A recent theologically heavy interview between John Piper and Rick Warren provided some insight into Warren's beliefs about salvation and eternity.
And with Warren being arguably the most publicly influential pastor in the world, it's appropriate that the public knows what the Saddleback Church espouses about eternal life.
Firstly, the author of The Purpose Driven Life affirmed in the interview with Piper – a Reformed theologian – the belief that Jesus is the way to salvation.
"Jesus said no one comes to the Father but by me. I (Jesus) am the way; not a good way, not the best way, not one of the ways, not a nice way. I am the way, the truth and the life."
Warren didn't back down on that biblical truth even when he was asked about it publicly several years ago by a Jewish woman who didn't accept Jesus, he recalled.
"Everything in my human nature wants to backpedal and make it safe and make it comfortable and say the politically correct thing. But I can't do that because I fear God's disapproval more than I fear hers," he said. "And I also love her enough to tell her the truth."
The bestselling author backed the theological doctrine of total depravity, that is that no one is able to choose to be saved apart from the prevenient grace of God.
Warren, however, prefers to call it "total inability."
"You don't have the power to make those good choices. Your will's broken and I cannot choose to do the things that I want to do," he said.
He agreed with Piper, who put depravity this way: "totally unable to get my salvation started."
"I totally believe that," Warren affirmed. "I just go back to Scripture – and that not of yourselves."
Along the same lines, he affirmed the notion that those who have not accepted Christ, or the nonbelievers, are doing the bidding of the devil.
"What I believe is my righteousness are as filthy rags. My goodness is not good enough. ... If you want to judge yourself by Hitler, sure, you're better than Hitler.
"But we've all fallen short of the glory of God which is a perfect standard."
The two pastors touched on the notion of unconditional election - that God can and does choose who will be saved before the foundation of the world.
While embracing that doctrine, Warren also said he believes in "whosoever will may come," or that anyone who calls on God and accepts Jesus can be saved.
Though the two sound contradicting, the Saddleback pastor said he believes in both.
Piper asked, "You don't think that they ever contradict each other?"
"I do not," Warren responded. "I think any apparent contradiction in Scripture is my limited capacity. Me trying to understand God is like an ant trying to understand the Internet. I don't have the brain capacity."
Explaining his views on another seemingly contradictory set of beliefs, he agreed that Christ died for the church, or the elect, and that those he died for will not go to hell. At the same time, he affirmed John 3:16 and stressed that God is not willing that any shall perish.
"I think He wants people to be saved."
While affirming the sovereignty of God, the megachurch pastor emphasized that people are free to choose. "He wanted us to choose to love Him. I believe that. Love is a choice. I believe that ... if I’m forced to love you then I don’t know that I’ve really loved you."
Heaven and Hell
Heaven and hell are both real places, Warren stated.
"I don't believe it (heaven) is a state of being. I believe it is a real place."
"I do know I'm going to heaven," he said. "To me, what matters most is I'm going to be with Jesus and I'm going to be in his presence."
In heaven, he said, there will be reuniting, rewards, and reassignment - if you have been faithful in little things He will trust you with much. There, the people will worship, fellowship, serve, and grow to be more like Him.
Life on earth is preparation for the next, he said. "This is the warm-up, this is the dress rehearsal, this is the ... first lap around the track before the real race begins."
"God wants us to practice on earth what we’re going to do forever in eternity," he highlighted.
When pressed on his beliefs about the new heavens and the new earth, Warren admitted that he hasn't studied it deeply and was thus leaving open "whether we wind up on the new earth," as Piper expressed.
"So you don't think that say the PEACE Plan (Warren's global initiative aimed at tackling the major problems in the world) or the labors to make life better here is going to be a continuity of improvement that goes into a kingdom on earth?" Piper asked.
Warren immediately responded, "I'm definitely not postmillennial. And I do not believe in bringing the Kingdom by human means, in no sense of the matter. Now, I do believe that the Kingdom of God is present wherever Jesus is King (including your heart)."
Tackling the tough subject of hell, Warren denied being a universalist.
"I believe in a literal hell. Jesus believed in a literal hell," he stated. And once you're in, you can't get out, he affirmed.
While expressing belief in the flames and fire that Jesus talked about when describing hell, Warren added, "To me, hell is an eternal separation from God. It's ultimate loneliness. This myth that people are going to see each other in hell, that they're going to party in hell ...
"It is unloving to not tell people the truth when you know it's there."
The interview turned slightly emotional when Warren began listing the number of people who will die without knowing Christ.
"I'm an evangelist. And I'm motivated by the fact that in the next 365 days, 136,000 Californians will die and most of them will go into an eternity without Christ. In the next 365 days, 2.5 million Americans will die. Most of them will go into eternity without Christ. In the next 365 days, 74 million people in the world will go into eternity without Christ and without hope."
"I can't live with that," he said as he held back a few tears. "My love compels us to care about that."
Regarding the eternal destiny of those who have never heard of Jesus, Warren indicated that their eternal destination would be hell.
"Jesus made it really clear: Go into all the world and make disciples ... time after time again. If you can be saved without Christ, missions is a crock."