Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church in California, which he founded, and author of The Purpose Driven Life that has sold in the millions. In fact, it is one of the best-selling religious books of all time outside the Bible. In a book by Rabbi David Wolpe titled, Why Faith Matters, Warren wrote the foreword. In fact, this is proudly advertised on the book’s front cover as a selling point: “Foreword by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life.” This is what Warren said about Rabbi Wolpe and his book:
“This beautiful book is a gift to all of us. So much of what is published today about faith just rehashes warmed-over clichés and feels out of touch with reality. In contrast, every page of this special volume has the smell of authenticity on it. … The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith. As an author, religious teacher, professor, cancer victim, and television commentator, his unique contribution of experiences has given him a credible platform from which he presents the case that faith in God truly matters at this critical time in our world. Regardless of where you are in your own personal faith journey, I’m certain that his profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”
Warren gives Wolpe a glowing recommendation. Keep in mind that Warren built his huge church on the foundational principle that only through faith in Jesus can one be saved. He grew his church on an exclusive view of salvation. It should be obvious to anyone that Wolpe’s “faith in God” is not the same as “faith in Jesus,” which Warren believes is essential for salvation. And for evangelical Warren, salvation means the difference between heaven and hell.
In 2012 Warren was interviewed by ABC’s Jake Tapper and was asked if he believed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Warren responded: “I do believe that. I believe that because Jesus said it. … I’m betting my life that Jesus wasn’t a liar.” (Warren is referring to John 14:6 where the Jesus of John’s Gospel says that no one comes to the Father except through him.)
Next, Tapper reminded Warren that he had a number of friends from other religious traditions with whom he was involved in interfaith dialogue (like Wolpe). So he asked Warren, “Why would a benevolent God tell those friends of yours who are not evangelical Christians, I’m sorry you don’t get to go to heaven?”
That’s a great question isn’t it? Warren danced all around the question. He clearly didn’t want to answer. This is how he finally sidestepped it. He said, “I don’t think any of us deserves to go to heaven. … I think the only way any of us get into heaven is God’s grace. … People say, well, I’m better than so-and-so. You probably are. In fact, I have no doubt many non-believers are better than me in certain moral issues. … I’m not getting to heaven on my goodness. I’m getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace. And the fact is it’s available to everybody.”
Now, that sounds good, but clearly, Warren didn’t answer the question. He dodged the question. So everyone gets in by grace, that’s good, but, here’s the real question: Does that mean everyone has to believe in Jesus in order to receive grace? Warren didn’t say.
Tapper was gracious and let it ride. He didn’t press him. He knew Warren didn’t want to answer the question and he didn’t make him answer. He let it go. I wouldn’t have. I would have pressed hard for a response. I would love to hear Warren attempt to answer the question about his non-Christian friends like Rabbi Wolpe not going to heaven. That, you see, is Warren’s conundrum. How can Warren say what he says about Wolpe and the book he wrote, and not believe that Wolpe is going to heaven? It all comes back to Warren’s very narrow, exclusive view of salvation.
Of course, for Wolpe and Christian inclusivists like myself, salvation isn’t about going to heaven at all. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in an afterlife. Most progressive Christians do. I believe there is more to this life than this life, and it will be good, because God is good. But that is not what salvation is about. Salvation is about transformation here and now of individuals and communities. It is about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s about loving God and loving others, which according to the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels summarizes the whole duty of human beings.
Rabbi Wolpe, in his book, says that all authentic religion assumes “that the aim and end of life is for human beings to grow in soul.” He writes, “Growing in soul, to deepen our understanding, broaden our imaginations, and enhance our courage and compassion, can take as many forms as there are people; there is no single path.”
It’s hard for people like Warren to admit they have been wrong. It’s hard for them to let go of the notion that salvation is not about going to heaven or hell. It’s hard for them to walk away from their exclusive views even though they themselves have become more generous and gracious than the God of their exclusive theology.
I’m sure Warren is fully aware that if he were to admit he had been wrong about the nature and extent of salvation, and if he were to adopt a more inclusive view it would cost him. Most likely it would tear his church apart. That’s his dilemma. In my opinion he has spiritually and morally outgrown his theology, but he’s trapped in it.
Rob Bell, who is the author of the best seller, Love Wins, that led to his departure from the evangelical community, faced the same dilemma. But Bell refused to stop growing. He refused to be trapped. And it did cost him, though he is doing quite well. When Bell left his exclusive view of salvation he also left his church, a megachurch that, like Warren, he had founded.
What if more of us believed in and trusted in a more loving, gracious, inclusive God? What if more of us focused on this life rather than the afterlife and understood salvation in terms of healing, wholeness, reconciliation and liberation from the life diminishing forces that possess us and oppress us, so that we are free to truly love God and love others? What if more Christians (and not just Christians, but religious adherents of other religious traditions the world over — Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.) world discard their exclusivism and become more inclusive in their understanding of God and God’s relationship to human beings?
What a difference it could make toward vastly expanding respect and compassion in the world and advancing the common good. What a difference it could make in moving us toward equality and fairness and world peace. Just maybe, the salvation of the world depends on it.
Warren, for now, has to live with the contradiction. I like Rick Warren. He is one of the few evangelicals left in the fold that doesn’t believe the earth is flat and hasn’t fallen off the edge of it. He conveys a sense of sincerity and authenticity one rarely finds among evangelicals. I hope one day he will find the courage to let go of his narrow, exclusive view of salvation so that the God he serves will appear to be at least as gracious as he is. His life is a lot better than his theology. Thank goodness, so is God.