Last week I began to address a report on people’s beliefs by LifeWay Research and looked at what the Bible says about worship and the idea that we all ‘worship the same God.’ Today I’d like to consider people’s views on the afterlife. What do people believe about what happens when we die and what does the Bible have to say about it?

According to the report, a little more than half of all Americans agreed with the statement “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” But 64% of these people also agreed with the statement, “Heaven is a place where all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones.” What’s going on? You would think that anyone who believes that you need to trust in Jesus to receive eternal life, would disagree with the idea of heaven as a place where everyone will be reunited with their loved ones. But people are confused. Similarly, people can’t seem to make up their minds about whether people earn a spot in heaven or not. Just over half of those who answered the survey said that good deeds help them earn a spot in heaven and over three quarters said that people must partly contribute their own effort for personal salvation. So many people who think Jesus provides a free gift of salvation also think that they need to earn it somehow. When it comes to heaven are we ‘going dutch’ with Jesus – He pays His part and we pay ours? What does the Bible teach?

Jesus frequently warned of hell, comparing it to a “furnace” (Matthew 13:42), an unquenchable fire (Mark 9:48), and a place of “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). But He also promised eternal life to those who place their trust in Him. Perhaps the most famous example was in Luke 23:32-43 when Jesus was Himself dying on the cross. He spent his last hours with two criminals, crucified to His left and His right. One of them joined the crowd in mocking Jesus (v.39) but the other demonstrated a reverence for God (v.40), a remorse over his sin, and a belief in Jesus innocence (v.41). Surprisingly, although he can see firsthand that Jesus is about to die, he still asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v.42). Obviously he believed that Jesus ruled over a realm that existed beyond the grave. Jesus responded to his plea, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). How could a criminal be promised paradise? What could he do at this point to earn such a great privilege? Wouldn’t he have to show that he was worthy? And wouldn’t he have to work off some of his sins in purgatory first?

Jesus’ words are not only clear but they’re also confirmed by the rest of the Bible. The criminal who asked Jesus for mercy received it because he sought in faith. He recognized his sin and the consequences of his actions, but he put his trust in Jesus, the innocent sufferer, and believed that Jesus had power over death and eternity. Having put his trust in Jesus, he received both forgiveness and eternal life – and there wasn’t anything that he could do at this point to earn or add to that salvation. As it says in Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Do we contribute to our salvation? Not even a bit! Do we split the entrance fee to paradise with Jesus? Definitely not. But someone who has trusted Jesus will live a new life. Confronting sin and turning to Jesus for life and forgiveness changes things. And when someone submits to Jesus in this way, Jesus comes into the person’s life and helps them to change and grow. That’s why James describes faith that doesn’t lead to works of love and goodness as “dead faith” (James 2:14, 17).

James 2:14, 17 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? … So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  

Jesus’ promise to the criminal is amazing. A man judged unworthy to live anymore by society found mercy through faith in Jesus and was assured that he would pass immediately into paradise. But is that just because Jesus is easy? Does He just let everyone into heaven for a big family reunion the way a majority of people believe? Interestingly, the promise Jesus made was singular. That is, although there’s no distinction in English, the word “you” in the Greek of the verse is singular not plural – remember French class? In other words, Jesus promised paradise to only one of the criminals, the one with faith, and the other he left to go to the place of fire and punishment that He so often warned about.

Are your thoughts on the afterlife fuzzy? Do you know what the Bible really teaches? And do you believe what it says? Let’s walk in the confidence that only Jesus can give and avoid the false hope that so many cling to.

In awe of Him,