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Is Martin Luther King Looking Down from Heaven?

Category Articles
Date February 11, 2015

To answer my own question, I hope so. I very much hope so.

I am not a fan of hell. I bow to God’s sovereign wisdom and justice, but I wish there were no hell. I wish that every life were sooner or later redeemed, set free from the scourge of sin, and released from the eternal judgment that follows sin. I don’t want to go to hell, and I don’t want anybody else to go there.

I hope that Dr. King now rests in peace and will rise to glory. He was in many respects a great man who did good and important things not only for Black people but for the whole country. The thought of his being anywhere other than in heaven and waiting to share in Jesus’s resurrection to eternal life is one I don’t like to contemplate.

Yesterday1 the Reformed African American Network published A Dream Conferred: King Day Reflections by John C. Richards. Mr. Richards has a B.A. from Morehouse College, a J.D. from Howard University, and a M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary. He blogs at

Mr. Richards seems to have no doubt that Dr. King whom he describes as ‘one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century’ (true if by preacher ones means homiletician and/or orator) is ‘looking over heaven’s balcony’ at us. Reflecting on Dr. King’s sermon ‘The Drum Major Instinct’ (the desire to be first, to be the leader), Mr. Richards writes of King:

He marched to the beat of the One from whom every family in heaven and in earth derives its name. He marched to the beat of the Drummer in whom all things are held together. He marched to the beat of the Great Different Drummer.

However, there are reasons it is necessary to be concerned about Dr. King’s eternal destiny (which should have nothing to do with our evaluation of his civil rights legacy). I do not refer to Dr. King’s marital infidelities. Dr. King would not be the first Christian or the only preacher in heaven whose life contained large moral inconsistencies. Nor am I overly concerned for his misunderstanding of the relation of Gandhi and Jesus:

Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale . . .

His belief that Gandhi worked out in practice ‘the love ethic of Jesus’ is an error, but not one that would exclude from heaven. Moreover, we can be thankful that he employed Gandhian non-violence as his method of protest and gaining of rights:

It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform . . . the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.

It is not either of these issues, but Dr. King’s theological beliefs, that give me grave concerns about him. In his writings as a student Dr. King did not just question but denied outright basic tenets of historic Christian orthodoxy such as the virgin birth, the eternal Sonship, the atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the second coming.

On the virgin birth:

First we must admit that the evidence for the tenability of this doctrine is to shallow to convince any objective thinker. To begin with, the earliest written documents in the New Testament make no mention of the virgin birth. Moreover, the Gospel of Mark, the most primitive and authentic of the four, gives not the slightest suggestion of the virgin birth. The effort to justify this doctrine on the grounds that it was predicted by the prophet Isaiah is immediately eliminated, for all New Testament scholars agree that the word ‘virgin’ is not found in the Hebrew original, but only in the Greek text which is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for ‘young woman.’ How then did this doctrine arise?

A clue to this inquiry may be found in a sentence from St. Justin’s First Apology. Here Justin states that the birth of Jesus is quite similar to the birth of the sons of Zeus. It was believed in Greek thought that an extraordinary person could only be explained by saying that he had a father who was more than human. It is probable that this Greek idea influenced Christian thought.

A more adequate explanation for the rise of this doctrine is found in the experience which the early christians had with Jesus. The people saw within Jesus such a uniqueness of quality and spirit that to explain him in terms of ordinary background was to them quite inadequate. For his early followers this spiritual uniqueness could only by accounted for in terms of biological uniqueness. They were not unscientific in their approach because they had no knowledge of the scientific. They could only express themselves in terms of the pre-scientific thought patterns of their day.

On eternal Sonship:

The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental . . . the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. The significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers. The appearance of such a person, more divine and more human than any other, and in closest unity at once with God and man, is the most significant and hopeful event in human history. This divine quality or this unity with God was not something thrust upon Jesus from above, but it was a definite achievement through the process of moral struggle and self-abnegation.

On the atonement:

Any doctrine which finds the meaning of atonement in the triumph of Christ over such cosmic powers as sin, death and Satan is inadequate . . . If Christ by his life and death paid the full penalty of sin, there is no valid ground for repentance or moral obedience as a condition of forgiveness. The debt is paid; the penalty exacted, and there is, consequently, nothing to forgive.

On the resurrection:

The last doctrine in our discussion deals with the resurrection story. This doctrine, upon which the Easter Faith rests, symbolizes the ultimate Christian conviction: that Christ conquered death. From a literary, historical, and philosophical point of view this doctrine raises many questions. In fact the external evidence for the authenticity of this doctrine is found wanting. But here again the external evidence is not the most important thing, for it in itself fails to tell us precisely the thing we most want to know: What experiences of early Christians lead to the formulation of the doctrine?

On the second coming:

It is obvious that most twentieth century Christians must frankly and flatly reject any view of a physical return of Christ . . . actually we are celebrating the Second Advent every time we open our hearts to Jesus, every time we turn our backs to the low road and accept the high road, every time we say no to self that we may say yes to Jesus Christ, every time a man or wom[a]n turns from ugliness to beauty and is able to forgive even their enemies . . . The final doctrine of the second coming is that whenever we turn our lives to the highest and best there for us is the Christ.

At least in his student days Dr. King held typically liberal theological views. Did he change them? Some say he came to see neo-orthodoxy as a needed corrective to liberalism. Others say that in his latter years he identified increasingly with the sufferings of Jesus. Jim Wallis, the evangelical progressive social activist, apparently believes that King’s theology developed in a more conservative direction:

His theological liberalism was not an adequate foundation for what he would face later…I would argue that the more deeply one moves in the struggle for social justice … personal faith becomes more important.

However, one writer who interviewed the professor to whom Mrs. King entrusted the early writings of Dr. King says:

Dr. Clayborne Carson, a world-renowned King scholar and director of the King Papers Project at Stanford, told me that he had not seen any documentary evidence of a later shift in King’s thinking from his early views on Christian doctrines. He also said King may have found creative ways to avoid expressing his unorthodox views, as he was trained in a liberal seminary but served a Baptist congregation.

I agree with both William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan who favoured a King holiday. It is important especially to Black people to have a day set aside for the celebration of the Black man who led their 20th-century quest for personal dignity and equality of rights. Dr. King need not be a Christian believer to secure his place in history and in the American pantheon of heroes.

I wish that Christians did not feel the necessity of doing the equivalent of the funeral practice of ‘preaching him into heaven.’ There is no necessity for the clergyman officiating at a funeral to determine what a person was or was not in this life or where he is or is not in the world to come. Read the service, preach the homily, commit the body to the earth and the soul to God. Leave it at that.

Dr. King is a hero like all others – admirable in some ways, flawed in others. He is in the hands of a merciful God from whom we hope he, as we, will receive mercy.

But let’s be truthful. You don’t raise questions about police brutality by claiming Mike Brown was an unarmed teengager with his hands up trying to surrender when an out of control white cop killed him. You don’t make Martin Luther King greater by diminishing Lyndon Johnson. And you don’t make Dr. King a Christian leader by overlooking what he said he believed.


  1. January 19, 2015 – Martin Luther King Jr Day. It is a federal holiday in the United States, held on the third Monday of January to mark King’s birthday (15 January).

William H. Smith of Covenant Reformed Episcopal Church, Roanoke, Virginia, blogs at The Christiam Curmudgeon.

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