Understanding God: Who goes to heaven?
The question of who goes to heaven (who is saved) and who is not (and thus is denied the presence of God, which is the most fundamental definition of hell) cannot be understood or answered without understanding God’s attribute of mercy. Remember that God not only loves, he IS love, and that his mercy flows from his unlimited love. In this section I will utilize logic and reasoning and in parallel cite from scripture.
The first way that God demonstrates his mercy is that every human culture, as a community and individually, seeks to know him. That is something that is unique to human beings, compared to the animals, which have intelligence, depth of feeling, and even sophisticated social structures, but do not seek God. That is because animals are still in the Eden state of mind where their environment, supplied by the Creator, provides all that is needed for them to survive and create the life of their offspring in turn. But humans are different. No matter where you go in the world, and no matter what the culture, or what stage of human progress, humans are wired to seek God. Humans are even making advances in identifying what parts of the brain are stimulated by the search for God. Looking for God and seeking to know him is not an evolutionary survival advantage, otherwise all animals of a certain level of intelligence would seek God too. Rather, seeking God at the most fundamental level (and thus I mean to know him before being concerned about his laws and implications for human behavior) is not particularly helpful to finding food, water, shelter, finding a mate and passing along the strongest and best adapted genes to the next generation. Good living by following God’s rules does that through the sheer common sense and morality of good and healthy behavior, but there is something very deep that is shared by all humans before the benefit of following God’s rules can be considered. That is a biological and spiritual imperative to get to know God.
Some modern detractors claim that early humans seek God because they feared the harsh world they lived in. That does not make sense, however, because the desire to understand God cuts across both prosperous and poor cultures, those who live in lands of plenty and relatively easy living, and those who live in the most harsh conditions. What is the first thing that any explorer finds when he or she locates a new people? They find a belief structure and a search for God, regardless of the ease or harshness of that culture and of the environment within which they must live. If anything strength of belief in God increases with the prosperity of a culture.
Therefore any student of human history, whether systematic or anecdotal, has to concede that there is a consistent search for God and a development of a belief system in virtually every culture in every part of the world at any and at all times in history regardless of the ease or difficulties of that culture. By comparing this observation to the fact that humans alone possess this trait and animals do not one can also deduce using logic that it is not a Darwin natural selection or evolutionary survival advantage at its most primitive (pre development of social mores and laws). Thus one has to by logic acknowledge that it is a gift from God to all humans, that they shall seek him.
So how did humans go about finding God? Anthropologists and other scholars can explain the details of the search for God among early humans, as best as can be surmised from the clues that remain before writing was invented and humans could leave records of their thoughts. Humans sought God by 1) scrutinizing the powers and abilities of the weather, animals and plants around them 2) developing a concept of an afterlife (they would bury bodies with items that they might use as if they were alive) and 3) developing and passing to future generations an oral history of their own creation stories. These three developments that are unique to each culture combined in various proportions and strengths to result in concepts such as polytheistic beliefs, where humans deduce that there must be an order of supernatural beings that are organized (including having the same faults and weaknesses) just as humans do. Polytheistic cultures combine the qualities of weather, animals or plants that they are most attuned to in their environment with theories about how beings who could wield these powers would look like, what they might be called, how they spend their time, and how they created humans or at the very least how they intervene, for good or ill, in human affairs. Eventually each culture thinks of ways to try to appeal to the benevolent aspects of their polytheistic pantheon, and how to placate, appease and avoid the malevolent. Remember they modeled their theories about divinities and supernatural powers based on combining what they observe of their own human nature and then “super sizing” it with the powers that they most fear or admire from the natural world.
Even though the primitive cultures of humankind were inventing, for lack of a better word, their own divinities, this does not mean that God was totally unknown. Because God is love you can observe that primitive humans started caring for the weak among each other, and examination of burial sites indicate that even the maimed, elderly and diseased had to have been tended to by others in order to survive at all. Additionally, marriage as a pairing of one man and one woman with a strong parental bond to their children arose in all cultures. A bias toward life and the strengthening of the family bond is synchronous with knowing God. God is not telling people to be faithful pairs and to raise families and be good community members, but when primitive people in all parts of the world gravitate in that same direction they are in conformation with God’s will and his bias toward love and the fruitfulness of life. Thus cultures were able to have false mythologies and their own invented creation stories with pantheons of not very worthy supernatural beings and yet still be in conformity to God’s will because they among themselves sought what is the best and most loving.
