“Hypothetically, if God and Heaven are real, on what basis do you believe God will or will not accept you into Heaven?” This was a question B. Tyler Ellis asked 50 people over a period of two years.
Ellis started his interview project because of his love of learning from people with different beliefs. Those he spoke to came from different faith (or lack of faith) backgrounds. He took each person out to coffee and asked them 20 questions, including the one about God and heaven. The result, said Ellis in a TEDx Talk he gave at Wiley College, was that “What started as a series of curious interviews soon turned into a series of unexpected adventures and unexpected discoveries.”
B. Tyler Ellis’s Discoveries and Opportunities
One of B. Tyler Ellis’s unexpected discoveries was how similarly people answered the question about God and heaven, despite the diversity of their beliefs. These are some of the answers he got:
-You have to earn God’s acceptance
-You have to do more good deeds than bad
-Following the 10 Commandments will help
-Just try to be moral
-God’s acceptance is based on our actions
-God won’t accept me because of my bad deeds
-I don’t know
“Despite such diversity in the people that I interviewed,” said Ellis, “I discovered an overwhelming consensus about the afterlife.” Even the atheists who answered the question (since it was hypothetical) said that God’s approval depends on our performance.
You might expect that people would be reluctant to open up about a question like that, but Ellis found the opposite to be true. He was just there to interview them, not tell them his views. He said, “Since they knew I was just asking questions and not sharing opinions, they were quick to open up. And many articulated their beliefs for the very first time.”
To his surprise, over half of the people Ellis interviewed actually wanted to meet with him again and interview him that time. When he met with people a second time, they would typically ask him two questions:
-Do you believe all paths lead to God?
-How can one person’s death enable another person’s forgiveness?
To answer these questions, Ellis explained the idea that all paths lead to God (which he called “mountain theory”) illustrates one similarity in all the major world religions. All agree that a moral life leads to peace and immorality leads to chaos. At the same time, all the religions disagree in two significant ways. One, said Ellis, is that “religions lead to different mountaintops”—that is, they all describe God differently. The other difference is that they prescribe different ways to make peace with God.
And in this second difference, Christianity stands apart from the rest. Said Ellis, “All the major world religions, with the exception of Christianity, believe that eternal peace is obtained on the basis of our merits. Christianity believes that eternal peace is obtained on the basis of Jesus’ merits.”
The essence of Ellis’s answer to the question, “How can one person’s death enable another person’s forgiveness?” had to do with the fact that the penalty of a crime increases according to the value of the one offended. Killing a cockroach does not carry any kind of penalty, but killing a person does because a person is more valuable than a cockroach. Offending an infinite God, then, comes with an infinite penalty. Being fully God and fully man, Jesus is the only one who could pay this debt for us. Said Ellis, “I didn’t expect that a couple illustrations would cause so many people to say, ‘I just understood Jesus for the first time.’”
Another troubling finding of Ellis’s experiment was that many of the people he interviewed said they were or had been Christian. How could so many people familiar with Christianity miss a truth essential to salvation? The conclusion Ellis came to is that the church had taught people that Jesus was a good moral teacher, a role model we are supposed to imitate. That is how people can be raised in the church, know a lot of information about Christianity, and still think their good works will earn them a spot in heaven.
The truth, said Ellis, is that “Christianity claims that Jesus is not just the model, but the Messiah.” It was only through his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection that he paid the penalty for our sins that we can never pay. And only through accepting this gift and committing our lives to him can we have peace with God and go to heaven.
And there is another lesson to be learned from B. Tyler Ellis’s project. It’s easy to push our views on others when we think we’re right. But because he was willing to listen first, he got multiple, unforeseen opportunities to share his faith with people far more effectively than if he had forced it on them.