These are unprecedented times. The deadly virus, COVID-19, is sweeping the globe, leading many to wonder (and fear) where they will spend eternity. Now, thankfully, the percentages of those who get the virus and subsequently die are very low, but even a low probability of death “concentrates (the) mind wonderfully” (Samuel Johnson). Jesus used the examples of natural disasters and brutal killings to teach his disciples to prepare for the inevitable (Luke 13:1-5). Do you know with certainty where you will be after you die? The Bible says you can know.
Life After Death?
To be sure, some people say that when you die, you are just gone. “My candle will go out. Poof. I won’t know it…and therefore it won’t bother me. I’ll just become fertilizer for some future tree. No problem.” But most of us know that such bluster doesn’t pass the smell test – the idea of being separated from everything and everyone you have ever loved is horribly frightening, to say the least. Yet the idea is more than just unpalatable – Christianity says that it is wrong…for one reason: Jesus himself died and came back to life. This was the Apostle Paul’s testimony:
…he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:5 – 8*
The argument is sweet and simple: if Jesus is alive, then there truly is life after death. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s delightful translation of 1 Corinthians 15:19, 20…If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot. But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries.
But…How to Know?
Jesus left his cemetery, and Scripture assures us that Christians will one day leave theirs…temporary residents only. Life after death is not pie in the sky, but real. But how can you know that you are truly a Christian?
Well, first, the Bible says we have a problem that must be dealt with called sin. But many people misunderstand sin. Francis Spufford helpfully calls it “the human propensity to (mess) things up.” He writes:
“…what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident…It’s our active inclination to break stuff…promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s…we are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love,”– Spufford, Francis. Unapologetic, HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
And when we break things, when we screw up relationships and hurt those we love the most with our creative unkindness, those of us who are honest know we have a problem in our hearts, a darkness deep within, and that somehow or another, we should pay for what we’ve done.
We are right. And what Scripture teaches is that though Jesus Christ himself never sinned, when he died on the cross, he died in our place, taking the punishment for our sins. The Apostle Paul writes: For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. Christ died for our sins – that’s the key phrase…and the heart of Christianity. In contrast, most people think Christianity is about trying to be a good person. But how wrong they are!
No One is Good Enough to Go to Heaven
Scripture, after all, tells us that no one is a “good person”: None is righteous, no, not one. No one understands. No one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless. No one does good, not even one…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10-12, 23)
With this in mind, listen closely: it is the idea that you can be good enough to go to heaven that you must firmly reject. Even many religious people never understand this, and thus never become true Christians.
Therefore, you must come to see that it is your sin which keeps you from God, and that no amount of goodness on your part will ever be enough to earn God’s favor. (Ephesians 2:8, 9; Titus 3:5) The idea that you can be good enough to go to heaven, either by going to church or by participating in the sacraments, or by giving to charity, or by being kind to those who are unkind, or simply by being a “nice” person…that idea is pride, and is itself a sin. And Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled.” (Matthew 23:12)
Confess Your Sins…and Be Once and Forever Totally Cleansed
So what do you do? Well, to go to heaven you must be forgiven, totally cleansed from all unrighteousness, all pride and unkindness, and everything other dark blot. As Jesus put it, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Admittedly, that sounds impossible, but as Jesus said, “With God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
John explains how it is possible: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
The Apostle is not here arguing for a confession after every sin in your life, though there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Instead, here John is talking about a great one-time confession which will make you a true Christian once and forever.
Literally, confession means to agree. So…to become a true Christian, to be cleansed from all unrighteousness, first, tell God that you agree with Him, that you realize that you can never be good enough to spend eternity in his presence.
Then, tell God that you are sorry for all your sin. Agree with Him that you are a sinner, and tell Him that you desire to turn away from your sin in repentance, receiving Jesus as the Savior who has died in your place and rose again having defeated death forever.
What if I Sin Again?
You will indeed struggle against sin until you die. But once you have the Holy Spirit, you are a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17), and you will find yourself with a new love for God and thus a desire to obey Him. You will now find yourself wanting to go to church to be with God’s people (Hebrews 10:24, 25), desiring to give to charity (Proverbs 11:25), working to love your enemies (Luke 6:27). But here’s the key, you will do these things because you have been forgiven, not in order to be forgiven. And many times, like me and every other Christian, you will come up short; you will be tempted and fall into sin. And yet because you have been made a new creature, you won’t slip in and out of salvation. You are His…forever.
And now, come what may, COVID-19, or anything else, you will know! YOU WILL KNOW! For…as the Apostle John says,
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:11-13
*Scripture references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.