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FIRST PERSON: Do all roads really lead to heaven?

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–A documentary from ABC News correspondent Barbara Walters, titled “Heaven: where is it? And how do we get there?” airs Tuesday night, Dec. 20, purporting to bring viewers closer to the celestial abode than they may have ever been.

The report comes just in time to reaffirm secular America’s gripe that we all should just pipe down about this whole “baby Jesus” thing on Dec. 25. Celebrating the birth of Christ, you’ll remember, is but one option this “holiday” season.

The title of the documentary is a misnomer. Barbara isn’t going to actually tell you how to get to heaven, I learned from watching an advance screener of the documentary provided by ABC. She’s going to present all of the options, the long cafeteria line of religious opinions that characterize American pluralism. She wouldn’t be a good journalist if she advocated one viewpoint over another — right?

So, from the outset of the program, the goal is clear: present what you can in two hours about humanity’s millennia of struggle in every corner of the globe to find peace with God and enter into His presence. In the process, all things are to be presented equally … supposedly. It’s a little hard to mask a lack of journalistic objectivity when the host fawns over the Dalai Lama in a remote mountain village in India, even going so far as to offer him a kiss on the cheek, which the “reincarnated Buddha” accepts with gratitude.

Rob Wallace, the program’s producer, told me that Walters was “feeling much more compassionate” after her brief meeting with “his holiness” in the Himalayas. I wonder how she felt after meeting with Ted Haggard, pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., and president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Haggard walked into the interview with a mammoth bulls-eye tattooed on his forehead, figuratively speaking. He was, after all, the only person in the program, save a member of Islamic Jihad, who preached an exclusive message of salvation through his God.

Haggard is one leader of the modern evangelical movement, one in which Walters says the people “see themselves as the purest version of the faith, with a God-given mission to save the world.” She also points to evangelicalism’s political support of George W. Bush and that fact that so many red-state churchgoers voted for “43” in the November 2004 election. Added to that are the social emphases of conservatives.

“Critics say the evangelicals and other conservative groups inappropriately apply the Bible’s lessons to fit their agendas on social issues like abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia and same-sex marriage,” Walters reports. And that was in a documentary about heaven, mind you. They just can’t leave it alone.

Yes, this is the agenda of those nasty evangelicals, those “born again.” Haggard describes evangelicals as, well, people who believe you must be born again, who believe Jesus is the Son of God and that the Bible is God’s Word.

“There is only one guaranteed way to go to heaven according to the Scriptures, and that is through Jesus Christ,” Haggard says in the interview. When asked by Walters if a homosexual could go to heaven, he replied, “Homosexuals, lesbians, Republicans, Democrats … everybody must choose to respond to the love of God in Jesus Christ on the cross and have a guarantee of eternal life.”

So the viewer is left to draw a possible parallel: a conservative evangelical who is “judgmental” and exclusive of all other paths to heaven outside of Christ might be the same as an Islamic militant who wants to kill Jews.

Of course, no one in the program, including Walters, says as much, but the parallel seemed apparent to me. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to such issues.

Jihad Jarra, a failed suicide bomber serving a 24-year sentence in an Israeli prison, says in the program that all non-Muslims will go to hell. When asked by Walters if Jews will enter heaven, Jarra smiles and barely contains his laughter. “They go to hell, of course,” Jarra says. And he would like to have sent them there, if only that explosives guy would have paid more attention in Islamic Jihad bomb-making class.

If for a moment any viewer thinks Christianity and Islam are the same, note the expression of sadness on Haggard’s face when he answers questions about those outside of Christ going to hell. Will you find such compassion for the lost in the heart of an Islamic militant? Hardly.

There are thousands of religions worldwide, each with their errant, though sometimes subtly errant, perceptions of heaven. From the Jewish rabbis who stress goodness in this life as a means of salvation, to the Sufi Muslim scholar who says that all people who seek God and do good will achieve eternal life, to actor Richard Gere and his Buddha fetish — all offer false hope in the afterlife or the promise of a heavenly life on earth.

Perhaps the most astute observation of the entire documentary is that Hollywood is a major player in the theology of the afterlife, and that may be one reason why there are so many views on heaven in America. “Many of us draw our most vivid impressions not by sitting in front of the pulpit, but by sitting in front of television and movie screens,” Walters reports.

How true it is. And I have no doubt that this news program will equally affect many people teetering on the edge of religious apathy about the need for salvation. In fact, the program may do more to complicate our job of sharing a very simple Gospel message.

When and if you choose to watch the program Dec. 20, remember that sharing that Gospel certainly isn’t a job for secular journalists. It is a job for the followers of Jesus Christ, those who have experienced God’s marvelous grace and live to tell about it. It is, as Haggard said, God’s graciousness in Jesus Christ that makes those who believe citizens of heaven. It is grace that plucks us from the masses of humanity “who have no hope.”
Gregory Tomlin is a media professional in Fort Worth, Texas, who also holds a Ph.D. in church history.

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  • Gregory Tomlin