(The following is a combination of my two posts on the "Larry King questions" about God)
Whenever I watched Larry King (which admittedly wasn't that often) and he had a famous pastor on the show, I could always count on him to ask at least two questions. In fact, I could most confidently place bets in Las Vegas and set my clock by it. If you're thinking my point is "predictability", you're thinking right.
Larry most always asked two questions of his visiting parson. The first was, "If God is good and is all powerful, why does evil exist?" The second question usually follows soon after the unsuspecting minister has stated he believes Jesus is the only true path to God - to which Larry retorts, "So if a good person on a deserted island lives a good life but never hears about Jesus, would God send that person to hell?"
Let us first understand something basic to this discussion. The goal of these questions is inevitably, without question, to make the pastor, minister, reverend, Reverend Doctor, etc. look like an intolerant, blustering Bible thumper. Now, I'm not talking about someone who's just gone through tragedy who is asking them - I'm talking about the person who tosses the question out as a religious kind of "stump the band" game. Though I can't know Larry's heart, I really doubt that he is at home mulling over these questions in the late hours of the night, tossing and turning in his bedroom. Nothing against Larry, but I think he's probably sleeping OK.
These questions, while they may seem cutting edge or like some truth-seeking missile, are actually the stuff of a college Philosophy 101 class. They are basic to the questions of religion and God, and have been answered ad nauseum throughout the past 2000 years. And since I've had other things I really wanted to write about (and also am not excited about playing the part of the "intolerant, blustering Bible thumper"), I haven't been staying up nights late to get it done. In addition, I do have a day job - believe it or not, some pastors actually do NOT play golf!
This is why, quite frankly, I have not leapt to the task. These are questions that, in my own heart, had been put to rest long ago. It's like challenging a professional pianist to play a C major scale, or Chopsticks, or heaven forbid "Heart and Soul" - nothing wrong with it, he'd just probably rather play something he's working on now...
So with all that being said, here's my answer to Question One (drum roll please...)
"If God is good and is all powerful, why does evil exist?"
The quick answer is "because we have a choice". We claim in our enlightened age to be all about choice and our rights. And surprisingly enough, Christian theology teaches that God has given us a choice between doing things His way and our own way. He does not force us to do right, and He offers us a choice of whether to follow Him or not. When people choose to do wrong, the Bible calls that sin. And sin brings pain and misery to all people. As Tozer said, God hates sin the way mothers used to hate the polio virus - He hates whatever hurts and destroys the ones He loves.
One main point of the creation story in Genesis is that God gave us a perfect world initially. He "gave us the deed" to that world and told us to trust and follow Him. But we were seduced by sin when the Serpent said "we would be like God". So in other words, nobody was going to tell us what to do, we could call our own shots and make our own choices, thank you very much God! Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the one tree God prohibited, and rebelled against His authority. So mankind's rebellion turned over "the keys" to God's adversary, and put the created world into a free fall. We now labor under the curse of that Fall. And each of us has repeated that same rebellion - we have taken charge, asked for the keys, and in doing so make our lives vulnerable to the attacks of that Adversary.
God allowed this because without the choice of whether or not to love Him, our love would never be real. But God is ultimately in charge and one day will return to put everything right again. But as for now, the world is a mess. It is not in line with God's perfect will, and is enduring the consequences of our rebellion. That is why I find it odd when people ask "where is God" during tragedies and problems. I answer, "He is right where you told Him to be - minding His own business! If you choose to give Him back control of your life, that will help. But you will still be living in a fallen world until Christ returns.
Interesting thought - in the last chapter of Revelation, we actually see God re-establishing the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, now planted firmly in the New Jerusalem. God is now re-established His rightful reign upon the New Earth. At that point, everything will have truly come "full circle".
So we need to understand that while God is in ultimate control of the direction of eternity, He allows us free will working within that sovereignty. He is, quite simply, a gentleman - He would never dream of forcing His love upon you. Reject it if you will, but don't blame Him when we tell Him to "take a hike and leave us alone" and He does just that.
