As a Bishop, who is also President of the CCC and Chairperson of the TSPM, I frequently receive letters from people in churches all around the country. Some of my correspondents write that they are worried by the idea that through God's justice, believers will go to heaven while non-believers will go to hell. They are upset over this, yet they do not dare to bring it out into the open. I do.
Justice is an ethical concept. From childhood I knew that justice should be done in our world. But those hypocritical Pharisees in Judaism (Jesus often called them hypocrites) defined "justice" in ways ordinary people can hardly fathom. For example, the commandment to keep the Sabbath. It was a commandment originally imbued with the spirit of humanism, giving people one day in seven as a day of rest, as well as a day when they could remember God. But the Pharisees came up with all sorts of strict observances to trip people up: all activities must cease on that day, even how long a distance one might walk was regulated (one faction said you could only walk as far as you could throw a stone). Harvesting wheat was also forbidden and if one of your sheep fell into a well you were forbidden to save it. It is said that some of the Pharisee sects had several thousand of these regulations. Those who observed them were said to he just; otherwise one offended against God's commandment on the Sabbath. Jesus was against the Pharisees. He said they "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, " but "do not practice what they teach." Paul was loyal to Jesus. His mention of justification by faith in Romans and Galatians was meant to free people from these fetters, to liberate human nature. Paul wrote of the principle of justification by faith in order to allow people to throw off the Pharisees' inhumane strictures on circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, and so on. Only in this way could Christianity break out of the Jewish restrictions and spread to the non-Jewish peoples of the Mediterranean. Only in this way could Christianity evolve from a small Jewish sect into a world religion.
European Catholicism of the Middle Ages also fettered people. It imposed a strict hierarchy on the people and introduced the sale of indulgences. When there was a death in the family and people were grieving, the church announced that indulgences could be bought for a fee. The time of suffering the dead person's soul would have to endure in purgatory was reduced by the amount of indulgences bought. More indulgences meant less suffering. To attack this system oppressing the people, Martin Luther once again lifted high the banner of justification by faith. The church he founded is still known in Chinese as the "church of justification by faith."
Historically, therefore, when advanced religious people like Paul and Martin Luther put forward justification by faith, it was to extend justice, oppose the dark forces of church authority, cleanse the church, simplify religion and seize freedom for the people. The original meaning of justification by faith was progressive. It was a banner of human liberation. Its goal was never to consign people to hell.
Many foreign missionaries came to China in the 19th and 20th centuries and many of them were anxious to attract people to Christianity. They joined justification by faith to the concept of paradise and hell. And many Chinese, anxious to enter heaven, accepted this. The message of justification by faith was thereby changed: God did not care if your actions were just. God would not ask if you had been selfish or if you had sacrificed for others. God cared only if you believed or not. If you had been a believer in your life, then no matter how selfish or cruel you might have been, you would go to heaven when you died and enjoy eternal blessings. But if you had been an unbeliever, no matter how much you had done for others or for society, after death you went to hell, where the flames burned for eternity. These people advocated antinomianism, saying God cared nothing for people's good deeds. In this way they were denying the ethical content of the Bible and making God into a selfish (those who believe in me are good; those who do not are evil) God who makes no distinction between truth and falsehood, good and evil. This, of course, is not the view of God we find in the Bible.
There is a growing number of Chinese Christians today who find it hard to accept this idea of faith without works. As one pastor told me in his letter: "My conscience will not permit me to continue to say that non-believers will go to hell." The reason is simple. Looking at the many people like Zhang Side and Lei Feng who did not accept Christianity, yet sacrificed their lives for others, he has seen that they are of noble character. How can we tolerate the idea that they are now in hell? My attitude to all those co-workers and fellow Christians who have written to me, unafraid to tell me openly about the doubts they have hidden deep in their hearts of faith, is one of sympathy and understanding; I do not condemn them.
I believe that the God shown forth in Christ is a God of love. This attribute of love comes before and above all other attributes of God. This view of God does not allow me to make God so cruel and brutal that God could send millions of people to the eternal flames of hell. Imagine how many new lives are brought into this world each day at a single maternity hospital in one of our cities and the indescribable joy of their parents. God certainly knows that many of these will not be believers, yet every moment he creates more new lives. If what awaits most of them some decades along the road is eternal hellfire, then God is not a God of love. This is a God more like the King of Hell feared by so many in Chinese folk religions. Have we Christians been influenced by such beliefs, that we think of our God in this way?
Einstein pointed out that the development from a religion of fear to one of ethics is an important step forward in the evolutionary history of religion.
The four Gospels tell the life of Jesus and from them we know that though Jesus sometimes spoke of paradise and of hell, he never made belief/unbelief the standard for whether a person went to heaven or hell. Read chapter 25 of Matthew's gospel beginning at verse 31. Here we see that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, He will ask what we have done for others; for in visiting those who are sick or in prison, in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, in clothing the naked, in welcoming the stranger, we are doing these things to Him.
In the last judgment described here, God does not ask whether we were believers or unbelievers. He asks what we did for the impoverished. This is to say that God cares about ethics. The heart of our God is so broad, so tilled with love that He could not send some people to hell simply because they did not believe in Him.
This is an important passage of Scripture. There are still Christians in China who do not value this passage, who pass over it without pause. For over forty years, countless people in our country have been working in a great project to alleviate poverty, to help the people out of poverty, to achieve a comfortable standard of living and move on to being wealthy. Is this not one with what we find in this biblical passage? It is only right that we Christians also strive for this.
Throughout the Bible, Old and New Testaments, there are innumerable passages that lift up ethics. Six of the ten commandments are concerned with ethics. All of the proverbs "exhort people to do good." Jesus said, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Jesus does not set redemption and service at odds with each other here. He says "and" not "but," meaning that giving oneself for many is also to serve. We should not use redemption to cancel out serving, nor should we use serving to deny redemption. In our pulpits and theological seminaries, we should preach the whole gospel, according to the Bible.
There are many other doctrines in Christianity besides justification by faith: God is love, the continuing process of God's creation, the Incarnation, the renewal of creation which comes with Christ's resurrection, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that brings wisdom, the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest commandments of love for God and loving one's neighbor as oneself, of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, of serving rather than being served. Paul said that there are faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. The virtue of love is higher than the virtue of faith. How can we ignore this? The biblical message is so very rich for us. If we highlight one doctrine and ignore its historical context, thus playing up the contradiction between belief and unbelief, this will surely damage the unity of our people and lead to endless divisions. What kind of witness will be able to make then?
It is in lifting high morality that the excellence of Christianity and other religions lies. China is an ancient civilization, a nation of morality and ritual. For Chinese intellectuals especially, a discussion of ethics will be more appreciated than a discussion of paradise and will be more likely to make the religious message heard.
Speech at the North China All Church Meeting, 1996.