Is it too late for my loved one who has passed away?

Q. If God’s will is for us all to be in heaven and to have the full assurance of our salvation, why did He not tell me how to tell my loved one before she died how to have that? I could not tell her because I myself do not have that. The Bible says, “If it’s God’s will,” and if I know nothing else, I know that is His will. But it’s too late now because my loved one died and the Bible says a person must accept Jesus Christ as their Savior while ALIVE.

First, please accept my heartfelt condolences on the loss of your loved one. And I feel that I can add, in all sincerity, “may she rest in peace,” because as I explain in this post and in this post, as a biblical scholar, I believe there are some Scriptural grounds to believe that people may have some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death. For example, Paul included “death” as one the things that cannot separate us from the love of God as he described those things in Romans. It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who truly want to come in.

I recognize that people of genuine faith, who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, disagree about this matter. But I’d encourage you to think, precisely because there are these different understandings, that maybe things are not as hopeless for your loved one as they appear to you right now. And I hope that you will meet Jesus as your own Savior, Lord, and friend on this earth, and find assurance of salvation for yourself. I truly hope that there’s someone in your life who radiates the love of Christ. If you can recognize a person like that, please ask them to explain more about this to you. God bless you.

Is there a second chance for salvation after death?

Q. A loved one passed on recently who was not a Christian. A relative who was very close to him was desperately trying to find some information on how, maybe, there could be a chance that he would not go to hell. We stumbled onto this concept of Hades as an “interim destination” for the dead, distinct from hell as a final destination, where people might have a second chance. We’d like to know your thoughts on this.

On this blog I’ve expressed some thoughts very similar to those in the post you found, which I read and in which I found much to agree with. For example, in my post entitled, “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?” I summarize my position this way: “I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death.” I’d invite you to read that post and I hope it will offer you some further encouragement. As I also say there, “based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell [or Hades]—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize.”

Nicholas Kristof, you are not far from the kingdom

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been having a fascinating series of conversations with Christian leaders, beginning last Christmas with Timothy Keller and continuing this Easter with Jimmy Carter, asking “Am I a Christian?” if I don’t believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. Here is my response to those interviews.

Nicholas Kristof

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I’ve read with great interest your recent interviews with Timothy Keller and Jimmy Carter—two men whom, like you, I respect greatly. Please allow me to share my own (completely unsolicited!) thoughts in response.

I actually disagree with the implicit premise behind your questions to these men: that the boundary around Christianity consists of beliefs. You asked Timothy Keller, for example, whether you could be a Christian if you didn’t believe in things such as the virgin birth and the resurrection. He replied at one point (granting this premise): “In general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”

I personally believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. Like Mr. Keller and Mr. Carter, I find these to be reasonable beliefs, well substantiated in the authentic gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. I also find them vital to a coherent understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us. I even think that if anyone chose to follow Jesus, this might well lead them to these same conclusions eventually. But all of that is different from saying that such beliefs determine who is or isn’t a Christian.

I have been a pastor myself, and in one of my churches I once preached a sermon entitled “A Wall that Lets People In.” The sermon was about Nehemiah rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem after the exile. I noted that the regathering community needed such a boundary in order to establish its own identity. But those walls, I also noted, had gates. In fact, just as much is made of the rebuilding of the gates, which were designed to let people in, as of the rebuilding of the wall that we would otherwise think was designed to keep people out. That’s just the kind of boundary that now surrounds the Christian community: one that defines the community so people can find it, but which then invites people in rather than keeping them out.

So what is that boundary? Is it a collection of beliefs? Certain regular worship practices? A set of behaviors adopted or avoided? No, because boundaries like those would simply place a barrier between those who were already in and who were not yet in.

The defining-but-inviting boundary around the Christian community is supposed to be the love that its members have for God, and as a result for all other people, out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for them. Love of the character that Jesus modeled and taught is so distinctive that it identifies the community of his followers, and at the same time it draws others in to become part of the shared life it creates. “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “by the love that you have for one another.” Before his followers were ever known as Christians, their community was called The Way, because people recognized that they were following a certain way of life.

