Questions for God: Does Everyone Get into Heaven?

Romans 5:12-21
March 27, 2011

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin.
For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A controversy has been brewing in the Christian world the past three weeks. I’d be surprised if you were aware of it, but you may have been. The controversy regards a book coming out this week by the pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan—Rob Bell. His church is a 10,000-member church that caters mainly to younger folks. The controversy is that his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, says that there is no Hell and implies that all are saved (at least that’s what the critics say—the book has yet to be published). Christians of all stripes have been blasting him, saying that his teaching is unbiblical and heretical.

The fallout from the book is spreading beyond just Bell’s circles. For example, a Methodist pastor, Chad Holtz, was fired from his church, Morrows Chapel in Henderson, NC, after posting on his Facebook page that he agreed with Bell. According to those in the know, he was probably fired for a pattern of statements that the members found objectionable. Still, the official reason he was let go was his saying that there is no Hell.

So, what do you think? Should Rob Bell be receiving so much criticism? Should Chad Holtz have lost his job? Is this a tempest in a teapot, or a controversy that strikes to the core of Christian belief?

Do you want to know what I find amazing about this controversy? It’s how adamant and angry people get about things they don’t know, haven’t experienced, and can’t prove. Nobody arguing their points has died, they are arguing over speculation—you can’t know what happens until you die. Rob Bell may be wrong, but so may his critics. When people get this angry I often wonder what their response will be at Heaven’s gates (if there are gates) when they find out they were wrong. Will they get upset and say to God, “Well, if it ain’t the way I thought it was gonna be, I don’t want in anyway”?

It’s not just Christians who argue about what happens to us when we die. People outside the Christian faith argue about it. Some argue that Christians are all wrong, and that when we die we are reincarnated. Others—atheists, mostly—argue that we’re all wrong and that Nada happens (you know,… nada—nothing). Whatever their theories, one thing is certain: everybody’s certain,… everybody’s right. And they’re convinced that everyone else is wrong.

No one seems to agree on who gets into heaven when we die. But I’m going to tell you something that most people aren’t even aware of when they argue about what happens to us when we die, especially Christians who are so certain about what happens. When it comes to the Bible and what it says about the afterlife, even the Bible doesn’t agree with itself. Most Christians think the Bible is clear on what happens after we die, but if you look at the Bible with biblical honesty, taking into account what it says and not what we think it says (and we Presbyterians, above all, believe in biblical honesty), you’ll find that the Bible has at least four divergent beliefs about the afterlife.

First, there’s the ancient Jewish view, which is a belief in a place called Sheol. If you look through the Old Testament, and especially the psalms, you’ll find mention of Sheol. Sheol is much like the ancient Greek belief in Hades. It is a misty place where people live shadowy existences. People really don’t have substance after they die. The soul goes there, but there’s not much life. The ancient Jews instead focused on life in this life, not the afterlife. They believed that this life was the one that mattered, and for as long as we were alive the drive was to live according to the Law and to get God to bless us in this life. Blessings, according to this Old Testament view, came in the form of property, wives, children, goats, and sheep. The belief was that if we lived a pure and holy life, God would bless us in the here and now.

The Sadducees also had a belief. They believed in nothing. They didn’t even really believe in Sheol. They believed that this life was all there was, and it was important to live a pure live so that God would bless us in this life. For them, purity came through observance of the Law and Temple sacrifices.

The apostle Paul had a different view of the afterlife. His belief emerged out of the beliefs of the Pharisees, which Paul was one of until his conversion. They believed in “resurrection of the dead.” We’re familiar with that term, and we have a tendency to think of it as meaning we go to heaven, but that’s not what they believed at all. Belief in resurrection was a belief in the idea that God created history with a beginning and an end, and that someday the end would come on what was called “the last day.” On that day the trumpet would sound and the messiah (for the Pharisees) or Jesus (for Paul) would return to create a new world. This belief is reflected in the Revelation of John that says that when Christ returns, a new city will come down from heaven, all pain would be gone, and God would wipe away every tear. Paul and the Pharisees believed that until that last day, the dead who are to be resurrected lie in the ground in something akin to suspended animation, and on the last day they would be given new bodies—imperishable bodies.

So what did Jesus believe? At times he seems to share in the idea of resurrection, but he also seems to express the belief that we’ve commonly come to accept, which is the idea of Heaven and Hell. For instance, in Luke 16, Jesus tells a parable about a poor man named Lazarus, who is covered with sores and vies with the dogs for scraps that come from the table of a rich man, who feasts sumptuously every day. They both die. Lazarus is in Heaven with Abraham, while the rich man is in Hell (well,… actually Hades) looking up at the other two. He begs Abraham to dip his finger in water to relieve him from the fiery torment. Abraham says no, that the abyss between them cannot be crossed. He then asks Abraham to let him return to life to warn his brothers, but Abraham tells him that if they would not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not listen to him. Looking at this parable, it seems that Jesus believes in the idea of Heaven and Hell.

