My impression has always been that if a person believes that heaven exists, they also believe they’re going to end up there. A survey that was conducted by the Barna Research group in 2003 confirmed as much when they found that 64% of Americans were convinced that they would be going to Heaven.
So before we can ask critical questions about the likelihood of us all going to Heaven, maybe we should try to define what we mean by Heaven.
I’d define Heaven as a state of existence in which everyone who shares in it is perfectly happy and living in perfect harmony with each other, and God, if you want to throw him into the equation.
So, given that definition, does it make sense that you and I are going to be able to participate in that without compromising that definition? Because I don’t think that a mere change in scenery or the company we keep will produce in us the effects that are necessary for us to live in a paradisal state.
To illustrate what I mean, I want you to try to imagine a hypothetical scenario. Imagine if everyone in the world was suddenly you. Just take everyone where they are and give them your moral character and instincts.
Now, I can’t speak for you, but if that experiment were implemented with me, I have to admit, there’d still be major problems in the world. People would still lie and cheat, laziness, greed, pride and several other serious character flaws would still be present in the general population and would be pronounced through the behaviour of its citizens.
So no, the world would not suddenly become a harmonious place just because we replaced everyone with me.
So why would I assume that I’m fit for a place like Heaven. Because for everyone to live in perfect happiness and harmony, we’d all have to get along perfectly harmoniously. But if we still have selfish attachments then we wouldn’t be able to live in perfect harmony with others.
So by the looks of things, I don’t think I am fit for heaven and if you’re being honest with yourself, you might be coming to that same conclusion. And this is why, as I surveyed the various theological claims within Christianity, I couldn’t make sense of the idea that if you just believe Jesus is God, you’ll be saved and then it’s just a waiting game to die and go to Heaven… but you will definitely go to Heaven.
There’s this underlying belief that faith in Jesus provides for the declaration of your own justification – that God will declare you just and therefore admit you to a Heavenly afterlife, but that doesn’t escape the logical problems that we encountered earlier. If I still have character flaws, I’ll bring those with me, and those will disrupt other people’s Heavenly experience (as well as mine) which means we won’t be in a state of perfect happiness and harmony. There’s no avoiding that dilemma.
That’s why the Catholic explanation made the most sense to me. It demonstrated a comprehensive appreciation for the range of difficulties that seem to arise with easy wishful explanations about how we get to Heaven. Catholicism explains that we have to become sanctified and made Holy first and that this process occurs through God’s free gift of grace but that we have to expose ourselves to it and allow for it to affect us. We have to be willing participants in that process.
And if you are a Christian, this seems to correspond to Jesus’ teaching about the narrow gate to Heaven. He said that the road to destruction is wide and many take it. But if most of us think we’re going to Heaven, then there’s some dissonance there that needs to be resolved.
Jesus told us to pick up our Cross if we want to follow him. Pick up our own form of medieval torture. That’s not the kind of thing that most people want to hear, especially, if there are alternative versions out there offer a more lackadaisical approach.
Now that may all sound cynical and negative to some people but I think it’s much better to know what is expected of us than to sit around as if we don’t have a task set for us and then find out when it’s too late.
It’s like the parable of the talents in which Jesus, in the context of a conversation about the Kingdom of Heaven, describes servants who were entrusted with resources. Two of them used those resources to gain some good from them. One of them did nothing with it and was condemned for it.
If we’re just sitting around assuming that we are destined for reward when we’re not, the best thing we can encounter is a bit of that old fashioned cynicism.