Will we all get to heaven?
These days people are not as concerned about salvation as they used to be. Some Christians worry whether their unbelieving family and friends will go to hell. But most people do not really believe in hell any more. They just hope that when they die, they will go to heaven, that God, who made them and perhaps loves them, will welcome them with open arms.
For those who take the New Testament seriously, however, it is not so simple. Nowhere does it say that everyone will go to heaven. On the contrary, it insists that some will be in and others will be out. In which case, the question of who gets in and who does not is quite an important one.
St Paul had a lot to say about the Last Days. His theory encompassed the salvation of the natural world, of history and of the individual, as I shall explain shortly. Unfortunately today, nearly two thousand years after he wrote, his expectations have not been fulfilled and do not really seem plausible.
Philosophers have long wondered, if God made the world, why is there so much pain, suffering and even death? St Paul knew that according to Genesis ch.3, all these, together with “thorns and thistles,” were inflicted on humans as punishment for their sins, symbolised in the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Indeed punishment for sin is a major theme of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 28:15-68 Moses clearly spells out the horrific suffering in store for those who fail to obey God’s laws.
St Paul, steeped in Jewish tradition as a former Pharisee, was also familiar with a sacrificial system as a means of assuaging God’s wrath against sinners. It is not surprising, therefore, that he regarded the crucifixion of the perfect man Jesus as a perfect sacrifice, that would reconcile God and humanity for ever. He explains his theory clearly in Romans. For instance Romans 5:18: “just as the result of one trespass [Adam’s] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ sacrifice] was justification that brings life for all men.”
If, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, God was now able to forgive humans for their sins, St Paul expected that he would withdraw his punishment of pain and suffering, decay and death, for their sins. For instance in Romans 8:21 he writes of his “hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” And elsewhere he adds, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (I Corinthians 15:.26). He saw Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as a sign of the new order of things to come. Thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, St Paul believed that paradise would be restored with the creation of new heavens and a new earth. Natural evil would be done away with.
But what about those who refuse to accept God’s sovereignty? St Paul was familiar Old Testament passages about God’s plan to send a Messiah to clear the wicked from the land before he created new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65), and he assumed that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would do this. In I Thessalonians 4:13-17 he says that Jesus would return within his lifetime to raise his followers into heaven, and in II Thessalonians ch.1 he describes how Jesus will return “in blazing fire with his powerful angels” to punish those who do not honour God “with everlasting destruction” (vv.7-9).
The Last Judgment marks the end of human history. Thereafter no wicked people will remain, so all moral evil will be eliminated. A new Jerusalem will be established, populated by saints, with Christ in their midst enlightening their world (Rev.ch.21).
Finally, St Paul said the faithful were to be rewarded. All who believe in Jesus’ “sacrifice of atonement” (Rom 3:25) and submit to God’s authority will avoid the punishment meted out to unbelievers and enjoy eternal life with Christ. When he returns to judge the world, he will then provide his followers with a new body, like his resurrection body, so that we can live with him for ever. (I Cor. Ch.15). So, as well as destroying natural evil and moral evil, Jesus will save those who love him to be with himself for ever. What a magnificent vision! No wonder its fulfilment has been longed for down the ages.
Unfortunately there are a couple of problems with this theological forecast that make it difficult to believe today. The first is that events have not occurred as St Paul predicted. Creation continues to cause suffering, decay and death just as it always has. And moral evil flourishes as much today as ever, causing unnecessary harm across the world. If the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was indeed enough to assuage the wrath of God, why has He continued to punish us? Was the sacrifice not enough? Or is our suffering not punishment after all?
The second problem concerns the character of God as Christians present it. If God’s character is one of love and self-sacrificial forgiveness, it is impossible that he also wants to punish those who fail to honour him. Indeed if he were just, rather than loving, would he really accept the death of a completely innocent man as just punishment for the sins of everyone else? He would not, as there is no justice in punishing the innocent instead of the guilty. Rather, Jesus’ suffering and death displays for all to see that there is no crime humans can commit whose pain he is not willing to bear, in order to forgive them and continue to love them.
There is another theme in St Paul’s writing on salvation, however, that is interesting. It is not about ending natural or moral evil, but about eternal life. The greatest punishment for Adam, I suggest, was that he was barred by “cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth” from access to “the tree of life.” (Gen.3:24) The tree of life is the eternal life of God himself, known to us in his Holy Spirit. With Jesus’ death, St Paul said, the Holy Spirit has become available to all. If people identify with Jesus’ death, dying to their sinful selves, and then ask God to send them his Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen them, he will do so (Romans ch.6). He goes on: “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God…Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8: 14,17.) St Paul makes this point repeatedly. For instance in Ephesians 1:13: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…” The same theme infuses the gospel of St John, who repeatedly points to Jesus’ life, his Holy Spirit, as the source of eternal life for all believers. For instance, he writes: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (3:16) And again, according to St John, Jesus said: “the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (4: 14) “I am the bread of life.” (6:35) “The Spirit gives life.” (6:63) And so on.
The idea seems to be that although physical life is limited, the life of God is eternal, and if God animates us now, then He might do so for ever, both in this physical world and in some other world where Jesus lives.
So then, who gets to heaven? Perhaps those who let God’s eternal Spirit live in them and work through them, to the glory of his holy name.