Different religions, different heavens? Heaven, hell, and in between
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Different Religions, different heavens
The Book of Proverbs tells us to "Answer not a fool in his folly, lest thou be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." So we must study how we are to answer certain questions. Are we feeding the ego of the questioner? Are we trying to teach him spiritual truths? Are we simply trying to get away unscathed? I must say I fall into the last category. I don't like being attacked for my faith. But lately, I've gotten better with my responses to subtle questioning.
So let's begin with a question you're probably familiar with: Someone, an atheist, usually within two hours of finding out you are a Christian, is going to ask you a question meant to show how narrow-minded Bible-believers are. The question often asked is this: "So, do you really believe that people from other religions don't go to heaven?"
If you're the argumentative type, which I am not, you might answer, "You're assuming someone from another religion would want to go to my heaven? And you're showing your lack of insight by asking a question you don't fully understand." You could leave it there and move on triumphantly.
But your questioner will want to justify himself so he'll say, "What's that supposed to mean?" In which case, you will respond, "The heaven for those who follow Islam is not the same as the heaven of those who follow Christ, nor the heaven of those who follow Buddha, nor the heaven of those who are Hindus nor the heaven of Judaism."
Let us discuss the Christian heaven: The Scripture tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a party. Fun, community, feasting, with non-invitees would be gate-crashers looking in and bewailing the fact that they can't enter. Elsewhere it tells us that Heaven will be a city. The world started in a garden with two people and ends in a large community of brothers and sisters. The citizens of heaven will "retain their members in honor" which seems to imply there will be men and women. And yet, there will be no gender roles, or sex. (At least we will be "like the angels", who we are told do not marry.) The Christian heaven is made up of people with perfect souls, perfect bodies. These bodies will be able to eat, taste, sing, dance, work. Yes, the true work God has prepared for us to walk in! But the ultimate part of the Christian heaven is that the Christian will see God as he is because the Christian will be like God.
But other religions are not the same.
To deal with one religion, Islam: The Koran Islamic Afterlife, gives the good male Muslim seven (or is it eight) wives. The Muslim women I know are quite at peace with the idea of their husbands having many wives here and now. A woman converting to Islam should be aware of the kind of heaven she has now contracted for. Even if her husband decides to have only one wife on earth, the truth of the matter is that Allah is going to give her good husband several more if her husband has been very good. The heaven of the Hindus is also not like the Christian's heaven. The Hindu desires to be finally free of the karmic wheel, to be free from reincarnation. The Hindu aims for nothingness. Bodies are not an issue here. Nor being like a personal God. As for Judaism, most of the writings about the heaven of Judaism is concerned with Israel at large, a communal inheritance and so the Jewish idea of heaven is mixed together with community and spiritual zionism. The individual is not really given a clear picture of his future in the afterlife.
There is something else: The God of these religions are different from the God of Christianity. The Islamic God wants his followers to take care of the poor, for instance, but he does not identify with them to the degree that the Christian God does. The Christian God came as a Suffering Servant, punished by earthly powers, identified with sinners. And the Christian God wants us to become very like him. This kind of God – weak, destroyed, is anathema to Islam. The God of Islam desires surrender. That's what islam means: one who has surrendered his life to God. Sounds a bit like Christianity? Not really. But it'sa different kind. The God of Christianity desires to be loved and wants a relationship of loving obedience. The Christian God tells us that the fullness of the Christian heaven is gained after a believer has adequately identified with such a wounded loving God. This means that although we are saved by Christ's grace, we still have to do the work of being conformed to him. As Hebrews chapter 11 shows us, the great clouds of witness are losers of a strange sort. They gave up kingdoms, wandered the world homeless, renounced power. For a loving, faithful relationship with God, full of dying to self and sacrifice for the sake of others. This is a hard thing to ask people to do. And the other religions do not ask it. To choose to be a Christian is to choose the Christian Godm the Christian way and the Christian heaven.
You will then turn to your questioner and say, "what you should really have asked me is, 'Why is the heaven of Christ to be aimed for?'"
But your snide questioner is not through with you yet. Willing to justify himself, he will now fine-tune his question.
