Dwight L. Carlson. Who’ll Be in Heaven and Who Won’t?: The Answer May Surprise You. WestBow Press, 2012. See here to buy the book.
Dwight L. Carlson is a physician and a psychiatrist. He has written Christian books about emotional healing, including the bestselling Overcoming Hurts & Anger. In Who’ll Be in Heaven and Who Won’t?, Dr. Carlson reflects on perplexing questions about salvation and the afterlife. These questions pertain to the eternal destiny of those who never heard the Gospel, and the question of whether Gandhi will be in hell alongside Hitler.
Carlson says a lot of things that have been said before by evangelicals and Christians who have addressed this question. Carlson himself acknowledges this, for he quotes renowned Christians, such as C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard, and J.I. Packer (not that they necessarily agree with Carlson’s views on this question in their totality). Carlson says that God knows the hearts of those who never heard the Gospel, and that God will judge them by what they know and whether they searched for God. In some cases, God may reward their search for truth by giving them more explicit knowledge of the Gospel. For Carlson, doctrine is important, but so are attitudes. There are Christians who are proud, exclusive, and unmerciful, like the Pharisees in the Gospels who Jesus said would not enter the Kingdom of God. Carlson has his doubts that these Christians will be in heaven.
Carlson appeals to the example of Job as a righteous man who responded to God, before God’s revelation of the Torah to Israel and the coming of Jesus Christ. Carlson believes that there may be people like Job today: people who never encountered a Bible or heard about Jesus yet respond to the light of general revelation (i.e., nature attesting to a creator, or conscience). Carlson believes that Christians should still send missionaries, for the number of Jobs in other cultures and religions may be small, or God may want to use Christians to give spiritual searchers more light. Carlson believes, overall, that God is generous rather than stingy with salvation, and he refers to Scriptural passages about God’s name becoming renowned throughout the earth.
Carlson also explores the topic of different degrees of punishment in hell. Carlson believes that there are different levels of punishment. Carlson appears to be open to annihilationism (i.e., the wicked will be destroyed), but not to universalism (i.e., God will save everyone), or any possibility of chances for salvation after death.
What was somewhat new to me in reading this book was the phenomenon of crypto-Christians, who include converts to Christianity in Islamic countries who keep their Christianity a secret to avoid being put to death. Essentially, they pretend to be Muslims. What is their standing before God? Carlson seems to believe that God accepts them and that they will go to heaven. Carlson refers to biblical examples of God accepting people who made religious compromises: Naaman entering the Temple of Rimmon and bowing even after becoming a worshiper of the God of Israel (II Kings 5:18-19), or Peter denying Christ. For Carlson, conversion to Christianity need not entail becoming Westernized, for people can become Christian within their own culture and can influence their culture from within.
Carlson’s Scriptural exegesis has its good and not-so-good points. His appeal to the example of Job was pretty convincing. In defending the existence of different levels of punishment in hell, Carlson did not cite Scripture in the text, but he cited plenty of them in an endnote. (Perhaps he should have done so in the text, but the endnote can provide a starting point for one wanting to research the topic.) Carlson wrestled some with the question of when the centurion Cornelius became saved. Cornelius was righteous before he heard the Gospel (Acts 10), yet God still sent Peter to preach the Gospel to Cornelius. Carlson said that Christians debate whether Cornelius was saved before or after hearing the Gospel. Carlson brings into the equation the possibility that Cornelius knew about Jesus when Jesus was on earth.
While Carlson’s Scriptural arguments about the crypto-converts had merit, he should have also wrestled with Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him (Matthew 10:33; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26). That does not mean that Carlson should conclude that crypto-Christians should openly declare their Christianity and get themselves killed. But he should have wrestled with the topic: When should people be open about their faith? Is there a time and a place for Christians to testify about Christ and to put themselves at risk of martyrdom? If so, when?
Carlson speculates that the other sheep whom Jesus mentions in John 10:16 may be righteous people in non-Christian cultures and religions who never heard of Jesus. They could refer to the Gentiles, who would later join the church alongside the Jewish Christians.
The book would have been better had Carlson wrestled with the role of signs and wonders in influencing people to believe. Jesus in John 15:24 states that, if Jesus had not done the works that no other man had done, those who rejected him would not have had sin. Does that imply that simply hearing about Jesus and rejecting him is not enough to get one damned: that one becomes damned when one truly knows the message is from God (i.e., through signs and wonders) yet rejects it? And yet, God refused to resurrect Lazarus to convince the rich man’s brothers to repent. Abraham said that they have Moses and the prophets, and, if they do not listen to them, then they will not be persuaded were one to rise from the dead (Luke 16:27-31). That seems to downplay the importance of signs and wonders in making people accountable to God. Yet, at the same time, those brothers were part of a culture that assumed that Moses and the prophets were divinely authoritative. They had plenty of light, and they knew that the light was from God, yet rejected it. My main question here is: How much light is enough for a person to become accountable to God for his or her response?
Here are some of my responses to this book:
A. A lot of times, Christians wrestle with the fate of those who never heard the Gospel. What about those who have heard the Gospel, yet reject it because it looks like just one more ideology among many? People like to bring Gandhi into these discussions, but, as Carlson knows, Gandhi was aware of Jesus and Christianity. Yet, as far as I know, while Gandhi admired Jesus, Gandhi did not do what evangelicals believe is necessary to become saved.
B. It seems that, in scenarios such as that of Carlson, people in the West are handed the Gospel on a silver platter, whereas people in other countries actually have to work hard to be saved. They need to be seeking God with all their hearts. They need to be arriving at some conclusion that there is one God, in a culture that has contrary assumptions (yet not always, for many cultures may have a belief in a supreme God). My point is that, in Carlson’s scenario, people in other cultures need to jump through hoops to be saved, whereas the path is easier for people in a culture heavily influenced by Christianity. One could perhaps add to the equation that God reveals Godself to people in other cultures, so their spiritual pilgrimage is not one-sided, for God is a participant. Maybe. It just astounds me what some Christians expect people in other countries to do to be saved, without realizing or appreciating how easy it is to accept Christianity in a culture that has lots of churches and Bibles.
C. Then there is another question, which somewhat contradicts my point in (B.): people are where they are. Not everyone feels a need to search for God. Maybe they are too busy getting through life! Some have been burnt by religion, as Carlson himself discusses. Some people struggle to forgive and to be merciful. People have different temperaments! Some have experienced things that leave scars and are terribly difficult to forgive. God should cut these people some slack, rather than damning them for eternity just because they failed to get their spiritual ducks in a row in this life. The book would have been better, perhaps, had Carlson acknowledged human frailty and the need for God’s mercy. While he did agree that salvation is by grace and not by works, the tone of the book was that people who have their spiritual ducks in a row are the ones who will enter heaven, whatever their culture. And Carlson seemed to be a proponent of free will: he should at least consider or address the possibility that people’s wills have been shaped by factors outside of their control (i.e., experiences, temperament), which means that choosing the right path is not easy for everyone. I should keep in mind, though, that Carlson has written a lot on emotional healing.
D. Carlson said that, if one is not doing good works, one should evaluate whether one truly has faith. I wish people who say this would explain what one is supposed to be looking for in doing this evaluation. How does one do such an evaluation? What thoughts should be going through one’s head in doing that kind of evaluation?
I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.