How Can I Get to Heaven from Here?

People have been wrestling with that question for a very long time.

That is essentially what religion is all about. Seeking to satisfy our inherent desire to believe there is something to anticipate after we exhale our last breath, men have offered their perspective on what heaven or nirvana or paradise is like. Then they offer their opinions on how to get there.

In its simplest form, the debate is whether there are many paths to God or just one. Another way of saying that is to ask if religion is inclusive or exclusive. Is the gate wide and the pathway broad or is the gate very narrow? That was the word picture favored by Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14 and Luke 13:22-24.

Perhaps the best example of those who advocate a very broad door—or multiple doors—on the path toward knowing God is the Bahai religion that originated in Iran and was founded by Bahá’u’lláhin 1863. He claimed to be the promised prophet like Jesus and Muhammad, and taught that throughout history the one God has manifested himself in different religions.

While students at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Mary and I visited the Bahai temple in Wilmette. The building is absolutely astounding in appearance. Set on the shores of Lake Michigan and surrounded by a manicured landscape, the white concrete with crushed quartz sparkles on a sunny day. The number nine, the highest single digit, is considered to represent perfection and is featured throughout the building. There are nine entrances (doors) into the temple, symbolizing major world religions and suggesting each and every religion leads to God. There are also nine alcoves, nine fountains and nine sections in the beautiful domed ceiling. The inclusive message sells quite well in an age where absolute truth is perishing.

Another religion promoting an inclusive philosophy is the Unitarian Universalist Church of America. Their theology, if it can be called that, is compressed in this statement: “A God of love would not create a person knowing that that person could be destined for eternal damnation.” Each person is responsible to search for truth and meaning, and “all sources of Scripture are admissible—none required.”

Wow! Imagine all the “holy books” stuffed into the seat pockets or pews: the Quran, Buddhist writings, Hindu Vedas, The Book of Mormon, a Bible and whatever flavor of philosophy you might choose on any given Sunday morning. As to who or what gods are addressed in prayer, well, it really doesn’t matter does it? After all, don’t “all roads lead to Rome”?

What I have described above is the purpose for the book, God in His Own Image. Either God has revealed Himself or the Burger King slogan is cosmic, and we are all free to “have it our way.” We have become our own authority about God, and that is precisely the problem. Without a trustworthy authority or map to guide us, we are left to wander around on dusty forest service roads hoping to find our way home before dark.

The true Christian faith is unique among world religions, because the Bible is the source of our belief system and the foundation of truth. Consider the title of the book we call The Holy Bible. Each word in the title is vital.

  • It claims to be The one and only revelation about God.
  • It is Holy because it isnot an ordinary book but unique, set apart from all other books claiming to point the way to God.
  • Bible is the English translation of a rather ordinary Greek word, biblios, or book.

I find it intriguing that when we call this one book The Bible, it’s because we believe it is from God Himself, and set apart from every other book in all the world. All other religious books (note I did not say “sacred”) were the creation of people like you and me, hungry to know if God exists and what He is like. Trying to solve the riddle of life and life hereafter, these authors have thought deeply—even meditated and imagined—about the god they prefer. None of these philosophers or self-proclaimed prophets could boast that they had come down from God or as we say, “been there and done that.” Only one man, a carpenter from Nazareth, dared make that claim and backed it up with evidence by rising from the dead.

Jesus said it this way, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from the Father; only he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). Jesus then claimed to be the living bread that has come down from heaven so broken people can live forever with God in heaven.

If you ask me, then, whether Christianity is exclusive or inclusive, I might reply, “yes.” It is both.

For our Baha’i and Universalist neighbors let’s first consider their favorite term, inclusive. From the time of mankind’s alienation from God and declaration of independence from God’s rules, God has promised a pathway back. Implanted within the curses or judgments, God also promised that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head—while the serpent would only bruise the heel of the promised seed (Genesis 3:15).

That promised seed would come through Noah’s son, Shem (father of the Semites). God promised to make Abraham a great nation through whom all the nations, not just Israel, would be blessed. Even in the older testament, the blessing was always inclusive.

The promise is also inclusive in the newer testament. Consider this open invitation: “For God so love the world [all nations and races] that He gave His only begotten Son [the promised seed] that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

You’ve got to love whoever.