"Okay, then," she/he will say, "Does a gay Christian with an active gay sex life, go to heaven?" The main thing in this questioner's mind is to get you to say something he/she considers cruel, stupid and narrow-minded.
At this time, you might go on the offensive and simply respond: "My, you've got heaven on the mind! Or do you happen to have both an Islamic friend who wants to go to heaven and a gay Christian friend who wants to go to heaven? Are you really interested in heaven or are you just trying to trip me up?" A response like this will put your questioner in his place. And you are free to go on with your life. But if you're the argumentative type, again which I am not, you might answer, "You don't know the Scriptures and your question shows it. You're dealing with second-hand information that you've gained from the media and the culture at large."
But if you decide to row this particular hard row of questioning. You will have to explain the following.
First we must ask ourselves who it is tht Jesus has really saved. There are three schools of thought about the power of Jesus' salvation. The first is that A) only those who call upon Him will be saved. The second is b) that Jesus is reconciling the world to God now by saving people call on Him but don't know that they are calling on Him. (The theory being that whenever they call on God's mercy, they are calling on the Jesus aspect of God) The third branch believe that Jesus changed death forever for everyone, that Jesus --as St Paul says-- "is the savoiur of all men especially of those who believe."
Then we must ask what Eternal Life means. The Christian idea of eternal life falls into two basic interpretive camps: Either the only people left in the universe and on earth will be (A) only Christians in heaven or (B) Christians in heaven, forever in glory and bad people in hell forever tormented. So either the world is free from all evil, death and hell tossed into the lake of fire. Or people will be tormented forever and ever. All this depends on what you understand "eternity" and "forever" to be.
But it may come as a surprise to most Christians that these were not always the only viewpoints. There was another idea of heaven, seen especially in the early Christians. This is the category of the nominally saved who were not particularly interested in God, but who trusted Jesus to save them. Polycarp, a disciple of John writes about this... As does Dante who shows that this idea of differing kinds of heaven has been in Christianity a while. Some people might say that Dante was really talking about "rewards" after life, not heaven. The skin of the teeth salvation in which an utterly bad person gets saved simply because he believes in Christ, for instance. Those who were sinful even though they believed in him will still be saved, but as Saint Paul says "as from fire." Christ came to save and I suspect in His graciousness more people are saved than we know. They get saved from death and hell, but do they actually get to go into heaven? Why does Jesus speak of people outside crying when they see God's people inside heaven and the gates closed against them? (Gates which by the way are never closed in actuality but which somehow forbid the wrong person from entering.)
Paul begs us to receive a full reward. What does that full reward imply? We know it is better than mere immortality, saved as by fire, Paul says...the skin of one's teeth. And what about Jesus' phrase, "No one comes to the father but by me." This is the clue. Jesus is the door to the father. Does this mean that some of us will be saved, possibly make it to heaven and yet never be able to come to the father? Is the sight of the father the ultimate reward?
Consider Ezekiel's depiction of the palace of the prince. He mentions several people who will serve the prince but who will "forever" never see His face because of their transgressions.
As for heaven and New Jerusalem, we are told in Revelations 21:27 that nothing that defiles can enter the city. In Rev 22:14, 15 we are told that those people are bvlessed who have a right to enter through the gates of the city and who can touch the tree of life. We are told that outside are liars (the Church in Ephesus had searched them out), idolators (He told the Church in Thyatira to stop Jezebel and her idolatry.), the sexually immoral (He told the church in Pergamos to stop compromising with immorality), cowards (He told the church in Smyrna not to fear). And we are told that these folks will either be blotted out of the book of life, be forbidden to touch the tree of life, and be cast in the lake of fire, the second death. But then there is the Churches of Sardis, Laodicea and Philadelphia. The Church of Philadelphia is perfect. But the Sardis Church –the church who will be surprised by Him as a thief in the night-- is told to strengthen those things that are ready to die. And the Church of Laodicea is told to be less lukewarm? Could it be that the folks outside the gate are the lukewarm non-committal believers typified by the churches in Sardis and Laodicea? Saved from fire, death and hell, their names in the book of life, but somehow not given a full reward? Some people might say, "But Jesus will perfect us." True, if we let Him. But in these letters to the churches, Jesus certainly puts the onus on the people in the churches. So we have to do the first works and revive the dead works.