One starts to have problems when militarized civilizations arose where aristocratic leaders begin to have caste systems, slavery and human sacrifice. It is at that point in human development when God made himself known to humans overtly rather than through their synchronous community and family based love and morality. God in his wisdom chose one people to make him self known, to jointly create with them an ongoing, documented verifiable secular and faith history. In other words, God did not just appear, identify himself, dictate to them the correct creation story and code of conduct and then disappear. God made a commitment to have an earthy presence side by side with these Chosen People, so that centuries of affirmation of his consistent presence and expectations are documented (“witnessed to”) by generations of humans. The record of that is called The Bible.
As I have explained before this is why the Bible is demonstrably different from all human mythologies and creation stories because it is a human history that God shares, side by side, with consistency, and dates, names and places carefully recorded for hundreds and indeed thousands of years. When Jewish scholars calculate the time back to the Garden of Eden and Christian Evangelicals have the same numeric “literal belief” they should not be mocked or dismissed. Jewish scholars have calculated with great accuracy the years, days and seasons of the entire God revealed and co-participating faith history. In other words, the Garden of Eden is the beginning of God making him self known to humans, to Adam and Eve. This is why the Qur’an calls Adam not only first man but first prophet. Obviously humans were already in existence because as every young Catholic child asks the nuns during Catechism, who did the sons of Adam and Eve marry, if they were the only ones alive?
Genesis 4: 1-2, 17-18
And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. And she again bare his brother Abel: and Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujail begat Methusael: and Methusal begat Lamech.
There are women to marry and enough people for Cain to found a city that he names after his son Enoch. The Garden of Eden was the beginning of faith history, starting with the first who God breathed life into, Adam and Eve. Thus one can have total faith in the datelines that the Jewish scholars have calculated for the beginning of the world through Adam and Eve because that is the beginning of human faith history, when God made himself explicitly known to humans, making them discard their mythologies and assumptions about supernatural powers and divinities.
Wherever God appears in even the smallest part of his form on earth, then wondrous things happen. The Garden of Eden existed and was indeed as described, where the trees that were forbidden to Adam and Eve grew, and where all their needs were met, and where they had the company of God, even to being able to hear his footsteps when he walked in the garden:
Exodus 3: 8 And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.
So the first mercy that God provided humans was that he made himself-as he really is and not how they imagined- known to them. The second mercy that God provided was the Garden of Eden, where in his presence they could live without care. The third mercy that God provided was to forgive the sin of Adam and Eve, even though through that sin of obeying the temptation of Satan they were expelled. God remained committed to being known to them and guiding humanity on the correct path back to him and to salvation. Notice that even when Cain killed his brother Abel, over spiritual jealousy that Abel had the most pleasing sacrifice to God, God demonstrated mercy by forbidding that Cain be harmed. This was, then, the fourth mercy of God which was to role model to humans that even with the most egregious of offenses against him, and against each other, there is always a path that humans can take to forgiveness: God never takes that away.
Abel was the father of ritual worship of God and had he not been slain all priests and other religious would have been able to trace their spiritual ancestry to him. Therefore we read in the Bible that while Cain was spared and his offspring not harmed, the third child of Adam and Eve became Abel’s replacement:
And Adam knew his wife again, and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew. And to Seth to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.
The grandson of Adam and Eve, Enos, therefore marks the beginning of the children of God being entitled to “call upon the name of the Lord.” This is the beginning of the heritage of being adopted children of God who have a right to call upon the Lord by name, and the beginning of their obligation to worship and to serve God, as Abel and his lineage would have done.
You have to begin to see, therefore, that heaven is not only a “reward,” but it is about knowing God and being able to call upon his name. Thus, to go back now to using reasoning and logic, modern humans cannot answer the question of, for example, what happens to good Neanderthals who lived before Adam and Eve when they die? Do they “go to heaven?” It is crucial that you understand how important Genesis 4:26 is because it is there that the path to salvation is established as humans were given the right to “call upon the name of the Lord.” It is from that point forward that a conscious existence of eternal life with God in “heaven” is first understood and pursued, although that is not the focus of generations of humans because obeying God in life was their continual challenge.
