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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

10 January 2007

Can Bad People Go to Heaven?

Q: My grandson asked: “Can I get to heaven if I’m bad?” How would you answer that question in a way I can share with him?

Christ in HeavenA: I’m not sure how old your grandson is, so let’s begin with the simplest answer: Yes, he can. The only “good” person who ever went to heaven was Jesus. But before your grandson goes crazy, tell him that no bad people are allowed eternal life — only perfect people live forever with God.

If he stops and stares at you like you’re crazy, good — that means he’s paying attention and is ready for the missing information. God counts sinful (bad) people as holy (good) when they believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay for their sins and that He rose to bring them to eternal life. Bad people go to heaven because our loving Father credits Jesus’ perfect goodness to us.

If we reject Jesus, we push ourselves away from Him and remain “bad” in God’s eyes. But when the Holy Spirit keeps us believing God’s Word, He also works in us so that we desire to be more like Jesus, acting less like our sinful natures lead us to do. At the same time, certain “good” (self-righteous) people do not go to heaven. If your grandson is younger, you’ll need to explain that this means people who think they’re already good enough to go to heaven or who think that they can make themselves this way through their own works feel no need for Jesus.

Jesus in Levi's HouseA number of illustrations from Scripture could help him understand. Luke 5:27-32 might be a fine start, where the “good” (self-righteous) Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? (v. 30)” Let him see how the Savior shows His greatest love to those who know that they are sinners rather than to those who think that they have no sins.

Follow this up by reading (or, for a younger child, paraphrasing) Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18:9-14. Make sure he understands terms like “justified” — as in declared “not guilty” or made righteous. Ask him why the “bad” man went away justified while the “good” man remained guilty of his sins. Help him to make the answer his own, leading him to see how his own worries about being “bad” and missing heaven are much like those of the tax collector. Assure him that God loves him for the sake of Jesus. Show him that just as God forgave the repentant tax collector, so He also forgives your repentant grandson.

To prepare yourself for your conversation, you might also take a swing through Hebrews 11. You can use these heroes of the faith to illustrate the truth that God doesn’t accept us because of our goodness but because of His grace for the sake of Jesus Christ. Point out to your grandson that the Holy Spirit creates faith in sinners and makes them saints — while also reminding him that all Christians remain both sinner and saint until we die.

Moses Smashing the TabletsYour examples could include Abraham, who seemingly doubted the Lord’s protection and lied about his relationship to Sarah. Sarah laughed at God’s promise that she would have a son before being led to believe and to conceive. Jacob, later renamed Israel (and father of that nation), took advantage of his brother, deceived his father, and tricked his uncle. Moses, Israel’s great rescuer, lashed out in murderous violence, argued against God’s command to lead His people, broke the tablets he received on Sinai, complained bitterly about the leadership position into which the Lord placed him, and disobeyed the command to speak to the rock, instead striking it in anger.

Gideon argued with God until the Lord provided multiple proofs of His guiding presence. Barak heard God’s promise of victory but wouldn’t act on them unless accompanied by Deborah. Jephthah made a foolish, sinful vow and ended up sacrificing his own daughter. Then there’s Samson — one who could prove our point all by himself. He sought his own path, lay with a prostitute, and put his confidence in his hair rather than in his God.

Of course, we cannot ignore King David. He trusted the Lord and did His will, slew Goliath, refused to strike down the Lord’s anointed king even though Saul sought to kill him, led Israel to great military victories, and wrote dozens of Psalms of worship. Yet he also established a census condemned by God, committed adultery, and conspired to murder Uriah in order to cover up his sin.

'Doubting' ThomasThe New Testament’s examples include Jesus’ contentious, fearful, disbelieving disciples. They argued about their relative greatness, fled the garden in fear, and refused to believe the women’s report of the Resurrection. Of these, we especially remember Thomas’s disbelief and Peter’s denial. Meanwhile, Saint Paul first enter’s Scripture’s account as Saul the persecutor of Christ’s Church. He guarded the cloaks of Stephen’s murders and sought to arrest and imprison believers before Jesus converted him. Later, he confessed his unending need for forgiveness. He wrote Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)”

As we study these lives, we appreciate even more how God forgives our evil. A hymn declares, “Jesus sinners doth receive.” He received Samuel, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul. He continues to receive sinners, including you, me, and, of course, your grandson as forgives us, creates and sustains faith, and holds on to us, His beloved people. He takes “bad” people to be His own but when we arrive at our eternal rest, we’ll discover that we’ve become completely “good” because of His sacrifice of Himself on the cross, by means of Word and Sacrament, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your post reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw, or read about, or whatever, some time ago. It asks essentially the same question. The bumper sticker read: "How much sin can I *get away with*, and still go to Heaven?"
y emphasis added.) In a literal sense, the answer is, of course, none: "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." James 2:10 Yet, in the light of what Christ has done on the cross for us, in another sense we "get away" with all of our sins. "Through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous." Romans 5:19 "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Corinthians 5:21 Other verses coud be cited as well.


11 January, 2007 06:42  

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