 It’s a term repeated over and over in the Bible.

No matter where they have been or what have done, anybody can claim this promise. Period. Christianity, then, offers a very inclusive path to God.

But that’s not the whole story. Christianity is also exclusive. Even amidst the inclusive “whoever” offers we discover exclusive conditions.

            “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only son” (John 3:18). There it is in black and white: there is but one way to God, through saving faith in Jesus Christ.

When Thomas asked Jesus about the way to God, Jesus responded, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) The Greek grammar is even more exclusive, for it could be translated, “I, myself and nobody else, is the way and truth and life.”

Paul writes in 1Timothy 2:5: “There is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” Jesus knows how guilty I am, how holy God is and knows what will satisfy God’s righteous justice. Jesus intercedes on my behalf. As the son of the Great king He is my entre, the one who can introduce me to the Father. (Romans 5:1, 2)

Peter boldly proclaimed that there is salvation only in and through Jesus (Acts 4:12). The author of Hebrews presents Jesus as the one and only high priest who has offered the perfect sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 9:25-27).

I offer one more example from Jesus’ lips.  “Enter through the wide gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13, 14).

            Can it be stated any more clearly than that? Two paths promise to take us to God, but one ends in destruction and eternal separation from God. That path is very broad, liberal if you will, like Baha’ism’s nine entrances. Can anything be more absurd than to believe Hinduism’s plurality of gods or Buddhism’s four-fold truths and eight-fold paths or the five pillars of Islam are the same road leading to the same destination? Only Jesus claimed that He not only knew the right road, but He is that road because He had been sent by the Father.

That’s the crux of Christianity. That’s why we call ourselves Christ followers. We believe Christ came from heaven to not only show us the right way to live but to take us home with Him.

A few weeks ago Mary and I took a drive to the Metolius Balancing Rocks here in Central Oregon. I had printed off a map from the Internet that led us awry. Finally, I stopped at a gated campground to ask for directions to the rocks. The woman knew about the rocks, but her instructions were so convoluted that we headed back down the road without discovering the balancing rocks. I asked a couple of guys in a Jeep about the rocks, but they hadn’t heard of them so they were no help.

I was almost ready to give up our search when the Jeep returned in a few minutes to say they had found the rocks about a mile or so up a dusty road. Now it was simple and comfortable. We had met someone who knew the way and had already been there.

That is what Jesus offers you and me.

A Road. A Guide. A Friend who will walk with us all the way through this life and into the next.

Word, Words, Words

Words are powerful.

A simple word can motivate an athletic team—or an army—to persevere through conflict and hardship. A well-chosen word from a national leader can lift the soul of a nation, encouraging citizens to make necessary sacrifices in order to achieve victory in time of war or natural disaster. By the same token, a small, careless word—hastily and thoughtlessly spoken—can discourage and deplete the wounded and weak. And may be remembered for a generation.

For the next three weeks I want to use The Front Porch Swing to consider the power of our words. First of all, I want to address what I perceive to be a depleted dictionary in many churches today. I offer three words that I will call MIA words—words all too often missing in contemporary preaching.

It was while reading one of the final chapters in The Essential Edwards that the burden to write this article first impacted me. Chapter 23 began with the following brief, untitled poem, by 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson:

Those—dying then,

Knew where they went—

They went to God’s Right Hand—

That Hand is amputated now

And God cannot be found—

The abdication of Belief

Makes the Behavior small—

Better an ignis fatuus

Than no ilume at all

(Norton, 2383)

What in the world is “ignus fatuus,” you ask? The words describe the fluorescent-like light that can sometimes be seen at night above a swamp as a result of gasses released from decaying plants. Ignus fatuus is a way of describing something that only appears to be authentic. It only appears to be a light above the swamp. It’s like the weary hiker with a depleted water canteen pursuing mirages under the scorching desert sun. He sees the shimmering promise of a pool of water only to discover it isn’t really so.

Dickinson is not known for her passionate evangelical faith, but something must have been severely missing in many of the American pulpits in her day to cause her to compose those words. That’s also why I am writing this blog.

