Few things in this world give insight into the theology of individuals who profess to be Christian than the death of a well-known celebrity.
Before their earthly demise most Christians are staunch particularists, rigidly dogmatic in the belief that salvation is obtained through faith in Jesus Christ alone (Acts 4:12). And yet, once their earthly life is over we become ardent universalists, equally immovable in our belief that the doctrine to which we subscribed just the day before no longer applies, and that God will welcome anyone into heaven when they die, regardless of their opinion about who Jesus is.
What this kind of doctrinal genuflection ultimately proves is that when it comes to the celebrities we idolize, Christians are neither particularists nor universalists. We are situationalists, making up our theology about God, death, and eternity based entirely on who the celebrity is and the degree to which we happen to admire them.
Self-Sanctification: No Atonement Required
Though the Bible is unambiguous in its proclamation that saving faith in Christ is the only means by which anyone will experience eternity with God (John 14:6; Romans 10:9), many Christians treat it as optional when it comes to the death of the celebrities they revere. This mindset represents a theological duality that was widely expressed by Christians when Prince, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, died several weeks ago, and is now evident in the aftermath of the death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, himself a devout practitioner of Islam.
That both Prince and Muhammad Ali subscribed to worldviews that deny the deity of Jesus is apparently of no consequence to many Christians today. The only thing that really matters is that they appear to have lived a “good life,” employing their talents, gifts, and resources in the most admirable of worldly pursuits: to bring happiness to countless millions of people all over the world. After all, isn’t that why we’re here – to live a moral life by doing good to one another and treating each other with respect? What in the world does the deity of Jesus have to do with anything? Besides, we are all God’s children, aren’t we?
“We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the center: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork, you must make a decision.” – C.S. Lewis
What is so disheartening about this banal mindset is that it renders moot the necessity that our sins be atoned for.
That our sin, which the Bible says has separated us from God (Romans 3:23), can be atoned for by God (Romans 5:8), is what distinguishes Christianity from all other religious worldviews. But, if my “good behavior” is ultimately the primary factor in determining my eternal destiny, the question then becomes: why did Jesus have to die at all? Certainly there must have been good works being performed by people long before Jesus came into the world? If that’s the case, then, why did Christ have to come to earth to begin with, let alone die a humiliating death on a cross for someone like me? Wouldn’t it have been much easier for Him to just remain in heaven and then, when I die, simply weigh my good deeds against my bad to see if I “made it in”?
Christian Universalism: A Theology of Likability
For professing Christians to so easily set aside what is undoubtedly the fundamental tenet of Christianity, namely, the deity of Jesus (John 8:58; Colossians 1:15, 2:9), in exchange for a theology rooted in the belief that our works are somehow determinant of our eternal destiny, as opposed to faith alone in the atoning work of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16), is, sadly, a testament to the fact that many Christians today have no genuine conviction about what they profess to believe (if in fact they even know what they believe to begin with).
Let’s be honest, okay?
In today’s politically correct world – and church – many Christians are simply uncomfortable with what the Bible teaches about the eternal destiny of unbelievers. By “uncomfortable,” what I am actually saying is that they do not believe, not even what Jesus Himself said about it. Their default way of thinking is that to mention even the mere possibility that a person could go to hell is “judging” and, as we all know, a Christian “should never judge” anyone about anything (John 7:24). They misunderstand the distinction between judging and condemning, which results in a universalist way of thinking that assumes everyone goes to heaven if for no other reason than that, as finite human beings, we “can’t really know for sure,” even though the Bible clearly teaches otherwise (2 Thessalonians 1:5-9).
“Secular people still believe there’s sin, judgment, and punishment. But secularism defies any universal standard established by God, much less moral culpability before this God. Of course, people make mistakes and hurt each other. But if people are held guilty, the punishment, of course, has to be in this world, not the next. Secular people don’t burn in hell, they burn in the court of public opinion.” – Barry Kosmin (as quoted in the book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton)
When a celebrity who possessed the level of worldly acclaim and notoriety as Muhammad Ali dies – and few there are today who have attained to such rarefied air – it is interesting, to say the least, to observe how quickly we who profess to be Christian will go on the defensive about where the soul of that person is spending eternity. It is an attitude borne not out of a desire to defend the veracity of what the Bible objectively teaches about death, heaven, and hell, mind you, but to promote one’s own subjective determination about where the person they so ardently admired must certainly be at this present time. Invariably, the conclusion drawn by such argumentative Christians is always that their beloved idol is in heaven.
