While discussing the exclusivity of salvation through Jesus Christ in her helpful book titled The Misunderstood Jew, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine sketches an amusing scene of her anticipated future arrival at the Pearly Gates. Levine imagines herself immediately peppering St. Peter with all her unanswered academic questions, only to be told to take up her wings, halo, and harp, and wait until after dinner for a leisurely chat.
When it is clear to those behind her in the line waiting to be processed into heaven that Levine will be admitted to the kingdom, one man objects. He whips out a Bible—in Levine’s vision of heaven, all types of sacred writings are available upon desire—and thumbs through the pages to John 14:6, where Jesus states, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” Why is a non-Christian being admitted to heaven, this man indignantly demands.
St. Peter, having dealt with this kind of objection before and no longer wanting any part of it, lets out a frustrated “Oy!” and brings in Jesus himself to answer the question. In Levine’s scenario, Jesus is sympathetic but firm: “If you flip back to the Gospel of Matthew, which does come first in the canon, you’ll notice in chapter 25, at the judgment of the sheep and the goats, that I am not interested in those who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but in those who do their best to live a righteous life” (pp. 92-93).
Jesus’ inquisitor is not satisfied. He demands to know if Levine has earned her way into heaven. No, Jesus replies, he is not saying that. What he’s saying is that he is himself the way, and he is not dependent upon this man’s Scripture interpretation to decide who he can admit to the kingdom. “I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Do you want to argue?” (p. 93, emphasis in original).
Levine charitably presumes that the man debating Jesus would have given up right then, not willing to risk being kicked downstairs over a Scripture interpretation. After years of watching cyberspace arguments between Christians of various denominations, and between Catholics and Protestants, I am not so certain.
I once heard of a Protestant apologist who knew full well that Catholics were correct that the Rock Jesus refers to in Matthew 16:18 is St. Peter. According to those who knew him well, he would admit this privately, but he would not concede the point in debate with Catholics because he decided that he “must” take a Protestant position on the matter. He was not a complete contrarian—he did believe Catholics are dead wrong on other issues, particularly the Marian dogmas—but he apparently feared that to concede on the issue of Peter as the Rock would be to deliver a fatal blow to the Protestant position in debates with Catholics.
For debates on matters of religion to be helpful, they cannot be about “winning” and “losing.” They must be about the debaters and the audience searching together for truth. When truth is found, then all present are winners. But if a religious debate is merely a tennis match in which the opponents try to send each other face first into the grass in a futile attempt to return a crushing volley, then debates are pointless and dangerous. Because then the focus is on the debaters and their pursuit of personal glory and not on Christ who is Truth.
And where does disordered religious debate lead? Right back to arguing with Christ at the Pearly Gates. The danger there is that the debater who, perhaps unintentionally, places truth in a subordinate position to being right will refuse to believe that Christ is correct. He may think he is being diabolically deceived, has instead landed outside hell’s admissions desk, and demand to be sent to the place he deems to be heaven because it will meet all his expectations of what heaven should be. And then he really could end up in hell, the place where those focused exclusively on the self will always find their true home.
If heaven does not challenge us, if it does not shake our expectations, it is not heaven. For “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).