Recently at a workshop, a woman shared her anxiety about the death of her brother. Her older brother had died from the Covid virus before there were vaccines for it, and had died because he had dangerously exposed himself to catching the virus.
However, he had exposed himself to that danger for a worthy reason. A military veteran, living alone, he used much of his salary and savings to cook meals and take them to feed homeless people living under a bridge in his hometown, Austin, Texas.
That certainly seems like a noble, Christian death, except that in his adult life he had lost any explicit faith in God and in Jesus, and self-defined as an agnostic (though with no antipathy towards religion). He simply didn’t believe in God or go to church anymore.
His sister who shared this story, loved him deeply, admired his feeding the homeless, but worried about his dying outside of an explicit faith and the church. Her anxiety was compounded by her other brother, a Christian fundamentalist, who is firm in the belief that dying outside of the church puts one eternally outside of salvation; in brief, you end up in hell. At a gut-level, his sister knew that this could not be true. Still she was anxious about it and wanted some assurances that her fundamentalist brother was wrong and that her anxiety about her brother’s eternal salvation was a false fear.
What does one say in the face of that? A number of things might be said. First, that the God who Jesus incarnated and revealed is a God who is in every way the antithesis of fundamentalism and of this sort of false fear about salvation. Jesus assures us that God reads the heart in all its complexity, including its existential complexity. A fundamentalist reads only a written rubric, not the goodness of a heart. As well, scripture describes God as ‘a jealous God’. This doesn’t mean God gets jealous and angry when we are preoccupied with our own things or when we betray God through weakness and sin. Rather, it means that God, like a solicitous parent, never wants to lose us and seeks every possible means to keep us for slipping away and hurting ourselves. Moreover, in the abstract language of academic theology, God has a universal will for salvation, and that means for everyone, including agnostics and atheists.
More specifically, Jesus gives us three interpenetrating perspectives that expose the narrowness of all fundamentalist thinking regarding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
First, he gives us a parable of a man who has two sons and he asks them both to work in his field. The first son says that he will not do it, but in fact ends up doing it; the second son says he will do the work, but ends up not doing it. Which is the true son? The answer is obvious, but Jesus reinforces the parable with this comment: It is not necessarily those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of God on earth.
What this parable highlights is what theologians (from John Henry Newman through Karl Rahner) have tried to teach, namely, that someone can have a notional faith that in fact rings hollow in the light of true faith. Conversely, someone can explicitly deny what we hold in our notion of faith and yet in the light of what a genuine faith demands, have real faith since this is not necessarily manifest in one’s notion of faith but in the fruits of one’s life.
As well, we have Jesus’ shocking warning in Matthew 25 about how we ultimately will be judged for heaven or hell, namely, on whether or not we served the poor. This warning does not suggest that explicit faith and church attendance are of no consequence; they have their importance, but it is warning that there are things that are more important.
Finally, and perhaps most far-reaching in this regard, Jesus gives us the power to bind and loose. As parts of the Body of Christ, our love, like Jesus’ love, keeps a loved one connected to the community of salvation. As Gabriel Marcel puts it, to love someone is to say, you can never be lost. This woman’s love for her brother assures that he is not in hell.
All of this I might have said, but instead I simply referred to a wonderful quote from Charles Peguy the noted French poet and essayist. Peguy once suggested that when we die and appear before God, each of us will be asked this one question: “Where are the others?” (“Ou sont les autres?”). I assured the anxious woman she need not worry about her brother’s eternal salvation, despite his dying outside of an explicit faith and the church. When he stood before God and was asked the question (Where are the others?) he had a very good answer: They are under a bridge in Austin.