PBS just released another one of filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary masterpieces, this time on the life of Muhammad Ali, the larger-than-life heavyweight boxing champion. As an admirer of Ali, I enthusiastically binge-watched the whole four-part series on the man who described himself as “The Greatest.”
I was again reminded of how tragically mistaken Ali was about the most critically important issues of life, particularly concerning the afterlife and how a person reaches heaven.
Ali was fond of suggesting that all religions lead to eternal life, using the example of there being many “containers” of water on earth (lakes, rivers, streams, oceans, etc.) and yet they are filled with (the same) water.
While clever, his illustration ignores the fact that the water in such bodies can be brackish, polluted, salty, stagnant, poisoned, etc.
“Jesus replied to her (the Samaritan woman at the well), ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water … whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never be thirsty; but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.”
And in the very last pages of the Bible, in Revelation 22:1-2, we are given a vision of Heaven, centered upon this living water, “And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
Ali had fallen for the oldest trick in the book that, “any old religion will do just as long as you believe it.” That’s like a dying COVID-19 patient saying, “I don’t care what you give me, just give me something.”
Silly. Physical diseases are specific and so are the meds to cure them. The spiritual disease of sin is specific and only the blood of Christ will cure it.
As he got older, Ali reflected upon his life and revealed a deep uncertainty about his eternal destination, based upon a flawed understanding of how a person “makes it” to heaven.
He believed that, at death, the angels calculate the algebraic sum of the bad things you have done versus the good things you have done, and IF the result is positive, you “get in,” otherwise you don’t. He believed that your eternal destiny hinges on your personal merits and demerits (the Bible refers to these things as “works”), explaining that “service here (works) is the rent you pay for a room in heaven.”
Witty but totally unbiblical.
No one gets to heaven on “their own recognizance.” They need a Savior other than themselves — one who has the merits that count in the heavenly courts.
Jesus put it this way in John 14:1-6, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms; if that were not so, I would have told you, because I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I am coming again and will take you to Myself, so that where I am, there you also will be … I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.”
The Apostle Paul thoroughly debunked the notion of personal merit entering into the salvation equation by declaring, in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
Clearly, we are not saved BY good works, we are saved FOR them.
How About You?
While a great civil rights influencer and amazing athlete, Ali should have stayed in his own lane and not advised people on how to get to heaven. Such things were above his pay grade.
If you are a believer, stop focusing on YOUR merits and, as written in 1 Peter 1:18-20, “know that you were … redeemed … with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.”
— D.C. Collier is a Bible teacher, discipleship mentor and writer focused on Christian apologetics. A mechanical engineer and Internet entrepreneur, he is the author of My Origin, My Destiny, a book focused on Christianity’s basic “value proposition.” Click here for more information, or contact him at email@example.com. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.