To say that our society has banished God may be a bit of an overstatement, but not by much and not for very much longer.
Your friends and co-workers, and even some of your family have very different religious beliefs than they did, perhaps only 20-30 years ago. Not long ago, basic Christian beliefs, if not actually held by the majority of Americans, were at least acknowledged as legitimate. No longer.
Beliefs about God, Jesus, death and life after death are as diverse as the flavors of ice cream at Baskin Robbins, and your opinions on those beliefs as personal, private and valid as which ice cream flavor you like best.
While a slim majority of Americans continue to believe in the Christian concept of heaven, they have very vague views on what it is, where it is and who should go there (although the vast majority of those believe they will). But a growing number of people (including many Christians) believe in the Hindu concept of reincarnation – that when you die you come back to life in this world, and your karma in this life will determine what you become in the next, and hopefully after four or five hundred tries you will finally get it right and go to Nirvana. Others hope, as the Buddhists, to be swallowed up and disappear like a drop in the ocean, losing one’s own identity in the great nameless, faceless Beyond. And even more (including many Christians) believe in nihilism (when you die, that’s it, there’s nothing left.)
One little girl asked her father what would happen after death and he said, “When you unplug the refrigerator, it doesn’t keep running does it?” And so she thought when you die they came and picked you up in a truck and took you to the Goodwill store.
Our modern New Age culture embraces a kind of pantheism that says we are all a part of a great life force, and when we die, we are absorbed into this life force that permeates the world. You’ll find this voiced in many funerals and memorial services. You’ve probably heard the poem:
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint of snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I do not die.
Or the message following Princess Diana’s death:
I did not leave you at all. I am still with you. I am in the sun and in the wind. I am even in the rain. I did not die, I am with you all.
And certainly, you haven’t missed the current fascination with the undead in all its manifestations from vampires to zombies, along with the allure of contacting the dead with Ouija boards, séances and spiritism.
You’ll have to admit, we live in a culture confused and uncertain about what happens following death. Dozens of books written by those who have experienced some kind of near-death and life-after-death event and returned to tell about it. What do we make of it all?
What does happen when we die? Are we left to our own imaginations to sort it all out and pick the flavor that sounds best to us? Or can we find any kind of definitive word on the subject?
Albert Einstein was on a train from his home in Princeton, NJ. As the conductor came around checking tickets, he looked in his pocket, his briefcase, his wallet – no ticket. The conductor said, “That’s okay, Dr. Einstein, I know who you are and I’m sure you have a ticket.” He continued on down the aisle checking tickets, and looked back and Dr. Einstein was on the floor searching under his seat for the lost ticket. The conductor went back, and said, “Dr. Einstein, it’s okay – I know who you are.” The great professor said, “Young man, I also know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going.”
There are three great questions every person asks about life:
Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Where am I going?
I don’t care who you are, where you’re from or what your religion is (or isn’t). Every human being will wrestle with these three questions sooner or later.
I’m here to tell you this morning that we aren’t left to our own imaginations, because the Bible has so much to say about these questions that we can know what the answers are.
Where did you come from? God’s Word says you were created by God. You are not some highly evolved pond scum. You were created in the image of God – the psalmist says, “He knit you together in your mother’s womb.”
Why are you here? You were created with a purpose, and that purpose is to bring glory to God. Your life matters to God, and he created you to live in a close intimate relationship with him.
Where are you going? The Bible says that when you die, you will go to meet with God – that you are destined for an encounter with your creator.
And we see pretty quickly that these three questions aren’t separate and unrelated, but that they are intertwined in a way that our answer to any one of them will deeply affect how we answer the other two. If you believe that God created you, you will also come to the conclusion that he has a purpose for your life. And if he has a purpose for your life, then he has a vested interest in where you go after you die. We want to spend some time over the next few weeks thinking about that third question: Where are we going?
So, I think it’s important that as we start to consider this question that we go to the one the Bible calls “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is the one who can give us the clearest insight into where we are going, because he’s the only one who has been to the other side and returned. He’s not just guessing – he knows.
There is a statue of Christopher Columbus in Valladolid, Spain (the place of Columbus’ death in 1506). At the base of the statue are three words in Latin: Non Plus Ultra – “No More Beyond” – and that was the common belief of the people of Columbus’ day – that there was no more beyond what they could see – the horizon was the limit – that nothing lay beyond. But as you know, in 1492, Columbus dissuaded the world of that notion, and so there is a lion beside these words, tearing away the first word, leaving the final two: More Beyond.
That’s what Jesus came to tell us – that there is more beyond – more beyond this world.
Now, in Jesus’ day, there was a group of Jews who didn’t believe there was anything after death. They were called the Sadducees. And they approached Jesus trying to trick him and trap him concerning the afterlife. And they presented this conundrum of a woman married to a man who dies and then, in turn, each of the man’s seven brothers marry the woman and die, in turn, until finally she dies and the Sadducees ask Jesus, “So whose wife will she be in heaven?”
Jesus’ didn’t answer their question because he knew it was a smokescreen, and more than that, that they were mocking the very promise of God. Instead he says, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ ? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”
When people deny heaven it is because they do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.
