Last Thursday, May 13, was the Feast of the Ascension, the holy day in the Christian liturgical calendar commemorating the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven, forty days after his resurrection from the dead on Easter. The first chapter of the Book of Acts describes how the resurrected Jesus ministered to his disciples and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and then, at the end of the forty days, he rose into heaven and has never publicly returned to the earth again.
As we call to remembrance the departure of Jesus, in his glorified and exalted state of immortal perfection, from this imperfect world to the eternal world beyond, it is an appropriate time to consider what it means for any human soul to ascend from the earthly plane to heaven. Going to heaven to live forever with God — salvation, as Christians call it — has been characterized in various ways. Some believe we go to heaven if we have the correct religious beliefs. Others believe we must live a Christlike life of love and service to our fellow human beings if we wish to attain the heavenly state of salvation. Still others believe everyone will go to heaven no matter what, even if they had the wrong beliefs and lived a life of sin.
The testimony of the Scriptures on this subject is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the Apostle Paul says that “If you confess with your mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” [Rom. 10:9]. On the other hand, the same Apostle Paul says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” [Gal. 6:7-8]. And yet, the very same Apostle Paul also says, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn…” until finally, “God may be all in all.” [1 Cor. 15:22-23,28].
How can we make sense of this seeming confusion? Do all believers in Christ go to heaven? Or only those people who live a life that is pleasing to God’s Spirit? Or, does everyone go to heaven, but the timing depends on when each soul becomes a believer and a follower of the path of Christian living?
I think the latter comes the closest to the truth, for it contains within it the other concepts as part of a bigger picture: that right belief is important, and so is right living — but that ultimately, God’s plan is for everyone to be transformed in the image of Christ and attain eternal life in heaven. How quickly we get there is based on our free will choices during life on earth, believing in truth or error and making our moral decisions accordingly. In my opinion, this message is the essence of the Gospel.
Unfortunately, many Christians understand or accept only part of the message. For example, we’ve all heard of the kind of churches where they preach that the only thing that matters is that you believe in Jesus and confess with your mouth that he’s Lord. If you go down for the altar call and make the required lip-confession by praying the “sinner’s prayer,” you can sin as much as you like and you’ll still go straight to heaven when you die. Perhaps this is why, in so many of those churches, it seems there’s so much immoral conduct, even though they preach against it. Although they say people should do good and avoid evil, if one’s moral choices don’t affect one’s condition in the afterlife, many people will opt for the easy path of doing whatever they want, even if they know it’s sinful.
So, Evangelical Protestant theology isn’t conducive to actually becoming a more heavenly person. Presumably God will automatically transform our sinful character after we die. How convenient. But while we’re here on earth, there might not be much evidence of our belief in Christ, insofar as it affects our behavior.
As we learned earlier in this service, the 20th century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this theory of salvation as “cheap grace,” and warned strenuously against it. I agree with Bonhoeffer that this kind of faith is empty and does not lead us to the eternal life of the resurrection — or as James the brother of Jesus said, “Faith without works is dead.” [Jas. 2:26]. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” [vs. 14]. James says no: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.” [vs. 19].
The Apostle Peter says that we should strive to “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [2 Pet. 1:4-8].
Having only the knowledge that Jesus is Lord is not enough to attain to the eternal state of perfection that Christians call the resurrection. We have to gain spiritual virtues through a disciplined faith.
Even Paul wasn’t sure if he would qualify for the resurrection, despite his tremendous good works as a Christian apostle and evangelist. As he wrote in one of his letters to the churches, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” [1 Cor. 9:24-27].
In a letter to another church, Paul writes, “I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on… toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” [Phil. 3:10-12,14].
If a spiritual leader as great as Paul wasn’t sure if he would reach the goal of eternal life with Christ in heaven, what hope is there for ordinary believers like ourselves? Such verses in the Bible can make good Christians question their salvation. It can lead some people to become fanatics, believing that they must mortify their flesh, or live a joyless life of extreme self-denial, if they wish to go to heaven and avoid going to hell.
