At one point or another, most of us wonder about the afterlife. What happens when we die? Will we remember our lives from here on earth? Will we recognize loved ones? What about our pets?
Such wondering can become perplexing, and even the mention of eternity can trigger a sense of anxiety. Who can really comprehend living forever? And, as if eternity itself isn’t big enough to wrap our heads around, we also wonder where we’ll end up. Will I go to heaven or to hell? Will the things I’ve done wrong damn me forever? Is there any hope for me? What about my coworkers? My neighbors? My loved ones? What about people who’ve never heard the gospel? Will every good person make it into heaven?
The Bible engages these conversations as well. God has “set eternity in the human heart,” writes the author of Ecclesiastes (3:11). Abraham appeals to God’s mercy for his nephew Lot in the face of divine judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23). Hezekiah begs for God’s salvation on the grounds that those in the grave cannot praise God (Isa. 38:18). Peter, after Jesus restores him, wonders what will happen with another disciple: “Lord, what about him?” (John 21:21)
In the gospel stories, a couple of people come right out and ask Jesus: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, what’s the minimum amount of good I need to do to get into heaven? Just how good is good enough? We know we’re not perfect, but we wonder if there is any possible way for our good deeds to outweigh our sins.
Jesus’ response to one such questioner, a rich young ruler, is helpful here. He says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone” (Luke 18:19). By responding this way, Jesus invites the man to consider three realities. The first is whether he really trusts God to be good. Second, by calling Jesus “good teacher,” does the man recognize Jesus to be God in the flesh? Third, is the man willing to see that he and the rest of humanity are so caught up in sin that none of us can ever be considered good?
The man eventually goes away sad because he cannot imagine that God will be good enough for him to risk letting go of his financial security blanket.
With compassion, Jesus teaches his followers: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” To which they respond in fearful amazement: “If the rich—those with every earthly advantage—can’t get into heaven, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
Jesus reassures them and us: “What is impossible with humanity is possible with God.” In other words, eternal life is God’s gift out of the goodness of God’s character and not something we can secure through our own striving (See Eph. 2:1-10).
The real question about eternal life, then, is not whether anyone can ever be good enough to get into heaven. We can’t. No human is good enough. The real question is whether we will trust that what God has done through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is good enough. Will we risk letting go of our security blankets—money, education, family connections, spiritual practices, or other markers we commonly use to prove our goodness? Will we trust that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2)?