Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Christian Role In Heaven

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A friend of mine who does not happen to be Christian, has asked about the Christian view of where people go if they are not Christian. The question is sticky, since it suggests a general answer would be applicable to every individual person, but a few things should be considered as indicators of God's will, I think.

One thing that people trip over is the line from Jesus, saying "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No man comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). A lot of exclusionists try to use that verse and others like it, to say that everyone must adopt their specific doctrine, or be condemned. I think that has been largely misunderstood, and to great pain. Rather than argue from my own doctrinal understanding (which is biased on its face), I think a look at context is vital.

Let's assume, arguendo, that Jesus was properly quoted, and meant exactly what He said, and more was exactly right. Note that in the 14th Chapter of John, Jesus was meeting with His disciples for the last time, in the upper room where they had the Last Supper. This statement then, was to His disciples, personally given and face to face. The first verse of that Chapter reads "Do not let your hearts be troubled", and Jesus also specificaly promised them that "I am going there to prepare a place for you". This talk was not a warning but a word of hope and comfort.

So how does that verse get raised? Jesus promised His disciples "You know the way to the place where I am going.". The disciples naturally were worried that they would fail this point, so Thomas (the famous doubter, remember) asked "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?". It was to this question that Jesus answered "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No man comes to the Father except through Me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." Jesus was not warning the people that they'd better follow His slightest suggestion perfectly or be burned; He was assuring His followers that they would do as He did, and go where He goes, because they could not fail, having chosen the good.

In that context, the Gospel shows the meaning of its hope and love. Now, from that Scripture, I read the matter thus:

There is bad news and good news for us all. Some think that certain words or signs will be enough to impress God, but God makes it clear that to go where the Father reigns, we must do as He wills, and that example is found in Christ, who loved, taught, shared, and gave freely. Those who do as Christ did, will not fail to receive their reward

This does not mean that sin is a lie, or that our works will be sufficient. The truth is, we all owe better than we do, no matter how much we do, so anyone who depends on their own strength or ability will fail. This is apparent, actually, even in the world we know. No matter how strong or healthy a man is, he will grow feeble and die. No matter how intelligent a man is, he will nevere know all there is to know, nor even all that is important. No matter how wealthy a man is, he will die with nothing. The only things a man may leave after himself are his family, his friends, and his work. It is no coincidence that all of those things can succeed only in cooperation with other people.

So it is with the spirit. We can never be pure enough, strong enough, or accomplish enough to pay our way. The good news is, that is not at all necessary.

The character of God is such, that none of us can say for certain that any person, no matter his reputation, was consigned to hell. We can know, however, the sort of people who are received in Heaven, and it is a great number. It is Heaven, to be clear, that we should focus on, not as a goal to be earned and acquired, but as a gift God has prepared for us.

Throughout History, Man has only known of Christ since His life on earth, and even then only in those places where Christians have faithfully spread the Gospel. A simple consideration of how many billions of people have lived since the first human, knowing that God is the Father and Creator of every one of them, can only mean that the Father has a plan for hope and glory for each of us.

This does not mean that everyone goes to Heaven, but it also does not mean that only those who carry the name "Christian" will be in Heaven. This is apparent, I think, by the covenant God made with the Jewish people. Since I do not believe God makes errors, it seems to me that God intended His covenant with Abraham to be a signal to all people, that a direct and blessed relationship with God is not only possible, but intended by His perfect will.

So, what is the meaning of Christianity? If it is not a special covenant by which all men may be saved, why are we told this in Scripture? What are we meant to be and do, we who call Jesus 'Lord'?

Two books in the New Testament address this well, I think. In Hebrews, it is written "because Jesus lives forever, He has a permanent priesthood" (Hebrews 7:24. In 1 Peter, it is written "you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5) and "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." (1 Peter 2:9).

Look at how Jesus lived on Earth; not as a moody tyrant, but among the people, helping and teaching by word and example. Is it surprising to see that His disciples are called to the same work?

Look to the Jewish Rabbis and the Catholic Priests today. Are they not set apart by every aspect of their person? They act, speak, even dress in a manner that is unique. Yet, none of them has the position to settle civil or criminal disputes (except where one is asked to do so by both parties in certain cases as a matter of respected wisdom, not by fiat), none of them issues laws to command people or compel behavior, none of them uses physical or coercive force in their teaching. The way of the priest, then, is one of example and leadership, of the accomplishment of good through cooperation and community. We are meant, here on Earth and again in Heaven, to do the work first, that others may follow a good example. The Christian in Heaven then, is tasked to show the light of Heaven, and the crowns spoken of in Revelation are no more or less than the spirit which delights in holy service.

Is there rank in Heaven? Save that God reigns, I do not know, nor care. But since we who go to Heaven will go from an imperfect and corruptible life to a perfect and incorruptible essence, we shall hope for examples of the way there, just as a man looks for good light to see his way.

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