It's as if we keep calling 911, asking the police to come save us from an intruder. Then when they get to our door, we obstinately ask them what right do the have barging into our private residence. We are the definition of double-minded. We have no idea what we want, and when we get what we ask for, we blame God for giving it to us.
It would be the stuff of a slapstick comedy sketch if it did not have such devastating and eternal implications. As CS Lewis said, the door to hell is locked from the inside.
LARRY'S SECOND QUESTION
The problem with hypothetical questions are two-fold. First, you get a set up that may not truly represent the truth. Second and more of a detriment is the fact that it treats the subject matter impersonally. That is my biggest problem with questions about "who's going to heaven and who's not" - these are extremely personal questions. When we ask this question, we are talking about real people. Rob Bell pointed that out in his book "Love Wins". That book caused a stir because it attempted to explain away hell, and it is a book that I mostly disagree with...and strongly. We can do theological gymnastics all we want, but we will still be faced with questions of heaven or hell if we truly believe the Bible. And I believe the Bible, truly and deeply.
So back to our scenario of Larry King and his interview questions with pastors. Now that the "good reverend" has answered Larry's first question and dodged a potential land mine, it's time for the old TV pro to set his best trap. He proceeds to ask the pastor what seems like an innocuous question, "Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only way to get to heaven?" Since Larry's interviewing a Christian pastor and this is a basic tenet of the faith, the expected answer would be, "Yes Larry, I do believe that". But all of this has in fact just been the set up for the interviewer's coup de grâce, and now it is time to go in for the kill. Larry has dug down into his arsenal and unleashed one of the most strategically devastating questions any religious person can be asked...
With a quizzical stare, Larry unloads his full magazine into the pastor, "So if a person on a deserted island has never heard of Jesus or God, but is a good person, tell me 'reverend' (that title is said with mock respect) if belief in Jesus is the only way to heaven, when that person dies will God send him to hell?"
This is the moment for the tight shot on the good reverend who, if he wasn't sweating before, is now showing the tell-tale signs of a "Richard Nixon sweaty upper lip" forming in front of a nationwide TV audience. That's because this question is the "Kobayashi Maru" of religion - it is for most pastors a "no win scenario".
Quite simply, if the pastor answers "yes, the person will go to hell", he will:
a. ...look like an extremist blowhard
b. ...appear to delight in damning people to everlasting torment.
c. ...project the image that he thinks he gets to decide people's eternal fate.
d. ...be seen as intolerant of other faiths and as arrogant in thinking his particular religion is the only way to heaven (for today there is no longer such a thing as "absolute truth", only opinions).
e. ...all of the above
But if he answers, "No, they'll go to heaven", he will have denied direct Biblical teaching (not to mention the words of Jesus, who said "no man comes to the Father but by me") and will most likely lose his pastorate.
So what is the right answer? Actually, the right answer is that, as far as Christianity is concerned... you're asking the wrong question to begin with.
Dogmatic Answers to the Wrong Question
It's the wrong question because the premise contradicts a foundational Christian teaching - being that compared to God's standard of goodness, there actually are no "good people". Romans 3:10 states unequivocally, "There is none righteous, no not one". So Larry's hypothetical scenario has described a person who, in Christianity, does not exist. That's because by our standard of "goodness" which is compared to other people, we think we are pretty swell. But by God's standard, we are yet to be acquainted with even the definition of "good".
You may think I'm nitpicking, but I'm truly not. That's one of the funny things about Christianity - it is the only religion I know of where you get to heaven by admitting you're NOT a good person, while all the others are trying to convince God how deserving they are. I often tell people who argue they are too sinful to be Christians that feeling that way is actually a non-negotiable prerequisite for becoming one. Conversely, it is all the people in churches who think they are good enough for heaven that are actually endangering their own odds of ever getting there!
