I was raised to believe that there is no more important issue than the answer to this question:
"On a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 meaning '100% confident' and 0 meaning '0% confident', how sure are you that if you died today, that you would go to heaven?"
This is exactly the way that I was taught to ask the question, word for word. It was the most important question for me to ask my friends, strangers, and most important, to ask myself.
In my early twenties, living as a missionary in the Balkans and the Middle East, my leaders exhorted me to look for any and every opportunity to pose this eternal and life-altering question.
My training went something like this:
"There are three Scripture passages that you have to remember. With them you will be able to give anyone the eternal gift of 'assurance of salvation.' First, Romans 8:38-39:
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, neither height nor depth nor any other created thing, will be able to separate you from the love of God, through Christ Jesus our Lord.
After reading this, ask: "Is there anything that can separate you from God's love?"
Once they answer 'no,' open to John 5:12-13:
He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
Now ask, 'Have you received Jesus as your savior? When they say 'yes' then point to the verse and say, 'see, you have the Son' therefore you have 'life' and this assures that your life with God is now 'eternal life.'
Finally, this is the zinger that will seal the deal. Open your Bible to Hebrews 13:5 and read:
I will never leave you nor forsake you.
That is Jesus talking. Will Jesus ever leave you? Okay now it is time for the most important question, 'On a scale of 0 to 100, if you died today, how sure are you that you would go to heaven?'
If they say 100%, then your job is done. You have given that person the greatest gift in the world: assurance of salvation. If they say 10%, 90%, or even 99.9%, it is your job to go back to the beginning, Romans 8:38-39 and go through it again; if necessary again and again and again until they say that magical '100% sure.'"
It was the most important question for me to ask others.
It was the most important question that I needed to ask myself.
Since I was duly convinced that my "assurance" was the most important issue, there was this unexpected, subtle thing that happened inside me in response to heaven and my eternal assurance. It became of ultimate importance to protect the formula that leads to my 100% assurance.
This salvation formula (whatever the factors may be) when added up, had to equal "me." Do you recognize how this works?
Next, because of my well-programmed fear of hell, I would then subtly twist those factors (when necessary) to ensure they added up to me. I don't think I was aware that I was doing it most the time.
I think this is a very human tendency: to see the formula of faith through me-colored glasses. As a result, my tendency was (and is) to cast spiritual doubt toward anyone that is not like me. My particular culture, tradition, economic values get woven into the assurance formula. Where does that leave the people who are not like me?
Now, there are people all over the world who are nothing like me. My buddy Josh and I were talking a few years ago about this. We were both learning from organizations like The Sold Project and Slavery Footprint about slavery around the world. I remember that I said to Josh:
"There is possibly no one more different than me than a little girl in Southeast Asia, whose family is so poor that they concluded that selling their daughter was their only course of action … and in the hands of her 'owners', that little girl is isolated from education, religious institutions, nurturing adults, resources for basic personal health … she may live her short life in a semi-conscious state (drugged up by her 'owners') and then sold multiple times a day as an erotic toy for grown men to play with."
Now, Josh, if the formula of faith adds up to someone like me, what possible hope does that little girl have? I am quite confident that that little girl does not and most likely will never have access to most of the things that my religious training most values … the sort of things that lead to an "assurance of salvation."
What is the hope for her? What is her hope if the formula adds up to look like me?"
I want to have hope for that little girl.
As a result, I have decided to give back my assurance of salvation—or at least to give back the formula. I cannot trust myself to conceive of it in any non-self-serving manner. Maybe it is just me, but I am blinded by self-preservation.
If I am sitting at the poker table of eternity, I am putting all my chips on this: "In the end, God will be just. He will be just to me and he will be just to her. Come what may."
No more formula that adds up to me being 100% sure. I realize that this means that I may find myself on the outside of the eternal blessing, but if there is hope for my neighbor on the other side of the world or the person very different than me, then there will also be hope for me. Hope in a just God.
Does this mean that I have rejected God or divine love? No. I actually believe that my confidence in God is even higher. Does this mean that my personal desire for God, the fulfillment of God's kingdom or my hope of heaven has waned? Nope. I want all those things in a very deep and penetrating way.
I guess you could say that I am putting my hope in a person, not in a formula.
I was sitting in a classroom 20 years ago, listening to a wise professor from a most famous and most conservative theological seminary. I remember that I was sitting in the third row, center in the tiered college lecture hall.
From the podium at the hall's front, the professor looked across the packed room, his eyes following the room's length and back again. Then he said,
"There are only three things that I am sure of, in regards to heaven:
First, I am sure that I will be surprised who is there.
Second, I am sure that I will be surprised who is not there …"
(And he paused to insure that all were listening)
"And third, I know that I will be surprised if I am there."
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