Many people do not believe in a literal heaven so for them, the question “Who goes there?” is moot. The late Dr. Louis Goldberg once told of the time that he went into the store of a Jewish proprietor:
He looked so depressed and dejected that I asked him what was wrong. He replied, “I have just attended the funeral of my favorite aunt.” Softly I inquired, “And where is she now? Will you see her again?” “You know what we believe,” he replied, “When a person dies, the body is placed in the ground, and this is all there is to it… All that remains is the memory of the departed in the hearts of the living.”i
That man was not alone in his belief that death was the final curtain. Yet there are noted Jewish scholars and rabbis in all the main branches who do not dismiss belief in an afterlife. Orthodox Rabbi, Shraga Simmons, writes:
The afterlife is a fundamental of Jewish belief! The creation of man testifies to the eternal life of the soul. Heaven is where the soul experiences the greatest possible pleasure—the feeling of closeness to G-d. Of course not all souls experience that to the same degree. It’s like going to a symphony concert. Some tickets are front-row center; others are back in the bleachers.ii
Reform Judaism has shifted in recent years to a stronger affirmation of an afterlife as well. The Central Conference of American Rabbis state in their platform:
Several generations of Reform Jews took as a matter of Reform Jewish faith the denial of any life after death beyond the naturalist concepts of living on in memory or in deeds. . . . The culture in which we live no longer presumes that immortality is unscientific, irrational or unbelievable. . . . Regardless of what you may have heard, the promise of eternal life of the spirit is part and parcel of Reform Judaism.iii
Dr. Neil Gillman, a professor of philosophy at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, a bastion of Conservative Jewish thought, gave the following perspective in an interview with BarbaraWalters:
“For the past 2,000 years, most Jews believed that at death the body and the soul separate, the body is interred and disintegrates in the Earth, the soul goes off to be with God,” he tellsWalters. But that’s not the end of the story. “At the end of days, God will resurrect bodies, will reunite body and soul, and the individual will come before God to account for his or her life,” Gillman said.iv
Jewish people who believe in a resurrection of the soul and/or the body after death, have various views on the final destination of the individual, some of which are based on passages from the Bible. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of a place called “Sheol” where each person resides between death and resurrection. The righteous are on one side of Sheol, the unrighteous on the other, with a wide, impassable chasm between the two.
The Jewish Scriptures also speak of the Day of Judgment. The Hebrew prophet Daniel spoke of a judgment in the world to come: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). What is the basis for that fate?
Traditional Jewish teaching specifies three classes into which people are sorted on this day: the perfectly righteous, the completely wicked, and the average people. The righteous are sealed for eternal life and dwell forever in a place of extreme beauty called Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, distinct from the place where Adam and Eve were formed. The wicked are destined for Gehinnom, a place of punishment said to be located beneath the earth. Those sent there are tormented by a fire of intense heat, which, according to some, never ceases. For the third class, the average people, many scholars teach that there is some type of purgatory experience, where the person cries out in repentance and is then released to the Garden of Eden.v
The variety of opinions and the volume of literature concerning the afterlife attest to one thing: the Hebrew Scriptures are as true today as when they first declared that God has “set eternity in their heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Whether or not we admit it, we all long for something beyond this life, and we sense that God (even if we question his existence) has made us with the possibility of living with him forever.
But if heaven does exist, how do we obtain it? Who makes it to heaven? And who does not? How can we be sure we will go there? Most of us would probably consider ourselves to be in that average class of people, not extremely righteous and not terribly wicked. We probably regard ourselves as basically good. And if there is a heaven, won’t all good people go there?
The Barna Research Group found that 54% of Americans believe that if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during her life, she will earn a place in heaven.vi This however begs the question of what is good? Most of us would list things like being kind to others, giving to charity, and earning an honest living. We all fall short sometimes, but surely, we reason, God will overlook those things, won’t he?
To answer this question, it helps to examine God’s character, his nature. The prophet Isaiah said, “For thus says the high and exalted OneWho lives forever, whose name is Holy” (Isaiah 57:15). The Hebrew word translated as Holy is kadosh, which means “set apart” or “distinct.” That which is kadosh is differentiated from that which is common; the Creator is distinct from the creation.
According to Jewish thought, heaven is where people dwell in God’s presence. If this is the case, then we can only approach this set apart God on his terms. In so doing, we begin to sense that God’s definition of “good” may be a bit different than ours.
When Isaiah had his vision of God on his throne in the Temple, his response was “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, whenever God revealed himself to an individual, that person was overwhelmed with the awesomeness of God’s presence, and usually expected to die from the encounter. It is almost as if God has a problem. He wants to have a relationship with his creation, but if we attempt to draw too near to him, we will be destroyed!
The Scriptures teach that man and woman, made in the image of God, were tarnished by the fall in the Garden of Eden. Before they listened to the serpent, Adam and Eve had free and open communication with God. After giving into temptation, they hid from God due to their shame and the sense that they deserved his punishment. Could it possibly be this same sense of guilt that makes us afraid of death, since we sense that judgment awaits us as well?
