Good morning and welcome to worship! I have good news for you - no politics in heaven! Praise the Lord! This morning we begin a 3 part sermon series on what happens when we die. Today we look at the place Jesus called Paradise or heaven. Next week we’ll examine Jesus’ return, the resurrection of the dead and the Great White Throne Judgment. Finally, we’ll look at Jesus’ promise of a new heaven and a new earth.
So where do we start? How about Hollywood? The “Good Place” is about a woman named Eleanor who is sent to heaven due to a technical error. It seems someone else’s good deeds have been credited to her account! She’s pleased to discover there are no hangovers in heaven and you can’t curse even when you try. But she realizes she needs to be on her toes lest the mistake is discovered and she’s sent to the other place!
“Lucifer” is about the devil experiencing an identity crisis. So he takes a vacation helping the LAPD solve murder cases. Hollywood is filled with attempts to explore the meaning of good, evil, heaven, hell, redemption, immortality without going to the source! Nevertheless, they are pros at cashing in on the question of every human heart. “What happens when we die?”
In recent years, hundreds of books have been written and millions of dollars made by people claiming to have been to heaven or hell. The Bible warns that these claims, no matter how sincere, are not based in Biblical truth but the deception of demons.
So what does the Bible say? A great place to start is Luke 23:42-43. Jesus is hanging on the cross. He is dying. One either side of him are two thieves. They are minutes from death.
One of the thieves joins the crowd in ridiculing Jesus, but the other says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:42-43
This thief on the cross has no spiritual equity, no spiritual merit to qualify him for heaven or eternal life and he knew it. In fact, when the other thief was ridiculing Jesus, this guy said, “Leave him alone, we deserve what we are getting but this man has done nothing wrong.”
A few minutes later, Jesus takes this man to Paradise. The thief on the cross experiences what happened to Eleanor. He is credited with what rightfully belongs to somebody else. Somebody who deserved it. Only this isn’t a mistake in the computers of heaven. It’s called grace. The thief’s sin is forgiven and Jesus’ goodness is credited to his account.
So what is Paradise? The word means garden, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. A place of perfect peace, beauty, abundance, joy, rest, healing, safety. In Nehemiah, the same word is used to describe the forest of the King. Paradise is the place God has prepared for us as we wait for the resurrection and the Great White Throne Judgement. But that’s next week!
So “What happens when we die?” It depends on what happens before we die! In Luke 16:19-26 Jesus tells the story of a rich man and a beggar. The beggar’s name is Lazarus and he’s described as covered with sores. Like the thief on the cross he has no spiritual equity - nothing with which to earn or buy his way into heaven. Yet the instant he dies, the angels come and carry him to what Jesus calls “the bosom of Abraham”. This is another name for paradise or heaven. It’s a place of protection, provision, peace.
Lazarus, this beggar covered with sores experiences what happened to Eleanor. He, too, is credited with what rightfully belongs to somebody else. Once again, it isn’t a mistake, it’s a gift. It’s called grace. His sin is forgiven and Jesus’ righteousness is credited to his account.
But there’s a second man in Jesus’ story. He is rich, healthy, wealthy and – not very wise. Like Lazarus, the thief on the cross, Eleanor, you and me, he has an appointment with death. All his wealth and power can’t postpone that appointment. Look at what Jesus says,
“The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ Luke 16:22-26
There are several things to note here. Just as there is a Paradise with God, there is a place of separation from God. The Bible calls it Hades or Hell.
Note also that there is a great gulf between these two places that can’t be crossed. In fact, the Bible says that there is only one person who has ever crossed that gulf – it’s Jesus. Those claiming they have done so are either lying or deceived by demons.
Note that there is no indication of repentance by the rich man. No indication he wants to be taken to the other side. Instead, he wants Lazarus to leave the comfort of paradise to serve him in hell. Is that self-centered or what?
Maybe the reason God established that great gulf between heaven and hell is so those who ignored and abused others during their life on earth could not continue to do so in eternity.
Let me say again, what happens after we die depends on what happens before we die. If we let selfishness rule our lives today, when we die, we will spend eternity with only our selfishness for company. If we let bitterness, or greed, or resentment rule our lives today, these same things will rule our lives in eternity.
We were created for eternity but we decide if that will be with God in paradise or apart from God in hell. CS Lewis wrote. “I believe the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end. The doors of hell are locked, not on the outside, but on the inside. All who are in hell choose it.” CS Lewis
People often ask, “How can a God of love actually throw people into everlasting hell?” God doesn’t throw anyone into hell who has not already decided to live there forever. God’s greatest joy is when a sinner repents and turns to him for salvation. The thief on the cross wanted to be with Jesus. But there are those who will say, “If living in heaven means spending eternity with Jesus, I’m not interested.”
Ultimately God will give us the desire of our heart. Nobody will be in heaven who doesn’t want to love God and worship and serve him forever. Even if God gave a second chance to those who are in hell, they would refuse it.
Rather than humbling themselves, repenting of their sin, and receiving the gift God paid for by sacrificing the life of his own Son, they will choose to remain in darkness and pain with only their own resentment, pride, bitterness for company.
They will acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for their sin, but instead of adoring him, their hatred for him will only deepen through eternity.
Let’s review: When a Christian dies our soul goes immediately into the conscious presence of Jesus in a place of absolute joy and peace. It’s called heaven. When Jesus returns to earth our resurrected bodes will be reunited with our souls. We will stand before the Great White Throne judgment to receive rewards for our faithful service on earth.
When an unbeliever dies their soul goes to a place of conscious separation from God called hell or Hades. Jesus compares it to the city garbage dump where the fires and the worms and the stench never dies. When Jesus returns they, too, will be resurrected to stand before the Judgment throne to give an account of how they have lived. Ultimately together with the devil and the demons they will be cast into the lake of fire for eternity.
Final question: How do we know if we will go to heaven when we die? Let’s read these words together from 1 John 5:13 “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:13
If entrance into heaven was based on what we do, we would be lost. We are like Lazarus the beggar covered with sores, or the thief on the cross, or Eleanor who knew she’d done nothing to deserve being taken to heaven. Our assurance that we will be taken to heaven when we die is based on trusting what Jesus has done for sinners like us.
Jesus said, “For God so loved _____ that he gave his one and only Son, that if _______ believes in him ____ shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn ______, but to save _____ through him.” John 3:16-17
In John 11 Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25
Good question! Without Jesus we would all be headed for hell. But a great exchange has been set up. Jesus took the penalty for your sin upon himself and gives you his righteousness as a gift to be received by faith. Jim Elliot wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Have you done that?