At one point Jesus was speaking with a scribe who asked him what the most important commandment was in the Jewish law. Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe agreed: “‘You are right, Teacher,’ he said, ‘To love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (That is, than regular worship practices.) Jesus told him in response, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

In other words, because love for God and neighbor were the truly important things, Jesus ultimately defined membership in the community of his followers not in terms of a boundary, but in terms of proximity. The issue was not out or in, but far or near. So when I hear you say, “What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world,” my response is, “If you want to love in the way that Jesus loved, then surely you, too, are not far from the kingdom of God.”

My best wishes to you in your continuing journey of faith, and a happy Easter to you!

Christopher R. Smith

“No offense, but are Pentecostals and Catholics genuine followers of Christ?”

Q. The following question might be a little offensive to some, but I truly, truly mean no offense. I would like to know your thoughts on Pentecostalism and Catholicism. I know some people frown upon Pentecostalism, which I do not understand why. Are they considered as orthodox and genuine followers of Christ? As for Catholicism, I cannot come to terms with how they can be considered as Christians when they worship Mary, saints and erect statues of their saints. Isn’t that specifically forbidden by God in the Bible?

The simple answer to your question is yes, Pentecostals and Catholics are orthodox and genuine followers of Christ. That is to say, we shouldn’t think that people aren’t true Christians just because they are Pentecostal or Catholic. I’m not talking here about simple church attendance or church membership. I’m talking about people whose faith and trust is in Jesus. If that’s true of people who are Pentecostal or Catholic, then they are fellow believers and “joint heirs of the grace of life.”

You should know that the official teaching of the Catholic church is that followers of Jesus should not worship Mary or pray to the saints. However, Catholics do believe (as I do myself, even though I’m Protestant) that one of the most important ministries of those who have gone on ahead of us into the presence of God is to pray for us who remain here on earth. And so as followers of Jesus, we may reasonably ask any of the saints in heaven (including our departed loved ones) to pray for us, just as we would ask a brother or sister in Christ to pray for us here on earth.

Moreover, the Bible does not actually forbid making statues and other representational works of art, including those that depict human forms. When God gave Moses instructions to build the tabernacle, for example, He told him to include images of almond blossoms, pomegranates, and cherubim (angelic figures in human form). Some of these images were embroidered, but others were carved. Solomon’s temple similarly had images of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers.

What the Bible does forbid is making images of God and bowing down to those images—in other words, idolatry. But artistic depictions are acceptable if they celebrate the lives of faithful people who came before us and remind us that with them, we form a community that embraces believers both in heaven and on earth. (These images create a visual arts version of the “hall of fame of faith” whose literary version is found in the book of Hebrews.)

I’m grateful, for instance, that Mary, our sister in Christ, obeyed God by agreeing to become the mother of Jesus and by supporting him in his ministry right to the end. Though all the disciples fled, she stood by him at the cross. Her life is an inspiration and example to us, and it’s good to be reminded of it. A statue or painting can do that.

Unfortunately, in actual practice, popular piety sometimes does turn these acceptable activities into praying to the saints instead of asking the saints to pray for us. (For example: “Lost something? Pray to St. Anthony to help you find it.”) In the same way, popular piety can consist of worshiping statues instead of letting the statues lead us into worship. It’s been well said that an icon is something that you see through into the spiritual realm, whereas an idol stops your gaze and makes you see only it. Statues are supposed to be icons, but unfortunately they can become idols.

But as I said, this is not the official teaching or practice of the Catholic church. Catholic leaders and teachers would be just as dismayed as you if they discovered that any of their people were actually praying to the saints or treating statues as idols rather than icons. Their response would be to “explain the way of God more adequately,” as the Bible puts it.

As for Pentecostals, some people have a problem with their belief that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit remain available today, such as prophesy, healing, miracles, and “speaking in tongues” (that is, praying or bringing a message in a language one has not formally acquired). It’s specifically people who don’t believe these gifts are still available today who object to Pentecostals’ pursuit and use of them. (But I have no problem with this!)

