Many people — particularly among those who consider themselves to be Muslims or Christians or Jews — believe that there is a place or state of paradise where everything is perfect and that when they get there all their troubles will be over.
Surely (as for) those who believe and do good, their Lord shall guide them by their faith; there shall flow from beneath them rivers in gardens of bliss
Surah 10:10 (Qur'an)
Paradise is certainly a very attractive philosophy; we would all like to believe that there will come a time when all our troubles will be over and we will live for all eternity without ever being sick or hungry and with no other form of unpleasant stress or suffering. So we can see that the theory of paradise is attractive; but is it true?
The people who believe in paradise are generally agreed that it is the place to which people go after the die. Also, they are generally agreed that not everybody will enter paradise but that admission will be reserved only for those people who have been good and done their best in this life.
Successful indeed are the believers, who are humble in their prayers and who keep aloof from what is vain, and who are givers of the poor rate, and who guard their private parts except before their mates or those whom their right hand possess, ...
and those who are keepers of their trusts and their covenant, and those who keep a guard on their prayers; these are they who are the heirs, who shall inherit the Paradise; they shall abide therein.
Surah 23:1-11 (Qur'an)
Another thing that you might notice about the people who believe in paradise is that they almost all believe that they will be among those who will gain entrance. You do not often meet somebody who believes that paradise exists but also believes that they themselves will never enter.
Now, can you detect something very strange about all this? Let us summarise the popular belief about paradise:
The strange thing is that all these people who believe that they will enter the place of perfection are themselves not perfect!
How can paradise be perfect? It can be perfect only if nothing and nobody imperfect is ever allowed to enter. In other words, if paradise exists then it must be a place that is reserved exclusively for those people who are perfect and there can be no admission for those people who are merely “good”.
Now, unless you happen to be a passing angel or are particularly easily deluded about your own inate goodness, you must by now have realised that, although you might have many good points, you are not perfect, not close to being perfect and, frankly, never likely to be perfect. From this you can therefore reasonably conclude that paradise is a place that you are never going to see.
Of course if you have never believed in paradise then I don't suppose that you will be much bothered about not being allowed in but if you are among the vast majority of people who do believe in life after death then you have good reason to be upset.
There is something else that is strange about the popular opinions of life after death: Almost everybody assumes that, for themselves at least, it will be better than their present life. This is particularly strange when you recall that all of the major belief systems of the world have always taught that there is both a heaven and a hell.
Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has the power to throw you into hell.
Good News according to Luke 12:5 (Bible)
And as for him whose measure of good deeds is light, his abode shall be the abyss. And what will make you know what it is? A burning fire.
Surah 101:8-11 (Qur'an)
Why then do most people think that their own portion will be in heaven, that place of paradisical perfection, and not in hell, the location generally described as the place of never-ending torment and suffering? We have already seen that paradise, heaven, is only for those people who are perfect and that all of us are therefore disqualified from entrance. Why are most people so sure of avoiding hell which is the only other destination offered to them?
Well, it is nice to have clarified the point and realised that paradise is only for the perfect but it isn't much of a comfort is it? No sensible person would want to spend even five minutes in hell so the prospect of spending eternity there is not very appealing.
It seems that we have a problem. A big problem.
It is only against this backdrop of extremely depressing news that the word “gospel” begins to make any sort of sense. The word “gospel” is a Greek word that means, simply, “good news”. It is only when you have realised that you are, because of any one of your imperfections, utterly and eternally banished from paradise that Jesus' message of hope starts to be meaningful and helpful instead of being merely some ambiguous, religious, confusing nonsense.
Jesus said, “I have come to seek and save the lost”.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me.” The good news according to John, chapter 14, verse 6.
Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to eternal life, and only a few find it.” The good news as told by Matthew, chapter 7 verse 13.
Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” The good news as told by John, chapter 10, verse 9.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” The good news as told by John, chapter 11 verse 25.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The good news as told by Matthew, chapter 9 verse 12
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The good news as told by John, chapter 10, verse 10.
