Is Confucius in hell? Post Vatican II Catholics may think that we have definitely moved beyond such a question after the promulgation of Lumen Gentium (1964) which no longer excludes from salvation those "who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience" (Article 16). But the case is far from settled and can still lead to passionate debates among Chinese Protestants of different stripes.
Oversea Chinese Protestant churches and Protestant "house churches" in China are generally considered evangelical or fundamentalist. The morphology itself can present myriad challenges. It is not easy to theoretically distinguish those two terms in the Chinese context, as both groups may appear to be fundamentalist in terms of doctrine, and ordinary believers, who simply consider themselves Christians, may not even recognize such labels. One major difference is evangelicals tend to hold increasingly more assertive political and social agendas following the American religious conservative model. However, a strong fundamentalist tendency exists overall among Chinese Protestants, to the point that the word "fundamentalism" has two translations: when referring to Islamic fundamentalism, it is usually translated as yuanjiaozhi zhuyi (原教旨主义), which has a strong negative connotation; when used with Protestants, it is commonly translated as jiyao zhuyi (基要主义), a more neutral or even laudatory term for self-proclaimed fundamentalists who equate it with steadfast adherence to biblical truths. Theologically speaking, Chinese Protestants tend to be more conservative than American evangelicals such as Billy Graham, whom some consider a heretic due to his interfaith initiatives.
Those who declare that Confucius is in hell base their belief on biblical passages. Among the most frequently cited are John 14: 6 (Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"), and Acts Chapter 4: 12 (Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved). The bar for salvation for Confucius is thus set very high, requiring the chronologically impossible explicit belief in Jesus. For those who think that it is not fair to damn righteous people who were prevented from knowing Jesus by chronology, the answer is that humans are all sinners and none of us deserves God's grace anyway, Confucius no more than anybody else, because "there is no one righteous, not even one" (Roman 3:10). The most critical of them think it is a heresy even to claim that one is not sure whether or not Confucius is in hell, because it is so clear that he is, based on the correct reading of the Bible.
Some Chinese Protestants have managed to find other biblical passages that make it possible for Confucius to be saved, especially Peter 4:6 (For this is the reason the Gospel was preached even to those who are now dead), or John 5:25 (I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live). The hopeful interpretation is that since the Gospel can be preached to the dead, Confucius would have had a chance to be saved. Given that he so eagerly sought truth during his lifetime, he would have undoubtedly accepted Jesus' teachings. This view was refuted because Gandhi, a virtuous man who knew about Jesus, did not become a believer. Among people who think that Confucius has been saved, some are pious fundamentalists who adhere to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy like their detractors, but they tend to be older and culturally more attached to Confucianism. Some Protestants, especially some but not all "cultural Christians", agree with the way Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuits in late Ming and early Qing dynasties read the Chinese classics: Confucius and ancient Chinese, as descendants of Noah, knew the true God; they were neither idolatrous nor atheist. But the church-going Protestants mostly either do not know or do not care about what Catholic missionaries have written, when they do not view it with suspicion.
More cautious people refrain from judging, leaving it to God's grace and wisdom. They even allow that Confucius might be saved, but the lesson to take home is since the only sure way to salvation is through Jesus, we should preach the Gospel to as many people as possible. Why would such a question even matter? They ask. Well, it is not just about Confucius. The question translates a deep unease among Chinese non-believers or religious seekers, who find it unfair that, righteous people born before Jesus lived or was known in their locality, should be condemned to hell, while faith constitutes the sole requirement for salvation, regardless of any other personal merits. Chinese Protestants agree on the inerrancy of the Bible, but in regard to its specific interpretations, those who accuse others of heresy have not come up with coherent criteria. Some refer to the principles of five "Solas": by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, and glory to God alone. But how do those principles apply to specific cases, such as whether or not Confucius is saved? Who is to decide?
For the Chinese, whether or not Confucius is in hell is not an obscure theological question. On one hand, many Protestants aim to play a more assertive role in the public sphere. Some of them declare unsatisfactory Taiwan's model of religious freedom because Protestants there have failed to become a formidable political force in its democratic process. They also deem European democratic model too secular, and aspire instead to American political ideal as defined by American religious conservatives who believe that the country was founded on Protestant Christian idea. On the other hand, even though a significant number of Chinese have become indifferent to Confucius as a result of the May 4th Movement and especially the Cultural Revolution, most people still revere him and consider Confucianism an important part of Chinese cultural heritage. In such a context, what people think about Confucius' salvation status rightfully belongs to the public sphere.
Illustration by Bendu