal destination, such as the case with the Pope and the Atheist Dad.
Let me explain.
Who goes to heaven and who goes to hell when they die wasn’t really a topic of conversation in the time of Paul or in the time of Jesus.
Did you get that?
Read it again:
Who goes to heaven and who goes to hell when they die wasn’t really a topic of conversation in the time of Paul or in the time of Jesus.
Some people might refute that, but it’s not really up for debate as any decent book on historical Judaism (both Jesus and Paul were Jews, mind you) will go into some sort of detail about the ancient Jewish mind and nowhere will you see the eternal destination of individual souls being a hot topic of conversation.
For example, I’m currently reading a book by New Testament theologian, N.T. Wright called “Paul: A Biography” and early on in the book he points out that …
“The early Christians did not focus much attention on the question of what happened to people immediately after they died. If the question came up, their answer might have been that they would ‘be with the Messiah’ or, as in Jesus’ remark to the dying criminal, that they might ‘be with Him in paradise.’ But they seldom spoke about it at all.”
You see, when we read the Bible it’s important that we don’t just read it from our 21st-Century-North-American-Western-Perspective, but that we take the time to try and understand the context in which the verse or chapter or book or poem or whatever was written.
[ ** Context: not so much reading verses in light of everything else that the Bible says, but more so reading the Bible in light of what was going on in the world at the time particular pieces of it were written.]
And so now we have to ask: if Paul and Jesus and others weren’t talking about heaven and hell and the afterlife when they said things like …
“No one comes to the Father, but through Me.”
“Whoever believes in Me will not perish.”
“A man is justified by faith.”
… Then what on earth were they talking about? I mean, we’ve got to wrestle with that, we have a responsibility to at least meditate on it, study it, and talk about it.
Like if “perishing” doesn’t mean going to hell and “justified” and “coming to the Father” doesn’t mean going to heaven and if Paul and Jesus and others weren’t giving step by step instructions about how you and me and everyone could go to heaven and steer clear of hell and if none of those things were really on their minds.
Then, what were they talking about?
For now, let’s talk about Paul.
Paul wrote a letter to the Romans. And from the book of Romans the church has adopted an explanation of salvation called “The Roman Road.”
Here’s a short explanation …
Basically, the Roman Road takes a handful of verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans and places them into a neat, systematic order that shows a person how to get to heaven (and avoid hell) when they die.
On the surface, this makes logical sense.
I should note that I grew up with this explanation of the Gospel and, in fact, it’s the very explanation of the Gospel that brought me to faith in God — Jesus died for your sins and when you put your faith in Him, you become part of God’s family, your name is written in the Book of Life, and you are assured a spot in heaven when you die. You receive “eternal life” — a relationship with God that begins today and continues for all of eternity.
Here’s the thing.
And this is really, really important.
Paul wasn’t writing the book of Romans in order to explain to individuals how they could get into heaven. Context and history tell us, instead, that he was writing the letter (and many of his other letters, as well) in order to show the people of his day how the faithfulness of Jesus in His death and resurrection were God’s way of bringing Jews and Gentiles together.
Wright goes on in his book and says that it was Paul’s firm belief that …
“With Jesus’ death and resurrection, a new sort of freedom had been born. The freedom for all, Jew and Gentile alike, to share membership in the new world, the new family, the new messianic and spirit-filled life.”
That was, like, his whole thing — the thing he was most passionate about:
Jews — the people of Israel.
Gentiles — everyone else.
… Everyone, everywhere is welcome into God’s family.
Paul mentions both of those people groups over and over and over again in his letters because for him they represented the entire world — the Jews were the people of Israel (God’s chosen people) and the Gentiles were (literally) everyone else. And so for Paul, the question wasn’t so much how individuals can get into heaven when they die, but how these two groups of people (Jews and Gentiles) can become one family of God.
We see this foundation laid all the way back in the book of Acts (chapter 15) when some of the Jewish Christians were telling Gentiles that in order to be saved out of their old life apart from God they had to be circumcised like a real Jew would.
“Circumcision and obedience to the Torah”, they said, “is the only way that someone can be saved out of life apart from God and into life with God”.
There had always been a wall between Jews and Gentiles where the Jews thought that they were better than everyone else and there were some Jews that wanted to keep it that way.
“We’re the chosen people.”
“We’re God’s family.”
“Those non-Jews are dirty.”
“We have the Torah.”
… “We’ll let the Gentiles in”, they said, “but by golly — they have to become one of us. In the Torah Moses commanded us to be circumcised and that still stands and forever will.”
This is why in Acts 15 is says that …
“Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers, ‘unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp debate with them.”
This, scholars say, is the basis for many of Paul’s letters, especially his letter to the church in Galatia where he says in Galatians chapter 1 …
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different Gospel — which is really no Gospel at all! You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Christ was portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn one thing from you: did you receive the Spirit by works of the law [ i.e. circumcision ] or by believing what you heard?”