The City of New Jerusalem has twelve gates. The question is why does the city even need gates if all the people now living in the universe are inside the City? The kings of the earth can come into the gates. Who are these kings kings of? Why does Jesus tell the church in Thyatira that those who overcome will be given power of the nations whom they will rule with a rod of iron? Are these people who are ruled over with a rod of iron, only for the millenium period or is it for the end time? Why are the leaves of the trees of life good for healing? Surely, immortal beings made like God don't need it. The Bible tells us that the leaves of the trees were for the healing of the nations. What nations? Will Christians be called "the nations"? I thought we would be called the bride and we would be living inside the city. Why do the nations need the leaves of this tree for healing? Don't they have "eternal life within themselves"? Only God knows what the phrase "outside the gates" and "the nations" mean. We have to be careful when we read the Bible. We must not be quick to assume that "outside the gates" or "outer darkness" means hell. It might mean something entirely in between.
I hear someone challenging me on this? Well let us ponder this.
Most conservative evangelicals will readily agree that a gay Christian who totally believes in Christ but who continues in sexual dalliances with other gay people will go to hell. But let's ponder this? Jesus saves to the uttermost. I so believe in Jesus' power to save that I truly believe that anyone who calls on his name will be saved. Anyone. God so love the world that he gave his beloved son that whoever might believe in him would be saved. Jesus didn't come to set up a way to put people in hell by denying him. The world is lost already. No sin is worse than another. The only unpardonable sin is sinning against the Holy Spirit by seeing a work of God and sinfully ascribing it to the devil even though one knows that the work is indeed a work of God. We all will die in sin. No one will have perfected themselves to be in heaven. So why is the sin of homosexuality so much worse? Why do we agree that Jesus' blood will save all and that He will "in no wise cast out" any who holds to His name, yet we are ready to toss gays into hell?
Let's look at it another way: Do racist Christians go to heaven? Well look at some verses: Jesus told us that anyone who hates his brother without a cause will be in danger of the judgement. Later, St John tells us that whoever hates his brother does not have eternal life in him. So then, are racists people who hate their brothers, with or without cause? Some will balk here. Those who are quite willing to put a Christian gay person in hell are not so willing to put a Christian racist into hell, notwithstanding that there are more New Testament verses telling us about hateful Christians in hell than there are telling us that gay Christians go to hell. What is the difference? Perhaps we know ourselves to be hateful and unforgiving. Or we know family members to be hateful or we think of racism as such a small thing so why should God care about it if we hate blacks, arabs, Hindus? The point is that, hell or no hell, neither of these two groups are going to get a full reward.
The question then is, "Which heaven do I want?" "Do I want to be like God or do I want mere immortality?" Why should we save people if we're not really saving them from hell? We're saving them to bring more sons to Christ, which is not the calling of other religions. It is the high calling of Christ.
Let us study to know how to answer.
The Book of Jude
Beware of what enchants you
The healing of the paralyzed man
Let's Compare Hagar and Joseph, two slaves
The Angels who left their first estate
God and the accuser of the brethren
The world before the flood
Are you sure you understand the Bible?
The Ten commandments, trespasses and iniquities ?
Understanding The old testament Prophets
Rituals, traditions, sacraments of the Bible
An overview of the gospel
The works of Solomon: Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Song of Solomon
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A thorough examination of some sticky points that Christians often want to ignore. Well written and quite thought provoking. Makes you go back to your prayer closet and into the Word to see if many of the points made are valid, especially with the concept of heaven presented here. This is too weighty to pass over lightly and possibly throw out as something that is too deep to readily understand. This is what the Body of Christ has done for centuries and is a major reason why, in today's society, we do not have the dynamic church movement that the Apostles enjoyed. Thanks for a fine article.
This is a deep and profound article. You have given me much to think about. Thank you for your candor, insight, and willingness to share what God has given you.