Nobody Knows

By: James McCarthy; ©2001
Can anyone know that he is saved and going to heaven with certainty? The Roman Catholic Church calls this rash presumption. What does the Bible call it?

“Nobody Knows”

After trusting Christ and leaving the Catholic Church in our mid-twenties, the Lord be­gan preparing Jean and me to serve Him. During this time of training, we often had the pleasure of accompanying Mr. O. Jean Gibson, a gifted Bible teacher and evangelist, in visiting the homes of Catholics. The most memorable occasion was the night we called on John and Jane DeLisi. Disenchanted with the Roman Catholic Church, the DeLisis had begun looking elsewhere for answers. One Sunday morning they visited the church where Mr. Gibson was an elder and frequent preacher.

The DeLisis liked what they found. They noted that when Mr. Gibson spoke that day, his teaching came directly out of the Bible. They also liked the lack of ritual: the standing up, sitting down, kneeling, and repetitive responses of which they had grown so tired during their almost 30 years as Catholics. Wanting to learn more about this new church, the DeLisi’s accepted an offer of a visit.

When we arrived at the DeLisi’s home one evening a few days later, John and Jane introduced us to a second Catholic couple, Roger and Beverly. They also were searching for answers. And so the seven of us crowded into the DeLisi’s apartment living room for what turned out to be an evening that none of us will forget.

Sensing that the DeLisi’s and their friends were somewhat apprehensive, Mr. Gibson set about putting them at ease. Taking a seat in an overstuffed chair, he slid off his loafers. Then in the down-home drawl of his native Texas, he engaged in friendly conversation, inquiring about the two couples’ backgrounds and spiritual interests.

Then it was time to get down to business. As casual as someone asking for the time, Mr. Gibson posed one of life’s most important questions to the two Catholic couples. “If you were to die tonight,” he asked, “what do you think would happen to you?”

The room went still. None of the four were prepared for such a forthright and portentous question. As Catholics it wasn’t the sort of thing they talked about. One’s final destiny was part of the great unknown, best left alone.

Finally, Jane DeLisi broke the silence. “Nobody knows. How could you know?”

“Well,” Mr. Gibson replied, “would you like to know if you’re going to heaven?”

Again it was Jane who answered. “You can’t know. Nobody knows, not even the pope.”

“Let me show you something from the Bible,” Mr. Gibson offered. “It says that you can know that you are going to heaven.” He turned to 1 John 5:13 in his Bible and asked Jane, who by then had established herself as the group’s spokesperson, to read it aloud.

Taking the Bible in her hands, Jane began, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may have eternal life.” When she finished, she looked up as if to say, So what?

Mr. Gibson looked equally puzzled. Taking the Bible from her, he took a quick glance at the verse, then returning it to Jane, said, “Read it again.”

“These things I have written to you,” Jane read, “who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may have eternal life.” She continued staring at the verse, trying to figure out what Mr. Gibson thought was so significant about it.

“Try it once more,” Mr. Gibson asked.

Again Jane read 1 John 5:13, this time somewhat slower. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God”—she paused long enough to see if Mr. Gibson had any objections, and then continued—”in order that you may have eternal life.”

“You’re leaving out part of the verse.”

“I am?” Jane was baffled. An experienced teacher with eight years experience in the Catholic parochial school system, she taught reading! Now her visitor was telling her that, despite three attempts, she couldn’t get a simple sentence straight. Not easily deterred, Jane gave it another try.

“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may have eternal life.” Jane, knowing that she had read the verse the same way once more, decided not to wait to be corrected. “I don’t see it,” she complained. “What’s the problem? What am I doing wrong?”

“You’re leaving out the word know. Isn’t the word know in the verse?”

Jane took another look, and with a smile confessed, “Yes, it is. I can’t see how I could have missed it, but there it is.”

“O.K., well, read it; the whole verse.”

“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life. That is different. I see your point. I didn’t think that anyone could know that they were going to heaven.”

“Who does the verse say may know?” Mr. Gibson asked.

“You who believe in the name of the Son of God,” Jane read.

“That’s right. And do you know what it means to ‘believe in the name of the Son of God?’”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, let me show you.”

For the next 90 minutes, Mr. Gibson explained the gospel to the four Catholics. When he finished, John, Jane, Roger, and Beverly were ready to trust the Savior. We all got down on our knees, and, one by one, they each spoke to God, telling Him of their decision to repent and trust Jesus to save them.

Why Jane Can’t Read

Undoubtedly, Jane was nervous the evening she misread 1 John 5:13 four times. It is also true that the wording of the verse is somewhat awkward. But I think the main reason that she had so much difficulty reading it had to do with what the verse says. The idea that anyone could know that he or she was going to heaven was so foreign to her thinking that Jane simply skipped over that part of the verse. She read it the way she expected it to read, making it say what she believed to be true.

Like Jane, most Catholics are unsure about what will happen to them in the next life. While filming Catholicism: Crisis of Faith, a documentary examining the teachings of Ro­man Catholicism, we set up our camera outside Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York City. There we interviewed Catholics leaving Mass. We asked them how they hoped to get to heaven and whether they thought that they were going to make it.

“I sure hope so,” Jack, a Catholic from North Dakota answered.

Catherine, Jack’s wife, agreed, “I hope so too. But there will be someone else judging that.”

“Everybody hopes,” a woman from France told us. “Every Catholic hopes.”

“You don’t know what’s going to happen when you get there,” Norman, a resident of New York City, explained. “You might find a surprise waiting for you.”

Joe from Baltimore was also visiting the cathedral that day. When we asked him if he expected to go to heaven, he answered, “I hope to. Yes, I expect to. And I hope to. My wife is, I hope, up there. She died about two years ago.”

When we asked Joe whether he knew he was going to heaven, he made an important distinction. “No,” he answered. “I don’t know. But I hope to. I don’t think you know what is going on in the future. We only hope that we wind up in heaven. That’s what we strive for.”

Hoping, but not knowing, is the consensus among Catholics. The late Cardinal John O’Connor, outside whose cathedral we conducted these interviews, said as much himself.

Church teaching is that I don’t know, at any given moment, what my eternal future will be. I can hope, pray, do my very best—but I still don’t know. Pope John Paul II doesn’t know absolutely that he will go to heaven, nor does Mother Teresa of Calcutta. . . .(New York Times, February 1, 1990, B4)

I once heard a Catholic woman compare salvation to a bank account. You open the account when you are baptized. Receiving the sacraments and performing good works is like adding money to your account. Committing a venial sin takes money out. A mortal sin bankrupts your account. In order to restore it to a positive balance, you must receive the sacrament of confession. Whether you go to heaven or hell is determined by the status of your account at the moment of death. If you have money in the bank, you go to heaven. If not, you don’t. And since nobody knows what his final balance will be, no one can know where he is going until he gets there.

Rash presumption is what Rome calls believing with certainty that you are going to heaven. And right it would be if salvation were dependent, even in part, upon our own righteous deeds. Believing the promises of Scripture, however, is not presumption but faith in God. It is doing what Jane DeLisi found so difficult the night we visited her, now some twenty years ago. It is allowing the Scriptures to speak for themselves, taking God at His word, and believing what He says.

Recently, I spoke with Jane. I asked her if she still has doubts about whether she will go to heaven or not.

“No,” Jane answered without hesitation, “not since that night. I know that I believe in Jesus. I know that He died for me. I know that, if I died tonight, I would be in heaven. And that gives me great peace.”

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)

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