By Rod Hemphill
I was shocked, confused, bewildered as I entered Heaven's door,
Not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights or its decor.
But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp--
The thieves, the liars, the sinners, the alcoholics and the trash.
There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice.
Herb, who I always thought was rotting away in hell,
Was sitting pretty on cloud nine, looking incredibly well.
I nudged Jesus, 'What's the deal? I would love to hear your take.
How'd all these sinners get up here? God must've made a mistake.
'And why's everyone so quiet, so somber - give me a clue.'
'Hush, child,' He said, 'they're all in shock. No one thought they'd be seeing you.'
Remember...Just going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.
Rod says . . .
I think this poem is pretty cute. But having laughed at it, now as a theologian, all kinds of bells are going off. It would really be interesting to consider some of the questions it raises, such as . . .
- "Judge not." This reminds me of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7.1-5,
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
- "Judge not." Some people see just this much and conclude that we are not to form judgments. But is it possible to not form judgments . . . discernments, or to discriminate between the good and the bad, or between that which is good and that which is better, between that which is innocent and that which may be dangerous?
In everything we read (including the Bible), we follow the axiom "When the literal sense makes common sense, seek no other sense." But if making judgments is a natural and even necessary part of life, then would Jesus have been speaking literally when he said, "Judge not"? What else does Jesus say that explains what he meant? How might you explain his teaching, in your own words? See Matthew 7.1-5.
- Surprise! Look who's in heaven. And look who's not. What is it that qualifies a person to go to heaven? What disqualifies a person? What is the basis of your opinion? Remembering that there are many diverse opinions even among clergy and within the Church itself, what is the authority for your opinion?
Since its earliest days, the Church has held the scriptures to be the record of God's revealing himself to mankind, and as such they are the revealer of how mankind is to relate to God.
These scriptures were and are accepted as the authority in discerning the true teaching from the false, the heresy from the Way of God, and of God's appointed way to heaven as opposed to the myriad of uninformed opinions and speculations in mankind's attempt to project into reality that which he desires or new "ways" which he invents as part of his alternative religions which he may find more satisfying in his present state than the one way God has prescribed and revealed consistently across several thousands of years to peasant and king, in various cultures and different languages --but always the same message.
So the Church is the repository of God's written Word and its disseminator to the people. But inasmuch as the Church is comprised of fallible human beings, the authoritative teaching remains in the scriptures.
This gives us an objective and unchanging basis for our faith. Anything else, whether it be the Church itself, its theologians and pastors, its tradition or anything else is subjective and prone to error. But the Bible --the Word of God-- stands unchangeable forever.
And what it tells us about heaven's entrance requirements --from beginning to end-- is no mystery. It says it very clearly in many passages such as John 3.16, Romans 5.8, Ephesians 2.1-10, Titus 3.3-7 and throughout the Bible. (See these passages at End)
- Surprise! According to these passages and many others, getting into heaven has nothing to do with being good enough to deserve a place in heaven. That's nothing, as in not one thing.
To state it briefly, mankind's natural state is to separate himself from God and go off on his own. This separation from God (the source of our being) causes us to be self-centered and to do the acts of self-centeredness. These acts can range from indifference to God and the plight of others to vicious brutality, but they all are what is called sin.
This is not to say that we are incapable of caring and benevolent deeds. But it is a demonstrable fact that we tend to see the world and those around us in terms of our concerns, our security, our comfort, and so on, and some of us are more self-centered than others. But one's essential self-awareness is the touchstone for all of a person's living.
This is just the way we are. It's an inherent aspect of our humanity, and we can't change that. We can try to be more caring, but we can't change our essential nature any more than your playful kitten will always remain a predator. Instinctively so. And this means that we will never attain the perfection of Godliness that we need to get ourselves into heaven. It also means that while we may become more righteous and Godly over time, we will never completely rid ourselves of thoughts, words and acts that are incompatible with being in God's presence. Sin! And there is no sin in heaven.
- Surprise! What God chooses to do with you isn't about you and what you've done for God. It's all about God and what He's done for you!
From the beginning of the Biblical record until the time of Jesus (a period of about 2,000 years), those scriptures of the Hebrew people recorded God's dealings with mankind in general at first and then narrowed down to his calling a nondescript race of people to be his own --his representatives to all mankind, the Hebrew people.