It seems to me that three words are vanishing from our Sunday morning vocabulary: sin, hell and heaven. When I reflect on five decades of preaching, it seems to me that I used those words less and less as the years went by. Back in 1969, I was more ready to use all three.

Why is that? Why would I shy away from these three vital, biblical words?

First, I suspect it’s because we don’t want to appear radical or “out there.” Who wants to be the hellfire-and-brimstone preacher these days? It’s certainly not “seeker friendly” to warn about the gravity of sin. Every sin we commit is against a holy God who will not excuse willful disobedience. We want our God to be known for His love and grace and mercy.

In Exodus 34:5-7, when God introduced Himself to Moses, He first shared His kinder, gentler, more welcome attributes—the ones we love to love. But He didn’t stop there. He went on to add, “yet, He does not leave the guilty unpunished.”

God’s holiness demands justice including wrath on sinners.

You and I can’t read Scripture without being confronted consistently about sin and the ultimate consequence of hell. We say that we love the kinder, gentler Jesus, but then try to ignore the wrathful God in the older testament. Do we realize that Jesus had more to say about hell than any other person in the Bible? Jesus believed hell was a real place of terrible suffering. He used descriptive words that, even if they were metaphors, warn about a literal place of suffering that follows every life lived in rebellion against God. So then why, if Jesus warned about hell, would we avoid the subject?

Would it be considered loving to see a family sleeping in a burning house and ignore the responsibility of trying to awaken them so that they could escape? Of course not! In fact, it would be criminally negligent.

Why then are we so passive about preaching against sin and warning about hell? Do we truly believe sin is lethal and that hell is real—or have we become skeptics? Maybe even practical atheists. Do we profess one thing yet deny it by our actions or lack of conversation about these uncomfortable truths?

We pastors would do well to revisit warnings such as these in Hebrews:

Just as a man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment… (9:27)

For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” and again, “The Lord will judge his people. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (10:30, 31)

Do we avoid sin and hell in order to “win friends and influence people” to like our church? I hope not.

I wonder if there is also an absence of teaching about heaven today? If true, why would we be silent about something so wonderful? Once again, Jesus said more about heaven than anyone else in Scripture. He called it a place that He would prepare for us. He told stories about people like a beggar who inherited peace and bliss in heaven while the wealthy man who had failed to do justice ended up in a place of severe torment. Jesus closes the book of Revelation with a promise and a warning that He is coming again and will reward those who are faithful to the end. The response was (and is), “Amen, come, Lord Jesus.”

The author of Hebrews not only used the threat of punishment to motive his readers as noted above, but he also used the anticipation of meeting Jesus face to face as a motivation to finish the race strongly. (See Hebrews 12:1-3)

            When John wrote about Jesus’ glorious return and our gathering to meet Him he emphasized that, “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3).”

One of the motivations to cast off prevailing sins and to pursue holiness is the anticipation of meeting Jesus and inheriting an eternal home with Him in heaven. Could the loss of this motivation be the reason we seem to struggle spiritually today?

One last thought to consider. Why have we lost the passion for heaven? Why do we live as if Jesus isn’t returning at any moment, even if we say we believe that? I suspect our material success, or appearance of success, is part of the problem. We enjoy so much abundance here and now. Many Americans assume this is normal and appropriate. We have television evangelists promising a gospel of prosperity here and now.  

The truth is, even on my worst day with nothing but leftovers on the plate, I enjoy more than my friend Kato and his family in Uganda. This is especially true now with drought and crop failure and the threat of Ebola crossing the nearby border with the Congo. I am certain Kato’s family and fellow church members think more about heaven or Jesus’ return than I do.

I trust each of our two vehicles to start at the turn of the key and to carry me anywhere I wish to go in comfort. Kato would like to have a cheap Chinese motor-bike or a bicycle. Recently I helped him buy shoes to replace those worn out by walking kilometer after kilometer every day.

Jesus warned that the riches of this life will choke our spiritual appetite for heaven and for Him.

In light of these things, here is my prayer.

Oh, God, forgive me for living like a practical atheist. For spouting all the right jargon but failing to live as if heaven and hell were real. For losing focus on the important and eternal things and for assuming I deserve the bounty You have entrusted to me.

May I be a faithful steward anticipating those words, “Well done. You have been faithful in little things. I trust you with greater.”