One of the problems is that, according to the Bible, we don't even know how unholy we really are. We compare only our outward actions to someone like, say, Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, and conclude we're just fine. We trumpet the fact we have not as yet killed anyone, that we have bought Girl Scout cookies from time to time, are kind to animals, and we think we deserve an eternal reward dwelling in the presence of God for these remarkable achievements. We think our worst sins are minor, falling in the same ballpark as "not recycling enough". But the Apostle Paul says that our best righteousness is "as filthy rags". These rags were actually referring to oozing cloths full of disgusting human waste of various sorts. And that is what the Bible says we are proudly thrusting in the face of the Almighty.
A second problem with this scenario is presuming that we get to heaven by being good. This is a false presumption and is not Christian theology. We don't gain or lose heaven by our goodness, but by accepting or rejecting of Jesus as God's payment for our sins. God saw that we were desperately selfish and could not save ourselves, so He paid our penalty by taking our punishment on Himself. So to reject His gracious act is not only the height of ingratitude, it is also the depth of ineptitude on our part.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that God wrapped the whole problem up in a bow for us, and all we had to do was receive it. Seems like a philosophical "no brainer", and yet many still act like God is expecting too much. It's like the governor signs a pardon rescuing a guilty convict from the electric chair, but the prisoner wants to quibble over the offense of being called a criminal. It is a grand-scale cosmic equivalent of "looking a gift horse in the mouth".
A Renaissance Man
I think some of these presumption may be caused by a kind of thinking that seemed to have started around the Renaissance. It is our propensity for believing that everything in the world revolves around our axis. Even though atheists will argue we are not much more special than the animals, we still have quite a ego-centric view of eternity. We somehow believe that we deserve heaven, a place that we have no inherent right to and that belongs to someone else- namely, God. But due to whatever awe-inspiring contributions we have made to society, when we die we think we should be ushered immediately into God's own territory to live eternally in His home.
It's as if I strolled over to my neighbor's house and announced, "I thought you'd be interested to know that I'm going to live here forever." When my stunned neighbor asks me what right I have to commandeer his home, I state rather matter-of-factly, "Because I'm a good person, that why!". Incredulous, I tell him to step aside as I have a seat in his Lazy Boy, grab his remote, and ask where the Doritos are...
Silly, isn't it? But this is exactly how we act about heaven, which is God's abode and to which we have no authentic claim. We take the Christian concept and definition of heaven, and yet feel we are exempt from Christ's requirements. We are aliens and strangers there - we have no right, but somehow feel entitled nevertheless. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if we decided to take over the whole place and asked Him to find an apartment in town somewhere!
My Best Answer
The best answer I have to this scenario is, apart from repeating what the Bible says, to remind you this is simply not my call. Such a questions is way above my pay-grade, and I'm almost as glad as you are that I don't cast the deciding vote on anyone's eternal destination. I don't believe I decide anyone's eternal fate...except maybe my own. And God knows the hearts of all men and I believe He is immeasurably fair. In the end, I have faith He'll do what's right and just.
And yet, I do see an inkling of hope for those who may have never heard the whole story. It's in Romans 1:20, where the Apostle Paul says that God has made Himself so obvious to the world that we are without excuse if we reject Him. Doesn't sound too hopeful? Actually, it just might be. You see, I don't know why God would leave hints about Himself lying around that even that guy on the deserted island could find if He didn't intend on drawing that person to Himself. I don't think God would leave His fingerprints here just so He'd have another reason to condemn us - He didn't need another. It seems like He's trying to sneak us the answers to the test, doing everything possible to reveal Himself to those He desires as His children.
Though I believe God is infinitely merciful and fair, I also believe that salvation is through Jesus Christ. And in reality, none of us reading this are secluded on a deserted island. So regardless, what excuse do we have? Neither you nor I have the right to judge another person's life, but we must all answer for our own lives to the One who does have the right to judge. I'm quite sure Larry King will not be the one asking the questions on that day. And the answer to that question is the only one that will really matter in the end...
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