Along with these four different views are different views on what gets you into whatever happens after we die. And each one seems to have a biblical backing. Some believe that God only lets in the most pure. These folks base their beliefs in Revelation in which it says that only the 144,000 who are righteous can get in. Of course, the folks who believe in this always place themselves among the 144,000, which means that they place themselves among the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of all of the 6 billion people alive today. It’s interesting how easy it is to justify ourselves, but not others.

Others believe that God lets you in if you’ve done enough good works in your life. They base this on different parts of the Bible, such as Jesus talking about separating the sheep and the goats and James saying that faith without works is dead.

Others believe that God lets some in and puts others in Hell. For Presbyterians there’s an augment to this, which we call “double predestination.” That’s the idea that God chooses, before birth, that some will go to Heaven and some to Hell. If you are chosen for Heaven, then you get to go there no matter how bad your life is. And if you are chosen for Hell, you get to go there no matter how good your life is. To be honest, you’d be hard-pressed to find many Presbyterians who still believe in this, but there are some.

Then there are others, such as Rob Bell and Chad Holtz, who suggest that because God loves everyone, and Jesus died for all of our sins, we’re all saved and let in.

All of this makes the topic of what happens after we die, as well as who gets in and who doesn’t, easy to argue about. So, what do you think the answer is? For us Presbyterians (who are good at arguing, too) the answer really comes down to one simple concept: the sovereignty of God. What does this concept mean? It means that when it all comes down to it, God gets to decide, and whatever the basis of God’s decision-making, we aren’t necessarily privy to it. When I came into our presbytery 15 years ago, I was asked (as part of my examination to become pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church) whether I believed everyone got into Heaven, or some went to Heaven and some to Hell. I told them what I truly believe, which is that God gets to decide, and God does not consult with me.

So what do I believe? I believe that the God revealed in Christ is the one who wants all of us in, but that doesn’t mean that all of us get in. I’ve spent a lot of time studying this question, but I don’t only limit myself to the Bible. I’ve also spent a lot of time reading about the afterlife, especially the accounts of people who have died, had an afterlife experience, and returned to life. You’d be surprised at how many people there are who have had these experiences. I know quite a few of them. In the past 50 years there have been a lot of books published by them.

For example, there’s a recent book by a Baptist pastor named Don Piper, who wrote the book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, which chronicles his experience of being in a horrendous car wreck in which he was pronounced dead at the scene for 90 minutes, and then resuscitated. He talks of being in a place of amazing love where there is no pain. He also says that he did not come face-to-face with God, and believes that if he had he would not have been able to return to life. There are the Life after Life books by Raymond Moody, a physician who, at the University of Virginia, spent time interviewing over a thousand people who had had experiences similar to Don Piper, what we call “near-death experiences.” Not all accounts are the same, but many are similar. And in some of those books he talks about there being a Hell, but it being a place where people go who choose to be apart from God. George Ritchie, who had a near-death experience in 1941, in which he was declared dead for twenty minutes, talked of being showed Hell by Jesus. He asked Jesus what these people had done to be consigned there. Jesus said that they were not there for punishment. They were there for love. These were people who were so corrupted by their own pride and selfish desires that they would rather live in corruption than choose God’s way. Jesus implied that many of them were so selfish and self-consumed that they weren’t aware of Jesus even if he stood next to them. They didn’t want to live eternity in God’s love. But they were given eternal lives, even if it was in Hell, with the hope that eventually they would choose God.

C.S. Lewis writes of something similar in his book, The Great Divorce. In it, people from Hell visit the outskirts of Heaven, which are beautiful fields outside of a great forest with snow-capped mountains in the distance. They are constantly invited in, but so many of them would rather live in Hell (in this case, a dingy English town) than take a chance on heaven. Lewis has a great statement about them, saying in the book, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

When it comes down to it, what I believe is that God gives everyone the opportunity to go to heaven when we die, but that we are also given the freedom to say yes or no. I believe in a God of infinite love who has an infinite desire for all to be reconciled and to be with God. I don’t agree with the idea that God gives us this possibility only in this life. I agree with George Ritchie, with the idea that God calls us constantly and eternally to say “yes,” but that there are people who would say no to God. The great 17th century poet, John Milton, captured these people when he said, in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, “It's better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”

As a result of all this, I really don’t worry that much about my family and friends, or even those I think are evil, because I believe in a loving God. I believe that when Jesus was dying on the cross and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” that same forgiving grace is extended eternally to us.

Ultimately, I believe that this loving God is in control, that God loves each and every one of us with a love we can’t imagine, and that God works eternally to bring all of us to God. God’s in control of it all, and we can trust in God’s love to take care of us and everyone else. But no one is going to be forced to live in this love.

The only question that we have to answer is this: when God gives us the opportunity after death to be with God, will we say “yes.”