Who goes to heaven?
This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
One of the strangest and, unfortunately, most common ways of trying to convert someone to the Christian faith is telling them that unless they convert to Christianity, they are going to go to hell.
If we can bracket for just a moment whether or not that sort of an idea is an accurate articulation of Christian theology, just take a step back and imagine what it sounds like. You are saying that the God you worship is going to send everyone else in the world to an eternity of damnation except for those who decide they like this God and want to spend eternity with this God in heaven. It makes your deity sound like some kind of cosmic supernatural being with a profound ego complex. It certainly does not sound like a loving creator of the universe, at least to me.
So, this week on Christian Mythbusters I’d like to break the myth that Christians know who is and who is not going to heaven.
The reason I phrase it like that is because the first thing we need to acknowledge is that none of us really know who is and who is not going to heaven. Jesus was clear in the gospels that at the end of time a lot of people who thought they were worshiping God will discover they didn’t actually do a good job taking care of their neighbor and so they are goats, not sheep, they are sent to the “other place.” Similarly, a lot of people who didn’t think they were religious but took good care of their neighbors are told that at the end they were actually sheep all along, even though they didn’t know it, and so they are invited into eternal joy and rest. Point being, we apparently don’t do a good job knowing whether or not we are actually faithfully following God—and if you are religious, the odds are even stacked against you!
But,, the deeper problem with the idea that you know who is going to heaven and who is is going to hell, is that this supposition usually falls into one of two different ways of sorting it out.
The first approach is the idea that everyone who is basically good goes to heaven and that everyone who is basically bad goes to hell. This idea has some merit, it’s kind of what Jesus says in the parable of the sheep and the goats I just mentioned. Indeed, this is an idea that’s common for people who aren’t even that religious, but who think they are pretty good people. “I’m not, like, Hitler,” they might say, “Surely I would go to heaven.”
The difficulty with this view is that it’s hard to know where the line would be drawn. What is the difference between basically good and good enough to get eternal salvation versus eternal damnation. No matter how you draw the line, it starts looking rather arbitrary. And, of course, though most people are probably basically good, none of us are perfect. In the end, we will all need forgiveness, mercy, and grace from God to get into heaven.
Which brings me to the other approach people use when they trying to figure out who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. We are not saved by works, none of us is perfect, we all need God’s forgiveness. Yes. But, where this gets squirrely is when people start setting the standards by which God will forgive you for what you do wrong and welcome you home. The most common view in American Christianity is that to go to heaven you have to believe in Jesus. Everyone who believes in Jesus is saved.
The problem with this view, however, is that it means whether or not you go to heaven depends primarily on where you were born and into what family. After all, the vast majority of Christians are members of the church because they happened to be born into a pre-dominantly Christian geographical area or an already Christian family. Very few Christians went on a spiritual quest or entered into an exploration of all religions and then chose the church. Once more, this being the standard makes God seem rather… capricious.
I prefer the approach in the early church called “apokatastasis.” That fancy word is a Greek word used in Acts 3, when Peter preaches, saying that what Jesus was doing as the Messiah was leading us to “the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.” Paul talks about it in Ephesians 1, where he says that the mystery of God’s will revealed in Christ is “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
That’s why, for me at least, I think it’s best not to guess who gets to go to heaven and who gets to go to hell. Heck, maybe even, given eternity and God’s love, hell itself will be redeemed and all in it made whole and welcomed home. In the end, I believe that God’s goal, God’s desire, is to draw all things together in God’s love… the only question is whether or not I want to be a part of that.
That means I’m not a Christian so God will let me go to heaven. I'm a Christian because I believe Jesus is the manifestation of God’s love for this world, that his resurrection is the triumph of love over hatred and violence and discrimination. I’m a Christian because I want to be a part of what God’s love is doing in this world. I want to welcome what God’s love is doing in my own life.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.