Jesus said to the criminal on the cross beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). If we logically take this as a descriptive reference to Heaven, as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 12:4 and as Jesus seems to say in the letter to the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:7 (these three are the only references to “Paradise” in the whole Bible), then the first person who went directly into Heaven under the New Covenant did so while being executed as a criminal.
And though in his distinctive identity as the Son, Jesus went to Hades while his body was in the tomb (see “To Hades with Hell”), his part in the Trinity also identifies him with the Father and Spirit, who were in Heaven. Therefore he could truthfully tell the criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
No stop for burgers or last view of the sunset.
Everyone who dies goes to judgment (Hebrews 9:27), where true believers are welcomed into Heaven. There is no intermediate state. Why?
Because Jesus prepaid the price for the penalty for our sin, whether it’s about human depravity or personal responsibility. Sin doesn’t merely get us in trouble with God. Sin separates us from God, because God is utterly holy—set apart and pure. He will not be in the presence of sin or sinful creatures. The Bible consistently depicts God as the source of all life, physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal. Our sin cuts us off from him. When we’re cut off from God, we’re cut off from eternal life.
God is also righteous. He requires justice, and sin is so incorrigible in his eyes that bandages won’t heal it. Sin is like a malignant cancer. It must be destroyed. But because we are sinful creatures, we ourselves would be destroyed along with the sin. Even after all the enlightenment and self-improvement in the world, we’d still be in a sinful state. Being good people will not help us and has nothing to do with going to Heaven. No matter how good we try to be, we’re dead meat.
But God is also love. Despite our sin, he loves us and wants fellowship with us. That’s why he had the Israelites sacrifice animals to atone for their sins. It was God’s gift to them to have an animal take their place.
In God’s ultimate plan, expressed by early biblical prophecy, Jesus became the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Because he was the incarnation of the eternal God, his sacrifice on the cross was, and is, valid for all time. Biblically, when a person receives Christ, that person is given “the right to become [a child] of God” (John 1:12) and “will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). Receiving Christ means truly believing and submitting to Jesus. We are judged righteous because he is righteous. And we receive eternal life. It is a gift.
Consider any human-caused trouble afflicting the world—even if only in your personal sphere. You see the intransigence of sin and what it does. You see human carnality and collusion with demons. Self-help and inner peace are good, but they don’t solve the basic problem of sin, whether for individuals or the human race.
No belief system or philosophy outside of what we find in the Bible adequately addresses the seriousness of human sin: we’re all in big trouble. And as a result, no other belief system or philosophy adequately recognizes the solution for what to do about sin and what to do about our separation from the source of all life. Only the Bible does. And that’s why it, and the people who follow it, are so exclusive about Jesus being the only way.
No one else broke the power of sin and death. No one else took our place in death to give us the opportunity to live. Many sages and prophets have walked the earth and taught good things. But only one could truthfully claim to be the incarnation of God. Only one gave his life in our place and rose to make the way for our post-death resurrection to eternal life.
People who reject God do not go to Heaven because they have rejected the relationship that would have given them eternal life. They didn’t want to be around God in their earthly existence, but in so doing they removed the possibility of being around God in eternity. My other article “To Hades with Hell” describes the alternatives for their various scenarios.
If Bible believers seem narrow-minded about salvation and who goes to Heaven, it’s because the reality about salvation and Heaven is narrow. No other philosophy, god, or religious effort meets the harsh reality.
People can believe whatever they want, but the question remains whether any of those beliefs have a valid basis.
The Bible finds validation in science, reason, archeology, prophecy, answered prayers, and changed lives. That gives us plenty of reason, in addition to faith, to trust what it tells us about salvation and going to Heaven. According to the Bible our eternal life starts not when we die but when we come into a saving relation with Christ. Death basically upgrades us from our temporary physical life to an eternal spiritual life. We go to be in God’s presence, the state or place we call Heaven.
photo credit: h.koppdelaney www.flickr.com