Throughout the history of the Hebrews God brought them out of obscurity and made them a great nation, he delivered them from repeated attempts of others to annihilate them, and he led them in the way they should go, revealing himself to them through prophets and the word those prophets wrote for the generations to come.
And the consistent message through all those 2,000 years was that God chose them when they didn't deserve it, that he protected and provided for them even though they didn't deserve it, and that God loved them in spite of their waywardness. They were God's adolescent children, and God parented them accordingly.
In other words, God was their Savior and required only that they trust him and be followers of the way of life he prescribed. When the Israelites (Hebrews) did this, they received the blessings that accompanied that relationship with God. And when they drifted away from God and rejected him and his way, they suffered the results of this estrangement, sometimes including the forfeiture of God's protection and being conquered by superior military forces and rising empires.
Through it all, they were learning that their lives were not to be lived through their own might or power, but through their relationship with the Spirit of God (Zecharaiah 4.6).
In other words, when they lived from within the Way of God, their lives were blessed, and when they departed from that way, they experienced the consequences of trying to be something they were not created to be.
Although they didn't think of it in this way, God had created the universe so as to make life possible, and this meant structure and order . . . not chaos. This fact of order pervades not only the physical world, but also the world of life and relationships. This is the reality we experience, and neither denying it nor attempting to violate it has any affect upon it, although those actions create a consequence upon us.
So there is a right way (God's way) and that way brings blessings. Then there are all the other ways, which are out of step with reality as God created it, and so those ways bring consequences.
But so far as being rightly related to God was concerned, all they could do was to believe in him, trust him, worship him. All the self-righteousnesses that they might offer to win God's approval were as filfthy rags, as their prophet Isaiah taught (64.6).
They could never earn his approval. They were always to be the recipients of his mercy, his grace, and his undeserved love. Though God would discipline them in their waywardness, it was always a medicinal discipline intended to bring them back into the Way of God and enable them to again enjoy the blessings of his mercy, his grace, and his undeserved love.
What later generations of believers were beginning to realize was that the only way people can relate to God and please him is to trust him, to give our lives into his keeping and to rely upon him in all of life. In a word, we come to God solely on the basis of our faith in him!
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Just his praises that I sing!
- There has never been a way to come to God apart from this one thing --the single act of repenting of your life apart from God, and giving yourself to Him.
Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail,
But the righteous [one] shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2.4)
So it is faith in God and faith alone that brings one into right relationship with God, and it is faith that produces the kind of behavior that God approves. But one is not accepted by God because of one's behavior. One is accepted by God on the basis of one's faith alone, as was the Hebrew patriarch, Abraham --"Abraham believed the Lord, and he [God] credited it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15.1-6, and Romans 4.1-3, 18-25; Galatians 3.6-9)
- So guess who's in heaven?
Now, back to the poem. Such an unlikely bunch of characters to find their way to heaven! Well, remember first of all that it's only a poem. But then remember that the Bible teaches unequivocally that it's not behavior that gets you into heaven or keeps you out, but whether or not you are in a right relationship with God on the basis of your faith . . . trusting him, relying upon him, living within his love and according to his will.
"Yeah, but what about all those people who were . . . ?" If the poem were describing an actual situation, the answer would be that even though all these people had led disreputable lives, that at some time before their death they had repented of their sins and had given their lives over to the Lord. It's their faith (if a genuine faith) that is their qualifier for heaven, and their misdeeds cannot trump that. And there's a reason for that, but we'll deal with that in a minute or so.
But since this is so, we should also remember that all of us have separated ourselves from God, so that none of us is without sin, none of us have a claim on heaven. But the prophet Micah (7.18-20) describes the relationship God has with those who repent of their sins and return to him in this way:
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us.
You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
You will be true to [your promises], as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago.
But while a person's relationship with God is a matter between God and that person, behavior is generally an indicator of the state of this relationship or lack of it because living in the presence of God has a purifying affect and causes you to become more like him. Conversely, you cannot live in unrighteousness and indifference toward God and remain in a right relationship with him. So the Bible condemns such individuals, especially in the book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) and excludes them from the presence of God and those who belong to him (this exclusion is hell), but not because of their iniquities. They stand condemned because they have rejected God from their lives. That is, they are not believing in, trusting, relying upon, being obedient to God. They are doing what they want to do and not living from within faith in God, and have in fact become antagonists of God.