Some people also disagree with the Pentecostal teachings that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is an experience separate from and subsequent to receiving salvation by trusting Jesus, and that the sign of this experience is speaking in tongues. These are classic Pentecostal teachings that have not been continued, by and large, in the charismatic groups that have emerged from the Pentecostal movement. (I discuss the baptism of the Holy Spirit somewhat in this post and speaking in tongues in this post. You’ll see that I respectfully disagree with the way these beliefs have classically been articulated within Pentecostalism, though I encourage both the experience of being filled with the Spirit and, for those who are given that gift, speaking in tongues.)

Let me say in conclusion that my Christian faith has been deeply enriched by my interactions with both Catholic and Pentecostal sisters and brothers, and that I’m honored and grateful to be part of one household of faith with them.

Follow-up to “I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity.”

I began to respond to this question here. This post is the promised follow-up.

Q. Hello sir. I wish you are doing well. I have a question. I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity and how the Bible works. How can I read the Bible? How do Christians believe in God? Can you suggest some books that can help me, please? Thank you sir in advance.

One thing I didn’t mention last time is that Bible Gateway allows you to read the Bible online in a large number of different languages. I’m not sure what your native language is, but on Bible Gateway, just to the left of the orange-yellow “Search” box at the top of the page, you’ll find a pull-down menu that lets you choose a Bible translation. For example, if your language is Arabic, you’ll find, second from the top in this menu, two Arabic translations, Ketab el Hayat and the Easy-to-Read Arabic Version.

Another good resource is the site maarifa.org. It offers basic Bible studies in Arabic (I’m hoping you know that language).  It has staff available for live chat for those who study the Bible from their website and have questions.

An excellent basic introduction to Christian beliefs can be found in the book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright.

But I think the best way for you to start getting answers to your questions is, as I said last time, just to begin reading the Bible (I recommend starting with the Gospel of John) and then find a knowledgeable, respectful Christian who can talk things over with you. I hope the questions and answers on this blog, Good Question, will also be useful to you.

Thanks again for your sincere interest. In one of the psalms (songs)  recorded in the book of Psalms in the Bible, the writer says to God, “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.” May this be your experience as you read and reflect on the Bible.

“I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity.”

Q. Hello sir. I wish you are doing well. I have a question. I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity and how the Bible works. How can I read the Bible? How do Christians believe in God? Can you suggest some books that can help me, please? Thank you sir in advance.

Thank you so much for your question and for your sincere interest. Let me begin with a simple suggestion.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a professor at the University of Cambridge, once taught a course entitled, “On Reading the Bible.” He began by saying, “My first advice ‘on reading the Bible’ is to do it.” I’ll write a follow-up post shortly to suggest some more resources for you, but I wanted to respond to your question right away and begin with basically the same advice.

I’d suggest that you just start reading about Jesus in a book in the Bible known as the Gospel of John.

Christianity is essentially a matter of following Jesus—coming to know Him as Savior, Lord, and Friend, and becoming part of a community that seeks to live by His teaching and example. There are four books in the Bible, known as “gospels” (which means “good news”), that tell the story of Jesus’ life and explore its meaning. There are four of them because Jesus’ life is so rich in meaning that we need to view it from multiple perspectives simply to begin to understand it.

The gospels are found, in the traditional order of the biblical books, at the beginning of the New Testament. This is the second part of the Bible and it makes up the last quarter of it. The books in it tell about Jesus and his earliest followers.

The first three-quarters of the Bible is known as the Old Testament. (Testament means “covenant,” an agreement between God and people.) This part of the Bible tells how God worked to save humanity through figures such as Abraham and Moses. But Christians believe that God’s saving purposes reached their culmination in Jesus.

The Gospel of John is a remarkable book that explains the meaning of Jesus’ life against the background of the events and figures of the Old Testament. But it does this in a way that’s accessible to people of every time and culture. So it’s a great way to be introduced to Jesus while at the same time appreciating the context of his life on this earth.

If you do have a Bible, or can get one, find where the New Testament begins. The Gospel of John will be the fourth book in the New Testament, in the traditional order of the biblical books.

