When a contestant named Burt Thakur won Jeopardy!, host Alex Trebek asked him, “Any family members back home cheering you on?” Thakur replied, “Here’s a true story: I grew up, I learned English because of you.” He explained: “My grandfather who raised me—I’m going to get tears right now—I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day.” Then he added, “It’s a pretty special moment for me. Thank you very much.”
The video has been viewed 5.8 million times as of this writing.
“Am I a believer?”
When Trebek died Sunday morning at the age of eighty, celebrities across the political spectrum responded with words of grief and gratitude. Stories about his intelligence, humor, and grace have led the news since his passing. We have heard less, however, about his faith.
Trebek writes in his autobiography that he was raised Catholic and attended Mass every Sunday. He and his wife sent both of their children to Jesuit schools. When he received an award from a Catholic university last January, he was undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. He said in his acceptance speech, “If there’s one thing I have discovered in the past year, it is (the) power of prayer. I learned it from the Jesuits when I was a kid, I learned it from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate when I was in boarding school.”
A year after his diagnosis, Trebek released a video in which he said that giving up his battle with cancer “would certainly have been a betrayal of my faith in God and the millions of prayers that have been said on my behalf.” After his death, the Christian humanitarian group World Vision paid tribute to his partnership with them for four decades.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t stop there.
In his autobiography, Trebek writes: “Am I a believer? Well, I believe we are all part of the Great Soul—what some call God. We are God, and God is us. We are one with our maker. How do I know this? It’s not that I know it. It’s that I feel it.” He added, “But do I pray to a specific god? Do I anticipate a particular version of the afterlife? No, I do not.”
Does New Zealand exist?
Mortality is leading the news in other ways today. On a positive note, a vaccine being developed by Pfizer Inc. proved better than expected at protecting people from COVID-19. On a negative note, a mutated variation of the coronavirus has forced more than a quarter-million people in northern Denmark into lockdown.
The ongoing pandemic raises the question every day: What happens to us when we die?
Not surprisingly, 97 percent of highly religious people believe in heaven; 91 percent believe in hell. Of those identified as “solidly secular,” only 4 percent believe in heaven; 2 percent believe in hell.
Alex Trebek said of death that we “transition into whatever future you happen to believe in.” However, what we believe about heaven and hell does not alter their existence. I can declare that New Zealand does not exist or that Mars is inhabited, but my beliefs do not affect the reality of my claims.
Why must we trust in Jesus?
Universalism is the belief that everyone goes to heaven when they die, whether they believe in God and heaven or not. However, Peter said of Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). And Jesus said of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
So-called Christian universalists have an explanation. In their view, all people go to heaven because Jesus died for their sins, whether they know or believe this or not. You don’t need to know about Jonas Salk to benefit from the polio vaccine he developed. In the same way, they claim, everyone “comes to the Father” through Jesus, whether they have personal faith in him or not.
However, Jesus also said of himself, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). We are included in the “Lamb’s book of life” only by personal faith in Jesus (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 13:8; 21:27). But at the judgment of God, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
The word of God, then, clearly teaches that we must trust in Christ to go to heaven when we die. Here is the biblical logic: Sin separates us from the holy God (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8) who is the source of life (Genesis 2:7; John 1:4), resulting in eternal death in hell (Romans 6:23; Jude 7). Because we are all sinners (Romans 3:23) who owe this debt for ourselves, we cannot pay it for someone else.
However, Jesus was the only sinless person who ever lived (Hebrews 4:15), so he alone could die in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; 1 John 2:2). If we ask him to forgive our sins and grant us salvation, he will answer our prayer and give us eternal life (John 3:16; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8).
But like all gifts, we must receive this gift for it to be ours (cf. Luke 23:42–43). Robin Williams said, “The greatest gift is the gift of life. And the greatest sin is to return it unopened.” This is even more true of eternal life.
Have you been “saved by God’s grace”?
What does our discussion mean for Alex Trebek? I do not know if he came to saving faith while attending Catholic schools or at the end of his life. I do not know if the theological relativism he describes in his autobiography reflected a confused faith or a lack of saving faith.
But I do know this: you need to ask Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Lord and Savior. (For more, see my white paper, Why Jesus?) If you have, you are called to share your faith with everyone you can, encouraging them to trust in your Savior for themselves (cf. Matthew 4:19; Acts 1:8).
And you can join the rest of us who have been “saved by God’s grace because of your faith” (Ephesians 2:8 CEB) in thanking the Father who considered our eternal life worth the crucified death of his Son (Romans 5:8).
How will you express your gratitude for such grace today?
NOTE: I’m pleased to announce the release of my newest book, Bright Hope for Tomorrow: How Jesus’ Parables Illuminate Our Darkest Days. As you explore Jesus’ parables with me, I hope you experience the strength and help he offers us in the hardest of days. Each of the parables within the book provides us a key to a life lived with purpose and cultural impact. Request your copy of our newest book today.