Sunday 30th July 2017
Theme: What Happens to Good Atheists When they Die?
(Readings: Romans 2:1-16; John 14:1-6)
Earlier this week I had an invitation to join the National Service to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation which will take place at Westminster Abbey on 31st October, five hundred years to the day since Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses to the door of Wittemberg Cathedral.
We need not worry about the bigger picture today, but at the heart of Luther’s disputation with his fellow Catholics was the question of the nature of how we are reconciled to God. Put simply, Luther believed that we sinners were reconciled through the atoning death of Jesus on the Cross, and God’s raising Jesus from the dead, and on that alone. When we trust in God who has done these things in Christ, when we have faith in other words, we are reckoned as righteous before God, and are therefore reconciled.
Luther’s was disputing with the prevailing view of the Catholic hierarchy of his day who believed that it was possible for humanity to be reconciled with God through doing good works, chiefly through acts of penance. By the purchase of indulgences, by the offering of masses for the dead and through going on expensive pilgrimages, they believed they could atone themselves. That they could make up for the deficiency of their sinful lives with acts of mercy and religious devotion.
Luther’s argument in many ways won the day for both what became Protestant and later Catholic orthodoxy in Western Christianity. Although there remains a lively debate about the precise nature of good works when Catholics and Protestants engage in ecumenical theological dispute, some of the heat (and all of the violence) has gone out of the argument. Western Christians all agree with the heart of Luther’s point: our reconciliation with God is achieved by the death of Jesus on the cross. This is at the heart of the text from John 14 in our gospel reading: Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
We need to hold this point in our minds if we’re going to come at the question of today’s sermon: Do good atheists go to heaven? It’s a great question – there was quite a lot of nervous laughter last week when I mentioned it was the subject. That’s in part I’m sure due to the fact that there are quite a lot of people we all love who do not believe in God. Of course, real hard-bitten atheists are a tiny minority of people – you need a lot of faith to be an atheist. But, truth be told, there are many people – agnostics, atheists and even plenty of Christians – who live as though God does not exist, even if they are not out and out atheists.
So what can I say in answer to the question. First, let us acknowledge that we come to the question with love in our hearts. How can a God of love, whom we perhaps know to be a God of love ourselves, how can a God like that not welcome people into eternal life? Wouldn’t a God like that be less loving than we are?
Christian thinking though begins with Luther’s point: we are not saved by our good works, but by the atoning death of Jesus. That goes for Christians too. It is Jesus who saves us, whose death and resurrection opens the way to eternal life for us all. We make a response to that by trusting what he has done for us, which is what faith is, and by virtue of that faith God comes to us by the Holy Spirit to lead us to live Christlike lives. Martin Luther’s insight – and it utterly changed his life – is that God’s mercy is paramount and it is God’s mercy that triumphs in Jesus. All any one of us can do is to throw ourselves on the mercy of God. It matters not whether you are a good atheist or a good Christian. What matters is the mercy of God.
The second thing to say is about the uniqueness of Jesus. “No-one comes to the Father except through me…” has sometimes been used as a text to clobber unbelievers. There are plenty of Christians, I regret to say, who seem to know what God has in mind for those who don’t believe, and it seems not to be good news. But think about what “no-one comes to the Father except through me…” actually means. All it really is saying is that Jesus is the Way to God and that everyone who comes to God comes through Jesus. It can just as well be read inclusively as exclusively. If there is salvation, it is saying, it is through Jesus. Let’s go back to Luther and his insistence upon the triumph of God’s mercy and grace. Imagine you or me being faced, at the end of our lives, with the fullness of the truth of what Jesus has done. Imagine being faced with the overwhelming power and force of God’s sacrificial love in Jesus. What would our reaction be but to kneel and accept it? To acknowledge our own unworthiness and sin and yet to throw ourselves on the mercy of God in the face of such irresistible and terrifying love? When faced with that reality, it would take an utterly perverse person to turn away from that love, wouldn’t it? What good atheist could resist such a revelation? Perhaps it is theoretically possible that someone’s soul would be so marred and ruined that they might turn away from God towards their own self-imposed hell? But, faced with the triumph of God’s mercy and the irresistibility of God’s grace, might it not be possible that hell (if there is such a place) might be empty? The hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” is one we sing occasionally. Here is verse not in our hymnbooks that captures the thought: It is God: His love looks mighty, But is mightier than it seems; ’Tis our Father: and His fondness Goes far out beyond our dreams.
And so to a final practical point in a rather theological sermon. Who are we to judge? That’s the message of Romans 2. Paul has already in Romans 1 made it clear that the Gentiles are outside of God’s mercy without Christ; but in Romans 2 he turns to the Jewish people who receive his letter and he reminds them that they have no right to boast nor to judge. He says, You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? It seems to me that this sort of judgmentalism is a risk of those sort of Christians who seem to think that they know what God is going to do to those who do not believe, who believe that hell is the destination for the majority of the human race. But, before we rush to judgment on that narrow vision of salvation, let’s take Paul’s point to heart ourselves and not judge ourselves. For it is an equal but opposite form of judgment to decide that, because God is loving, we can confidently assume that everyone will be saved at the end of all things. We cannot claim that, just as we should not be deciding exactly who will and will not go to heaven when they die. That is entirely a matter for God. We are not to judge, either way. God is the judge. What we can say about God is what we know to be true, that we have experienced God’s mercy and love in our lives and that mercy and love is available to everyone. Our call is to put that mercy and love into practice in our lives, through seeking with God’s help to live like Jesus. Because those same good atheists who we rightly love and pray for, may just through us come to glimpse in and through us what we believe they will eventually see when they, with us, come face to face with the risen Christ. If they are to find Christ in this life, and to discover what we have come to know of his love and mercy, it is likely to be through the way we live and love and show the risen Jesus in our lives.
So what happens to good atheists when they die? All I can say is this: I believe that Christian faith says that, like us, they will come face to face with the utter amazing reality of God’s love for us in Jesus. What happens in that encounter is a mystery. But this side of death, we have come to know a merciful God who stoops down to rescue us in Jesus. We today trust ourselves to that mercy for this life. We trust him too for the life that is to come, for ourselves and all we love. Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Amen.