They never are in hell.
Hell Is For Hitlers
Most Christians today would profess to believe in the existence of hell. But since God judges us solely on the “Santa Claus Principle,” that is, whether we’ve been bad or good, a person would essentially have to live a life resembling that of Adolf Hitler to actually go to hell when they die.
It is this works-based perspective of salvation which, on the one hand, makes Christians comfortable with the idea that such a heinously violent individual as Hitler would be viewed as the “poster child” for people we personally deem deserving of hell, while on the other hand causes us to wrestling with the unfathomable notion that someone as likable and accomplished as Muhammad Ali could actually spend eternity apart from God given that, in our human estimation anyway, he was such a “good person.”
“Do you believe in divine judgment? By which I mean, do you believe in a God who acts as Judge? Many, it seems, do not. Speak to them of God as a Father, a friend, a helper, one who loves us despite all our weakness and folly and sin, and their faces light up; you are on their wavelength at once. But speak to them of God as Judge and they frown and shake their heads. Their minds recoil from such an idea. They find it repellent and unworthy.” – J.I. Packer, Knowing God
If we were honest, we would have to admit that the real issue here is that we love our celebrities more than we love our God.
In fact, our adoration of these individuals runs so deep that we are willing to build an entire theology around our fondness for them. As was the case with Prince, so it is with Muhammad Ali. What we believe about the eternal destiny of these individuals is shaped not by what the Word of God says, but how highly we esteem them for the life they lived and the legacy they left behind (which is idolatry).
To continue in this mindset is to demonstrate how superficial our theology of God truly is. Rather than stand on what Christ – who is God – has declared about the eternal destiny that awaits those who refuse to believe in Him (John 3:36), we would much rather engage one another in emotion-fueled arguments about whether the person we idolize, who died without having confessed Christ as Lord or whose life did not bear the fruit of a regenerated heart (Matthew 3:8), is actually with God in heaven when the truth is Jesus has already settled the issue – and definitively so (Romans 3:20, 28; 1 John 5:11-12).
“The Bible’s bad news is not to be glossed over, hidden away, or avoided. Without the Bible’s bad news, its good news will have no meaning. The center of biblical theology is nonnegotiable for evangelism precisely because God saves people through judgment for His glory. If a man does not perceive that God is holy, righteous, just and personally offended by transgressions, he will see no need for Jesus. God is holy, righteous, just, and personally offended by the sins we commit, and the more clearly we see this, the more deeply we will feel our desperate need for Jesus. God’s wrath makes His mercy beautiful. Without His wrath, His mercy has no meaning and no one has any need for it.” – James H. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory In Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology, p. 566
You will get no argument from me that Muhammad Ali was without a doubt one of the most admired and well-respected human beings to ever live. He will be remembered for years to come for exhibiting many admirable moral and ethical qualities, not the least of which was the courage of his personal convictions while enduring years of targeted racial and religious discrimination.
No one likes to think of anyone dying and spending eternity in hell. Not even God Himself (Ezekiel 18:23). Nevertheless, as Christians, the death of Muhammad Ali challenges us to ponder an unavoidable question: do we truly believe salvation is through the substitutionary atonement of Christ alone or do we see our own morality as salvific?
The gospel leaves no room for a “hybrid salvation” – part Jesus’ work and part my good works. Either faith in Christ is the only way to heaven or it is not. The answer can only be one or the other.
It cannot be both.
Darrell B. Harrison is a Reformed Baptist, theologian, U.S. Army veteran, and blogger. He blogs at JustThinking.me.
The views expressed in opinion articles are solely those of the author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by Black Community News.