In the days since Michael Jackson’s death, much has been made of his ability to build bridges. His popularity spread across cultures and demographics. Jackson’s religion—at least what we know of it—followed suit.
His parents raised him in the Jehovah’s Witness tradition, a semi-Christian sect. He was briefly married to Lisa Marie Presley, a Scientologist, and though he reportedly did some fundraising for Scientology, it’s not clear whether he ever converted to the faith. He claimed Rabbi Schmuley Boteach as a good friend, and it was the rabbi who convinced Jackson in 2000 to write a captivating essay in Beliefnet about his love of the Sabbath. Finally, in 2008, Jackson reportedly converted to Islam and began spending much of his time in Bahrain.
Should a child die before reaching the mature state, salvation is theirs. What if Jackson never reached that age of accountability?
But in the days after his death, rumors began to surface that he had become a Christian due to the influence of Gospel singers Andráe and Sandra Crouch, who are co-pastors at New Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ in San Fernando, California. Naturally, this thrilled his Christian fans—witness the thousands of comments on the Facebook page where the rumor began. The Crouches eventually debunked the conversion story, but indicated that Jackson was interested in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and prayed with them.
Clearly, Jackson held an abiding interest in spiritual things, and there was no shortage of “moonwalking in heaven” video tributes following his death. But many of his fans want an answer to the ultimate question: Where is he now? Is Michael Jackson in heaven?
On blogs on Web sites like Christianity Today, a debate is raging in earnest about whether Jackson has made it to the Promised Land. “The couple of times I saw Michael Jackson I could not surpass his genuineness and remember always feeling bad because of all the people who ridiculed him,” says one commenter, noting, “if we deeply think about it, this is exactly what people did to Jesus and Jesus helped people just as Michael did by giving to over 30 charities.” Others point to interviews Jackson gave in which he invoked the Lord’s name. “If you’re in doubt, do some research especially on his interviews with Oprah and Geraldo. He clearly indicated his faith in Christ,” urges another Jackson fan.
But still others find the very idea of Jackson residing with God repellent. “Praying a prayer and accepting Jesus ‘in our hearts.’ That is Americanized Evangelical Christianity at its worst,” writes one about what they see as Jackson’s half-hearted religiosity. “Obviously, this was all for money reasons and to play in Satan's ball field,” insists another of Jackson’s affiliation with the Crouches. “Any heaven Michael heads to is a thinly disguised hell,” asserts a third.
Most Christian pastors and scholars hesitate to give an authoritative answer. “It’s not up to me,” says Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming, a minister at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta. “I do not know the heart, mind, or spirit of Michael Jackson, nor do I know which way the wind blows. Only God can know.” Others think it’s the wrong question altogether. “Biblically, I think that those who follow Jesus are actually prohibited from definitively attempting to answer it,” says Adam Ellis, teaching pastor at North August Church of Christ in North Augusta, South Carolina.
That said, “Michael Jackson seemed to be a very troubled man, and that’s just the kind of person God has a history of taking pity on,” says Tony Jones, a theologian, blogger, and author of The New Christians. But like the others, Jones is careful to add, “I’d look askance at any religious leader who would answer that with any degree of certainty,”
God’s pity aside, Jackson exhibited behavior one doesn’t expect from the heaven-bound, from his alleged drug addictions to his accused pedophilia. Still, those don’t automatically exclude him from paradise, says Chris Seay, the pastor of Ecclesia Houston and president of Ecclesia Bible Society. “We shouldn’t be surprised to find someone like Jackson in heaven,” he says, calling attention to biblical passages like Matthew 7:21-23. “Jesus makes it most clear that we will all be surprised to see that the beautiful and upstanding people we thought were ‘locks’ for heaven did not make it in, and the people we thought hell was created for might have the largest palace on our golden street.”
Jackson’s apparent thirst for spiritual enlightenment is one thing working in his favor, says Rev. Paul Leon Ramsey, pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Englewood, Colorado. “If God is a loving parent and a benevolent creator, I can’t really see God giving eternal damnation to anyone who desired to be one with God.” And wherever he is, Ramsey says, Jackson can still choose God even now. “I don’t believe that God is confined by the same [temporal] boundaries we are. Death is not the end for God, and because God desires eternal union with us, death is not the end for us. Death is not even the end for Michael Jackson.”
Jason Poling, the pastor at New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, Maryland, brings up a unique scenario related to Jackson’s mental and emotional state. Many conservative evangelicals, trusting in the mercy of God, believe all children are automatically heaven-bound until they reach the “age of accountability”—an undefined point at which they become responsible for their own choices and morality. Should they die before reaching that mature state, salvation is theirs. What if, Poling asks, Jackson never reached the age of accountability? Jackson was only 8 years old when he began touring with the Jackson 5. From that point on, he lived an increasingly insulated life, one that seemed to strand him in a state of arrested development. “The only reason I might hope that Jackson has been accepted into God’s presence has to do with the fact that, in many ways, his life was one of perpetual, and increasingly bizarre, childhood,” he says. “If God somehow receives children before an age of accountability, it may be that he has received one of a very advanced chronological age. But I doubt it.”
Other pastors are equally doubtful. After making the usual caveat (“I did not see his heart and I am not God”), Josh King says Jackson’s public persona didn’t give him much hope of a heavenly destination. “As tragic and hurtful as it is,” he says, “Michael seemed to bear no fruit or actions that would suggest that he had a personal relationship with Christ Jesus.” King, the associate pastor to millennials at First Baptist Church in Mansfield, Texas, says the accusations and oddities of Jackson’s life aren’t the issue—the things missing from his life are the issue. “It seemed as though he had no accountability with other believers. He did not share in community with other Christ followers. He did not appear to share the message and hope of Christ with those around him.” God blessed Jackson with an undeniable platform and talent, King says, but the star failed to use those things to honor God, wasting them in pursuit of wealth, fame, and acceptance.
Derek Jacks, student pastor at Birmingham’s Rocky Ridge Church, suggests Tuesday’s memorial service also lacked evidence of Jackson’s faith. “If we take the memorial service seriously, all those there praised Michael for who he was. No one praised God for how he had worked in Michael’s life,” Jacks says. "[There was] no mention of Michael's good deeds as a response to God's grace...Michael was praised for doing all he did on his own."
Regardless of Jackson’s eternal destination, his life and death ought to lead us to introspection, says Jason Salamun, pastor at Project Church in Rapid City, South Dakota. “The death of Michael Jackson, and the recent slew of celebrity deaths, has reminded me that the end of this life ends with a comma, not a period, and to live like today’s my last day here on earth.”
Is Michael Jackson in heaven? We don’t know, and to speculate about it makes pastors uncomfortable. What we do know is that Jackson’s spiritual pedigree—like his life—seemed extremely complex. No one disputes that Michael Jackson was lost, and that he spent his life searching. The hope is that, somehow, he got found.
Jason Boyett is the author of the upcoming books Pocket Guide to the Afterlife, Pocket Guide to the Bible, and Pocket Guide to Sainthood, releasing in August from Jossey-Bass. He blogs about religion and culture at jasonboyett.com.