Who goes to hell?

Where am I going after I die?

Dallas Morning News/January 6, 2007
By Jeffrey Weiss

On the stump the Sunday before the election, Texas Gov. Rick Perry wandered into a theological swamp. He attended a service at the non-denominational Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. Pastor John Hagee preached: "If you live your life and don't confess your sins to God almighty through the authority of Christ and his blood, I'm going to say this very plainly, you're going straight to hell with a non-stop ticket."

After the sermon, Christy Hoppe, the Austin bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, asked the governor whether he agreed.

"In my faith, that's what it says, and I'm a believer of that," said Perry, who was raised Methodist.

Although the event turned out to be a mere political blip -- Perry was re-elected handily -- it did raise an interesting religion question:

Who does go to hell?

Many people don't believe in hell at all. Non-Christian faiths have their own take. Judaism, the religion that birthed Christianity, teaches of the eternal nature of the soul, a divine judgment, and a mostly undefined "World to Come." But specifics are left up to God.

Islam is more like Christianity, with concrete traditions of paradise and hell. Who ends up where is a matter of how well the person submitted to God's will while alive. Hindus and Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation, so the evil done in one life is atoned for down the road -- in this world.

Modern Christianity has many answers to who goes to hell. On one extreme are universalists who say that a loving God could leave nobody in eternal torment. On the other are strict Calvinists who say God picked a small elect for paradise before the world was created, and everyone else is stuck in the Handbasket to Hard Times.

The Christian discussion generally starts with this passage from the Gospel of John: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

But how does Jesus decide who he'll take to the Father -- and who he won't? Not every Christian claims to have a straight answer.

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft fielded the question on Comedy Central's Daily Show last month. Host Jon Stewart, who is Jewish, jokingly asked Ashcroft to take a bet on the baseball playoffs: If St. Louis won, Stewart would send him a Mets T-shirt. If the Mets won, Ashcroft would get Stewart into heaven.

Ashcroft, famously a member of the conservative Assemblies of God, laughed. Human beings don't have the job of deciding who goes where, he suggested.

"You know, my dad was a preacher," he said. "He said he was in sales, not in management."

Let's make the question concrete, with two examples that theologians actually chew over:

Imagine a man who grows up alone on an island and has never heard of Jesus. When he dies, does he go to hell?

Or consider Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. He was saintly, but not a Christian. (He was once quoted as saying, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.")

Is Gandhi in hell?

Given the importance of the questions, it's not surprising that denominations have official stands on the answers:

United Methodists

Let's start where Texas' governor spent much of his childhood. Most Methodists aren't nearly as certain as Perry seemed to be, said William B. Lawrence, dean of Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology.

"We are far less interested in making the kinds of doctrinal claims that the governor seems to want to assert," he said.

Methodism has a traditional belief in what it calls "prevenient grace" -- God doing good for us before we know it. That means God could be offering a ticket out of hell to anybody, Lawrence said.

"None of us can make any doctrinal or rational decision about who has been touched by God's grace," he said.

Disagreements about this question have been fossilized in Methodist doctrine. The United Methodist Church, the largest Methodist denomination, was created in 1968, in Dallas, by the merger of the United Brethren and the Methodist Church.

The Methodists had an official doctrine about grace and heaven, the United Brethren about condemnation and hell. Were they complementary or contradictory? Who knows?

"It would be incorrect to suggest that one or the other is absolutely the case," Lawrence said.

Both passages are included in current UMC doctrines.

Southern Baptists

Perry also attended Southern Baptist churches. The Southern Baptist position is basically: "What part of 'No' don't you understand?"

"As for Mr. Perry's comments ... I would have been even firmer about the necessity to accept Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior in order to go to heaven," said Malcolm Yarnell, assistant dean for theological studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

The Baptist Faith & Message, the official statement of the denomination's beliefs, says unambiguously: "There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord."

So unless Gandhi accepted Jesus before he died, he's in hell. The man on the island? Ditto.

But isn't that unfair?

"There is no unfairness," Yarnell said, "since we are all sinners."

That belief is what drives Southern Baptists to take their message into the world -- to save the "lost" from eternal damnation.

Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has absolute doctrines, plus two millennia of nuance.

