Fruit Inspectors

In the days following several recent celebrity deaths I observed more than a few Christians wondering out loud about eternal destiny. In Sunday morning church lobby conversations, Facebook posts, and face to face talks over soup and salad, I listened to Christians making the assumption that Michael Jackson didn’t go to heaven.

Some said it was an easy call. All one had to do was look at his life. The bizarre behavior. The out of court settlements in the face of multiple child molestation allegations. Others said there was nothing to indicate he was a believer in Christ. Never heard about him going to church. And hey, what about the apparent addictions to drugs and his obsession with plastic surgery?

Still others said there was no “fruit” in his life that would indicate he was “saved”.

For sake of discussion, let’s suppose that all these observations of Michael Jackson’s life are true.

My question is: How does any or all of that qualify you or me or anyone to arrive at the conclusion that Michael Jackson didn’t go to heaven?

I find it interesting that the Biblical truth of “man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) is easily pushed aside by Christians when they want to judge someone whose lifestyle is radically different than their own. Case in point, I didn’t hear anyone speculating about celebrity TV pitchman Billy Mays going to hell. To read the newspaper accounts in the same week, we don’t know any more about his spiritual condition than Michael Jackson’s. I guess it’s easier to make assumptions about someone who dresses weird and is accused of child molestation than it is about someone who made big money hawking OxiClean.

Does anyone, especially a Christian, really want to go there? Do we really want to put ourselves in a position to speculate, let alone say with certainty, that someone has gone to hell?

Think about it. If hell is as horrible as we think it is and heaven is as wonderful as we hope it is, why would anyone, especially Christians, work so hard to argue that someone went down instead of up?

That’s the part that stinks to me. Christians who seem bent on wanting to claim that someone went to hell based strictly on what they see or think they know. Where does that attitude come from?

What is it in us that makes us want to believe the worst instead of the best when it comes to the eternal destiny? Especially the eternal destiny of someone whose lifestyle we don’t approve? If we’re going to speculate, why not give God and Michael Jackson the benefit of the doubt? Since we can’t possibly know, why not say, “I hope Michael made his peace with God at some point in his life” instead of “There was obviously no indication that he was saved.” Wouldn’t hoping for the best be the Christian thing to do? Especially since to be genuinely “Christian” is supposed to mean being “Christ-like”? Wasn’t it Jesus who said He came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and that God’s desire is that “no one should perish” (2 Peter 3:9)?

If we desire to have the heart of Christ, this judgmental thinking makes no sense. So there must be something in it for us when we’re determined to judge in this way.

Some say quite strongly, “The Bible says, “You will know them by their fruits. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit.” (Matthew 7:16-18) Those are Jesus’ words. Except in context they have nothing to do with salvation. Jesus was warning of false prophets who “come as wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). He wasn’t talking about fruit or lack of it in one’s life as an indication of salvation.

(I know, I know…putting Bible verses in their proper and accurate context really messes up our proof-texting.)

I’ve always wondered about Christians’ desires to be “fruit inspectors”. Especially when it comes to determining one’s eternal destiny. The problems are obvious and many. Who decides how much fruit is enough? Who decides what kind of fruit is acceptable? And on the question of bad fruit, how much rottenness is enough to disqualify you? Is once in awhile sin that you confess and repent of ok? Is white lie and anger bad fruit ok as long as you ask forgiveness and don’t cross the line into drunkenness and homosexuality? What if your sin is an addiction? How much chronic sin before you’re marked with an “X” as a bad tree that gets cut down and burned up?

What if you’re doing everything right as far as you know, but the fruit inspectors from the next church over who don’t drink, smoke, cuss, chew or go with girls that do think your fruit leaves something to be desired?

When we decide to be fruit inspectors our tendency is to use the fruit on our tree as the standard of measure for everyone else. The irony is that earlier in that same chapter (Matthew 7) Jesus begins by saying, “Do not judge, lest you be judged. For whatever standard of measure you use, it will be measured to you.” In other words, if you want to hold people to a high standard, go ahead. Just remember God will use the same answer key when He evaluates you.

In wondering why we seem bent on believing the worst, is it possible that if we believe the best it takes away the pleasure we derive from judging others? If we believe another’s fruit might just be acceptable then we can’t feel superior about what’s growing on our tree.

There’s an insidious pride that can take root in the most devout Christian. We labor in holding high the standard of righteousness as we reason it to be. And if we’re not careful, in the process we end up looking down on everyone else. We begin to fruit inspect and compare sins. Comparing our sins against the sins of others is a deadly waste of time. Sin has but one degree; separation from God. The problem when we “fruit inspect” is that we confuse the consequences of sin with the degree of sin. Stealing office supplies from your employer will have different consequences than murdering someone. Yet apart from the forgiveness of Christ, the former will send you to hell just as fast as the latter. We’re all sinners and we all need Christ. Or as author and Southern Baptist preacher Will Campbell so eloquently paraphrased Romans 5:8, “We’re all bastards. But God loves us anyway.”

Bottom line truths:

Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to God but through Him. (John 14:6)

To believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is to be saved. (Acts 16:31)

No human being can know what is in the heart of another person. Ever. God is the only One who looks on the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)

No one but God knows what was in Michael Jackson’s heart. No one knows what one on one conversation the two of them may have had when he was a child. No one knows what last second prayer was or was not uttered in the final seconds of his life. No one knows but God. We would be very wise to remember that.

As to “fruit”, the thief on the cross had no opportunity to produce any. Yet Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

When I wonder about Michael Jackson, that verse gives me hope.

“It’s been said the three biggest surprises in heaven will be who’s there, who’s not there, and that you’re there.”

Todd A. Thompson – July 23, 2009

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