By Erwin Lutzer
“Every human being,” says C.S. Lewis, “is in the process of becoming a noble being; noble beyond imagination. Or else, alas, a vile being beyond redemption.” He exhorts us to remember that “the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. … There are no ordinary people. … It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Those who find themselves in heaven will be surrounded with friends whom they have known on earth. Friendships, once rudely interrupted by death, will continue where they left off. Every description of heaven they have ever heard will pale in the light of reality. All this, forever.
Others—indeed many others—will be shrouded in darkness, a region of deprivation and unending regret. There, with their memories and feelings fully intact, images of their life on earth will return to haunt them. They will think back to their friends, family and relatives; they will brood over opportunities they squandered and intuitively know that their future is both hopeless and unending. For them, death will be far worse than they imagined.
And so while relatives and friends plan your funeral—deciding on a casket, a burial plot and who the pallbearers shall be—you will be more alive than you have ever been. You will either see God on His throne surrounded by angels and redeemed humanity, or you will feel an indescribable weight of guilt and abandonment. There is no destination midway between these two extremes; just gladness or gloom.
Nor will it be possible to transfer from one region to another. No matter how endless the ages, no matter how heartfelt the cries, no matter how intense the suffering, your travel plans are limited to your present abode. Those who find themselves in the lower gloomy regions shall never enter the gates that lead to endless light and ecstasy. They will discover that the beautiful words spoken in their eulogy bear no resemblance to the reality that now confronts them. If only their friends could see them now!
I’m told that there is a cemetery in Indiana that has an old tombstone bearing this epitaph:
Pause, stranger, when you pass me by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you will be
So prepare for death and follow me
An unknown passerby read those words and underneath scratched this reply:
To follow you I’m not content
Until I know which way you went
In recent days I have conducted two funerals. The first was that of a Christian woman who had distinguished herself by a life of sacrificial service for Christ. The triumph of the family was striking; there was irrepressible joy mixed with the sorrow.
The second was that of an apparent unbeliever who was killed in a highway accident. The grief of the relatives was marked by desperation and hopelessness. They refused to be comforted.
You and I shall follow these two people to the grave. Unless Christ should return in our lifetime, we all shall pass through that iron gate described by Hamlet as “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn/No traveller returns.”
Thinking about our final destination gives us perspective. Visualize a measuring tape extending from earth to the farthest star. Our stay here is but a hairline, almost invisible to the length of the tape. Strictly speaking, no distance can be compared to eternity. No matter how endless we visualize eternity to be, our conception is never endless enough.
Every one of us wants to make wise investments, to get the “biggest bang for our buck,” as the saying goes. The best investments are those that are safe and permanent; if we are wise, we will spend our time preparing for that which lasts forever. What is life but preparation for eternity?
Recently, I read a tragic story about people enjoying themselves on the top stories of a tall apartment building not knowing that there was a fire burning on the lower floors. Just so, many are enjoying life, comfortably ignoring the fact that their death is not only inevitable, but much nearer than they think. Though there are many uncertainties in our lives, we can count on this: Whatever we strive for in this world must of necessity be temporary. Indeed, this world and all we have accumulated will be burned up eventually.
The other day I was browsing in the travel section of a bookstore. Potential travelers were buying maps and guidebooks on Hawaii and Europe. Some were purchasing booklets to help them learn some phrases of a foreign language. No doubt they had saved their money, blocked out their vacation schedules and purchased airline tickets. They did all that just for a two-week journey.
I wondered how many of them were giving at least that much attention to their final destination. I wondered how many were reading the guidebook, studying the map and trying to learn the language of heaven. Europe and Hawaii seemed so much more real than the unseen realm of the dead. And yet, even as they planned their vacations, they were en route to a more distant destination.
Don’t imagine for a moment that you will get to heaven without the right credentials. You will not be there because your wife has a right to enter; you will not be there because you have a child who is already there. No, this is an individual matter. No one can enter into heaven without God’s specific approval. Our problem, of course, is that God will not accept us as we are. We cannot come to heaven’s gates hoping for leniency. We cannot come pleading for special favors once we have slipped through the parted curtain. “Visas” are not available on the other side of the border.
So what are God’s requirements? How perfect do you have to be to enter into heaven? Quite simply: as perfect as God. In fact, if you are not as perfect as He is, don’t even think that you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven! Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, has always taught that we must be as perfect as God to enter through those pearly gates.
The question, of course, is, How can we as sinners be as perfect as God? The answer: God is able to make us righteous; His righteousness can be credited to our account so that we can enter into heaven immediately at death without so much as an intermediate stop.
When Christ died on the cross, He made a sacrifice for sinners, which God accepted. Though Christ was perfect, God made Him legally guilty of all of our sins. In turn, we receive His righteousness. “He made Him who knew no sin [Christ] to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This means that Christ was regarded as a sinner when He bore our sin; we are regarded as saints when we receive His righteousness. Though very imperfect, we are regarded as “the righteousness of God.” God has exceedingly high standards, but thanks be, He meets them for us!
Perhaps you think that you have sinned too much to receive such a gift. Well, I want you to know that God is able to save great sinners—criminals, in fact. The amount of our sin is not a barrier; it is our unbelief that cuts us off from God’s mercy and pardon.
When we receive Christ’s righteousness, another miracle happens to us at the same time. God gives us a new nature; He changes us from the inside out. Christ said to Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Obviously, we cannot cause ourselves to be born again. That is something that God must do for us.
What must we do to receive the gift of righteousness and a new nature within? The answer is to admit our helplessness, to acknowledge that we are dependent on God’s mercy and ask Him to forgive our sin. Then we must transfer all of our trust to Christ as our sin-bearer; we must believe in Him as the One who did all that we will ever need to stand in God’s holy presence. To believe in Christ means that as best we know, we trust Him for all that we need in this life and in the life to come.
How sure can we be that we will spend eternity with God? We can be so sure that death need not terrify us. Yes, there is mystery; yes, we all are apprehensive of taking leave of this body to wake up in the world to come. But when we have trusted Christ, we know that He walks with us through the parted curtain.
What is Christ’s attitude toward our homecoming? Repeatedly in the New Testament, Christ is spoken of as sitting “at the right hand of God.” But there is one reference to His leaving His seat and standing; He is welcoming His servants home. As Stephen was being stoned, we read that “being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
Thus the seated Son of God stood to welcome one of His own into the heavenly realm. A believer’s death may be unnoticed on earth, but it is front-page news in heaven. The Son of God takes note. He will be there to welcome us!