When Jesus walked the earth, people asked Him a lot of questions. Often, He didn’t answer in the way they expected. Instead of giving clear explanations, He told short stories called parables. At the time His responses may have seemed incomplete and a little confusing, but later, upon reflection, His followers realized that He had given them the best possible answer.
Jesus was the master teacher; He always said the perfect thing. None of us will ever be like Him, but we would be wise to imitate Him. As a teacher, I am often too wordy. In the process of trying to explain every little thing, I can miss the big idea. Sometimes, maybe, it would be better just to tell a story.
I have a distinct memory of a time in high school when my youth pastor was talking about heaven, and who gets to go there and who doesn’t. He explained that as Christians, we believe that faith in Jesus is the only way to heaven. An intelligent young girl in the room asked the question: “What about our friend so-and-so? He’s the nicest person you could ever hope to meet, he works hard and lives a pure life and is a blessing to other people. Are you telling me he doesn’t get to go heaven just because he doesn’t share our faith? That doesn’t seem fair.”
It’s a great question, one that many people have asked as they wrestle with the teachings of the Bible. I remember my youth pastor struggling to give an answer, and doing a good job, saying some of the things we all know the Bible says. But ultimately his words were unsatisfying, not only to the girl who asked it, but to others of us as well. This wasn’t his fault, it’s just a tough subject. Her question reminds me of the kind of question Jesus was often asked. That being the case, maybe the best way to answer it is with a story. Here is my attempt:
Once there was a rich man who met a beautiful woman and fell in love. He made up his mind to pursue her, and he courted her as only a rich man can. He took her in his helicopter to watch the sun set from the top of a mountain. He invited her to his estate to play tennis on his tennis courts and to swim in his swimming pool. They flew on his private plane to New York City for dinners at the finest restaurants, and on weekends took his yacht to his private island. For many of these adventures, they were accompanied by the rich man’s only son, who meant the world to him.
After several months, the rich man got up the courage to propose to the beautiful woman. He flew her to France, where he had paid for private access to the Eiffel Tower after it had closed for the day. As the sun set over Paris, he knelt down, presented her with a huge diamond ring, and asked her to be his wife. And this is what she said:
“The truth is, I don’t love you. I don’t find you attractive, and I don’t enjoy your company. I’m not excited at the thought of being your wife. However, I really enjoy your estate, your helicopter, your plane, your yacht, and your island. I would love to continue to use those things, to swim in your pool and play tennis on your tennis courts with my friends. Perhaps we can make an arrangement: If I can have access to everything that’s yours, I would be willing to have a wedding and be called your wife, but if course I would want my own bedroom on the other side of the mansion from yours, and you shouldn’t expect us to spend much time together. Oh, and one more thing: I can’t stand your son. If I marry you, I wouldn’t want him to be around much.”
How do you think the rich man responded?
The mistake we often make is to talk about “getting into heaven” as if that were the goal, but it’s not. God is the goal. Heaven is the place where we get to be with God, because His deep desire is to be with us. If we have no interest in being with God, heaven is not where we belong. If we reject His beloved Son, why would we think He would welcome us? Because we’re nice people? Our niceness was never the question. The question is whether we will receive the love of the Master and return it.
Sometimes, out of a concern for our unbelieving loved ones, we will say something like “I just want to make sure you’re there in heaven with me.” This may be true, but it’s not as helpful as we think, because it encourages them to use God. If they profess faith and pray some kind of sinners’ prayer just to get to heaven, and the attitude of their heart is not a surrender to God’s love and desire for them but a calculated pursuit of the benefits, I’m not sure anything real has taken place. We’re not aiming for heaven, we’re aiming for Jesus, and as we receive His love and learn to love Him back, we get heaven too. What He wants is us. Is it Him we want, or just His mansion?
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”—Revelation 21:3
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.—Revelation 22:4
I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…—Philippians 1:23