From the emperor worship of Rome to the self-worship of the modern world, every culture has a civic religion, a set of beliefs and values held by the leaders, influencers, and often the majority of citizens. Whatever the specifics of the civic religion, everyone in the society is expected to follow it, or at least to act like they do. From Perpetua in ancient Carthage to Bonhoeffer in the Third Reich, millions have been persecuted and even killed for opposing their society’s civic religion.
Members of every faith feel pressure to bring their message, and even their individual beliefs, in line with the words and thoughts of those around them. Many have little difficulty adjusting their message, for Buddhism, Hinduism, secularism, and most other religions contain enough doctrinal flexibility, or value doctrine little enough, to accommodate almost any idea, even contradictory ones. By its inherently political nature, Islam is the civic religion in areas where Muslims form the majority, and it strives to be the civic religion everywhere.
Not of this World
But Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). The New Testament speaks volumes on the character and organization of Christ’s body, the church, but little about the character and organization of the government. Since Constantine, nations have made a form of Christianity the civic religion of their society, but that tide has ebbed. Today, faithful followers of Christ find their beliefs at odds with the wider world, and they feel enormous pressure to water down their message. Christian concepts like a loving God, angelic protectors, and a heavenly reward may be popular, but beliefs such as a holy God who judges particular sinful behavior, the wickedness of man, and the exclusiveness of Christ are not.
Popular or not, God Himself demands that His people speak His word in His way at His time (John 12:49). Furthermore, His word is good (Jeremiah 15:16, Ezekiel 3:1-4), and profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). Jesus alone has the words of life, even when those words are unappreciated or hard to understand (John 6:68). We cannot be silent, we cannot edit the socially objectionable parts of the gospel, and we cannot water down our message, any more than our brethren under Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian, the Almohads, Badr Khan, Tamerlane, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Robespierre, Tipu Sultan, the Ottomans, Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Tse Dung did. The church is truly an anvil that has worn out many hammers.
Jesus Christ, God the Son, is central to our faith. His deity, His incarnation, His perfect life, His substitutionary death, and His bodily resurrection are the bedrock of our story. And He continues to sustain believers through the ages. We could more easily darken the sun than take away an ounce of His glory. God Almighty gives us a chance to have infinite meaning and purpose in life by joining His Son in His work (John 14:6-11).
Standing Before the Throne
All paths do lead to God. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, secularists, and everyone else will one day stand before the God, the All-Consuming Fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). Here is how John describes the Final Judgment.
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds (Revelation 20:11-12).
If the reality of God’s judgment sounds unloving, that may be because we don’t consider it in light of the rest of Scripture, the gospel, and the character of God. Here, then, is another way of thinking about this judgment scene:
Sadly, no man’s deeds were great enough, and no man’s righteousness was pure enough to stand before the fire of the Holy God. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and others, some of the most upstanding men in their generations according to the world’s measure, were consigned to the outer darkness. They had given zakat and done the Hajj; they had right thoughts, words, and actions. Many had accumulated a lifetime of merit from faithful service in their caste. All had done what seemed right to them. Even some people who claimed to be Christians were sent away.
It was not that the Almighty did not love them. His love for sinners is like that of a father for his prodigal son. But God is utterly holy, and man is inherently corrupt. The Creator of the Universe will not violate His justice to show mercy. Thus God sent them away from Himself – away from the only source of love, beauty, and everything else which is good. This is what they deserved.
No man would have been saved, so God had executed judgment on Himself, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Justice satisfied, the Father could now show mercy to those who accepted Jesus’ sacrifice. These believers were saved in the Final Judgment–– dwelling with their Lord in perfect glory. They were those who put no faith in their own wisdom, accomplishments, money, and righteousness. Instead, they were credited with the righteousness of Christ. Free from sin’s penalty, because Jesus had become sin for them, they could stand before the Consuming Fire.
Each man received his own desire: those who realized their hopelessness and turned to Christ for salvation were brought into the kingdom of God, while those who rejected Christ on earth were sentenced to live without Him for eternity.
All paths lead to God, but only those that pass through the Son lead to God as a loving Heavenly Father. Every other path leads to God as judge. If this is how great God is, and how harrowing the final judgement will be, how can we camouflage or water down our Christian message?
Mark Harris is a Ph.D. student in World Religions and a Th.M. student in Christianity and the Arts at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his family are members of the First Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.