If you can’t easily get a copy of the Gospel of John where you are, you can read it online starting here. At this link, you’ll see several brown icons just above the text of the book, at the upper right. The one on the far right is for audio—if you click on it, you’ll be able to listen to the book being read out loud. The icon in the center, which looks like a wheel with spokes, gives you page display options. For the best reading experience, I’d recommend unchecking the boxes that say “footnotes,” “verse numbers,” and “headings.” Those are resources you can find out how to use later.

I trust you will have a great experience finding out more about Jesus through this story of his life. As I said earlier, I’ll write a follow-up to this post shortly to recommend some more things for you. Thanks again for your interest.

What if I’ve never had “that moment” of asking Christ into my heart?

Q. A lot of believers have “that moment” when they officially asked Christ into their heart. I never had a moment like that. I was blessed to grow up in a Christ-filled home, go to a Christian elementary school, be involved in the Church, etc. I did profession of faith as a teenager, went on a missions trip to Peru, and I was even baptized 4 years ago. Is it “wrong” that I never had a “moment” like so many believers have?

There are two main paradigms or models that Christians have used over the centuries to envision a person’s entrance into the life of faith.

The first is the conversion paradigm. It’s a binary model, expressed in terms of before vs. after, out vs. in. You’re lost in darkness, but then you have “that moment” when you ask Christ into your heart and afterwards you’re walking in the light. Saved. Everything is immediately different. “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my heart,” as the old hymn puts it.

This may be the paradigm we’re most familiar with in our contemporary experience. However, it’s actually the one that has been used less commonly over the whole course of church history. The pilgrimage model could be called the “majority view” of Christians over the centuries. It’s progressive rather than binary. It envisions a person coming closer and closer to Christ through a series of steps over time. Within this model, it’s often hard to pinpoint an exact “moment” that determines precisely when a person comes “in.”

Probably the best-known expression of this model is the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. But many classic hymns express it as well, for example, “Draw Me Nearer” by Fanny Crosby:

I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,
And it told Thy love to me;
But I long to rise in the arms of faith
And be closer drawn to Thee.

In my experience as a pastor, I’ve observed that people who become Christians under a conversion model often realize afterwards that God has been at work in their lives in many ways beforehand to lead them to the moment of conversion. There are specific experiences they point to as illustrations of this. They also take many steps of commitment later on that they sometimes feel are as significant as asking Christ into their hearts was in the first place. I’d say that these people are applying a pilgrimage model to their experience and finding it more meaningful and explanatory than the conversion model alone.

I’d encourage you to apply this same pilgrimage model to your own experience. It seems to me that God has been making what are sometimes called the “means of grace” available to you from an early age (Christian family, church, school, etc.) and that you have been using them fully to draw closer to God. If you really needed to nail down “that moment” in your life, you could point to either your profession of faith or your baptism as a time of definite commitment or conversion. But I think you’re actually already describing your entrance into the life of faith in terms of pilgrimage. I don’t think you really need to “translate” it into a conversion paradigm. You just need to recognize that the pilgrimage paradigm is a valid and time-honored understanding among Christians.

There’s a great danger in stressing conversion over against pilgrimage. I’ve heard preachers say, when “preaching for a verdict” (as it’s sometimes called—urging commitment to Christ), that if you can’t name the exact day and hour when you accepted Christ, then you’re not really a Christian and you need to get saved now. I think this can actually undermine the assurance of salvation that people would otherwise have if we encouraged them instead to think back over their lives and recognize the ways in which God had been “drawing them nearer.”

I think that profession of faith and baptism are excellent and appropriate ways for us to express a commitment that we’re growing into. But our assurance shouldn’t rest on having done those things, nor should it rest on having asked Jesus into our heart at a definite time. Instead, our assurance of salvation should rest on our recognition of God’s activity in drawing us to Himself, and our acknowledgment that we have been responding positively at each step along the way. We can be confident that “he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” as Paul writes to the Philippians. And in that sense we’re definitely “in,” with or without “that moment.”

An illustration from Pilgrim's Progress of Christian entering through the narrow gate. Is that when he's
An illustration from Pilgrim’s Progress of Christian entering through the narrow gate. Is that when he’s “in”? Or is it when he comes to the cross and his burden rolls away? Or is it at some other time during his pilgrimage? Or is he just on his way in all along?