How Far is Heaven?
The Story of Man’s Struggle to Measure up to
Throughout history the trait of mankind’s pride and self-sufficiency has been the sin that most often drives the population from salvation and eternity with God. This trait is evident in the hero stories that man has composed in antiquity and modern day. Woven into the fabric of the lines of the writing is the idea that man has the capacity to earn favor with the gods and repair damage that previous acts of rebellion and selfishness have caused. Christianity, as it is revealed in the New Testament writings of the Bible, offers a strikingly different perspective on the human condition and the path to redemption and restoration with God’s favor.
Meredith Sprunger (n.d.) compiled a concise summary of major world religions that reveals the various means to salvation that each ascribes to. With regard to most religions there were acts of sacrifice, obedience, impulse control, and ritual that were to be religiously followed in effort to attain eternity. For example, followers of Islam are required to submit to the will of Allah and live according to the “Five Pillars.” This seems reasonable, and it allows for man’s efforts to be recognized and rewarded, thus fulfilling the need for pride and self-sufficiency.
Buddhism, on the other hand, involves more in the realm of mind and impulse control. According to Sprunger’s (n.d.) chart, the Budhist’s path to eternity requires: “Nonattachment to the world; Follow the eight-fold path; Self-effort; Salvation is through reincarnation and working with the laws of karma; Mahayana Buddhism has deities which function as saviors”
Within this structure there is an appeal to selflessness that satisfies the self-imposed religious need for sacrifice and self-denial. For man to receive the reward of eternity he must essentially demonstrate that he is worthy of eternity by improving himself over the course of a number of lifetimes.
In these religious systems the divine, the immortal, the gods become impressed with the life lived by the practitioner and recompense their obedience and virtue with entrance into whatever eternal paradise or Nirvana awaits them. In the epics of literature there is the similar theme of man attempting to earn favor with the gods through feats of strength, sacrifice, bravery, and demonstrating their own worthiness. Slaying mythological beasts, claiming impossible treasures, offering costly sacrifices, appeasing an offended immortal, and impressing the various deities were the way that men earned favor with the gods.
Biblical history bears evidence of this sort of behavior, even among the Israelites who sinfully worshipped the gods of neighboring countries in efforts to please them and gain a benefit. In the story of the prophet Elijah’s confrontation on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal there is suggestion of a ritual that included frantic shouting, dancing, and self-mutilation:
26Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18.26-29, New International Version, emphasis added).
The narrative continues with Elijah demonstrating God’s faithfulness and power, without regard to his own ability. This story is one of many that reminds the world that God does not want to be impressed with man’s ability and strength, but rather desires that man would be impressed with His power and faithfulness. Elijah simply prepares the way for God to act on top of the mountain. His prayer and actions demonstrate his faith in God.
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD–he is God! The LORD–he is God” (1 Kings 18.36-39)!
What Must I DO to Inherit Eternal Life?
The early epics of literature, the efforts of the religions of the world, and the nature of humanity all beg for an answer to the question, “What must I do?” The expectation is that some great act or show of devotion must be required in order to appease God and garner His favor. The unlikely answer comes in the form of Jesus of Nazareth and a revelation that God loves us, even in our sinful state. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5.6-8:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Powerless seems quite distant from the realm of heroe like Oddyseus and Aeneas amid their bravery and strength. Ungodly doesn’t seem to relate to the wisdom of men like Confucius, or the honor and obedience of the exiled Rama. Sinner isn’t the first thought to enter the mind when contemplating the piety and religious zeal of Saul of Tarsus. Perhaps others would require the intervention of God, but not these men.
Add to this the concept of any god offering a sacrifice is counter to man’s understanding of the way things work. Yet, this is exactly how Paul describes God’s action in Jesus. He offered Him as the sacrifice for the sins of humanity. To the question of why God would do this, the answer “He demonstrated His love for us” is given. The gods of literature, and even among the other world religions, seem to despise humans and their sinful actions. The God of Christianity, on the other hand, loves this sinful humanity. Man’s efforts amount to nothing. His self-sufficiency comes up short. He can’t do anything to earn God’s favor. Everything is accomplished because of God’s love for His creation. Even in the midst of judgment, the love and heart of God is evident.
Sprunger, M. J. (n.d.). Belief Comparisons of the World’s Major Religions. Retreived from: http://www.urantiabook.org/archive/readers/religion_belief_comparisons.htm on April 2, 2014.