Over the years, I have many times tried to discuss my faith with non-Christians. That is not to say that I try to compel anyone to believe; to my mind and heart there is no good purpose to trying to force someone to believe as you do; it is going to fail most of the time and only breed resentment, and if by some chance you do compel someone to accept your beliefs, that only means that someone stronger and meaner can and will convert them, which sort of explains militant Islam. But anyway, my point there is that while we Christians are commissioned to spread the Gospel and bear witness to Christ’s authority, we must do so in the same way He taught; through love and work and no end of patience. That includes interaction and debate with non-Christians. Frankly, a lot of people get offended very easily and the discussion quickly becomes a bitter argument. I have had trouble letting go of such conflicts, but in the main I think we must let go of anyone who is not willing to have a civil discussion. I hasten to note that Christians are just as prone to show offense and bitterness as non-Christians in these exchanges, so it’s not as if being a believer makes us more persuasive, or even more open-minded. Just something we all, I included, should think about.
But when a discussion does get going, one thing which commonly comes up is the question of Heaven and Hell. Aside from whether God exists and what He is up to should He be real, non-Christians are frequently upset by the notion that some people go to Heaven while others go to Hell. Two alternative suggestions are frequently offered; that everyone meets the same fate, or that everyone should be judged solely on the work they did – that everyone gets what they deserve, no more and no less. For some time I had trouble answering why those alternatives would not work, but I had a strong sense that they were false possibilities. This post addresses those contentions, and tries to explain why the Christian Heaven is the best hope for us all.
I begin with a quick overview of how God has made things. I do not presume to state this as an absolute fact, but rather as my comprehension of things, and so any flaw in the reasoning does not disqualify God, but would be only my own embarrassment. I have always accepted the existence of Good and Evil in the world, as I think nearly all people do. So far as I can see, Evil is a natural condition, in that a person who is strong may come to do as he pleases because no one can stop him, or a person who finds an advantage may use it for his own benefit without a thought about who that action harms. Goodness, on the other hand, is an unnatural condition, as it often directs a person to act in a way which helps others and costs him; it is inconvenient, personally difficult, and frankly not very common in human behavior. Poverty, for example – it seems that there are plenty of resources for food, shelter, and clothing to help those who do not have enough, were everyone to pitch in. Yet throughout History there has never yet been a time where everyone, or even the majority, did so. Some people are clearly good, more seem to be bad, and the majority just goes along without being really very good or very bad. Judge it as you will, that’s been the way of things for all of human record. So why do some people choose to be good, and why do we all profess to love goodness? I believe that is the reflection of God, His love for us showing through that goodness which is done, against all self-interest and the nature of the world. The bad things are a combination of the world we know, the environment in which we are taught, and our own personal choices. While many people mock the idea, it is apparent to me that God allows us free will in our lives. Some mock that idea because they have to face limits at all, but the fact remains that we all have a range of choice in how we face things. And choices have consequences.
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So, with that in mind, we look at the first contention, that everyone gets the same thing. For the annihilationists, we die and that’s all. For others, we all go to Heaven, no matter who we are or what we did. And there are a great many beliefs in between, but the point is there are many groups which believe that – in the end – nothing matters. To me, that is a horrible thought! The idea that the generous man does no better than the greedy man, that the rapist or murderer who is clever enough to never get caught will not pay for his crimes, that in the end we might as well do as we like in this world because there is no real distinction between the good man and the evil one, is to me a truly abominable idea. And I think at the heart of us all, we do not accept such a contention as valid.
The second contention initially appears to be just and fair; everyone gets what they deserve. The problems there, however, come from the fact that everyone fails in some way and at some time; such a system would lock out virtually everyone from the best rewards, and no matter how just it may appear at first glance, it does not accept that people can and do change, and so a person who does well early in life but turns to evil, may be rewarded while a man who regrets the wrongs he has done and tries to make amends, may be punished for it. And even where the consequences of works are fair and just, a system which relentlessly counts every act, word and thought will inevitably separate people from each other – when every moment of a lifetime is chalked into a column, no one is truly the same as anyone else anymore, instead the world devolves into the chaos of absolute disparity, and on the eternal level a system of unleavened justice would mean a universe barren of compassion and mercy, and ultimately banning hope. It is a system which inevitably consigns everyone to hell.
So what to do? The maltheists contend that God hates us, the atheists contend that such a possibility precludes His existence, and even the most devout Christian must wonder what purpose there is, that evil is allowed to exist and indeed flourish. And that brings me to the third heaven. I use that phrase because I have sneaking suspicion that this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he referred to the “third heaven”. Heaven ultimately belongs to God its maker, and for all the arrogance of Man that God must give up His realm because we say so, it is God who designed, built, and maintains the sovereign realm of eternal joy. While the Lord created both good and evil, He made good for a good purpose and evil to allow us our choice. No one is compelled to sin, because sin always requires the choice to act against the right. And the notion that evil may be tolerated on the eternal scale, much less rewarded, is dispelled even before a man enters the Courts of God’s Judgment. There are indeed consequences to every choice, and God is not poor in memory on that day. Yet it must also be understood that the Lord is merciful as well as just, compassionate as well as holy, and He knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. In the end, the choice everyone makes is simple – they are either reconciled with God or choose eternal enmity. Heaven is not the same for everyone, yet neither is it closed to all but an exclusive few. The aspects of Heaven are the same as every good aspect of the world we know, save those which are holy to the Lord. What I mean, is that there is no good thing in this world which will not be found in Heaven, but in Heaven even the good is perfected, and that includes people.
This brings up the prospect of Hell. A lot of people dismiss Hell as a fairy tale used to scare folks into behaving or staying with the church, and to be sure some folks have done that kind of thing. But Jesus warned people about Hell more often than He made promises about Heaven, and He was clear about its danger and the need to make every effort to avoid Hell. Some folks dismiss Hell as a temporary condition, until our sins are – I suppose – burned out of us or we have otherwise satisfied the debt. The problem there, is that I never saw a mention in Scripture about people finishing their punishment in Hell and then going to Heaven; the decision was always final one way or the other. That makes a kind of sense, since it would be inconsistent to say that one choice has eternal consequences and another does not. But people also argue at length that a system which produces eternal punishment for even a momentary offense cannot be just. I don’t really buy that argument too far, because there are acts a person can commit in a very short time which permanently change other people’s lives or end them. But I am concerned, because as I mentioned earlier everyone I know has sinned one place or another, and it seems difficult to comprehend anyone going to Heaven on the basis of what they deserve, which in turn makes it difficult to imagine a human deserving Hell. And what’s more, while we Christians all confess our sins, we often repeat some of them, either out of weakness, a bad habit we have trouble breaking, or worst, we like that sin and are reluctant to really give it up. From that perspective, it seems hypocritical indeed to suggest that just being Christian gets you into Heaven, while even a nearly perfect life of goodwill and compassion would not help you if you are not Christian. The Bible seems to say the same, reminding us of non-Jews who pleased God in various places, and non-Christians whose faith impressed Jesus.
That jumbled paragraph before was my poor attempt to consider a possibility I think may happen – on the day when we stand before God, all evil will be destroyed. All that is good will be taken into Heaven. Whether we go to Heaven or Hell, then, will depend on whether our heart and desire were with the good works or the bad, whether we are aligned with goodness or clung to a badness we enjoyed. If that is so, the proper role of the Christian is to help people see what they cling to, especially our fellow Christians, so that they do not suffer for the old ways, but pursue what is truly right and good, and so enter the Third Heaven with a joyful spirit and a full heart.