“Who Gets Into Heaven?”
Rev Stephen Milton
October 29th, 2023
“How do we get into heaven?” Simple question. Among Christians, heaven is known as the place that we go when we die. It is also the place where the souls of the dead already reside. But how do we know whether we are going there, and what is it like? It’s hard to know. Jesus says a few vague things about heaven being a place with many mansions. The Book of Revelation provides more details, suggesting it looks like a city with trees and fountains. But what we might do there, other than sing glory to God, is unclear.
Lately, pop culture has become more interested in heaven. There was a very clever fictional TV series called The Good Place that spent many seasons talking about who gets to go to heaven and why.
The Good Place
Four selfish characters spend thousands of years trying to become good people so they can get into heaven. In the series, when we see heaven, it is usually populated by bureaucrats and judges who spend their days sorting souls, deciding who gets to the Good Place, and who goes the “Bad Place”. Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens TV series also depicts heaven this way.
Heaven looks like a gleaming, white corporate headquarters, where the chief concern is sorting out who gets let in. It never looks very crowded, which is bit disconcerting.
This question of who gets into heaven has been a major concern for a long time. Early Christians believed that before Jesus arrived, everyone who died went to hell. This was less a place of punishment, than just eternal boredom. But, on the day after Jesus was crucified, Jesus descended to hell and preached the good news to all souls.
Descent into Hell
Here’s a painting from the Middle Ages that shows Jesus at the gates of hell. He has broken down the doors of hell, and his foot on Satan, who has been keeping souls inside. Jesus offers his hand to an old Adam and Eve, and everyone else who has ever died. He leads them up to heaven, which is now open for people when they die.
Now, for the rest of us, getting into heaven was considered more difficult. If you asked aanyone in the Middle Ages how to get into heaven, the answer was simple: be good and do good works. If it happened that you had failed to do enough good works by the time you died, the Church had an answer. Your relatives could give money to the church and that would improve your chances of getting into heaven. This was a very lucrative fundraising system for the church. A lot of cathedrals got built using money intended for getting people into heaven.
In 1517, Martin Luther declared that this was ridiculous. The church couldn’t be in charge of deciding who gets into heaven. Only God can decide that. So, Luther launched a religious revolution by saying that what mattered most was not good works, but good faith. Luther argued that what God wants is for us to know that we are saved based on our belief in Jesus as our saviour. That will get us into heaven. Luther is believed to have published his argument on October 31st, 1517, so that’s why this is Reformation Sunday.
Even today, in our increasingly secular society, most people believe that heaven exists, and hope they are going there when they die. It appears as a real place in movies, tv shows, and even pop songs. But when Jesus talks about heaven, it sounds different than what we might expect.
The scripture we heard today is called the Beatitudes. It is the prelude to the Sermon on the Mount.
Sermon on the Mount
Jesus has come up to the top of a mountain with his disciples. The crowds are down below, waiting for Jesus to teach them and heal them.
While they wait, Jesus gives the disciples a crash course on who is blessed. These are the kinds of people who will be welcomed into heaven. The meek, the merciful, the righteous, the peacemakers.
But the way Jesus talks about it doesn’t sound like heaven is a place you go to only when you die. These people are blessed right now, for who they are. For their spiritual awareness and actions now. And this lines up with how Jesus speaks of heaven in other places in scripture. At times, he says The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. He talks about the kingdom of heaven as being like a mustard seed, something small that grows to be a big bush that birds land on. And he often proclaims to the disciples that the kingdom of heaven is among them right now, simply because they are with Jesus.
When Christ talks about the kingdom of heaven, it sounds like a place that exists right now, right here, all the time. It’s not a distant place that we can only reach when we die. Instead, heaven seems to be a parallel dimension that is always with us. Our problem is that we are unaware of it most of the time. The Apostle Paul speaks about how we see through a piece of glass which is covered with grime – he says we see through a glass darkly, but when we die, we will see heaven and God through clear glass. A modern metaphor comes from Hermann Hesse in his novel Steppenwolf. He suggests that we humans are like radios. Heaven is like glorious music on a radio station whose signal is full of static, and our reception isn’t very good. We’re the radio that has bad reception. We’re so distracted by life and our own egos that we have a hard time sensing the presence of heaven within us and around us.
When Christ tells us who is blessed, he is speaking of people who have found a way to tune in that heavenly radio station. People who have become good at listening for that heavenly signal.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”
Meek people know they don’t count for much.
They are well aware of their faults, and don’t take them too seriously. They don’t cover them up, either. They have adopted a “I’m a goofball, but God loves me anyway” attitude. That approach makes it possible to see the Earth with a sense of wonder. In that way, they inherit the earth as a gift, even though they may not own even a square inch of it. They can walk down a street and marvel at the beauty of the world. To see heaven in what is in front of them. They may not feel this all the time, and probably don’t. But some of the time, and that matters. Their simplicity of spirit allows them to hear more of that heavenly radio station, right now.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” The blessing is now, right now, it is not just for the future.
Now, we may object that we have never felt like we are in heaven, in that state of eternal bliss. I suspect you have had tastes of it, in your calmer moments. Perhaps in nature, or in meditation or prayer. But Christ isn’t talking about people who are walking about in a state of mystical ecstasy. He doesn’t say, “blessed are those who experience bliss.” Instead, Christ talks about a way of living here and now that is blessed because through our living, heaven becomes more obvious now.
We tend to think of these issues in terms of how they feel for ourselves, but Christ doesn’t see it that way. In the blessings, he often speaks about people who make life better for others – the merciful, the peacemakers, the righteous. They are blessed because they bring the kingdom of heaven closer for other people.
If someone is hungry, and you hand them a meal, they may feel heaven has come closer. I have often been told by people living on the street that what matters most is when people stop to talk to them. That can mean more than any money you give them. For people who are reviled by society, a simple conversation feels like heaven has come a little closer.
When I spoke to the African refugees this fall about why they chose to some to Canada, one of them replied because of our reputation for hospitality. I groaned when I heard that because we didn’t have enough shelter space for them, and this person was sleeping in a chair at a church. But she corrected me. She said that what the churches had done was amazing, and showed her Canada was a good place. In her country, the government takes taxes, but none of it comes back as services. So, for this woman, the hospitality shown by Toronto churches was a bit of heaven breaking through.
To Christ, heaven is not a place only for the dead, but a place that is always here, right now. And this heaven is not just for card-carrying Christians. Jesus does not say “Blessed are those who see me as their Lord and Saviour.” Instead, the people he blesses for their humility and kindness can be found in any religion, and among those with no faith at all. We all know people who may be atheist or agnostic, but who are truly decent people, who are loving and helpful. They are walking this path, perhaps without knowing it.
“So how do we get into heaven?” That’s the wrong question. A better question would be, “how do we remember that heaven is all around us?” We are all meant to be citizens of heaven. Christ died on the cross to show us the way there. Christ wants us to come home, to the place that created us, and is always waiting to be with us, right now. Will heaven be there when we die? Yes. And the people who have passed this year are there, too, God willing. But for those of us who still walk this Earth, heaven is not a far-off place, but somewhere we can help tune in now. We may not experience bliss, but we will be blessed, and be a blessing to others. And that’s more than enough.