Most people believe in an afterlife. And in most cases, this belief involves a good place and a bad place.
If you’re a good person, and you embrace the right beliefs, you go to the good place. If you’re not, and you don’t, you go to the bad place. Seems simple enough.
If you were to ask people what they believe heaven will be like, some would describe it like the Widow Douglas in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where “all a body would have to do was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever.” Others think of it as an eternal pleasure factory, where you are always happy, you have amazing superpowers, and you can do whatever you want. In the movie Defending Your Life, heaven is depicted as a place where you can eat all the carbs and fat you want because they have no calories. The TV series The Good Place features a utopian afterlife where angel Ted Danson allows only “good people.” In the initial plot twist, the central character is allowed in by accident and has to fake being good; in the season’s final plot twist, it turns out that Ted Danson is not an angel (should have seen that one coming) and the Good Place is actually the Bad Place.
Most people think heaven is a place where anybody would love to spend eternity as long as they’re allowed in. This view of heaven leads people to wonder, Why doesn’t God let more people in?
The problem with these views of heaven is that they’re not true. People are taking their picture of heaven from movies rather than thoughtful, sober, grown-up reflection on what Jesus said. “Movie heaven” is pretty much a pleasure factory that anybody would enjoy as long as they were allowed in.
But the life after death that Jesus describes is very different from “movie heaven.” Here’s the main thing to know about heaven: heaven will be life with God.
In fact, in heaven, it will be impossible to avoid God.
It’s not like heaven is an immense place and you have to track God down somewhere, like finding the Wizard of Oz. Heaven does not contain God; God contains heaven. So becoming the kind of person who wants heaven—uninterrupted life with God—is a problem because I often want freedom to do things I don’t want God to see. Real heaven means life where my every thought, deed, and word lie ceaselessly open to God. For eternity.
Have you ever committed a sexual sin? I’ll bet you didn’t do it while your mother was watching you. That would have taken all the fun out of it. In order to commit sin and enjoy it, you have to be someplace your mother isn’t. In heaven, there is no place where God is not. Once you’re in heaven, there is no little “sin” room to run to for a quick smoke. If you want to gossip, hoard, judge, self-promote, overindulge, or be cynical, where will you go?
In other words, heaven is the kind of place where people who want to sin would be miserable. A nonsmoking restaurant is great if you’re a nonsmoker but miserable to a nicotine addict. What brings joy to one creature may torture another. C. S. Lewis once wrote that “a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”
Heaven is a certain kind of community where humility and honesty and servanthood and generosity of spirit are as predictable as gravity is here. As John Henry Newman wrote, “Heaven is not for everyone: it is an acquired taste.”
People often criticize Christianity because they think it envisions heaven as an exclusive club that everyone desperately wants to get into and that God is trying to keep people out of. The reality that Jesus taught, however, is that no one really wants heaven.
The hymn “Rock of Ages” has a telling line:
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
It’s not hard to want the “save from wrath” part of the cure. God was so willing to save us from wrath that he sent Jesus to the cross so that he could experience ultimate spiritual death in our place. Anyone would want to be saved from wrath. We’re often a little more ambivalent about “make me pure.”
Our issue with heaven is not so much about getting in; it’s about becoming the kind of person for whom heaven would be an appropriate and welcome setting. If I don’t want the unceasing presence of God in my life now, how could I truly want an eternity in the ceaseless presence of God, where the possibility of any sinful action or thought—no matter how desirable—is forever cut off?
If that’s the case, who will get in?
If you ever find yourself anxious about “getting in,” the best thought I know is not about what arrangement can take away your anxiety but about God. And the thought is this: God will do the absolute best he can by every human being for all eternity. Including you. In light of his Father’s goodness, Jesus advised, “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34). And if God can take care of one tomorrow, he can take care of an eternity of them.
Surely the message that God gave his Son to die on a cross for our sins is the ultimate statement of his limitless desire to forgive and restore human beings. Dallas Willard put it like this: “I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it.”4
That statement often provokes surprise or a chuckle. But if you stop to think about it, it must be true. Why else would God send his Son to die on our behalf?
The problem is that “standing it” may be more difficult than we imagine—especially for those of us hoping for the eternal pleasure factory. That is why, in The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”5 Hell is the absence of God, and more people want that than you think. I suspect that’s why we sometimes speak of only a stairway to heaven but a highway to hell.
There is some good news, though. Eternal life is far more than getting into heaven. Remember, eternal life is qualitative—it makes a difference in the kind of life we live—more than it is quantitative. And Jesus taught about that life. More than getting us into heaven, he taught how to get heaven into us.
Adapted from Eternity is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place by John Ortberg, Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
About the Author
John Ortberg is the senior pastor of Menlo Church in Northern California and the bestselling author of All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know?; Your Magnificent Chooser; If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat; Everyone’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them; The Me I Want to Be; and The Life You’ve Always Wanted.
Despite the fact that John took his beach-loving wife, Nancy, to central Wisconsin for their honeymoon, the two have managed to have a long and wonderful marriage, three children, and several dogs.