“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into Heaven who can stand it. But standing it may be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies may think.
I often wonder how happy and useful some of the fearful, bitter, lust-ridden, hate-filled Christians I have seen involved in church or family or political battles would be if they were forced to live forever in the unrestrained fullness of God.
The fires in Heaven may be hotter than those in the other place. -Dallas Willard
For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a blog series, revisiting the Christian doctrine of Hell, and today I’d like to bring that series to an end. I’d like to thank everyone for the incredibly positive feedback I’ve gotten from this series, and if you’re just seeing this series for the first time, you can start here to catch up.
Now I’d like to close this series by addressing the one question people ask the most about Hell.
Who’s going…and Who’s not?
Heaven Isn’t An Elitist Country Club
I think it’s interesting that this is what we want to know the most about the age to come. We really want to know who’s in and who’s out.
And the people who get the most attention are the ones who talk with the most certainty with the answers to those questions. As in ‘Bob’s out, Susie’s in” kind of certainty. We even developed an evangelistic campaign on it “If you died tonight, are you certain that you’d go to Heaven? Are you really sure?”
To be sure, I’m all for people viewing their life through the lens of eternity, but too often I think we forget who God is, and what Heaven is really going to be like.
Over the past few years I’ve started to have this hunch that being in Heaven in age to come, is not going to so much of a pass/fail test as it is revealing what we really desire.
A few years ago, I was leading a Bible Study with a several unchurched people and one family who were already Christians. We were going through the Gospel of Matthew and we got to the story of the Parable of the Day Laborers.
It’s a story Jesus tells that emphasized the radical unfairness of the grace of God, and to illustrate I talked about how the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, just before he was murdered in prison had given his life to Jesus and been baptized.
And that’s when the Bible study took an unexpected turn.
The only other Christian there was immediately disturbed. He said, “You mean to tell me that Dahmer, the guy who did all those horrible things is going to be in Heaven?”
And I said, “Yes, I think so, and I think that’s what this parable means.”
And he said, “I don’t want to be in Heaven with Jeffrey Dahmer. I won’t go in if he’s there”
To which I said something like, “Okay…suit yourself I guess.”
So now the Bible study had one less Christian than we had started with, which was not the direction I think evangelism is supposed to go.
But this is very much the way Christian theology talks about Heaven and Hell. God gives everyone what they want. And I have a hunch that if we spend our lives developing a Christianish version of morality and self-righteous pride we aren’t going to like Heaven, in fact we might even choose to avoid it.
East and West
One of the times that Jesus talks about Hell comes immediately after he heals a Roman centurion’s servant. That sounds fine to us, but in Jesus’ day it would have infuriated the religious people around Him.
Remember, Rome were the bad guys, they were the ones who had oppressed, killed, tortured and destroyed the Jewish people, and Jesus treats one of the bad guys like a human being.
He even does a favor for him, but from the oppressed Jew’s perspective it gets worse.
After Jesus heals the Centurions servant, he is amazed by the Centurion’s faith and says this to the very uncomfortable crowd:
“Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Notice that Jesus seems to think that God’s judgment is going to be first for the people of God, the ones who are sure that they are the good guys, and others are the bad guys.
Notice that Jesus also says, Many will come.
Everytime you hear people mention Jesus words about the Narrow Way to Heaven, you should also remember that Jesus thinks that the narrow way is going to jam-packed with people coming.
And they’re coming from the East and the West, which is the direction of Israel’s enemies’ (East was Babylon and Rome was to the West) in another Gospel Jesus mentions people coming from the North and South (the North was Assyria and the South was Egypt).
Jesus seems to think that Heaven is going to have multitudes of people streaming in from all directions.
Isaiah sees a day when the Kings of the nations come streaming into God’s holy city. Revelation pictures a Heaven filled with people from every tribe speaking every language.
Jesus is wide open to anyone coming into God’s holy city, and not everyone likes that, they (we) want a better gatekeeper than Jesus.
Now that’s not to say that Jesus is saying that anyone and anything can come into God’s new Creation. Remember that’s the point of Hell, God gives us our wish, and for those who would perpetuate the evil that Creation has grown tired of God will say “Not here you won’t.”
Still Heaven is wide open to the entire world, and it’s going to have many streaming in.
But there is a catch.
The Gates of Heaven
Because this City is built on Jesus, and His presence is the center of it all, not everyone will want it.
In the helpful words of Joshua Ryan Butler:
The gates of God’s kingdom are wide open for the person in Hinduism, but in order to enter the party, something significant must be left at the door. God’s party is a place where the outcast are given the best seats in the house, where the hungry are welcomed to the head of the dining table, where the last become first and the first become last…God is for the Hindu. Jesus welcomes them into his city. The Great Physician extends his embrace with the healing the cross has made possible. But there are idols that must be left at the door.”
Heaven is wide open to the Christian moralist, but if you are unwilling to see the grace of God given to someone like Jeffery Dahmer than something significant must be left at the door.
Heaven is wide open to Muslim, but at the center of Heaven is a Crucified God who shows the world His power through His weakness and death, and so to enter something significant must be left at the gate.Heaven is wide open to the Nationalist American, but because Heaven will be filled with people from every nation and every tribe, something significant is going to have to be left at the gate.
Heaven is wide open to the materialistic consumer, but after spending a lifetime consuming advertisements that place you at the center of reality, something significant must be left at the gate.
Carol Zaleski once quipped, “Our ancestors were afraid of Hell; we are afraid of Heaven. We think it will be boring.”
I think we’re afraid of Heaven in lots of ways. And the point of the age to Come in Christian theology is to become the kinds of people who belong there and then, here and now.
It’s easy to slide into talking about Heaven and Hell by threatening others and marking off our Naughty and Nice list, but the point of Jesus’ teaching on Hell almost always is that God is very, very good.
Too much of Christian history has been religious leaders using Heaven as a tool of terror instead of the great source of hope that it actually is for God’s good future. It is a future without sex trafficking or poverty or slavery or greed filled with the presence of God and the Reign of King Jesus.
It is a future that is open for all who want it.
So take heart, If you want God more than you want to be right, if you want to be with Jesus more than you want to avoid those you consider to be the wrong kinds of people than well done, good and faithful servant…
You will get just what you want.