Once again, Australians are talking about hell. It was only last week that I wrote an article suggesting that the Israel Folau case might set a course for the future. Little did I realise that it would only take a few days before Australia would be hit with another example, and this time it’s one that might influence the outcome of a Federal election.
The week started with a schoolyard journalist believing they’d discovered the great gotcha moment. They asked Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “Do you believe gay people are going to hell?”
Mr Morrison gave a roundabout answer, which sounded like, “I do believe that, but my personal beliefs about hell don’t have anything to do with public policy and governing the country.”
There is some truth in this kind of response. Even a non-response would have been okay—after all, don’t answer a fool according to their folly is proverbial wisdom (Prov 26:4). But of course, as soon as the Prime Minister flustered his answer, everyone from Broome to Ballarat everyone knew that hell had now become an election issue.
Mr Shorten jumped on the Prime Minister’s response saying,
“I cannot believe in this election that there is a discussion even under way that gay people will go to hell,”
“I cannot believe that the Prime Minister has not immediately said that gay people will not go to hell.”
“No, I don’t believe gay people, because they’re gay, will go to hell. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I don’t believe it.”
“I think if you want to be prime minister of Australia you are going to be prime minister for all people. And I just don’t believe it. The nation’s got to stop eating itself in this sort of madness of division and toxicity”.
Finally, Mr Morrison issued a statement saying that he didn’t believe gays would go to hell.
In one sense, it’s not the answers that are the issue here (I’ll qualify this remark later on), but the fact that the question is being asked at all of our political leaders.
I am fascinated by, and glad to see, Australians discussing eternal matters. These questions are of great significance. They bring God onto the nation’s radar and help us to ask existential questions about what we believe and how we live our lives. I am less encouraged, however, by some of the assertions being made by journalists and politicians alike. As a Christian, while I firmly believe that what we think of heaven and hell matters enormously, these things should not become tests for public office. Indeed, the Australian Constitution S116 offers protection and states that there is to be no religious test for office.
I understand why religious institutions, churches, and organisations would require agreement on the doctrine of hell. For example, how can someone teach the Bible at a theological college if they do not subscribe to the basic doctrinal position of the said institution? It’s not that hell is extraneous and inconsequential to the wider societal discourse, but have we entered the place where outside the church, a person’s theological convictions are to be judged? Are we to define a person’ suitability for public office based on their personal views about eternal matters? Is the public square to be a place fitted with theological gates to keep out bits of the Bible that don’t applaud current cultural obsessions and attitudes? The answer seems to be, yes.
Once upon a time, if an employer asked you what you thought about hell, it wasn’t in order to find grounds to have you sacked. How quickly has our culture shifted!
I don’t think we should be getting our doctrine of hell from any given political party, and I don’t think we should be voting for or against candidates because of their particular understanding of hell. I can honestly say that as a Christian this issue has never been one of the top 50 questions that I’ve ever thought of asking candidates.
But truly secular society can never be a religion-free zone. That is a fictitious position that can only exist in the theoretical world and is posited by persons who are themselves reacting against set religious thinking (usually Christian theism). Classic secularism (of which Australia is an example) is designed to provide a civil public life which encourages the discussion of life’s big questions without control by any single ideologue. Secularism, in contrast to the ravings of some, is not meant to establish atheism or soft and bland religion as the official state religion. Secularism is meant to be pluralistic; to make our society an Areopagus where people bring ideas to the table and where people argue and seek to persuade each other. No one is excluded because they are Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist.
Unfortunately, many of today’s secularists have shifted the goalposts. They don’t want secularism in the classic sense, they want to pit people against each other. They trade in outrage and scare campaigns—the intention of which are to punish and banish any heresy that doesn’t fit with their dogma. Hence, Rugby is no longer about playing football but is about subscribing to the narrow sexuality agenda being forced by corporate sponsors. University learning is less about the free exchange of ideas and discovery, but about forcing progressive theory into young minds. And now, Christian politicians are apparently required to affirm that they are theological liberals when it comes sexual matters.
My point is this, Christians who think they can hold onto their beliefs in private and keep them tucked away from public gaze, probably need to wake up and think again. While a generation of educators and public narrators told us that religion is a private affair and that our views about God are not welcome out loud, the very same parrots are now demanding that we open our mouths. Of course, they are not interested in listening and engaging with ideas. Far from it, they want us to speak because they are convinced that Christianity, like two atoms hurtling toward each other at extraordinary speed, will implode. Many of our cultural scriptwriters are keen to write out Biblical Christianity from the Australian storyline altogether, either by forcing Christians to admit that they believe the Bible or by denying it publicly.
It is time for Christians to think about what they really believe and why, and to formulate answers to these hot topics, explanations that are grace seasoned with salt. If colleagues at work or fellow students uni are aware that we follow Jesus, are they not already asking us these kinds of questions? Surely it is prudent for us to be thinking biblically, lovingly, clearly, and winsomely. As Peter writes,
“be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
I would also suggest that Christians reopen Augustine and Calvin, as aids to helps us think through the complexities of religion and public life. Jonathan Leeman’s, How the Nations Rage, is a new volume that deserves careful treatment (while written for an American context, there is a wealth of theological insight to gain from this book).
As it happens, I don’t believe anyone goes to hell because of their sexual orientation. I also don’t believe anyone goes to heaven because of their sexual orientation. Will gays go to hell? Will heterosexuals go to hell? The answer to both questions is yes, but not because of sexual orientation but because in a thousand expressions we all dismiss and denude God’s ways. Both self-realisation and self-righteousness are a sure path to hell, because both deny that there is God and that he is altogether good and holy and love. There will be plenty of happily married couples who never enter heaven and many same-sex attracted men and women who are welcomed by God. This isn’t because sex is malleable and or because the Bible’s teaching on marriage isn’t clear and good. Jesus insisted that any sexual activity outside the marriage between a man and a woman is to be considered immoral. And yet we also see his compassion on those who had digressed and lived in ways contrary to God’s design.
Heaven and hell isn’t a left or right issue, it is a human issue. The self-righteousness that is condemned in the Bible isn’t owned by any single political party, but it must not be a characteristic of those who profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. Rather, Christians can remind each other that we’ve come to understand the rightness of God who judges; the wonder of God who shows mercy; and that we desire nothing more than to see straight Australians, gay, lesbian and transgender Australians also finding this God who loves.
So to the question that is making headlines across the nation this week, when we are next asked, “do you believe gays will go to hell”, how will you answer?