The doctrine of eternal hell has done more damage to the Christian understanding of salvation than any other teaching in the religion. It has filled countless people’s hearts with an irrational fear of an angry God who supposedly hates us.
So terrible and repulsive is the idea that God would sentence some souls to an endless eternity of suffering that some very liberal Christians have reacted against it by going to the opposite extreme, embracing an idea called Ultra-Universalism: that everyone will automatically go to heaven when they die, regardless of their religious beliefs or their sins. For example, a person could worship at a Satanic altar every day and live a life of total selfishness and cruelty toward all other beings they encounter, but at the moment of death of the physical body, they will somehow be transformed into a state of being that is fully compatible with heaven, which they will immediately be allowed to enjoy.
Many early Christian leaders did not teach eternal hell and clearly did not believe in it. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that universal salvation was the prevailing belief of the religion during the first few centuries of the Christian era. But the church fathers didn’t teach Ultra-Universalism either; that is a modern invention, and in my opinion, a dangerous deception that can cause universalism to lose credibility and can weaken people’s commitment to live a holy life. The type of universalism taught in the early church is called Restorationism, based on the idea that divine judgment is restorative to the soul.
The Bible does teach that there are consequences for sin and therefore, in some sense, that “hell” is real — in the sense that we experience negative effects of our negative behavior. If this doesn’t happen to us in the same life, then it will happen to us in the life hereafter. That’s why Paul taught that the resurrection to eternal glory will come at a different time for different souls. Those that live a Christlike life can receive their eternal resurrection identity sooner, while those that live according to their selfish desires will reap what they sow in the flesh, continuing to endure the suffering of lower levels of reality under heaven.
Two ideas were common among early Christians to explain how hell is real, but that in the end, all will be saved. One was the idea of purgatory, that hell is like a temporary prison sentence in an unpleasant dimension of existence to purify the soul. Another, related idea was reincarnation, that hell is right here on earth, and we keep living here in physical flesh until we have been fully purified and perfected, as demonstrated by living life according to the way of Christ. Both of these ideas were taught by Origen of Alexandria, the greatest Christian Universalist theologian of the early church, and both can be supported Biblically.
I have found these ideas to be very helpful for understanding the meaning of salvation and how we attain it. In my own spiritual journey, when I rejected the fundamentalist doctrine of eternal hell, I felt that it was very important to try to harmonize the various Biblical teachings about what happens to people in the afterlife. Some Bible verses seem to point to universal salvation, and others to the existence of hell, and still others to annihilation of the wicked.
The most logical way I have found to make sense of it all is that we are called to live a life like Christ, and until we come close enough to that ideal, we don’t yet attain the resurrection and ascend into eternal glory in heaven, but must continue living lives in the world of flesh. The sinful ego is annihilated, burned up in the metaphorical fires of hell, “for the wages of sin is death.” [Rom. 6:23]. Finally, when “you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” [vs. 22]. That’s when, like Christ, your personal identity is fully retained, without any corruption or destruction, after life in this world.
No one is ever too damaged or too far gone to be saved. God looks at our circumstances and judges us on an individual basis. For most of us, I believe that means we will have additional opportunities to live in the way God asks of us, until we overcome this world and win the prize of the resurrection.
The opportunities we receive are not meant to be easy. It is only by running the race with vigor, our spiritual lungs heaving and muscles straining with effort, that we can cross the finish line and receive the eternal crown of glory. Confessing Christ as Lord is the starting point, not the end point of salvation. God wants so much more for us than just to live one mediocre life on earth and then go straight to heaven to strum a harp for all eternity.
Indeed, we are called to become fully divine like Christ. In the early church this idea was called theosis in Greek, meaning divinization. As Paul said, God calls us “to be conformed to the image of His Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” [Rom. 8:29]. Fulfilling that awe-inspiring calling, ascending to that exalted state of being, is the true meaning of salvation. Let us strive with all the might of our souls to attain it.
Watch on video (starting at 8:28):