A Hard Question

September 23, 2001

A HARD QUESTION by Ray Pritchard We were just a few seconds away from a station break during a live radio interview two days after the terrorist attacks on September 11. The host, wanting to keep his audience tuned in, announced that he had a hard question for me, and that he would ask it before the break and let me answer it after the break. The question went something like this: “We know that in Christian theology those who accept Jesus go to heaven and those who don’t accept him as Savior go to hell. We’ve all seen those pictures of people jumping in desperation from the World Trade Center before it collapsed. Let’s suppose that not all those people are Christians. Were they not therefore jumping from the burning fire into an even greater eternal punishment?” But that wasn’t the end of the question. “What if one of the hijackers accepted Christ just before his plane exploded? Wouldn’t he go to heaven? It doesn’t seem right for the person who jumps to go to hell and a hijacker to possibly go to heaven.” Then he added: “Stay tuned. We’ll be back in a moment to see how Pastor Pritchard answers this question.” I’m glad I had a couple of minutes to gather my thoughts. Although I don’t remember my exact words, my answer went along these lines: It’s not the last part of the question that troubles us, it’s the first part, the image of people jumping from the fire to the fire, so to speak. That’s very hard for any of us to think about. The last part–about the hijacker coming to Christ–while it might be remote in real life–certainly has firm roots in the story of the thief on the cross who trusted Christ just before he died. God’s justice and his mercy are both perfect and boundless. No one has ever come to the end of God’s mercy and no one ever will. No doubt there will be many people in heaven we didn’t expect to see there. God’s justice guarantees that no one will go to hell by accident. The only people in hell will be people who truly deserve to be there. And everyone who goes to heaven gets there the same way–by the grace and mercy of God based on the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Those eternal benefits are free to anyone and everyone who will take them by faith. Finally, let’s remember this is a purely hypothetical illustration. Only God can judge the hearts of men and women. The Bible tells us that the Lord knows his own and he calls his sheep by name, one by one. Speculation is useless and can be dangerous because “the secret things belong to the Lord our God.” The Lord who is both just and merciful can be trusted to do what is right. Make sure you’re ready to meet him, sooner or later, when your time comes.

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