The first thing that anyone must realize is that you have to trust God. Whatever is the final dispensation of the early humans who were “good” but did not know him, that is entirely in God’s hands. It is like this, to use a simple analogy. Suppose that you live in an apartment unit, and every apartment of course receives its own water, electricity and heating. You do not need, as an average renter, to go door to door to “check” that the same utilities that you have actually go to each of the other apartments. You take it for granted and trust that is the case unless told otherwise. Likewise you have to trust that God does not do anything “bad” to those who came before and who did not know him, but lived good lives. However, suppose you are no longer the average apartment renter, but you are now appointed the apartment manager. Now you care that every apartment has the same service and it is your responsibility to fix things when they break. This is what it is like when Enos, son of Seth, started the people who began to “call upon the name of the Lord.” Now people 1) knew God as he really exists, 2) know his name, 3) have the privilege to call upon his name, 4) know what they need to do to worship and to serve him and 5) understand that they have an earthly home and hope of a heavenly home. With that knowledge now comes responsibility, just as if one is no longer the “renter” but the “apartment manager.”
Whatever happens to people who never knew God, but were otherwise “good” has always been entirely in God’s hands and that is the first step in mature faith, which is to understand that and to trust that God always “does” what is “right.” However, once humans took, ate from the fruit that was forbidden of the knowledge of good and evil, they are no longer “just renters along for the ride to wherever.” They now have a big chore to achieve heaven; they can no longer fall into God’s hands at the end of their unaware lives as do those who died without ever knowing God. This is why, looking forward to the Christian Apostles and disciples, that they had such an urgency to proclaim the word of God as given to them by Jesus Christ. They ruminated about it once in a while about what God ‘does’ with those souls who never know him, but they, recognizing that they are apartment managers, as are all others who strive to believe, felt that urgency to not dwell on what they cannot control but to save as many souls as possible.
The Apostles demonstrated trust in God, knowing that they cannot possibly reach everyone in the world themselves in one generation, and so they did not obsess about what ‘happens’ to those they do not reach, but they felt that continual flame of urgency that the time of blissful unawareness of God is long gone. Jesus role modeled both for them. Jesus role modeled to not try to do God’s job for him, thinking that every person in the world must be converted or something ‘bad’ will happen and they won’t be ‘saved’ because Jesus himself only preached to the Jews. Jesus was selective in who he could minister to in the several years that he had. However, during those several years, Jesus demonstrated tireless evangelizing to individuals and crowds of thousands, to show that it is indeed an urgent matter to not take salvation for granted.
So heaven does not change and God does not change; heaven and God are the same as they were before the universe, before earth, before animals, before humans, and before humans came to know him. However, humans “grow up” and they change. As humans claimed power for themselves, building cities and treating others with either dignity and graciousness or with cruelty and exploitation, they could no longer continue living in the prehistory mindset of making up “creation myths” and imagining what the afterlife is like because they themselves were becoming masters of other humans. God steps in at this point and lets them know that since they have chosen not the Garden of Eden but rather to have knowledge of good and evil, then they now “own the process” to use a modern business term. Heaven is the same place it always has been but now there is no such thing as just falling asleep into it as the primitives presumably did (as I said, no one knows how God dispenses those who came before he was known). When the Apostles worried that no one rich can be saved, they asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied that what is impossible for man is not impossible for God. Humans do not know the entire picture or even a fraction of how God brings life to him, or not, in eternity. They have to trust in his goodness, not because it’s a fact they have no other choice but to trust God, but because in the Bible and in the Qur’an you see the shared side by side involvement of God in gifting humans with the KNOWN path to salvation. Humans do not need to worry about all the ways God may or may not have to bring those who die to him; they need to worry about themselves and their neighbors.
This is why the recent Pew and other surveys where many Americans think, “Oh, well, all religions are good and all lead to God” are both right and they are dangerous and wrong. Americans are correct to be humble that God, as Jesus explained, can do what seems impossible, which is save many of the unworthy. However, assuming that one can slip slide in a blur of “spirituality” or “open mindedness” into heaven is an error because those days are in the past, the times when humans had not yet chosen the knowledge and thus become the “apartment managers” and not just the rent paying simple tenant. One can trust in God’s mercy toward “many faiths” or “other faiths,” but you better get your own house in order.
[Conclusion of Part One of this topic].