The Last Time a Pope Died (II)

From the October 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal

Where’s the Pope?

The question of pope John Paul II’s present location is, to say the least, a controversial one, not so much between Protestants and Roman Catholics as among Protestants. Has his soul been “made perfect in holiness and immediately pass(ed) into glory” while his body “being still united to Christ – rests in (its) (grave) till the resurrection”? (WSC 37). Or, has his soul been “cast into hell, where (he) remain(s) in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day”? (WCF 32.1) We are shut up to these two possibilities because “Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none” (WCF 32.1).

Even to entertain the possibility that the pope is not in heaven can get you fired. Pittsburgh Christian talk radio host (WORD- 101.5FM) Marty Mintor found that out on Friday, April 8, when he was called into general manager Chuck Gratner’s office after his 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. show and told he was being let go. His offense? Innocuous enough. In response to a caller’s question about whether the pope was in heaven, he said that many evangelical Christians believe that one must be a “born-again believer” to go to heaven, but added that “the question of whether a person is born again is something personal, something between an individual and the Creator.” He also “made it clear that the discussion was not an attack on the character of the pope but, rather, a look at the teachings — not only of John Paul, but the Catholic Church in general.” No Knox or Calvin (or Ian Paisley or Bob Jones) he. But he had to go because he was “alienating the listeners.” Gratner said, “We ended our relationship” with Mintor because of differences in how he conducted his show. WORD-FM needs to function in this city in support of the entire church — that means everybody — and not focus on “denominational issues.”

One must resist the temptation to engage Mr. Mintor and Mr. Gratner’s soteriology and ecclesiology, which reflect much that is wrong with evangelicalism, and confine oneself to the fact that these two evangelicals disagreed about whether one could, as a talk radio host, even allow for the possibility that the pope is not in heaven. Not even Al Mohler, for all his excellent analysis of the pope’s and the Church’s errors, noting that John Paul II was a vigorous proponent of the cult of Mary and that he taught that the work of Christ made up for what was lacking in human merit and that he rejected justification by faith, could summon up the strength to say, “The pope, having held these errors, is not in heaven.”

Of course, in one sense no one can know with absolute certainty about anyone’s eternal destiny. We must of necessity leave those ultimate judgments in the hands of an all-knowing God. Nevertheless, we as individuals do make such measured judgments. (Anybody uncomfortable with saying that Hitler is in hell and that Calvin is in heaven?) And the church is given the power of the keys by which she excludes or includes in the kingdom of heaven applying, the standards given by the king of the church.

In my Presbyterian denomination we have standards of admission into membership in the visible church (“out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation”) that are consistent with historic Presbyterianism’s commitment to exclude from the church none that Christ includes. Thus we ask for a credible profession of faith. We do not claim that all who make credible professions will be in heaven (we are fallible even in the use of our lawful powers), but we do treat them as such so long as they are communicants in good standing (their professions remain credible). Moreover, we do not regard as unbelievers those who are members of erring churches of Christ. Again, it is the gospel (whether the church is evangelical) and the credible profession (communicants in good standing) that determine whom we invite to share in the common Table of our Lord.

Now a simple question: could the pope have been received into a Presbyterian church holding to the historic Reformed standards of communicant membership? Could he have been invited to the Lord’s Table (where the Lord Himself welcomes and feeds His people) in a Presbyterian church practicing the Reformed fencing of table? Hence, if we regard as heaven-bound those whom we receive into communicant membership and those whom other evangelical churches receive, then do we not regard the others to be, so far as we know, hell-bound? When we apply the liberal and charitable standards by which Presbyterian churches have judged who are Christians, the pope was not one. He did not “acknowledge himself to be a sinner in the sight of God justly deserving his displeasure and without hope save in his sovereign mercy.” He did not “acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the son of God and Savior of sinners and receive and rest upon him alone as he is offered in the Gospel.” He held no membership in an evangelical church on earth.

He was a good man, a courageous man, a pious man, an admirable man, a man who did much good in his lifetime. But do we not agree that such things are not sufficient to make one acceptable to God? Do we not still believe “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling”? Do we not still believe that a man is justified by faith apart from all human righteousness, or devotion, accomplishment?

A little Protestant girl and a little Roman Catholic boy found themselves walking together toward their homes wearing their Sunday best (yes, I know that is now a meaningless description, but bear with me). They came to a low spot in the road where spring rains had partially flooded the road. There was no way that they could get across to the other side without getting wet. “If I get my new Sunday dress wet my Mom’s going to skin me alive,” said the little girl. “My Mom’ll tan my hide too if I get my new Sunday suit wet,” replied the little boy. “I tell you what I think I’ll do,” said the little girl. “I’m gonna pull off all my clothes and hold them over my head and wade across.” “That’s a good idea,” replied the little boy. “I’m going to do the same thing with my suit.”

So they both undressed and waded across to the other side without getting their clothes wet. They were standing there in the sun waiting to drip dry before putting their clothes back on when the little boy finally remarked, “You know, I never did realize before just how much difference there really is between a Protestant and a Catholic.” Yep. I wish the pope were in heaven, but I have reasons for fearing otherwise.

William H. Smith is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America

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