I want to make this clear from the outset. I am not interested in blasting the Pope. There is so much hate around what the Pope said to that poor child. Yes, he lied and said something that is inconsistent with Scripture. Popes have been doing that for a long time. Then again, haven’t we all failed to consider the truth in favor of saving our own feelings or those of others? Yes, perhaps we have all sinned in this way.
I want to commend the Pope on one account: he showed a certain compassion for the child when the child was fearful that his atheist dad went to Hell. Compassion is admirable and is worth striving for. Paul wrote it this way to the church in Corinth:
“If I speak human or angelic languages
but do not have love,
I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy
and understand all mysteries
and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith
so that I can move mountains
but do not have love, I am nothing.
And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor,
and if I give my body in order to boast
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind.
Love does not envy,
is not boastful, is not conceited,
does not act improperly,
is not selfish, is not provoked,
and does not keep a record of wrongs.
Love finds no joy in unrighteousness
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).
The most intelligent people with the strongest theological doctrines, if they have not love, they are nothing and gain nothing. Love, though, also rejoices in the truth. As I look to social media and even at the “Now This” video regarding how the Pope answered the boy, I see two tendencies. First, there is a camp that suggests God will measure the goodness of the heart for heavenly admittance. Second, there are the wrongfully hateful criticisms of those who disagree.
The idea that God measures the goodness of the heart is merit-based admittance into heaven. Jesus answers this sort of merit theology in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’”
We hear the echo of love again. Someone can be outwardly or arbitrarily good from one perspective. If Christ does not know us relationally, we will be apart from Him forever. As the Pope spoke, he was correct. God is a good Father. He rescues His children. Where there was a flaw was not in the idea that God is a good Father who rescues His children, it was in the identification of God’s children. He identified all people as children of God, including the atheist. Simply stated, he was coming dangerously close to a form of universalism (the idea that all people will be saved). This is not the case, nor can it be if God is truly loving. Why would a good, loving God force the atheist to endure an eternity with Him? That would be for the atheist a worse Hell than Hell itself. We do not, then, earn, by any good work, positions as children of God. Thus, we are introduced to the absurdity of human merit-based righteousness. For, if the atheist could choose to merit God’s grace, he would strive not to. If God granted him that saving grace, it would not be earned by his merit, but thrust upon him. To suggest any personal or human merit-based system is to present a theological paradox; for God would have to measure the actions of those who do things that are good but have no desire for Him. It may just be the most unjust system that anyone could contrive, yet humanity yearns for it. God is just. He loves the world. Therefore, Christ must actually know us relationally if we are to be with Him in paradise.
Personal merit-based admittance into God’s kingdom or His family is explicitly contested within the text of Scripture. “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8). What was that word? Faith? The person who is saved exhibits faith that is given to him or her as a gift that he might not boast. Still, most people want to assume that if they are good enough they will get in. When we make that assumption, we make a grave mistake. I will again use the Pope’s illustration. When I look at my son, I love him not because he did something good. I love him because he is my son. When his four-month-old hands grip my shirt and he pulls himself to my heart with all of his might, I know that there is a great faith being instilled within him as I already, by grace, hold him tight. The same, I think, is true with God. He loves us not because we did something. He loves us because He has adopted us as sons and daughters. What does this mean for the atheist? I don’t know his heart. If he remained without genuine faith, then he was not God’s son. The mere fact that he had his children baptized into the Roman church could not earn him sonship as the Pope insinuated. Why not? No action, no matter how good, can do that. Christ must know us.
The most popular verse in all of Scripture says this:
“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
There is nothing about human merit or doing something that is good enough. Christ loves, in response to that great love we grasp for the divine cloak of our savior with our temporal hands and pull with all of our might up to the heart of the Creator, who already holds His children, by grace, in His hands.
“This is eternal life:
that they may know You, the only true God,
and the One You have sent — Jesus Christ” (John 17:3).
Can an atheist be with Christ in a perfect and happy estate forever? Can he experience the resurrection and the life that Christ has to offer? Can he receive the gift of life? Yes, and so can that one guy who refers to himself as a Christian but who is not yet known relationally by Christ. Salvation, though, is not by merit. It cannot be.
I want to invite you to purchase my book, “Church(ish).” It is about how every person wears this mask of merit, hoping that it will be enough. The challenge? Burn the mask and expose the cross. I look forward to connecting with you.