It is an encouraging and exciting thing to know something about what God promises can be our life beyond the grave. It is also an easy thing to assume that everybody will get to enjoy it. Thinking that someone could be banished from God and spend endless years in hopelessness and agony is too much for many to even consider. We don’t want to believe this, so we just won’t. Still, Jesus said this:
13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.Matthew 7:13-14
It is the worst news in the Bible. I would love to ignore it, but I can’t.
If you only knew this one passage you would think that getting into Heaven was by some difficult form of self-effort. It isn’t. Oddly, the way that people are forgiven of their sins and given a place with God is a gift. To top it off, it is God’s desire to give this gift to all. The whole process of making this gift ours is a mixture of easy to impossible.
Life with God is so valuable that to earn it one must be completely sinless (impossible). Since no human is, God created a plan where the Son of God would become a human and be sinless for us. (Easy for us) He would also fulfill a legal requirement that sins be punished by “eternal death”–being forsaken by God (Easy for us, miserable for Jesus). Jesus’ voluntary, sacrificial death is sufficient to cover any sin by anybody. But it doesn’t.
The last step in the necessary process is that God connects a person to Jesus in some mysterious way. The Bible states (1 Corinthians 2:14) people in their natural state (messed up by our sinful nature) cannot create or accept this connection. The Holy Spirit has to be able to create this connection for us. On the surface, creating this connection looks like an intellectual process. You tell a person about their sinful condition, share what Jesus did and why, proclaim to them God’s promise of forgiveness, and baptize them in the name of Jesus. They in turn believe it and are saved. While our intellect is engaged in the process, in the end believing isn’t a choice we make. It is the Holy Spirit doing something.
This is the mysterious part. What exactly does the Holy Spirit do? Why doesn’t this work for everyone? Why can’t the Holy Spirit create this connection all the time? Is it that people hold intellectual objections to this narrative? Might it be something else like genetics or brain structure? It is not for a lack of love on God’s part.
Whatever the barrier is, it can break at a time that you would never expect. Super-intellectuals, who were committed atheists, have come to faith and even they can’t really explain it. Hardened criminals have been moved to repentance and saved. People committed to other world religions have had dreams of Jesus, or miraculous healings, or just heard the Gospel and become believers. And yet others, who seem to be on the brink, just can’t believe.
For instance, Thomas Nagel, a renown professor of philosophy from New York University, in his book Mind and Cosmos, argues convincingly against the materialist, Neo-Darwinian worldview. He even states that he wished he could believe the Christian worldview of friends, but in the end, he can’t do it. It is a mystery why not. The fact that people do come to faith unexpectedly is both hopeful and aggravating. As somebody who wants others to have eternal life, you don’t always know what to do or expect.
If you are an unbeliever and somehow are reading this article, I would tell you that there is a lot at stake for you. You can’t change who you are. I can’t force you to believe in Jesus. But I would challenge you to read Jesus’ story in one of the four Gospels in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John). It doesn’t take that long. It’s a worthwhile exercise even for cultural awareness. I would further challenge you to think about why you don’t believe this story and why you do believe whatever you do believe about this universe, life and death. It is my hope that God himself would work in this process and surprise us both in the best way possible.