Do You Hope to Go to Heaven When You Die?
“NO INTEREST in Heaven or Hell.” So read a headline in The Morning Call newspaper (February 12, 1969) of Allentown, Pennsylvania. It reported on a poll of the “Typical American,” twenty-seven years of age, graduated from high school. His principal interests were said to be “football, hunting, fishing, and tinkering with automobiles.” While this may be true of the “Typical American” twenty-seven years of age, there are ever so many millions of other Americans, as well as millions of other nationalities, who take their religion more seriously. Many of them expect to go to heaven when they die.
Are you among those? If so, why do you hope or expect to go to heaven when you die? Quite likely one reason is because you have been taught that you have an immortal soul separate and distinct from your body, which at death goes either to heaven or to a hell of torment. Of course, if you had to choose between those two destinies you would want to go to heaven.
But could it be that the Bible does not teach that you have a soul that lives on after the body dies? Yes, it could be; in fact, such is the case, and it is being recognized by more and more people. Thus, as reported in Time magazine, Roman Catholic Theologian Peter Riga of St. Mary’s College in California acknowledged that the old idea of a man’s having a soul that departs from the body at death “makes no sense at all. There is just man, man in God’s image and likeness. Man in his totality was created and will be saved.” Similar expressions are to be found in the “Glossary of Biblical Theology Terms” appearing at the back of the Roman Catholic New American Bible, published in 1970.
And that is exactly what the Bible teaches. It states that in the beginning “man came to be a living soul,” not that he received a soul. Just as there is a great difference between having a wife and being a wife so there is a great difference between having a soul and being a soul. Also, the Bible tells us that “the soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” So it could not be immortal. Further, God’s Word shows that the dead “are conscious of nothing at all.” That is why the Bible speaks of death as ‘sleep.’ Interestingly, Martin Luther at one time taught that believers who died were unconscious until the resurrection.—Gen. 2:7; Ezek. 18:4, 20; Eccl. 9:5; 1 Cor. 15:20; 1 Thess. 4:13.
Some Do Go to Heaven
Yes, the Bible shows that the dead are unconscious until the resurrection. But it also makes clear that some are then raised to heavenly life. First of all, there was Jesus Christ. Of him, the apostle Peter said: “This Jesus God resurrected, of which fact we are all witnesses.” Thereafter “he was exalted to the right hand of God.” We are also told that “Christ entered . . . into heaven itself, now to appear before the person of God for us.”—Acts 2:32, 33; Heb. 9:24.
Further, Jesus promised his apostles a place in the heavens so that “where I am you also may be.” (John 14:2, 3) That his apostles had this hope is clear from their writings. Thus the apostle Paul wrote: “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, should be dissolved, we are to have a building from God, . . . everlasting in the heavens.” (2 Cor. 5:1) Such Christians have “a living hope . . . to an incorruptible . . . inheritance . . . in the heavens,” where they will be “sharers in divine nature.”—1 Pet. 1:3, 4; 2 Pet. 1:4.
Then, could it be that the countless millions who have entertained hopes of going to heaven will have their hopes realized? The Scriptures make it very clear that the number of those going to heaven is, comparatively speaking, small indeed. Thus Jesus said to them: “Have no fear, little flock, because your Father has approved of giving you the kingdom.” And in three places in the book of Revelation, the number of spiritual Israel, the number of those with the Lamb Jesus Christ upon the heavenly Mount Zion, is given as just 144,000. Of these, it is said that “they will be priests of God and of the Christ, and will rule as kings with him for the thousand years.”—Luke 12:32; Rev. 7:4; 14:1, 3; 20:6.
For a man to be eligible for the heavenly hope, certain steps are required on his part and on God’s part. He must repent from his past sinful course, must convert by turning around to follow a course of righteousness, must dedicate himself to do God’s will and be baptized. However, that is as far as he himself can go. The rest depends upon God.—Acts 3:19; Heb. 11:6; Acts 4:12; Matt. 28:19, 20.