The perfectly righteous God has to judge unrighteousness. Bible scholar, J. I. Packer explains:
. . . part of God’s moral perfection is his perfection in judgment. Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable Being? Moral indifference would be an imperfection in God, not a perfection. . . . The final proof that God is a perfect moral Being, not indifferent to questions of right and wrong, is the fact that he has committed himself to judge the world.vii
What is the proper judgment for each of us whose very nature, according to the Scriptures, falls cataclysmically short of the perfect holiness of God? The prophet Ezekiel states in the Scriptures, “The person who sins will die.”viii Ezekiel is speaking of spiritual death, eternal separation from God. But don’t all of us sin, don’t all of us do wrong? If so, none of us, the Scriptures seem to indicate, will go to heaven.
Are we really that bad? Certainly not in our own eyes. But we need to remember that we see ourselves through a distorted lens. Only God sees us for what we really are, compared to himself, the true standard of goodness. If heaven were a gathering place for people, we might safely compare ourselves to our neighbors and conclude we are good enough for them. But if heaven is the presence of our absolutely holy God, none of us is good enough.
But although the Bible observes that God would be justified in rejecting us forever, it also reveals that he has made a way for us to be with him now and throughout eternity. God is holy and just, but he is equally merciful: “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.”ix
The key to a right relationship with God is forgiveness of our sins. If our sins are forgiven, God can see us as just and connect with us again. However, God cannot merely overlook sin. The sin must be acknowledged and the penalty must be paid. The sacrificial system was instituted with just that purpose.
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest took the blood of the animals killed on the altar and sprinkled it in the Holy Place: “He shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel, and because of their transgressions, in regard to all their sins.” x God had already told the Israelites that blood was required for the forgiveness of sins: ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.”xi
God has always made a way through sacrifice for us to return to right standing with him both for now and in the life hereafter. However, if God had intended the Jewish sacrificial system to continue, he would not have allowed the Romans in 70 A.D. to destroy the Temple, where he had commanded his people to offer those sacrifices. Nor would he have allowed us to remain without the Temple to this very day. God had offered a new way for all people, Jew and Gentile, to enter into the promise of redemption and eternal life.xii
In the New Testament, we read of how God revealed that new means of handling sin: “. . . not through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, he entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” xiii
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus declared, “No one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6). This is a bold claim, but it makes sense, if Jesus dealt with the sin that separates us from God. There are plenty of people who resent that claim. Plenty of relatively good people who are insulted by the idea that without Jesus, God will bar them from heaven.
Consider this statement:
In the end God will judge fairly. The very nature of God prevents him from being unfair. Genesis 18:25 asks, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” xiv
People are not separated from God because they do not put their trust in Jesus. They are separated from God by their sin. If you step off a cliff, you will fall, probably to your death. This is the law of gravity. If you die without the penalty paid for your sins, you will pay the penalty— eternal separation from God, in a place the Bible calls hell. This is as certain a law in the spiritual realm as is the law of gravity in the physical realm.
Some might ask, “Doesn’t sincerity count for anything?” Sincerity counts for a lot as a character trait, but it does not solve the problem of sin. If someone is drowning in the ocean, they can sincerely wish to be saved, but without a rope or a lifeboat their sincerity will die with them. Or consider this illustration provided by Jeff Cummings:
A man is sitting in the airport. His destination is Chicago. Because of a computer error he and several other passengers are misinformed regarding the departure gate. He is unaware of this and sincerely believes the plane he is about to board is headed to Chicago. Unfortunately it is headed to San Francisco. . . . Just because a person is sincere in their beliefs, doesn’t mean they’re going where they think they are. We can be sincerely wrong. Sincerity doesn’t relieve us from the consequences of our misinformation.xv
The Hebrew word for sin means “to miss the mark.” With God, a miss is as good as a mile, because he can have nothing to do with sin. “But surely, for something as important as one’s eternal destiny,” one might reason, “there have to be alternate paths?”
John Ankerberg notes:
Did Buddha die for our sins? Did Mohammed die for our sins? Did Lao Tze, the founder of Taoism? Did Moses? Did Zoroaster, the founder of Parsism? Or Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism? None of these men ever claimed to do this. . . . Only Jesus solved the sin problem and conquered death, so logically, only Jesus is the way of salvation and the way to God and eternal life. xvi
Aspirin may be helpful for some heart problems, but it won’t destroy a deadly tumor. The radical problem of sin requires a radical cure. Jesus claimed to be that cure. Are you willing to use the prescription with his name on it?
i. Louis Goldberg, “SoWhere DoWe Go From Here?” (July 1, 1986)
ii. Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “Heaven, Hell, Afterlife”
iii. Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Commentary on the Principles for Reform Judaism,” (October 27, 2004)
iv. “Heaven—Where Is it? How Do We Get There? Barbara Walters Explores the Meaning of Heaven and Afterlife,” (December 20, 2005)
vi. The Barna Group, “Beliefs: Heaven and Hell”
xv. Jeff Cummings, “Reconciliation of God and Man,”
xvi. Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon, “Is Christianity Alone Fully True and is Jesus Christ Really the Only Way to God?”