Luke 23: 39-43 (MsgB)
 One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed Him (Jesus): “Some Messiah You are! Save Yourself! Save us!”  But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as Him.  We deserve this, but not Him—He did nothing to deserve this.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You enter Your Kingdom.”  He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join Me in paradise.”
Are you going to Paradise when you die?
Apparently from what Luke tells us here, one criminal, the mouthy one, is about to spend eternity in Hell, hob-knobbing with Satan. The soft-hearted criminal, on the other hand; the one who has compassion and understanding for the suffering Jesus; is about to enter the pearly gates with Jesus as his personal guide and escort.
This question of heaven and hell seems to be one of the major issues that religious people seem to focus on a lot. I remember when I was a child; the question of whether or not I was going to be in heaven after I died was the driving question in most of the evangelistic preaching I heard.
And, without a doubt, where you and I spend eternity is a huge question, indeed. When we compare our 70 or 80 years of life here on planet earth to the billions and billions of millennia we will spend in the afterlife, I guess the question of where we spend that time is pretty important, huh?
Some people have decided that there is no afterlife so they live their lives here with little or no interest in what happens after death. I can certainly understand why some decide to go that route, although I ultimately don’t think it a wise choice. But the way we religious people spin the heaven and hell stuff, it’s no wonder so many find it much easier to just ignore the issue.
But here’s the problem with that approach.
Jesus does refer to the afterlife quite often. The Bible talks a lot about the other side as well. And then there are all the other major religions of the world, most of which agree with us Christians that this life here on earth is just a precursor to the more eternal existence we will have beyond this world.
So when Jesus says to this softhearted criminal, “Today, you will join Me in paradise”, curious minds truly want to know what’s going to happen to this guy.
Most Christian theology today insists, for example, that in order for a person to have a legitimate shot at heaven, each person must follow a specific 4-step plan of redemption. Step one is to acknowledge and repent (turn away) from all of our known sin. Step two is to specifically ask Jesus to come into our lives, making Him our personal Savior. Step three includes a regiment of religious activity, including regular church attendance, prayer, bible study, tithing, plus attending a monthly potluck dinner at a church of our own choosing. And finally, step four is making sure we are ‘repented up’ right up to the point of our death, making sure we’ve confessed our most recent sin activity prior to leaving planet earth.
Now, I know I just exaggerated just a bit and most likely, offended a few of you. But what the hey; it’s my blog and I guess I have the right to do that. But in all honesty, if I look at the complicated process the church expects to happen for one person to get to heaven, I fail to see much of that going on in the life of this poor dude hanging on a cross next to Jesus.
So what’s the deal?
Is it so simple to get to heaven that all I have to do is throw up a quick ‘remember me, Jesus, when You get to heaven’ prayer and that’s enough to get me in?
To be totally honest, I don’t sense that any of this kind of debate surrounding how you and I can get ourselves into heaven, and what kind of prayers or process will best get us there, is actually focusing on the right questions. In truth, I wonder at times if we Christians, while being sincere with our opinions on how a person gets to heaven, are somehow focusing on all the wrong questions, missing the point of the matter completely?
As I see it, the only consistent factor I find in the New Testament, one that gives any real clarity on the subject, focuses much more on the type of relationship we have with Jesus, God’s Chosen Son, versus religious activity of any kind. As I read the Scriptures, it seems that the relational piece with God, our Father, Jesus, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, seems to receive much more attention than any shopping list of do’s or don’ts needed to get us into heaven.
Could it be that Jesus, then, is the key to our questions about heaven and the afterlife? Could it be that this criminal bypasses the do’s and don’ts shopping list and goes right to the heart of the matter? Could it be that the Kingdom rule and reign of God is the key to understanding paradise and the afterlife yet to come? And could it be that this hardened criminal, as he suddenly realizes that his eternal salvation depends more on being with Jesus as He enters His Kingdom than anything else, has stumbled onto the simplest key of understanding the inner workings of the afterlife?
Wow. I wonder how our church lives might change for the better if we decided to let go of so much of the complicated do’s and don’ts we preach about getting or not getting into heaven and simply focus our lives more and more on being next to Jesus as He enters His Kingdom rule and reign?
Maybe this criminal was onto something quite revolutionary here? Something so simple yet profound that when embraced, the whole complicated process of getting into heaven can become a whole lot simpler for us sinful earth-dwellers?
My prayer: Jesus, I know I stand the risk here of over simplifying the salvation and redemption process, but as I read this text today, I see that for this one criminal who decides, under much distress, to have a softened-heart toward You, You tell him that his eternal salvation is as uncomplicated as being relationally attached to You as You enter Your eternal glory with God. Holy Spirit, empower me to focus on that same soft-heartedness toward Christ and may I be found standing next to Jesus on that final day when God’s Kingdom glory overtakes this darkened world for the final time. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: How might I need to rethink the ‘established’ salvation process used in traditional Christian circles today, and use instead ideas based more on the text we find here? Could it be that we’ve overcomplicated the salvation process? How can we, the church, simplify and enrich this salvation story for people so that ‘going to heaven’ can become more of a relationally-based lifestyle versus religiously living out a long shopping list of rules and regulations?
So what is God speaking to you today? Are you practicing the Kingdom presence of God?