Followers of Jesus have often claimed that Jesus is God. Other people have pointed out that this idea is a bit silly and asked questions like “how can a man be God”? “Who was looking after the universe when Jesus was a baby in Mary's womb?” People have often pointed out that Jesus himself never claimed to be God — it was only his later followers who made the claim on his behalf.
So where is the truth? Was Jesus God or was he just a human like the rest of us?
The first thing to understand is that, actually, Jesus did claim to be God. There are two common reasons why we don't notice his claim: First, because we have heard the words very often and we don't really think about them, and, second, because he made his claim in a typically Jewish way that is not obvious to those of us who live in a very different age and very different culture.
So how did Jesus claim to be God?
There are lost of stories in the Bible where Jesus forgives somebody's sins and these stories are often repeated in religious literature and at religious meetings. However, the person repeating the story is often using the story to encourage the reader or listener to have a forgiving attitude and not to hold grudges. Now this is all very fine but it misses a very major point which is as follows: Jesus was forgiving people for sins that they had committed against some other, third, person. When Jesus was forgiving these people he was acting as if he was the person who had been wronged. He didn't consult the other third person at all — he just forgave people who asked him for forgiveness and those people didn't argue with him. The Jewish religious leaders fully understood the significance of this because, as they said at the time, “who is this man who forgives sins? Only God can forgive sins.” This is why they wanted to kill him for blasphemy because they understood very well that when Jesus claimed to forgive sins he was also claiming to be God.
In a similar way, when Jesus was asked by some pharisees whether he was greater than Abraham, he told them, “before Abraham was, I am”. Now the words “I am” had special significance for Jews because, in Jewish thinking “I am” was a name of God. When Jesus answered the pharisess he not only uses God's own name (“I am”) for himself but he also uses it in a way that links it to something that God said through the prophet Micah. The prophet Micah reported from God that “you, Bethlehem Ephrathath, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.”
Jesus was, in fact, born in Bethlehem, and when Jesus answered the pharisees he used the name of God for himself but also affirms that he is “from old, from ancient times” — just as Micah had prophesied. This seems a bit unclear to us but we can see that the pharisees (who lived in the same age and culture as Jesus and understood the Jewish scriptures) understood that Jesus was claiming to be God because their instant response was to pick-up stones to throw at him to kill him for blasphemy: When Jesus used the divine name “I am” and when Jesus claimed to be from before Abraham, the religious leaders of the day understood that Jesus was making a direct claim to divinity — that he was claiming to be God.
Now lets get back to the main point: How are you and I going to enter heaven if only perfect people are allowed in?
The quick answer is we are not going to get into heaven unless we can become perrfect. But we cannot make ourselves perfect, we cannot cancel or obliterate our past failures. We might forget or past sins just like we might forget that we borrowed some money and never repaid it but the lender won't forget the loan so easily and God might not forget our sins.
Lets look again at some of those things Jesus said but, this time, lets remember that he did also claim to be God:
|Jesus said,||“I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me.”|
|“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to eternal life, and only a few find it.”|
|“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.”|
|“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”|
|“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”|
|“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”|
It looks like Jesus is trying to tell us that he has the answer, and the only answer, to our problem. No wonder people thought he was “good news”. Jesus told his followers that he was their means of entry to heaven, that he was the one who would get rid of their sin, that he was the one who would bring them the perfect life that they needed.
Jesus was born from a Jewish woman, living among Jewish people and therefore he spoke to them like a Jew. When we understand his claims, however, we find that he was claiming to be God and had taken on human form. The reason that God did this was because sinful people could not come to God and therefore in order for those sinful people to be rescued from the consequences of their sin, God had to come to them. God came to live among ordinary people in order to mend what was broken, to heal what was sick, to put right what we did wrong, to accomplish what we had failed to accomplish, and he did this in order that we could be made perfect.
It is impossible for a man or woman to make themselves perfect. But what is impossible for humans is possible for God. Not only is it possible, but God wants to do it and came to us in the human form of Jesus so that we could meet him and follow him to perfection. This is good news!
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