And then later on in chapter 2 says …
“Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.”
It seems that some people in the church in Galatia had been led astray by the same voices that were screaming in Acts 15, the ones that said you could be saved into God’s family ONLY by obedience to the Law of Moses, the Torah.
And so Paul wrote to them not to tell them how to get to heaven when they died, but to remind them that becoming part of God’s family had …
Nothing to do with the Torah.
Nothing to do with circumcision.
Everything to do with believing that Jesus died and rose again. It is this belief (as opposed to being circumcised) that made the Gentiles and the Jews, alike, part of God’s family.
“God’s family” — again, context is important.
When God called Abraham all the way back in the book of Genesis, he was promised a gigantic family (what would later become the Nation of Israel) that would be blessed so that they could be a blessing to all nations and all people, everywhere. In essence, they would be responsible to usher heaven to earth by being vessels of God to others.
THIS is what being part of God’s family is about:
Being part of a group of people that is aggressively obsessed with blessing others.
A people that treats the world with love.
… Just as Jesus so perfectly modeled for us. Jesus, Himself, came to do for Israel what she could never do for herself and in the process became the perfect model for all of us; and it’s by putting our faith in Him and declaring our allegiance to Him and, therefore, choosing to live our lives according to His ways … it’s by THIS that we become part of this great family of God, the same family that was promised to Abraham thousands of years ago.
For Paul, Jews and Gentiles were saved into this great family not by being circumcised or by obeying some laws.
By believing in Jesus who died for their “sins”, for their inability to do what He had called them to do in the first place and then rose again, thus kicking into high gear this idea of heaven invading earth, a new world where death and darkness were defeated and overcome — once and for all, something that the prophets …
… Had spoken about many years before.
Without the context of Acts 15 and the sharp debate that Paul and Barnabas had with people who were pushing the Torah and circumcision on the Gentile Christians, all of which laid the foundation for much of what Paul would write about and teach throughout his life … without that, we read verses like those in Galatians 1 and 2 and come away thinking things like …
The Galatians were trying to earn their way into heaven.
They thought good works could earn them a spot in the Book of Life.
Paul had taught them that Jesus was the only way to heaven.
And now they were giving themselves to a false Gospel.
A Gospel that was teaching them that there were other ways to heaven.
That’s not at all what Paul was saying.
You see, again, for Paul (a devout Jew who was steeped in Jewish history) the issue wasn’t how individuals got to heaven when they died, but how 2 groups of very, very different people (the Jews and everyone else) could become part of God’s family, the family that God called all the way back in the story of Abraham to be a blessing to the world.
And that brings me back to the Pope and the Atheist Dad.
What really bothers me is when people watch a video like that and then pull out the Roman Road and argue that the Pope is teaching heresy because Paul clearly explains in Romans that in order to get to heaven when you die, you need to believe in Jesus and ask Him into your heart. That bothers me because that’s not at all what Paul is talking about in Romans or in Galatians or in any of his other books, for that matter.
And, so, as I said at the outset — I don’t think that we can take verses like the ones in Romans or Galatians or wherever and use them to make sweeping statements about someone’s eternal destination. I think the conversation of heaven and hell is a worthwhile and valuable conversation to have because …
I’m not saying there isn’t a hell.
I’m not saying that there isn’t judgement.
I’m not saying that faith in Jesus isn’t needed to be part of God’s family.
I am saying with great confidence that I don’t think the Bible speaks to things like heaven and hell and who ends up where as much as we assume that it does and (therefore) I think the Pope was pretty spot on in what he said to the boy.
Because much more than Romans or Galatians or any of Paul’s letters or even the stories and words of Jesus telling us how to get to heaven when we die, Jesus’ parable of, for example, the Prodigal Son / Forgiving Father gives us pretty good insight into the kind of Father that God is …
He’s a Father who never gives up on His kids.
… A Father who never stops searching the horizon for His children (whether Jew or someone else) and never shuts the door on them, no matter how far away they may have wandered. Whether the boy’s dad “came to his senses” (like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable) the moment he closed his eyes and breathed his last breath or as his soul approached the pearly gates or not at all, that’s not for you or me to know.
What I do believe with all of my heart, though, and what I do think is one of the key lessons of Jesus’ parable is that the door to the Father’s house is never shut and even at the last possible moment, His arms are still open wide enough to embrace even the most prodigal of the prodigals.
And so I think I would agree with the Pope and I think that I’m OK with letting myself wonder …
What if when the little boy’s dad closed his eyes for the last time, what if he wasn’t met with disappointment and a direct shoot down to eternal torture?
But what if he was maybe met with the loving embrace of his Creator, his Father, beaming with joy that His beloved child had finally come home?
… Not because I don’t believe the words of Paul or trust the words of Jesus, but because I think that Paul and Jesus were talking about very different things than we typically assume they were talking about.