By Dustin Messer
I had a high school friend ask me the very sincere question: "Do you honestly think me sleeping with my girlfriend can keep me out of heaven?" I understood the spirit behind his question. How could a loving God condemn someone to eternal torment for what seem like such a mild infraction? It’s a fair question that deserves an honest answer.
Truthfully, my first instinct was not to give an honest answer. My first instinct was to soften the rough edges of Scripture. I was tempted to gloss over those passages to do with hell and highlight those verses which offer comfort and solace. The Spirit kept me from doing this, however, and I was somewhat surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth: “it's worse than that, gardening and cooking can also keep you out of heaven too!”
Despite the way heaven and hell have come to be seen in our cultural imagination, it's not exactly that heaven is for "good people" and hell is for "bad people." In Scripture, the divide is more like "distracted people" v. "attentive people." Consider Luke 21:34:
“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”
Jesus is speaking here about those things which vie for our attention and keep us from being “ready” on judgement day. As you read the passage, I doubt you were surprised by him including the blatant sins of " dissipation and drunkenness." But licentiousness is only one trap of the Devil’s. I bet you were surprised, I know I always am, when Jesus includes the seemingly innocuous "cares of this life" as an obstacle to heaven.
If it means we'll be distracted, Satan is just as happy to see us mindlessly clocking in at work, going to soccer practice, and studying for an exam as he is seeing us troll the party scene every night. Satan isn’t nearly as concerned with how we live as he is with how we die. He wants us to close our eyes one final time never having looked to Jesus, never trusting in his finished work on the cross. Yes, he can use sin to keep us inattentive, but he can also use the monotony of life: the humdrum chores and responsibilities we all have.
In fact, "the cares of this life" might be a better trap than debauchery because it provides fewer wake up calls. I have many friends who were jolted from their spiritual slumber by a close call driving drunk or an almost failed marriage. Yet, I have no friends who’ve been awakened after scheduling their next haircut.
“It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds," says the malevolent Screwtape. "In reality, our best work is done by keeping things out.” He goes on to describe the road to hell as a gradual one, "the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."
Of course, sin sends us to hell, but it emphatically does not keep us out of heaven. If that were the case, none of us sinners would go there! What gets us into heaven isn't the absence of sin, it’s the presence of Christ. Satan's goal is to keep our eyes off of Him and His work. He can do that with weed and sex, and he can do that with gardening and cooking.
Hell is full of slothful drunks and philanderers, but it's also full of busy soccer moms and accountants. Hell is full of people who noticed the morning’s sunrise but never asked who made it. It’s full of people worked in the day but never asked where their strength came from. It’s full of people who went to sleep at night sure that they would wake up in the morning. In short, hell is full of distracted people.
That was the answer I gave to my friend. But after giving the answer, I told him there was a more fundamental question than who is in hell, and it’s this: Who is in heaven? The answer to that question is sinners. Heaven is full of sinners who saw Jesus, attended to His presence, and cultivated that presence in their day-to-day lives. Thankfully, my friend looked to Jesus. Like me, he is a sinner, but we will see each other in heaven!
Dustin Messer is Vicar of All Saints Dallas in Downtown Dallas, TX and teaches theology at The King’s College in New York, NY.