I call it The Gandhi Problem.
What is The Gandhi Problem, you might ask. It is the unexamined assumption that pervades much of Christendom today, especially in the West. It concerns the abiding belief by the vast majority of Christians – especially evangelical Christians – that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is, or is going to, burn in hell for all eternity.
Yes, this post is going to wade into seemingly heretical waters. But do me the honor of wading in with me. I promise we’ll hop back out before our skin gets too wrinkly and we no longer recognize who we are.
Gandhi is also commonly referred to as Mahatma, a term out of Sanskrit that means “Great Soul,” applied to him long before he died in 1948. For those Westerners of a younger generation (like my own) who might be unfamiliar with the Mahatma’s pursuits and endeavors, you can either go on Netflix and add Richard Attenborough’s award-winning biopic to your cue (that’s the easier way to learn that involves less reading), or you can get a basic gist by clicking here. For the sake of space, I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that through an astonishing commitment to non-violence and passive resistance, Gandhi revolutionized India (as well as, through his example, many other nations including the U.S.), leading out in such arenas as poverty care, women’s rights, economic independence and religious tolerance.
Gandhi taught radical lessons on self-sacrifice, including repeated encouragements toward complete physical submission to enemies. It doesn’t take long, in any biography, for a Christian to recognize that what many of us wrestle with regarding the literal nature of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount, Gandhi took absolutely literally with no equivocations. In that way, his life and lifestyle point more to the principles of the kingdom of God than most Christians’ lives.
But here’s the dilemma. Gandhi never accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. He never had a personal relationship with Jesus. He never invited Jesus into his heart. He never admitted, believed, and confessed – at least in the manner and formula we Christians are accustomed to organizing conversion. So, self-sacrifice or not, martyrdom or not, radical submission to peace and social justice and love or not, Gandhi is going to burn.
So, um, what’s the Problem?
“A disciple is not above the teacher,” says Jesus in Luke 6, “but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?” A few sentences later, the Savior continues, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of the evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.”
And, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks the following question: “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” His audience answered that this was the first son, to which Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors (traitors) and the prostitutes (unclean sinners) are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (parentheses and italics, mine).
Gandhi’s life more closely resembles the kind of followers Jesus was asking for than my own. Not only this, Gandhi was persecuted throughout his life for his commitment to civil disobedience and for his insistence on equality, justice and liberation. Jesus addressed that, too: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” (Matt. 5:11-12). Now, you might argue those three little words, “on my account,” but is not almost everything Gandhi did in keeping with what Jesus was doing, and the ushering in of the very things on which his kingdom is built? How did Gandhi not live on Jesus’ account, or for his sake? Just because he didn’t end his own prayers with the standard, “in Jesus’ name”?
So what do we do with Gandhi, Christians? Are we so bold to claim that Gandhi is damned while we – we who squirm in our pews during the Sunday morning invitation, we who strive not to make eye contact with the ushers passing the offering plates, we who would rather send our checkbook onto the mission fields of the world rather than ourselves – waltz into heaven to hear our Savior say, “Well done”?
Is this how it breaks down, this salvation thing? Is this the way it works? Do our deeds really count for nothing? If so, why does Jesus repeatedly call his true disciples to good deeds? Perhaps it’s time we read again those verses on which we bank so much of our view of salvation, of who “gets in” and who is “left behind.” Let me be clear, this is not an argument for universalism. It’s an argument on the nature of true obedience and true submission. It’s an examination of what holds more weight: the words of my mouth, or the inclination of my heart? It’s an investigation of just how a person “comes to Father” through Jesus (John 14:6). And even if you’re reading this and thinking, “Hmm, this still sounds a lot like universalism to me,” my question to you is, what if it does? After all, if you’re a Christian and you’re not a universalist, I understand completely. But if you’re a Christian and you’re not a wannabe universalist, I don’t know what to do with you.
We’re getting all wrinkly. Time to step out and towel off, at least for now.