Jesus was constantly telling his disciples that we should always live this life in view of the next. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven…” (Mt. 5:11-12)
In Luke 10:20, he told his followers, “…rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Jesus didn’t do something that we do too often – he didn’t preach the gospel of life enhancement – he didn’t guarantee an easy life now, in fact, he told them that in this life they would suffer. We try to tell people how they can have a better life now and hope for the best in the next, while Jesus is focused on what comes next.
And so, in Matthew 16:26, he told them just how important it is that we see beyond this temporary, transient life: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.” There is nothing in this world that can compare to the riches of the next.
There are three things that Jesus consistently taught about what happens after we die:
1) Jesus said that everybody will be raised and judged.
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5:24-29)
Think how many parables Jesus told about this great universal judgment: sheep and goats, wheat and tares, good fish and bad fish, wise virgins and foolish virgins – never a third group – you are in one or the other. And the other thing he says is that many will be surprised at the outcome – Matthew 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Not everyone will go to heaven, but everybody can.
2) Anybody who trusts in Jesus is welcome in heaven.
“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40)
A lot of people think that on the day of judgment, God will open up the books and start adding up and comparing. Did you commit more sins than you did good works or did you have more good works than you did sins? (Kind of like Santa at Christmas looking over the naughty/nice list). And if that were the basis of judgment, good would be good enough.
But that’s not the basis for judgment. The question is not, “How much did you sin,” but “How much do you trust God for his answer to your sin?”
“I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
Not everyone will go to heaven, but all are welcome in heaven. It is inclusive – all can go there – but it is also exclusive. All roads do not lead to the same place. There is just one. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
And though our focus is on heaven, we need to realize that there is another dimension to eternity, and that is described in the Bible as hell.
3) Jesus taught that nobody who rejects him will escape eternal hell.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46)
The fact is, Jesus spoke more about hell than any other person in the Bible – thirteen percent of his teachings deal with judgment and hell. More than half of his parables relate to God’s eternal judgment of sinners. Of the twelve times that the word gehenna—the strongest biblical word for hell—appears in Scripture, there is only one time in which Jesus was not the speaker. No one spoke of hell more than Christ did.
And nobody can describe the god-forsakenness of hell better than Jesus, because he went there. The Bible says Jesus went there for you… he took your place on the cross, and he suffered the punishment you deserved.
And Jesus described hell as a place of darkness. Lots of people joke about hell as though it’s going to be a big party for all the people who had too good a time in this life and all the people who know how to have fun will be there. But the problem with that is, you won’t know anyone else is there. The darkness will be overwhelming, there will be utter aloneness.
It will also be a place where pain is constant and unrelenting. Revelation 14:11 says, “The smoke from their burning pain will rise forever and ever. There will be no rest, day or night, for those who worship the beast and his idol or who get the mark of his name.”
He also said it would be a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Hell is a place of eternal remorse and regret – knowing that you have chosen poorly and will never have the opportunity to change it.
Some people take exception to all this talk about hell. They say they could never believe that a loving God would send people to hell. Understand that God doesn’t send people to hell. It is not and has never been his choice for us – he sent his son to die for us so that we wouldn’t have to go there.
Listen to what Max Lucado wrote in his book When Christ Comes:
How could a loving God send people to hell? That’s a commonly asked question. The question itself reveals a couple of misconceptions.
First, God does not send people to hell. He simply honors their choice. Hell is the ultimate expression of God’s high regard for the dignity of man. He has never forced us to choose him, even when that means we would choose hell. As C. S. Lewis stated: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it.” In another book Lewis said it this way: “I willingly believe the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” No, God does not “send” people to hell. Nor does he send “people” to hell. That is the second misconception.
The word people is neutral, implying innocence. Nowhere does Scripture teach that innocent people are condemned. People do not go to hell. Sinners do. The rebellious do. The self-centered do. So how could a loving God send people to hell? He doesn’t. He simply honors the choice of sinners. (When Christ Comes, p. 122)
If God forced us to love him, he would not be a loving God. If, during this lifetime, you tell God to keep his distance and let you live the way you want, he will honor that choice. He gives every person the right to reject him, but he cannot eliminate the consequences of that choice.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians, Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12) That is a prelude to hell. Hell is ultimately a complete and total separation from God.
Contrast that with heaven, which is the complete and absolute presence of God. Heaven is the place where we will be able to walk with God, personally and intimately. We will have no fear in his presence – we will know only the perfect love of the one who created us and redeemed us for his own.
There are two things you need to know about eternity:
1) No one in hell will claim “God sent me here.” God put hell on his son so you will not have to go. Everyone in hell will know that it was their choice to be there. They will have to walk right by the cross of Jesus to get there. No one will blame God for putting them there.
2) No one in heaven will say, “I put myself here.” We will realize that it is by God’s grace alone that we are in heaven. And we will fall to our knees in humble, eternal gratitude for the gift we have been given.
A little boy was in the park flying a kite. It was so high that it was barely a speck in the sky. A man came along and asked the little boy what he was doing and the little boy said he was flying his kite. The man asked how he knew the kite was still there. And the little boy replied, “I can feel the tug.”
That’s how heaven is. We can barely see it, but we know it’s there because we feel its pull upon our hearts. I know that this life was not all I was made for. And the older I get, the stronger I feel that tug.
It is where my heart longs to be – at home with the Father in heaven.
(I want to acknowledge my dependence on two resources for some of the content in this sermon: Rick Atchley’s, Amazing Place, and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope - both excellent studies on heaven.)