On Facebook the other day a friend posted a link to the poem “When I say am a Christian”. The poem was attributed to Maya Angelou. After reading the poem, I was deeply moved and just about to “share” the link. But then my eyes caught a glimpse of a “related article” by snopes.com. I clicked on the snopes’ link and to my disappointment learned that the poem was not written by the late Maya Angelou.
Now the posting from my friend was a harmless mistake. But that got me thinking, what did Maya Angelou actually believe? Did she go to heaven?
Turns out Maya Angelou was part of the Unity Church. You can watch her talk with Oprah about it here. And you can find out what the Unity Church believes here…
If you clicked on the links above, you many have noticed that what the Unity Church believes about Jesus is very different than what orthodox Christians believe about Jesus. But does that matter?
How accurate does a person’s beliefs have to be to go heaven? Or to put it another way, what exactly does a person need to believe about Jesus, in order to be saved by Jesus?
In the Bible
In the Bible, there was one person who surely had a minimal understanding of who Jesus was. Yet we know that he went to heaven. The man met Jesus the last day of his life. He was one of two criminals sentenced to death, and crucified next to Jesus.
The story takes place in Luke 23:32-43. Luke writes:
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots…39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
On the last day of his life the nameless criminal put his faith in Jesus and was promised entrance into paradise.
But what exactly did he believe about Jesus?
At the very least the criminal had three beliefs about Jesus:
1. Jesus was a sinless man sent from God– Don’t you fear God (v.40)…We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”(v.41)
2. Jesus was a king Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (v.42)
3. Jesus was able to save him –“Jesus, remember me…”(v.42)
There was a lot the criminal did not know about Jesus. He didn’t know that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity. He likely did not comprehend the duel natures of Jesus. He likely knew none of Jesus’ parables. Or Jesus’ teaching concerning the Old Testament Law.
In the moments just before his death all he knew was that Jesus was the Messiah (God’s holy “sent one”), the Lord (king over of all) and the Savior (the one who could save him from the consequences of his sin).
This was all Jesus had revealed to him. But it was enough to ignite his faith, and cause a response. It was enough for the criminal to be welcomed into heaven. (v.43)
What about Maya and us?
I don’t know if Maya Angelou believed that Jesus was the Messiah, her Lord, and her Savior. I pray she did. Because without trusting in the divine authority and saving work of Jesus, we all are like that criminal hanging next to Jesus on the cross- a condemned man about to face the judgement of God, for the sins committed against God.
But the good news is that Jesus cares about condemned criminals (like you, me, and Maya). And he is eager to invite even criminals into paradise. That’s why he has revealed himself to us as the Messiah, the Lord, and the Savior.
For if these beliefs are the only beliefs we have about Jesus, they are enough to cause our hearts to repent. Thy are enough for us to put our trust in him. And they will be enough for each of us, on the day of our death, to hear his words, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”