Jesus said to him (Thomas), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6, NASB)
In April of 2002 I left the guest house where I was staying in Calcutta, India, and boarded a west bound train for the northern city of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh. Unable to purchase a ticket in sleeper class, I was forced to ride in coach class where multitudes of people were already sitting on the floors, standing in the aisles, and hanging out the doors. The only seat available to me was in the luggage rack seven feet off the ground. Crammed between suitcases and sweaty local travelers, I sat cross-legged with my head bent and pressed against the ceiling. Due to the poor ventilation and rising body heat from the people sitting below me, my clothes were quickly saturated with sweat and stuck to my body.
Although it still seems hard to believe, I did not leave that luggage rack for over 18 hours, during which time I ate only one slice of bread and drank roughly one liter or water. Whatever liquid I consumed was apparently passed through perspiration and respiration, because not once did I feel the need to look for a toilet on the train (clearly a blessing in itself from what I had heard). In the early morning hours, being overcome with exhaustion, I finally fell asleep, only to wake two hours later in the arms of a smelly, barefoot traveler, whose sweaty head was resting against mine. Thankfully he too was asleep, and did not appear to notice when I gently moved him over to the shoulder of the man resting on his other side. Later that morning I was given a spot on the bench seat below, and I remained seated there until we finally arrived in Varanasi.
After disembarking from the train, I battled my way through a horde of local swindlers waiting in the station for gullible foreigners like me from whom they could extract money. Crowds gathered around and shouted that they would give me a very cheap taxi ride since I was a special guest in their country and that they would take me to the best hotel in India since I had been on such a long journey. Nonetheless, I found a hotel on my own near the Ganges River, took an ice cold shower, and spent the rest of the day rehydrating.
The next morning, I walked from the hotel where I was staying down to the west bank of the Ganges River, there I saw what I had travelled so far to see. Pillars of smoke were rising from bodies being burned. I watched as lifeless body after lifeless body, wrapped in colorful cloth and fine garments, disappeared into a mound of ash, only to then be placed into the river. A local man approached and explained that these cremation ceremonies were final attempts by friends and family to guarantee salvation for the deceased. I stood and watched as other bodies, the bodies of pregnant women, children, Sadhus, people bitten by cobras or infected with small pox, were carried onto the river in large boats, and weighed down with heavy rocks, then pushed overboard.
The cultural funeral customs observed that day were interesting indeed, but the most astonishing part of my journey was not the cremations or funeral ceremonies. It was what remained quietly hidden in the background, on the outskirts of all the ritual smoke and ceremonial allure. It was the people who had traveled to Varanasi and were waiting to die. Many of those “pilgrims” as they were called had travelled to Varanasi many years earlier, believing that their final good work of dying in the “holiest Hindu city” and being “sent off through the most sacred river,” would guarantee them a higher rebirth in the eternal lifecycle of reincarnation or “samsara.” Sitting along the banks of the river, some people had been waiting to die for over a decade, living as beggars for their daily sustenance, believing their deaths were days away. As if waiting for a train to nowhere, these people were hoping to die quickly in order to move on to the next stop on their way to an eternal paradise.
The liberal theorist and British philosopher Thomas Hobbes correctly said that “hell is truth seen too late.” Like those people leaving this life at Varanasi, many people are finding out the truth too late. Much like these, they are like the misguided believers at Varanasi. Many will breathe their last breaths and leave this earth without ever knowing the way, the truth and the life that is Jesus Christ (John 14:6, NASB). Dwight Moody once said “I cannot preach on hell unless I preach with tears” and there must certainly be compassion in the way this story is told. But the Bible makes it clear that every soul that departed from Varanasi without knowing and trusting in Jesus Christ as his or her Savior, never made it to the heaven they were so eagerly hoping for.
The same is true for people in the United States today. Many people in our local churches, go through the motions but do not truly know Jesus. They, too, will not enter the kingdom of God. With that in mind, let those of us who do know the way, the truth and the life that is Jesus Christ, share the joy and certainty of salvation with others, that others also may enter the kingdom of heaven.