(Cross-posted at The Point)
From Fox News to the Huffington Post, Time Magazine to the New York Times, Gandhi and Osama bin Laden are trending in the headlines these days…but for different reasons. But the questions people are asking about each of them are not unrelated. They have to do with good and evil, justice and love, and people getting what they ultimately deserve. But people are also bringing God—and even Jesus (who claimed to be God by the way)—into it too. This sounds like a conversation worth having.
So let’s talk a little about Gandhi, Bin Laden, and the scandal of Christianity.
Is Gandhi in heaven right now because he was good enough?
Is Osama bin Laden in hell right now because he was too evil?
What would Jesus say to each of these men? These questions gt to the heart of Christianity.
By our standards Gandhi was a good person. Surely, if people like Gandhi can’t earn their way to heaven, then you and I are in trouble. But we are immediately plagued by a deeper question—how good is good enough? The Bible’s answer? As good as God. Absolute perfection is the standard. “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 cf. Romans 3:23). As admirable and noble as Gandhi’s efforts were to dignify the invisible of India, he falls short of God’s perfect standard.
That is scandalous in our eyes, but the message of the Bible is clear. Incidentally, this is yet another reason why no one would have invented a religion like Christianity. It has the audacity to tell us—even the most virtuous among us—that we are not good enough (notice I did not say that we are not loved cf. John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). We cannot save ourselves.
So is Osama bin Laden in hell right now because he was too evil?
This is the inverse of the Gandhi question. Can someone be too bad? Are some people simply too evil to be forgiven?
Christianity teaches that there is no one so far gone that he cannot be forgiven—even Bin Laden. Here’s why. Christianity teaches that even when we are dead in our sins that God can make us alive with Christ. How does he do this? God “forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:13-14). Think of it. Jesus’ death on the cross was sufficient to pay the penalty for every sin ever committed (cf. 1 John 2:2).
Put as plainly as I can, Christianity teaches that you, me, Gandhi and everyone else on the planet are in the same boat as people like Osama bin Laden unless we have accepted Jesus’ offer of forgiveness. Either we pay or Jesus pays—but justice requires someone to pay (cf. Romans 6:23).
But if God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why can’t he just forgive everyone so there wouldn’t have to be a hell at all?
This question gets to the heart of one of the most common objections to the idea of hell. The answer lies in what it means for God to be perfectly good. In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis addresses this objection by observing the important distinction between condoning evil and true forgiveness: “To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.”
The goodness of God would be violated if he just looked the other way. Theologian J. I. Packer helps us see this:
“Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable being? Would a God who put no distinction between the beasts of history, the Hitlers and Stalins (if we dare use names), and his own saints, be morally praiseworthy and perfect? Moral indifference would be imperfection in God, not a perfection. But not to judge the world would be to show moral indifference. The final proof that God is a perfect moral being, not indifferent to questions of right and wrong, is the fact that he has committed himself to judge the world.”
Since all of us expect this level of moral integrity and consistency from human judges, shouldn’t we at least expect the same from God?”
The cross stands as a constant reminder that hellish existence is not the only option for people; it doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn around; we can change our mind. Jesus’ word for this was repentance. The gospel is a universal declaration that hell is not God’s desire for anyone (2 Pet. 3:9). But the Bible is very clear that hell is simultaneously the punishment for our sins and the consequence of our desire for life apart from God. (For more on the question of hell, I address it here.)
Lewis once admitted that, “I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’” No matter what your circumstances may be, you always have a choice. No one is ever “too far gone.” (Read: Osama bin Laden).
And in the same breath, no one can ever be “good enough.” (Read: Gandhi.)
The good news is that God has provided in His Love what His Justice required. The great exchange is available to anyone who will embrace the scandal of the cross:
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-25)
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
So what would Jesus say to Gandhi and Osama bin Laden?
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)