I don’t really like this question. No, let me be stronger: I hate this question.
Please forgive me. I understand the question and empathize with it on just about every level, no matter what its source may be (philosophical, biblical or emotional). However, when you ask me this question, you put me in a difficult position.
I want to be as honest as possible yet remain aware of the pastoral nature that addressing this subject requires. In other words, it is not an impossible question and should never be seen as such.
This question, and others like it, are becoming more and more common today.
- If I become a Christian, do I have to believe in hell?
- Do I have to believe that those who have never heard of Christ are going to hell?
- Does God really elect some people to go to heaven and not others?
- Do I have to believe in inerrancy, a six-day creation, the sinfulness of homosexuality or the reality of a literal being named Satan? Really?
Don’t get me wrong, not all of these questions have equal gravity. Some are more debatable than others. Moreover, there are many questions similar to these which leave me relatively unsure that I have the best answer.
Therefore, it is not so much the questions themselves that are most important. The difficulty comes down to the fact that we are often tempted to give people a loophole to theological issues that may be, otherwise, too intellectually or emotionally unpalatable. Often, for the sake of peoples’ acceptance, we will reduce the tenets of Christianity down to a minimal set of truths that are the easiest to swallow.
In some ways, it is not unlike another question that I don’t like: “If I commit suicide, can I still go to heaven?”
I was asked this by my sister in 2003. I was asked this by my very depressed sister in 2003. I did not want to answer. At least, I did not want to answer honestly. I believed my answer would somehow give her permission to do something we all feared she was about to do.
Technically speaking, whether or not one believes in an eternal hell, a literal Satan, or whether or not God used evolution to create man, these issues, while important, are not cardinal issues of the Gospel. What I mean by this is, if you push my back against the wall, I would not say that someone who says they don’t believe in a literal Satan is not a Christian.
Nor would I say that all the other questions, including the one concerning the existence of an eternal hell, is so doctrinally central that a denial of such is a damnable offense (or evidence of one’s retribution). This would include the question of suicide. Suicide is not an unforgivable sin, nor does it keep people outside the gates of heaven. (Though I would often rather this to remain a secret.)
So, if someone asks me these theological questions in a more academic or objective sense (which is almost never the case), I am comfortable—indeed obligated—to say that their respective positions regarding such beliefs do not evidence or determine their status as a child of God (as I was with my sister who, as some of you know, did commit suicide in 2004).
But I am not a fan of making Christianity “palatable enough” for anyone to accept.