This week’s article is modified from what I expected to write. I have been doing a series on the trump cards from my tradition,” at least as I see them. And the recent shootings in Aurora, CO have made us all painfully aware of how fragile human life is and callously it can be treated. And although events like this are in one sense shocking, they are also all too common – we seem to find ourselves shocked again and again and again and…
But the response to events like this, from people who claim to be followers of Jesus does continue to surprise me. Jerry Newcombe of the American Family Association, a “Christian” group that has lots of supporters and funding (and is also on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups) came out with the following statement this week.
“If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place.. on the other hand, if a person doesn’t know Jesus Christ… if they knowingly rejected Jesus Christ, then, basically, they are going to a terrible place.”
So, to be clear, the non-Christians who were shot in the theater are all now in hell according the AFA’s Jerry Newcombe. Hmmm.
In discussing this with a friend of mine, he said, “I read this and it made me cringe.” I couldn’t agree more and it made me wonder what it was in our theological DNA that made us feel such sadness at something that someone else, also on some level a “Christian,” held as a matter of obvious fact.
As a result, I have added something to my trump cards list. There is something in our core that will not pronounce ultimate judgment on someone else, no matter how easy (or desirable) it might seem to do so. And this is not a new modern innovation, it lies in some of the roots of the movement’s early days when discussions with other reforming groups about “predestination” showed a clear difference on opinion on this matter.
So, here is a first crack at another trump card, implied in many ways in other trump cards on my list, but which in our times needs to be explicitly stated:
Our confidence in God’s grace for us calls us to hope God will be gracious with others – even those who are different or offensive to us. This issue was actually a fundamental one during the Reformation. Not all Christians (or even Protestants) would agree with the above statement. The “double predestination controversy” has been a point of contention. It basically says that some people are intended for hell and others are not. God knows who the hell bound folks are when they show up and there isn’t anything we (or God) can do about it. Those who promote double predestination assume hell is well populated and accept it as a given fact. Lutherans, on the other hand, while not automatically universalists, are much more hopeful about the destiny of all and unwilling to say what we do not know. And as a matter of discipleship, we are committed to hoping that hell, should it exist, is empty and not full. This is not a confidence in humanity. It is a commitment to the grace of God being beyond that which we can define.
The confessions of the Lutheran reformers said, “The eternal election of God, however, predestination that is, God’s ordination to salvation, does not extend at once over the godly and the wicked, but only over the children of God…” (Formula of Concord, Article 11:5). In other words, we know what we know about people who trust what God has done in Jesus. We can speak with confidence about the hope and promise that belongs to them. But we don’t feel nearly as clear (or pessimistic) talking about everybody else (that’s God’s turf). The bottom line is that Lutherans are committed to the belief that trusting God’s work in Christ brings life. We are not willing to say “to hell with everyone else.” We hope and pray for the best for all people, hoping (some would say “expecting”) to be surprised by a God of amazing grace.