“When I Get to Heaven I’m Not Stopping to Be Interviewed”

If former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is (a) anything approaching serious and (b) correct, then we all need to listen carefully. And that’s not an exaggeration.

Why do I say that? This arresting paragraph about Hizzonor’s views on heaven comes at the close of a recent New York Times article:

But if [Bloomberg] senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”

My point here isn’t to discuss the merits of gun control any other issue related to Bloomberg’s advocacy. Instead, it’s to focus on the rather strong theological claim that he seems to be making. To put it clearly:

1. The way we get to heaven is by doing good things.
2. I’ve done many good things.
3. Therefore, I will go to heaven.

This, then, is a sure way to bliss hereafter. True, Bloomberg seems to have said this with a degree of humor. He may or may not actually believe what he said. But having been in vocational ministry for about twenty years now, I’d suggest that he expressed the most common view that people in our culture have about heaven and how to get there. And I would stress that this holds true for people both inside and outside the church.

Ask ten random people on the street about heaven and you’re likely to get eight or nine who would say something similar to Bloomberg (though often with less certainty). It’s usually accompanied by some notion of God weighing up all the good and bad in someone’s life in order to see which side the scale tips toward. Almost everyone assumes that the good deeds will win out in his or her particular case and, therefore, heaven awaits.

That’s good news if two things are true: (1) it’s possible, in fact, to get to heaven by doing good things, and (2) that you and I can meet the necessary standard. But what’s God’s perspective on these two points?

Many Christians might be surprised to find out that the first point is theoretically true. The apostle Paul, referring to the law God gave in the Old Testament through Moses, says as much in Romans 10:5:

For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.

So far, so good. The problem actually has to do with the second point, which Paul, along with the rest of the Bible, readily acknowledges. Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul states emphatically that all people sin. That is, they do, say, and think morally reprehensible things. Not only so, but they sin a great deal. And in so doing, they fall pitifully short of the standard God has set, which is nothing less than himself (see Rom. 3:9-23). It’s one thing to try to tally up more good than bad in your life, or even favorably compare yourself to the next guy. It’s quite another to reach all the way to God’s own moral perfection.

To put it another way: if we were all to have a competition to see how far we could jump, some of us would no doubt get farther than others. But if success meant clearing the width of the Grand Canyon, the distance any of us could get would quickly become unimportant.

That brings us to the sobering consequence of inevitably failing to measure up to God’s standard. Paul states it clearly in Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin”—that is, what our wrong thoughts and actions have earned—“is death.”  When in comes to eternal life, it turns out that God is less than impressed with even our best efforts, whether they focus on gun control or literally anything else.

What then can we do?

Thankfully, God provides a solution in his Son. Jesus is the only person ever to live up to God’s standard. Everything he ever did was pleasing to God. And because of this, God offers to pardon all those who would place their faith in Jesus, who trust in his merit rather than their own. When they do, the punishment they deserve is satisfied by Jesus’ death, they become accepted into God’s own family, and they become the recipients of eternal life with him. 

That’s why the gospel is good news. It really does point to a sure way to heaven, not through anything we can attain, but through grace of God, as the rest of Romans 6:23 explains: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

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