What do my Hindu friend, my atheist friend, and my agnostic friend have in common? Well, most recently, they have all ganged up on me wanting to know if I think they will go to heaven when they die. We have great theological conversations – three of us have known each other for almost thirty years. But they aren’t asking this question because they believe in Christ and want to spend eternity with him. They are asking because they want to know if I am bold enough to “arrogantly” (their word, not mine) exclude them from eternity. And if I am arrogant enough – that is somehow just more evidence that Jesus was not the real deal.
Many progressive Christians would simply answer this question by saying something along the lines of “All good people go to heaven because all religions are basically the same.” But I think the answer is far more complicated. First, although that sounds like a non-arrogant answer, it really isn’t. And secondly, it doesn’t capture Jesus’ complete teachings. For instance:
What does being good at anything have to do with getting into heaven? Jesus is not like Santa Claus rewarding us for good behavior. Salvation cannot be earned either by keeping a list of rules or doing a set of good works or even by believing hard enough.
Are all religions the same? No! We don’t even answer the same questions. “How do I achieve nirvana?” is not the same question as “Am I going to heaven?” And isn’t it just as arrogant for me to claim that all religions (ignorantly) really worship my God when they don’t claim that for themselves?
Furthermore, while it is true that modern Christianity has focused on getting everyone a ticket into heaven, that is not the question Jesus was even answering. Christianity does not answer the question “Who is going to heaven when they die?” It answers the question, “How can I align with Christ to do the work of God this day and forever more?”
Demanding that I answer whether they are going to heaven when they die is like demanding an ultra sound give them a blood analysis. Deciding who is in and who is out is not my job. However, I promised them I would try and answer the question best I can from what scripture does tell me… so here is my answer…
Scripture testifies to a time when humanity was in a right relationship with God and each other. We were whole in this relationship – free to love God, others, and ourselves unconditionally. It was an intimate and fulfilling relationship all around. Then humanity decided we could do better on our own without God and in doing so we broke creation and ourselves. We became diseased, violent, destructive, selfish, etc – all the things that sin is made of. We were no longer whole. We could no longer love God, others, or ourselves unconditionally.
But the good news is that going our own way did not break God. God still loved us unconditionally.
Humanity immediately began searching for what we once had. We found that God was still there reaching out to us, but our hearts (like creation) were broken and unable to fully accept the love God wanted to give us. Without God’s love filling our hearts, we were unable to unconditionally love God, each other, or ourselves. This resulted in a lot of rule following and sacrifices hoping to be made right before God. But neither the rules nor the sacrifices worked. Our hearts were still broken, we still committed selfish acts, and we were always making one more sacrifice hoping God would be happy with us.
Then the prophets started to speak of the Christ – God coming to us. This would be a whole new way of living. No longer would we follow a set of rules to try and make God happy. Instead this Christ would make it possible for the Spirit of God to live within us and guide us. No longer would we make sacrifices to impress God. The Christ would be the one and only sacrifice for us. In his sacrifice our hearts would be healed so we could once again hold – not only the love of God – but the Spirit of God.
And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)
Christ came, Christ died, Christ rose again, and Christ sent the Holy Spirit to live within us. It is by this Spirit living within us that we can follow him and serve God. Following Jesus has nothing to do with a set of rules, a set of good works, or a right theology. In fact, one of the only things the early Christians agreed upon was the resurrection. Following Christ has everything to do with letting the Spirit of God live within us – providing us with love, wisdom, and power to do the work of God. This is a completely new way of life.
Christianity isn’t about getting a ticket to heaven, it is about the Spirit of God living within me so that I can follow Christ. “Are you going to heaven when you die?” is the wrong question to ask me. All I can say is that God can (and will) do whatever God wants.
The right question to ask me is: “How do I receive the Spirit of Christ so that I can follow him?” The answer is that God will not force the Spirit upon you. But it is given to all who genuinely want to follow Christ to do the work of God. I can’t tell you if you are going to heaven or not. But I can tell you how to start following Jesus today and for eternity. I can tell you that your life will never be the same again. And I would really enjoy following Jesus with you. It is an amazing journey.
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