HED:Who’s going to heaven?
By John Armistead
Who goes to heaven when they die and who does not?
According to surveys, the majority of Americans believe in life beyond the grave, and most understand that life to be heaven. Also, most believe they are going to heaven and that people who do not go to heaven go to hell.
What, then, determines whether or not a person goes to heaven? Is it a matter of doing more good than evil? Do you have to be baptized? Belong to a church? Or what?
Different Christian church traditions offer differing answers to these questions. Several area ministers representing some of these traditions shared their perspectives.
Churches in the evangelical tradition place the emphasis upon an individual making a definite religious commitment at a particular point and place in time.
Such a commitment makes a person a Christian, or “saved,” and only Christians go to heaven. People who are not saved are “lost” and go to hell when they die.
“There are two conditions that every person must meet and obey in their minds and hearts in order to become a Christian,” said the Rev. Forrest Sheffield, pastor of Tupelo’s Harrisburg Baptist Church. “The first is to repent. Jesus said in Luke 13:3, ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.’”
Repentance means to have a sense “that you are a sinner,” to have a sorrow for sin and to separate yourself from sin. “It means to quit doing that which is wrong and to start doing that which is right,” Sheffield said.
The second condition is belief. “The Bible says in John 1:12 ‘As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.’ There must be a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, asking him to be Lord and savior of your life.”
For Sheffield, nothing else is required to gain heaven after this life. It is not a matter or doing good works, joining a church or being baptized.
“Salvation is totally and completely based on the grace of God and is a gift to us,” he said. “I don’t believe we are saved by works period, but if there is real salvation, there will be works of righteousness. Works are the fruit of salvation, not the root.”
A Christian, however, will express his belief in assembling with other believers, being baptized, and serving, honoring and obeying God.
Faith fleshed out
Some mainline churches are more evangelical than others, but most place priority upon belief in Christ and in discipleship as prerequisites for gaining heaven.
“Heaven is where God is and that’s the key to the whole thing,” said the Rev. Bob Rambo, pastor of Ripley’s First United Methodist Church. “We speak of heaven in the sense of eternal life. How do you find this life? The Scripture talks about a personal relationship with God in the way expressed by faith in Jesus Christ.”
But, for Rambo, eternal life through a relationship with God is not just something beyond death.
“That ties in with this life as something we experience here and now,” he said. “This life is kind of a trial run for the life to come. This life is the proving ground where we struggle and wrestle with the essence of what it means to be in a relationship with God.”
For Rambo, this personal relationship with God “is something that has to be fleshed out in our lives on a daily basis.”
“There’s some importance in discovering that all people are made in God’s image and that image of God that we carry gets marred by sin. As that image is reawakened in us by God’s grace and our response to God’s grace, we begin to participate in that journey toward heaven.”
Neither joining a church nor being baptized nor doing good works are necessary. “We don’t work our way into heaven, but certainly the works of our lives bear evidence of the reality of God in us.”
Obeying the gospel
Churches of Christ offer a different viewpoint.
“One has to obey the gospel in the process of being saved from sin by faith, repentance, confession, and baptism, according to Mark 16:15-16,” said Ed Casteel, minister of Hillcrest Church of Christ in Baldwyn. “That places him into Christ. Then, by being in Christ one must live faithfully to Christ. Paul says in Romans 6 that we walk in the newness of life, and if we continue in that newness of life, then heaven can be ours.”
A person who chooses not to continue in that newness of life and ceases to live the Christian life, however, can lose his salvation.
“According to 1 John 1:7, if we walk in the light we are cleansed from sin, but I can stop walking in the light,” said Casteel, “and when I stop walking in the light, then I have voided the opportunity for heaven.”
An individual who has lost his salvation would need to repent and come back to the Lord.
What is the role of baptism? “Baptism is essential to the salvation of the soul according to 1 Peter 3:21. Through the act of baptism is the process of leaving sin and getting into Christ.”
To see God face to face
“How does one get to heaven?” is more of a Protestant question than a Catholic one, but Catholics believe very strongly in both heaven and hell, and that one’s eternal destination is determined in this life.
“A person can chose life or death,” said Sister Martha Werner, resident pastoral administrator of Christ the King Catholic Church in Fulton. “If you choose life, you choose heaven.”
The choice determines the kind of life a person lives here and now. “I think sometimes heaven is here on earth when we discover that God is with us,” Werner said. “When you choose life to the fullest and you live it to the fullest, somehow or the other it comes out in the long run. If we choose things that aren’t right, we relinquish life.”
The mass and sacraments are means of receiving strength to live life as it should be lived throughout the week.
Do Catholics believe you have to be Catholic to go to heaven? “No, of course not. In order to get to heaven one has to be in the disposition of receiving the grace of God that comes to us. We accept that which God sends.”
What about baptism? “Baptism in the church is a formal way of placing the child in God’s hands. It’s only when they are baptized in the Spirit that they get the life of God and continue on.”
For Werner, the bottom line is choosing life. “When you choose life, you choose all the better things beyond what other people think, and, in spite of our faults or feelings, we somehow still make it through God’s grace. Then we’ll be able to see God face to face.”