Then, if God so wills He individually calls such a man and chooses him through His Son, Jesus Christ. (2 Tim. 1:9, 10; 1 Pet. 2:9) Such a man God also declares righteous on the basis of his faith in Christ’s blood, and by His holy spirit the man is brought forth as a spiritual son. (Rom. 5:1, 9; 8:15, 16, 33, 34; Jas. 1:18) Once having received this heavenly hope he must keep integrity, proving faithful until death. That includes keeping separate from the world, ‘pummeling his body’ so that he controls it and not it him, and being on guard against the snares of the Devil. (Jas. 1:27; 1 Cor. 9:27; 1 Pet. 5:8) Doing so, he can look forward, even as did the apostle Paul, to receiving the “crown of righteousness.”—2 Tim. 4:8; Rev. 2:10.
The Earthly Destiny
Is the destiny of everlasting life limited to those going to heaven, to just 144,000? By no means! Did not Jesus tell us to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? (Matt. 6:10) Besides, we read that “the earth will certainly be filled with the knowledge of Jehovah as the waters are covering the very sea.” (Isa. 11:9) And still more, we are assured that ‘the tent of God will be with mankind’ and that He “will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.” (Rev. 21:2-4) Those words must refer to this earth, for there never was death in heaven where God is. Surely these and many other scriptures of similar import indicate that there are people who will be rewarded with a fine earthly existence. The hope and prospect of thousands of millions who have died lies in a resurrection of the dead to life right here on this earth, for did not Jesus say, “the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out”?—John 5:28, 29.
That others, aside from those whose destiny is heaven, will gain salvation is clear from the context of one of the scriptures that mentions the 144,000 spiritual Israelites: “After these things I saw, and, look! a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes; and there were palm branches in their hands. And they keep on crying with a loud voice, saying: ‘Salvation we owe to our God, . . . and to the Lamb.’” Incidentally, the fact that this great crowd cannot be numbered argues that the number given for the spiritual Israelites is a literal number.—Rev. 7:9, 10.
Does this mean that there are two kinds of destinies for those who gain salvation through exercising faith in Jesus Christ? (John 3:16) Yes, for there is no question about the Scriptures speaking of both heavenly and earthly blessings and rewards. The logic of this fact will be apparent if we will but reason on the subject. If all the countless millions who will eventually gain salvation were to go to heaven to serve as priests and kings, in behalf of whom would they serve as priests and over whom would they rule as kings? But when we understand that only 144,000 will thus serve and they will bless the countless millions who will be raised from the dead and live right here on this earth, it all makes sense. Besides, when we consider that the vast majority of those resurrected from the dead will at the first have little knowledge of Jehovah God and of his righteous requirements, we can see how much work there will be for the heavenly priests and kings to bring these back into harmony with their Creator. The Bible shows that a thousand years will be devoted to this work, for which reason it is called the Millennial kingdom.—Isa. 11:1-9; 2 Pet. 3:8; Rev. 20:4-6.
Serving as earthly representatives of the heavenly kingdom will be “princes,” even as it was prophetically foretold of Jesus Christ: “In place of your forefathers there will come to be your sons, whom you will appoint as princes in all the earth.” (Ps. 45:16) These princes will include all the men of faith from Abel on to John the Baptist. Will none of these be in heaven? No. How do we know? Because Jesus said that up until then, 31 C.E., no one had ascended to heaven. And, of John the Baptist, he said that no “mother’s son” was greater than he, yet “the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” The Bible also says that even King David, a man approved by God, did not ascend to heaven.—Matt. 11:11; John 3:13; Acts 2:25-35, New English Bible.
Why did not any of these go to heaven? Because the way to heaven waited for Christ’s sacrifice to open it up. Besides, none could precede him, for he was to be “the firstborn from the dead, that he might become the one who is first in all things.” It therefore follows that only those dying after Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension to heaven could hope to gain life in the heavens.—Col. 1:18; Heb. 10:20; 2 Tim. 1:10.
The facts indicate that the general call or invitation by God for the heavenly prize has ceased, the full number having been called and chosen. That is why today the Christian witnesses of Jehovah herald far and wide the good news of everlasting life in a Paradise earth by means of God’s kingdom. In view of the time in which we are living, the hope is held forth that a “great crowd” of “other sheep” will not need to die but will pass from this old system to a new system of things, in which they can live forever. To make this hope fully your own, accept a Bible study with one of Jehovah’s witnesses.—John 10:16; Matt. 24:14.