Monday, October 13, 2008

Do believers in other religions go to hell, Muslim asks?

My friend Mustafa Akyol muses in Turkish Daily News, "Will Non-Muslims Go to Heaven, Too?" (October 11, 2008). He explains,
Is there any chance to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, when it comes to divine grace?

As a Muslim, I have always thought so, and I have a good reason for it: There are verses in the Koran which explicitly say that all people who believe in God and do good things will be saved. Here is, for example, verse 62 of the second sura, i.e., chapter:

“Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.”

The “Sabians” noted in this verse were a south Mesopotamian group which professed some sort of monotheism. From that point on, some Koranic commentators have concluded that the God demands only monotheism and “being good” for eternal salvation. But interestingly, this ecumenical interpretation is not what all Muslims are comfortable with.
It strikes me that this is a good discussion for modern Muslims to be having.

Obviously, different religions teach different things, and they cannot all be right on the disputed points.

But the critical question is, can we respect each other enough to think that the followers of other religions are not necessarily predestined for hell? There is, after all, a critical difference between being mistaken and being evil. For one thing, opposing mistakes is sometimes a duty but opposing evil always is.

Religious tolerance is usually associated with high levels of social development. One reason, I suppose, is that it encourages people to make the case for their own view but relieves them of any duty to forcibly suppress error, which creates a number of bad social effects. Serious error usually confutes itself anyway, in my experience.

I sent Mustafa a note, commenting on the Catholic view, so far as I understand it:
Catholics believe that, in general, people cannot be damned except by their own choice. But if they have persistently lived contrary to God’s will, they may take a long time to be perfected before they can enter Heaven. This is called Purgatory.

Purgatory is thought to exist because no evil can live in God’s presence; it would be instantly destroyed. So people must be perfect before they can live in God’s presence.

Salvation is not a question of what one believes, but of the disposition of one’s heart, to move toward God or away from him. (Obviously one must believe something that brings one closer to God, but it is not articles of faith by themselves that save anyone. God himself saves us.)

In one of Jesus’ parables, there are two brothers, whose father tells them to go work in the vineyard. One of them says yes – but doesn’t. The other says no – but does. Jesus asked the crowd, “Which son obeyed his father?” That, I think, is the basic idea.