- "Ok. But a moment ago you said that our misdeeds (sins, unrighteousnesses) cannot trump God's acceptance of the sinner who trusts God and commits his life to him. Why can't they? Don't they have some affect on this relationship?"
All the way through the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis to Malachi) there is a constant theme which is constantly in the background, but sometimes breaks forth quite clearly, and this theme is that God would some day send one who came to be called the Messiah.
This Messiah was at times interpreted to be mere visionary ramblings, or sometimes the nation of Israel itself as one that suffers vicariously for the other nations and their sins as peoples who continue to separate themselves from the Lord.
But the rules of literary interpretation demand that we notice the personal and masculine references pertaining to this individual so that it absolutely has to be a person (not a nation), as for example as in Isaiah 9.6-7 and 52.13 to 53.12. Such references are variously interpreted, but the reader has to decide whether he is going to understand them according to his preconceived notions and a priori teachings, or whether he will allow them to mean what they are obviously trying to express.
The apocalyptic picture of this Messiah is that of one who is pictured as the victorious general of heaven's armies triumphing over the entrenched evil of this world, but at other times he is pictured as the suffering servant of God, whose personal sacrifice on behalf of the people would constitute the death penalty payment required by their sins, and so be accepted as the once for all sacrifice fulfilling that which had been represented by the priestly sacrifices in the temple of God in Jerusalem for all the centuries that system of worship was practiced.
The ancient rabbis wrestled with the question of how the Messiah could be both this counquering Messiah and a Messiah who would die for the sins of the nation. Some speculated that maybe there would two messiahs.
What they missed were the prophecies that the Messiah would be God-come-in-the-flesh (such as Isaiah 9.6), and that although in this earthly appearance wicked people might kill this body, the physical body of his appearance could not contain the infinite God, and therefore the grave could not keep him. And that this Messiah, having atoned for all the sins of the world, would subsequently return to bring evil and sin to an end, and to establish his kingdom with himself as King of kings as pictured in passages such as Psalm 2.7-9; Isaiah 11.1 to 12.6; and Ezekiel 39 (which refers to the Restoration following the exile in Babylonian captivity, but was not fulfilled then, and so has come to be regarded as having a still future complete fulfillment).
God appeared to his people in various forms as best served his purpose of revealing himself to them, sometimes as a voice in a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire, or a still small voice, in dreams or in appearance as an angel, in visions, and through the verbal and narrative descriptions of his prophets. But finally he appeared as one of us in his most meaningful form and fullest disclosure, embodying that of the infinite which we could comprehend and emulate, namely such things as his compassion and mercy, his acceptance of sinners if not their sinful ways, his insistence that we cannot broker any peace with unrighteousness, and finally to himself pay the consequence of our sinful estrangement from him that we might be bought back out of our sinfully inclined character. This God-Come-in-the-Flesh, we call Jesus, the Christ (Messiah).
As the writer of Colossians (1.15-20) states,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
And we read in 2 Corinthians 5.15-21,
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
- So God has revealed himself to us in various ways, but believers at any time in history have come to him in the same way, and that is by faith . . . trusting him, relying on him, committing themselves to him and his purpose for their lives. And so they find peace for their souls.
Before Christ, God was known as Elohim, El-Shaddai, Adonai and other names, but especially by his most inclusive name, "I Am What I Am," a name that speaks of his infinite and incomprehensible nature.
Believers since the 1st Century have known him as Jesus, the Christ (Messiah). In the person of Jesus, God provided the fullest disclosure of the divine character, and Christians relate to God through this most complete and personal revelation of himself to us.
When we get to heaven, we will still be created beings, finite, and God will still be the incomprehensible Infinite One. So the only way we will ever encounter this infinite God will be as we experience him in the person of Jesus. If it were not for this incarnation of the infinite, it would be impossible for us to have any comprehension of God, or any human type relationship with God.
So Jesus, our Lord and Savior, will be with us in heaven. As the embodiment of God, Jesus is our experiential bridge between us (who are finite) and God Almighty (who is infinite).
This informs what Jesus meant when he said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my [heavenly] Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14.6-9)
This is not the story of a man becoming God. This is the story of God becoming a man.
- Here then is the apostolic testimony, from Philippians 2.1-11:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. (John 3.16)
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5.8)
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2.1-10)
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3.3-7).