It’s hard to imagine a scene dripping with more irony than the one we find at Calvary. What is God doing on a cross, a symbol of shame and condemnation? Why does Jesus promise a place in Heaven to an undeserving thief hanging on the cross next to Him? And how is it possible that the High Priest of Israel, Caiaphas, would plot the death of Israel’s Messiah? The characters all appear to be bizarrely miscast.
There’s an important spiritual lesson to be learned from this upside down tale. When it comes to the outworking of God’s grace, don’t assume anything, and be prepared for paradox.
With this in mind, we turn our attention to a subject that should be of interest to all of us. Who among us will make it into Heaven? Should we anticipate surprises here, as well?
Our Odds Of Getting Into Heaven
There are few institutions more prestigious, more sought after, or that hold a higher standard for membership than Harvard. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, school only accepts about 5% of the extremely qualified people who apply for entrance. In fact, the president, Drew Gilpin Faust, has said, "We could fill our class twice over with valedictorians."
Understandably, most of us would never give a serious thought to our chances of being accepted into Harvard. And yet, the vast majority of people seem to think that they’re a shoo-in to get into Heaven! But does such an expectation make sense? After all, no institution, not even Harvard, can be said to be more prestigious or to hold a higher standard than Heaven.
So what does the Bible say about our chances of getting into Heaven? The straightforward answer is found in a passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, which reads, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard” (Romans 3:23, NLT). God has a benchmark, and we all fall short of it. All of us have sinned. Not one of us meets “God’s glorious standard.” That’s a 0% acceptance rate!
Of course, many will object to being called a “sinner.” But that’s only because they fail to understand how the Bible defines a sin. Put simply, a sin is any violation of any of God’s commands. The Apostle John wrote, “Everyone who sins is breaking God's law.” (1 John 3:4, NLT). So, if you have ever lied, or stolen, or taken God’s name in vain, to name just a few, you have disobeyed one (or more) of God’s commands; therefore, you are a sinner.
Also, you should know that sins of the heart are considered “real” sins. Jesus said, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:8). So, if you have ever lusted after someone to whom you are not married, or held murderous hate in your heart, you have violated one (or more) of God’s commands; therefore, you are a sinner.
Finally, it’s important to understand that there is no hierarchy of sin so far as God is concerned. We tend to view some offenses as more weighty than others. It’s certainly true that some carry more grievous earthly consequences than do others. For example, adultery might destroy a whole family, while a lie that’s told to cover up a fault might not appear to hurt anyone.
But with God, every violation, no matter how minuscule it may seem, bears exactly the same spiritual consequence. Every sin causes a break in our relationship with God. In fact, the Bible says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). If breaking any of God’s laws is equivalent to breaking all of them, then each one is of equal importance. The Law of God stands or falls as a unit. So, if you’ve ever broken any of God’s commands, whether in action or intent, you are guilty of violating all of them; you have fallen short of “God’s glorious standard;” therefore, you are a sinner.
On this basis, I think it’s safe to say that no one meets the standard of sinless perfection required to get into Heaven. But you might say, “Wait a minute! I know I’m not perfect, but I’m not a bad person. I’m better than most!” That’s great! But just because you are not as bad as you could be doesn’t mean that you are as good as you need to be. According to the Bible, no one, not a single one of us, is as good as we need to be!
But here’s the truly astounding thing: Despite the clear statements we find in the Bible on this topic, the most persistent misconception about Heaven is that it’s inhabited by people who deserve to be there! Exactly the opposite of what God has repeatedly said! Why is that? It seems that we are convinced that God is too loving to turn a well-intentioned person, like ourselves, away.
Certainly, God does love each of us. In fact, the Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He is the origin and the essence of real love, so much so that God can’t be separated from love any more than love can be separated from Him. That would be like separating wet from water. To possess one is to possess the other. Likewise, to be separated from one is to be separated from the other (1 John 4:16). We can’t both hold God at bay and remain safe in the arms of His love.
This is why sin is so destructive. It causes a separation between the sinner and God, which means it also causes a separation between the sinner and divine love. That doesn’t mean that God stops loving us when we sin. But by separating ourselves from God, we lose contact with His love. Just as a river that has been cut off from its source is reduced to a series of stagnate puddles, so our capacity to love is dramatically diminished when we are cut off from the only true source of love—God Himself.
Proof of this is apparent when we compare how God loves to how people love. God’s love is unconditional; our love comes with strings attached. God’s love is free; our love must be earned. God’s love puts others first; our love puts self-interest first. God’s love never gives up on others; our love is impatient. God’s love never fails; our love gives way at the moment it’s most needed. God’s love is impartial; our love is highly selective.
God knows all too well that if He allowed us into Heaven as we are, His “glorious standard” would be destroyed and Heaven would be no different than the mess we find here on earth. He can’t allow that to happen! Real love doesn’t allow real love to be destroyed. Instead, it does something more wonderful than our "stagnate puddle" hearts can even begin to fathom.
Even though we have demonstrated that we habitually choose our own will over God’s, God has demonstrated that He loves us more than His own life. Jesus came to live in our place and to die in our place so that He might give His righteous life in exchange for our sinful lives.
By doing this, Jesus offers to reintroduce divine love into the life of every person who places their trust in Him for salvation. They become, as Jesus described it, newly born (John 3:3), having their capacity to experience and live in light of God’s love kindled.
The Apostle Paul summed things up when he wrote, "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God" (Ephesians 2:8). Not a single soul who makes it into Heaven can take credit for it because this only happens as a gift of God’s grace.
So, which is harder to get into, Harvard or Heaven? The answer depends on how one applies. If you hope to get in based on personal merit, then Heaven is far more exclusive, far more difficult to get into than any human institution, including Harvard. The rate of acceptance for those who rely on their own merit is 0%!
If, however, you have placed your hope in Jesus as your personal Savior, then Harvard is much harder to get into than Heaven. The Bible says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." That’s a 100% matriculation rate!
So, don’t be surprised when you get to Heaven and you meet those who were prostitutes and prison inmates, drug dealers and derelicts, liars and lunatics. Anyone and everyone who admits their own inability to meet God’s holy standard, and humbly receives the gift of God’s grace, will be in Heaven.
Think of it! The very sins that disqualify us from earning a place in Heaven, actually serve to qualify us for the gift of God’s grace! Even though no one should be there, anyone could be there. That includes a thief who died on a cross! It also includes you and me!!