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.