I can imagine some people seeing the title of the post Everyone Is Going to Heaven without reading any further and thinking to themselves, “Impossible, for there must be consequences to our behavior.” I could not agree more with the idea that all behavior has consequences. Even God’s behavior has consequences. Everyone going to heaven is a consequence of God’s behavior, not ours. He has made a decision to be merciful, and He’s going to stick to it.
Our coming to earth in the first place was a consequence of God’s behavior. He decided to be kind and – poof! – here we are. We make many decisions while we’re here on earth, all of which have consequences – both good and bad. We learn from these experiences, but sooner or later we all die. At that point, God once again decides to be kind and – poof! – there we go to heaven. Once there, we gain even more understanding of all the consequences of our earthly behavior. As a result, we’ll experience varying degrees of honor and shame. The degree of honor bestowed on us in heaven is a consequence of our behavior, but our inclusion in heaven is a consequence of His. Let me elaborate.
The Traditional Heaven-or-Hell Scenario
The idea that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, though out of sync with the Bible, at least communicates that our actions matter. In a rough way, it says that good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished. This affirms an idea that is altogether true and important: our behavior has consequences. The idea that everyone is going to heaven isn’t a denial of this true and important fundamental. It’s a more mature, as well as a more accurate, affirmation of it.
Although the heaven-or-hell scenario affirms behavioral consequences, it often trivializes much of human behavior in the process. First, it defines the total behavioral consequence of this life as either untold bliss or unmitigated horror. Add in the fact that many people disagree about what constitutes qualification for heaven, and you have a situation where the highest of stakes are riding on an issue clouded by uncertainty. Some people just try to live as morally as they can, trusting God will draw the line in the right place (usually looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re at least as good as most of the people they know). Others fix on religious doctrines, church membership, or ethnic background to calm their fears about the afterlife. As a result, they must downplay the importance of everyday behavior. The Bible, however, proclaims a God to whom our smallest good deed is important.
The heaven-or-hell scenario can also trivialize God’s behavior. It implies that our behavior is more important than His. Our actions are very, very important. But God’s actions are even more important. If a no-escape hell is waiting for some of us after this life, then God is letting our actions, not His, determine the eternal state of things. God has ascribed an enormous amount of importance to our actions, but I don’t think He ever intended to abdicate control of the universe. The traditional idea of hell says we can get ourselves into a jam He can’t get us out of. But the Bible proclaims a God for whom “nothing is too difficult.” Thus His afterlife of heaven is the ultimate escape from the hell we sometimes encounter on earth.
Although God has established merciful boundaries to the consequences of our own decision-making so that all of us find heaven when we die, I still believe that our behavior has consequences far beyond what any of us realizes. What you do with your life and what I do with mine makes a very large difference both to earth and heaven. That’s what we’re exploring in this book: the cause and effect nature of the universe we live in.
Consequences in Heaven
Heaven is a place where we will think long and hard about what happened while we were on earth. The Bible speaks of all the details of our lives being recorded in books. It also speaks of each of us “giving an account” to God of all we have done. These images convey the idea that earthly life is important. And if we don’t see all of its meaning while here, we surely will once we get to heaven.
As a result of having our life experiences evaluated, we will be variously honored and shamed. This is because we will have all done some things worth remembering and other things we’d just as soon forget. The apostle Paul said we would shine in the spiritual heavens just as the stars shine in the physical heavens: that is, with varying degrees of glory. Star differs from star in the degree of brightness it displays. The light each puts forth is by no means uniform. Likewise the honor or glory our lives are due will vary significantly.
The glory of heaven is not based on the glory of earth. Some people who have a great deal of honor down here may or may not have honor in heaven. Actors and actresses, for example, receive a great deal of earthly glory. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television all give them attention, attaching importance to their words and actions. We call these people movie stars and luminaries, using the same sort of imagery Paul does. While the imagery is similar, though, the qualifications for stardom are quite different. A star on earth may or may not be a star in heaven. For in heaven, God will be directing where the attention goes. He will be far more likely to talk about justice, mercy, and faithfulness – which don’t attract near the attention they should down here.
The purpose of this heavenly honor will be to further teach us about right and wrong, about what’s good and what’s bad. We can learn much here, but there is still a lot that’s hidden and it will take heaven to reveal it. The greater honor or attention will be given to those lives that have the most to teach us about goodness. Less attention will be given to lives that displayed wickedness. Your grandmother might receive a hundred times the honor as a president or king. Heaven’s interests go far beyond those of earth’s, and search out the goodness that so often escapes notice or praise on earth.
You may have heard the expression that Jesus was “raised to the right hand of God” in heaven. This expression means that He received the highest place of glory it is possible for God to give. While on earth, He wasn’t a president or king. He was a carpenter’s son and itinerant rabbi. He was a citizen of a small, obscure country under military occupation by a great world power. He died in His own land with little protest. Yet He is the human being who was given the highest place of honor in heaven. He was given this place because of the unprecedented generosity of His life in the face of unprecedented hostility. Before His rejection and crucifixion, two of Jesus’ disciples asked for places of honor close to Him. He answered that it was not His to give, implying that they would have to earn their place of honor by the way they lived. Such honor couldn’t be given out based on favoritism or request.
We will, therefore, face consequences in heaven for what we have done here. Everyday issues carry implications for the life beyond. Just because Cain and Abel are both going to heaven doesn’t mean that Cain “got away with” killing Abel. In heaven Abel will be honored, and Cain will be ashamed of having cut short his brother’s earthly life. But that’s not all the negative consequences Cain brought on himself. He paid a price on earth, too.
Consequences on Earth
After the murder, God encountered Cain and made clear that Cain’s evil deed demanded justice. God went on to say that Cain would be cursed from the ground, that the earth would no longer be productive for him, and that he would be a vagrant and wanderer. Cain then cried out that his punishment was too great to bear. What made God’s responses so painful to him were that they all touched his chief occupation: farming. God could not have given him a punishment more appropriate to his crime or his situation.
Put yourself in Cain’s shoes. You’ve been supporting yourself by farming. Farming is hard work, and lots of things can go wrong. Now, everything that can go wrong, will. That activity of your life has been “cursed.” Further, you can’t even own land anymore because you’ve been made a vagrant and a wanderer. You’ve gone from successful farmer to unproductive migrant worker as a result of your crime. The ground that used to be a blessing to you has now become a source of misery. And it’s all because your spilled your brother’s blood on it. You will never be able to think about the ground again without thinking about what you have done. Considering all this makes us more understanding of why Cain whined that his punishment was “too severe.”
God wasn’t being spiteful to Cain. He was giving him a punishment that fit the crime, and that, more importantly, was redemptive. It had the potential of humbling Cain and making him think – if Cain took it to heart. Surely he would hesitate before letting himself get that angry again. He was learning the hard way that short fits of temper can have consequences that last much, much longer. His consequences for the murder began on earth and continued into heaven. The Bible’s cryptic account of Cain’s story doesn’t let us know the degree to which Cain may have learned from God’s response to his sin, but at least we know he had the opportunity to learn. Likewise, we should try to learn from our own mistakes, and from the unpleasant consequences they can bring.
Just because God doesn’t send people to hell for an eternity doesn’t mean that we “get away with” sinning. On the contrary, His responses to all our actions – good and bad – are certain and thoughtful. Thinking through those consequences can lead us to improve our behavior. God’s judgments of our behavior may not be as clear to us as this case was with Cain. Nonetheless, we can glean understanding from the consequences of our behavior because justice and mercy rule over all. That is, God’s universe is not chaotic.