From the “Frank Answers” formerly posted on the Immanuel Lutheran Church web site. It has been emended with the addition of images and commentary on them.
Question: How many good things do I have to do in life in order to get into heaven? As long as I do more good things than bad things, won’t the good things outweigh the bad?
Answer: Many people think everyone goes to heaven when they die. The above painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau of “A Soul Carried to Heaven” (1878) may be an image many people can resonate with—the soul being carried by the angels up to heaven.
But who says any of us are going to heaven? Heaven in the Bible is the realm of God and God has company, the “heavenly hosts”. Human beings were created to be the image of God on earth. The Book of Isaiah and the Book of Revelation envision a new heaven and a new earth. In Isaiah God prepares a feast of good things for his people on his holy mountain, Zion (Isaiah 25:6-10). In Revelation the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God, will come down to earth and God will dwell in its midst (Revelation 21-22). Our eternal destiny is living on a new earth, for which we need a glorified body; hence the promise of the resurrection of the body. Contrary to popular views, we do not turn into angels at death or at any time.
Oh, yes, there are instances of some being taken up into heaven at death—body and soul. Elijah went up in a chariot of fire. Maybe Moses was taken up into heaven also since there is no known grave of the great law giver. Both Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on Mount Tabor when Christ was transfigured before three of his disciples. Catholics and other Christians believe that Mary, the Mother of our Lord, was assumed into heaven at her death. (August 15, the day that celebrates her dormition or “falling asleep” in Eastern Christian calendars, is the feast of the Assumption in the Roman Catholic calendar.) These are special exceptions to the rule.
For the rest of us, we sleep in death with our souls in God’s keeping until the resurrection of the dead. Since God is in heaven, it is proper to think of our souls in heaven if they are in God’s keeping. The soul (psyche) is our personality, what makes us who we are. But it has no independent life or consciousness apart from the body. The soul being carried to heaven in Bouguereau’s painting is embodied but is not awake. The following painting by Bouguereau, “Equality in Death” (1848), shows an angel covering a dead person who will sleep in the earth until the resurrection. Of course, since there is no consciousness in death the resurrection is probably immediately experienced, “in the twinkling of an eye,” as St. Paul says (1 Corinthians 15).
There will be a judgment when the dead are raised, and this question wants to know about the criterion for passing muster. It assumes that the criterion of judgment is how many good works one has performed. It’s kind of like asking whether the deposit of good works in the heavenly bank account will be more than the withdrawals of bad things we have done so that something is left over to live on eternally (kind of like an eternal pension plan).
The Bible’s criterion for passing judgment is not performing good works but belief in Christ. “The one who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). After the text about “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” (John 3:16) we read, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). John is saying that the judgment occurs here and now in our response to Christ.
Before anyone asks, “what about those who do not believe in Christ?”, let me say that that’s not our judgment to make. At a Christian’s funeral we can commend to Christ “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” We commend non-believers to the mercy of God.
As far as our good works are concerned, Isaiah says that our robe of righteousness is but a filthy rag. The good things we do can be marred by unworthy intentions or even by negative consequences. For example, out of compassion you give to a beggar and he goes and buys drugs and gets his head messed up. So is it enough just to give to a beggar? (I’m not discouraging charitable giving!) Since sin can be defined as “missing the mark” we can sin even in doing good works. We take aim and shoot the arrow but it falls short of the target. As St. Paul says, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
When we are raised from the dead and stand before the judgment of Christ, the criterion is not our works (which won’t pass muster) but trust in Christ’s saving work on our behalf. We are justified by faith in Christ (Romans 3:28). But with the Spirit of Christ, given in Holy Baptism, dwelling in us, we are internally prompted to do the works of Christ in this world where we live and move and have our being. We do our good works not to get into heaven or to pass Christ’s judgment, but because we are responding to human need—like the volunteers for Habitat for Humanity in the image below this post. If we are expecting a new earth, why not build a better world for all who dwell on earth here and now?
Our hope is not that we will go to heaven but that the city of God will come to earth and God will dwell in our midst (Revelation 22) and we will be raised up to live in the peaceable kingdom envisioned by Isaiah in which the wolf and lamb will lie down together and a little child shall lead them and they will not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain (Isaiah 11)
Pastor Frank Senn