Two pieces came together for me this week that led to this post. I'm working on a new website for our church, Cambridge Drive Community Church, and a female friend of mine informed me that she and her husband are now attending one of the nearby megachurches with a typical evangelical theology.
I went to that megachurch's website to check it out and found the ubiquitous "We Believe" page. Included on that page was a statement that all non-believers are going to eternal punishment in hell. I have to say that multiple times someone has said to me about that church, "I go there... but I don't believe what they believe." I'm pretty sure that virtually nobody who attends there really believes what the statement of faith says they believe from the pastors and elders down to the newest members. I know that is true of my friend and her husband. Let me explain.
If one truly believes that all of their unsaved neighbors, friends, and family members are going to suffer eternal punishment, then their behavior better change. They literally better be out there doing everything they can possibly be doing, 24 hours a day, to get those folk saved. There is simply no activity more important than that. The church ought to have no activities that are not aimed either at direct evangelism or at training their members to evangelize. Anything else is a betrayal of the billions of people who are not saved. Telling your members how to have a better marriage is a waste of time when other folk (or some of them) are facing eternal punishment. Worrying about responsible financial stewardship is irresponsible when something so big is at stake. If they really believe what they say they believe, then that would define their sole agenda in ministry and in the life of their members. When your neighbor's house is burning down, you don't teach a lesson about how to have a better sex life, you dial 911. When your neighbor is facing eternal punishment... you get it.
Or of course, they could actually believe that and not care... but that is not my experience of the folk who attend that church who I have met. They are good people with compassion and commitment. They care about the people in their lives and they care about their community. They think they're supposed to believe their neighbors are going to hell so they pay lip service, but they really don't believe it or they would do something about it.
I guess there is a third possibility... they believe some people have done things that are so terrible that they deserve eternal punishment and they're willing to allow for some collateral damage. Some relatively good folk will end up burning forever so the really bad ones get their just deserts. This time they may say that is the case, but again, I don't really believe it. To make John Doe burn in hell forever just so Hitler can be punished too seems a bit extreme and again, out of character for the folk I know.
Now there is an alternative. I am a universalist. Simply put, I believe everyone gets saved. That is another discussion and it obviously raises some serious questions, but I will point to a short piece quoted from William Barclay's autobiography where he gives his reasons for being a "convinced universalist." Likewise, I hold those views based on both theology and scripture and believe they are the proper understanding of salvation.
We won't have a "We believe" page on our website, but if we did, it would say that we believe that God's love and grace ultimately overcome all and all people are welcomed into God's arms. They'd never say so, but I think that is what the folk at my local megachurch think too.