Do you think that people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished?
I talked in the past about the difficulty in clarifying our communication of the need for salvation. Frankly, to a lot of people the message of Christianity is not going to be palatable, but at least we can make it clear. It will not be the kind of thing they will be happy with. Yet, at the same time, there are things we can do that make it clearer and not inappropriately put stumbling blocks in people’s way.
This is why I’ve often said that the Gospel is offensive enough all by itself. Don’t add any more offense to it. But we should not take out the offense that is inherent to the Gospel, either. This is why we are not pluralists even though there is pressure to be pluralists or at least inclusivistic with the Gospel. At the same time, we don’t want to communicate the exclusivity of Christ in such a way as to confound those people who are listening.
Christians often say, “if you believe in Jesus you go to Heaven; if you don’t believe in Jesus you go to Hell.” Is that true? Well, it is true, but it doesn’t communicate a sense of the true circumstance. It’s not coherent to most people because it just seems bizarre why what one person thought about some guy who died 2000 years ago has anything to do with their eternal destiny. Whether they believe in him or not seems irrelevant to anything that might happen after we die. So we have often not been careful to communicate the sense of things.
We need to be clear so that someone rejects the real message and not some incoherent mess that some Christian has handed him that they can’t make sense of. So, I don’t say, “if you believe in Jesus you go to Heaven, and if you don’t believe you go to Hell,” because this is misleading. I’d rather try to explain it more accurately.
Many of you are familiar with the conversation I had with a fellow at Barnes and Noble in which he asked me a question. I was giving a talk there as part of the book on relativism that Dr. Frank Beckwith and I co-authored, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Since I was talking about it in the bookstore, he came up afterwards and started asking questions about Jesus. Instead of unloading this slogan on him, I asked him this question. Do you think that people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished? He said, “Yes.” I said, “Good, so do I.” Second question, “Have you ever committed any moral crimes?” Pause. Then he said, “Yes, I guess I have.” You know what I said to him? “So have I.”
This just took 30 seconds, right? Then I reflected back to him, “Look where we’ve come so far. We both believe that people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished. And we both believe we’ve committed moral crimes. You know what I call that? Bad news.” And it is bad news.
Most people are concerned with doing what is right. That was one of the first things he told me. “I’m Jewish. I believe in morality. I believe in God. Why do I have to believe in your Jesus?” Here is a man who has some level of commitment to the moral life. The problem is, he knows that that commitment does not guarantee that he is going to live a fully moral life and he’s aware of his own moral crimes. And so am I. Now what? That is the issue? We are guilty. That is the bad news.
This is why it is so important to get the bad news before the good news. The bad news gives meaning to the good news. I was able to talk about the fact that now we both admit we have a problem, but that there is a solution that God has ordained. Since He is the one who is offended, He is the one who can call the shots on how to fix the problem. The answer is through His Son Jesus, who provides mercy because he took the rap for our crimes. We got off. He went to jail. A modern metaphor to put it in perspective.
There at least is the sense of things about Jesus being the only way. I hear it even asked on TV. The question is often asked honestly, but I think most of the time it is asked for an inflammatory effect. The person who is asking the question is wording it very carefully because he knows precisely how the faithful evangelical Christian will respond. He is counting on it so that the Christian says something that sounds to the rest of the people to be bizarre. Therefore, they can discount what the Christian says.
I don’t want you to sound bizarre when you answer the question I am about to offer. I want you to sound sensible. Here is the question. Do you think I am going to Hell? Now the only person who asks that is a person who thinks you think they’re going to Hell. Ninety per cent of the time they would ask it because they think you are nuts and they want other people to think you are nuts, too. They want to get you to say in public that people who disagree with you are going to Hell so that you will look silly and they will look good. How do you deal with that?
The problem, of course, is, first of all, it’s probably true they are going to Hell. Secondly, it doesn’t communicate the sense of things and so it is misleading. The people who ask this are generally not criminals. It’s going to be some nice guy who is basically good and sincere. You are in a tough spot. You are on the defensive already, you want to answer truthfully, but you know by giving a truthful answer you are going to play into his hands.
Jesus faced this frequently. He always got out of it, and I’m going to give you a way to get out. Answer the question truthfully and don’t sound like an idiot. It doesn’t mean everyone is going to believe you, fall at your feet, and want to receive Christ, but at least you will be able to give a proper and appropriate answer to those who ask you to make a defense for the hope that is within you (2 Peter 3:15). The answer is simply this.
When somebody says, “Do you think I am going to Hell?” and you think they are, you say something like, “Well, I believe in justice, do you?” “Yes.” “What is justice but that people who are guilty get punished in an appropriate way to their guilt? I believe that people who are guilty pay for their crimes unless they have been pardoned.”
This is very straightforward language. It fits entirely with our culture. It is terminology that has meaning immediately. It is also terminology that the person you are talking with not only is familiar with but they agree with the concept. We both believe the same thing here: justice. If you have committed any moral crimes, if you have done anything wrong, I think you will be punished for them unless you receive pardon. The punishment for moral crimes is Hell.
You are saying yes, I think you are going to Hell unless you receive Jesus. But you are putting it in terms that are making more sense to that individual. In fact, he has already affirmed the underlying concept, as well he should, because he believes in it.
Most people believe in justice. It is built in. It is part of their moral intuition, the image of God in man that is being expressed. They clamor for justice. There is a place for mercy, and pardon. We both agree. From God’s perspective, if you have committed any moral crimes, then you are going to be punished for them. You’ll only receive God’s punishment if you are guilty of something. Are you guilty of anything? What is so controversial about that? Don’t want to be punished? God has a means for a pardon. That is the whole point of our conversation. I don’t want to be punished either. I want to experience a pardon.
See how that works? That’s part of the tactical elements of communicating the knowledge truthfully.