The Vatican says that one who truly believes in Catholic teachings and lives a life in accord with those beliefs is guaranteed a place in heaven, said Matthew Ogilvie, assistant professor of systematic theology at the University of Dallas, a Catholic school in Irving.

What about non-Catholic Christians? "Fifty years ago, if you asked your average parish priest or nun, they would have told you than non-Catholics are not going to heaven," he said.

These days, the answer is "Maybe." The Catholic Church says it has the only complete instruction manual -- there's only one best way to the summit of Mount Everest. Other routes might be harder or might end at a crevasse. But some who take a different route might still end up at the top, Ogilvie said.

Not even all who say they're Catholic are guaranteed to stay out of hell. According to a document produced in 2000 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), salvation comes through grace. But "if they fail to respond in thought, word and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged."

What about non-Christians? From a document issued by Pope Paul VI in 1964:

"Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience -- those too may achieve eternal salvation."

That covers the man on the island. But Gandhi did know about Christ, didn't he? Maybe not, Dr. Ogilvie said. If he was driven away from the church by nasty Christians, he may never truly have understood Jesus.

The official Catholic catechism offers an even larger possible exception: God can do what God wants.

"God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments."

The traditional Catholic understanding of the afterlife has had three final destinations -- heaven and hell, plus limbo. Limbo was thought to be for cases like the guy on the island, or infants who died before baptism. A draft document that recently was circulated, apparently with the blessing of Benedict, would do away with limbo.

Presbyterian Church (USA)

The Presbyterian Church comes from the Calvinist tradition, said Warner Bailey, director of Presbyterian studies at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University.

That tradition includes a belief that God created some people predestined for hell.

Still, "most Presbyterians find that today to be offensive, and theologically not attuned to the Gospel of God's sovereignty and grace," Dr. Bailey said.

The denomination's official position is contained in its catechism, last revised in 1998:

"The limits to salvation, whatever they may be, are known only to God. ... No one will be saved except by grace alone. And no judge could possibly be more gracious than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."

How about Gandhi? "How God will deal with those who do not know or follow Christ, but who follow another tradition, we cannot finally say. We can say, however, that God is gracious and merciful, and that God will not deal with people in any other way than we see in Jesus Christ, who came as the Savior of the world."

Church of God in Christ

The Church of God in Christ is the nation's largest African-American Pentecostal denomination. Modern Pentecostalism was born a century ago in Los Angeles. Members of the Azusa church there believed that the powers of the early apostles -- communication with God, healing, and so forth -- would be available in the modern era because of the urgent need to carry the Gospel to the "lost."

The Pentecostal belief that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation means Gandhi is probably out of luck, by Church of God in Christ standards.

But the man on the island is another story, said David Daniels, a church-history professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ.

Pentecostal doctrine teaches that the Holy Spirit routinely brings miracles to people, and that God-sent visions and prophesies are happening this very day.

"God can work without a human instrumentality," he said. "And therefore God can come to that person in a dream and tell him about Jesus Christ.

"A Pentecostal would not be surprised if someone stood up ... and said, 'I never knew about the church until I got this vision.'"


Many Americans now attend non-denominational churches. If those churches wanted to hew to a particular denomination's doctrine, they wouldn't be independent. Therefore, they cover the wide spectrum of answers on the question of who goes to hell.

The Rev. Carlton Pearson was once head of a wildly successful Pentecostal megachurch in Oklahoma City.

Then he decided the Bible teaches that everybody can escape hell -- even Satan -- through repentance and the love of God. His "gospel of inclusion" got him booted out of his denomination. Today, he leads a smaller, independent congregation.

The Rev. Todd Wagner leads Watermark Community Church in North Dallas. He teaches that belief in Jesus is necessary for salvation.

But the man on the island isn't inevitably damned, he said. Nobody is good enough to seek God on his own, but God will get his message to whomever God chooses, he said.

"No man is going to be judged because they rejected a Jesus of whom they never heard," Wagner said. "The character of our God is such that if he confessed the guilt awakened in his conscience and acknowledged his debt to his creator, I believe my creator will get Jesus to him."

Gandhi has another problem, Wagner said: If he accepted Jesus as the son of God and savior of the world, then Gandhi is not in hell.

"But if his Jesus is not that Jesus, he will go to hell," he said. "And that's not my opinion. That's Jesus' opinion."

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