"Joan Plays Heaven!" Really?4
Joan Rivers died this past week at the age of 81. She is survived by one daughter and one grandchild. Continue reading . . .
Joan Rivers died this past week at the age of 81. She is survived by one daughter and one grandchild.
I don’t know if Joan Rivers knew Jesus Christ as her Savior, but nothing in her public statements or her comedy routines would lead me to believe she did. She was Jewish and her memorial service was scheduled to be held in a synagogue in New York City.
I bring this to your attention because of a headline that appeared on the Drudge Report, the popular on-line news service. There it was in all caps and bold print:
“Joan Plays Heaven”
This is simply one more illustration of the fact that the default belief of most Americans is that when someone dies, indeed when anyone dies, he or she is assumed to go to heaven, or some such place. You hear it from athletes around the globe. Following the death of a parent it’s common to hear the football player or golfer declare: “Well, I’m sure dad is looking down on me now and I hope he’s proud of what I’ve done.” Or when a politician passes away after a tumultuous and difficult life, it’s not uncommon for many to say: “At least he is now at rest. He’s in a better place and for that we can all be grateful.”
The inescapable fact is that the western world simply assumes the truth of universalism. The suggestion that those who left this life in unrepentant denial of Jesus Christ are eternally separated from God and subject to his judgment is regarded as elitist and inexcusably insensitive.
It was only a few weeks ago that we witnessed this same phenomenon when Robin Williams committed suicide. A few expressed their hope that Williams had actually professed faith in Christ at some earlier time, and I certainly hope that is true. But for most people that hardly matters. As one news commentator put it, “He’s now making God laugh.”
I feel profound sadness at the thought that Joan Rivers and Robin Williams may have left this life without Christ. Maybe they didn’t and both of them are making God laugh. God does have a sense of humor. But if they are in the presence of Christ it is only because in mercy and love the Holy Spirit awakened their hearts to their need for Christ and drew them effectually to saving faith. We aren’t justified by comedy or the ability to make people laugh and feel good about themselves. We are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
As I said, the suggestion that only those who depart this life having trusted Christ will experience an eternity of joy in God’s presence is regarded as nothing short of outrageous.
This so-called “scandal of particularity” may well be the most volatile and urgent issue facing the church in the 21st century. The “scandal” is the notion embraced by most evangelical Christians that only through conscious faith in Jesus Christ can a person be reconciled to God (the “particularity” in view is wrapped up in my use of the word “only”).
We live in a world that is growing increasingly uncomfortable with this concept of religious exclusivism. The traditional Christian claim that Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and that salvation is available only to those who consciously put their faith in him is now regarded as both arrogant and offensive.
So what does the Bible say? Several texts address this question.
For example, we hear Paul say in 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” God “wisely” chose that no one should come to a saving knowledge of him by means of their own human reasoning or efforts at discovery but rather through the apparent “folly” of hearing and believing the preached message of Christ crucified.
Then there is Acts 4:12 – “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Peter is not simply saying there is no other “source” of salvation than Jesus Christ, as if one might be saved on the basis of Christ’s work but under some other name. The point of saying “there is no other name” is “that we are saved by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus. Calling on his name is our entrance into fellowship with God. If one is saved by Jesus incognito, one does not speak of being saved by his name” (John Piper, Jesus: The Only Way To God, [Baker, 2010], 94).
Paul comes straight to the point in Romans 10:13-15. There he writes, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” To “call” on Christ one must “believe” in him. To “believe” in him one must “hear” about him. To “hear” about him someone must “preach” the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself declared: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. . . . I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 10:16 and 17:20-21; italics mine). The “other sheep” are Gentiles who, in order to be saved, must “listen” to and “believe” in the voice of Christ that comes to them “through” the “word” that other believers proclaim.
And again: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). “’Through me,’” notes Piper, “does not mean that people in other religions can get to God because Jesus died for them, though they don’t know about it. ‘Through me’ must be defined in the context of John’s Gospel as believing in Jesus through the word of his disciples (John 6:35; 7:38; 11:25; 12:46; 17:20)” (114).
John adds his own witness to this truth: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ. This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:22-23).
These texts lead me to several important conclusions.
(1) History has shown definitively that when people begin to doubt or deny the necessity of conscious faith in Jesus to be saved the missionary enterprise of the church suffers, and in some cases dies altogether. The same results are most often seen in personal evangelistic outreach. If you do not believe in the necessity of faith in Jesus for salvation it is unlikely you will be devoted to making known the gospel to your friends, family, and neighbors.
(2) Never assume your neighbor or co-worker has heard and understood the gospel. Living in the Bible belt and wearing a cross around your neck or having one tattooed to your arm is no guarantee that a person rightly understands who Jesus is or what the gospel entails.
(3) It’s not enough simply to believe in God. Monotheists aren’t saved. Only Christians are.
(4) It’s not enough to be “spiritual”. People are deceived into thinking that because someone recognizes a dimension of reality beyond the physical they must be saved. But “spirituality” is not necessarily the same as Christianity.
(5) It’s not enough to believe in, affirm, and even experience the supernatural. One must believe in, affirm, and experience Jesus as personal Lord and Savior.
(6) It’s not enough to believe that Jesus is God incarnate and that he truly lived, died, and rose again from the dead and that he provided us with a glorious way to live. One must trust, treasure, embrace, and believe in his death and resurrection as one’s only hope for forgiveness.
(7) As much as our society would have you believe that it is unkind and intolerant to insist on the the necessity of faith in Jesus for salvation, it is the most loving thing one can do. Nothing is more an expression of calloused disregard and disdain for human souls than to indulge their delusion that heaven is accessible to everyone on whatever terms they choose to set or feel are fair.
In conclusion, we must never forget that the so-called “scandal” of particularity is in fact an unimaginable expression of divine mercy. That God should provide even one way for the salvation of hell-deserving sinners is remarkable. That salvation is available at all through faith in Jesus Christ is not a “scandal” but a breathtaking revelation of God’s amazing grace.