Who can Enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

“Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  You shut the door of the kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces; you do not enter yourselves, and when others try to enter, you stop them” (Matt 23:13 REB).

Christians historically have a nasty tendency of restricting the Gospel and keeping other Christians with whom they disagree out of heaven.  They limit the terms and conditions of entry, and even condemn to hell many of those with whom they disagree.  Even the apostles were initially guilty of this sin.  For example, in response to Jesus correcting them about who would be the greatest among them, “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and as he was not one of us, we tried to stop him’” (Mk 9:38 REB).  But Jesus graciously corrected John’s error: “Do not stop him, for no one who performs a miracle in my name will be able the next moment to speak evil of me.  He who is not against us is on our side.  Truly I tell you: whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you are followers of the Messiah will certainly not go unrewarded” (Mk 9:39-41; Lk 9:49-50). 

Through the early years of the Church there were differences and spats between the two great branches of the Church – the Catholics in the West, centred at Rome, and the Orthodox in the East, centred at Constantinople.  In 1054 CE the Pope sent emissaries to Constantinople to excommunicate the Patriarch; he, in response, excommunicated the Pope.  These two branches ever since have been separate and developed individually. 

And the way a large number of Protestant evangelical “bible-believing” fundamentalists behave is tragic.  With their doctrine of separation and their narrow list of doctrines, they exclude vast swathes of Christian believers not only from attending their churches but from heaven itself.  Although they might not admit it, they believe they’re the only ones who will be received in heaven by our Lord.  For many fundamentalists, salvation is an exclusive club and they have front row seats. 

But if salvation if so exclusive, why did the apostle John, in the revelation given him by Jesus, say: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9-10 NRSV).

Where does this great multitude come from if only belief in the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the one thousand year reign of Christ on earth can save; or if only Calvinists can be saved; or Sabbath-only keepers; or King James-only believers; or those who have received the baptism of the Spirit; or belief in a young earth and a 6 days creation; or any one of a host of single issue or narrow list-of-essential-beliefs which their adherents insist are necessary for salvation?  This verse describes people from every place on earth – which means not only Protestantism in its tens of thousands of forms, but Catholics and Orthodox in all their forms; and they’ll all be praising Jesus.

Contrary to what these separatists and exclusivists declare, John tells us: “…God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).  In a desperate attempt to explain away the all-encompassing nature of God’s love, Calvinists whom I’ve known say that this verse doesn’t mean everybody in the world; no, it means the world or total of the elect.  And every single one of the elect will be saved; likewise, when Peter tells us that God is “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).  My Calvinist ex-friends and abusive elders and church members say that this verse refers only to the elect; God has not willed their destruction but their salvation, so all the elect will be saved.

But this is against the bible that such Calvinists profess to believe.  “Such prayer is right, and approved by God our Saviour, whose will it is that all should find salvation and come to know the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, himself man, who sacrificed himself to win freedom for all mankind, revealing God’s purpose at God’s good time…” (1 Tim 2:3-6 REB).  As bible literalists they should accept the words of the bible as they are.  But, as with all bible literalists, they take literally only those passages which they can use to support and promote their cause, and spiritualise those which oppose their pet doctrines.  Insisting that “the world” and “all mankind” and other all-encompassing terms don’t mean what they so patently do mean, and trying to narrow the meaning of the passage to the small group of the elect, is sin.  The apostle Peter when writing of Paul writing scripture, says of such people: “He does the same in all his other letters, wherever he speaks about this, though they contain some obscure passages, which the ignorant and unstable misinterpret to their own ruin, as they do the other scriptures (2 Pet 3:16 REB).

Contradicting Calvinists who try to restrict the plain meaning of “the world” to the small number of the elect, and all other evangelicals and fundamentalists who do the same with their own pet doctrines, Isaiah prophesied of the huge number of people for whom Jesus died.  He writes of the Father and the Son (Israel whom we know to be Jesus because of the terminology used in the passage) who virtually bargained to increase the number of people who would be redeemed.  I quote the passage in full for those who do not have access to a bible, as it’s too precious to do otherwise. 

“Listen to me, you coasts and islands, pay heed, you peoples far distant: the LORD called me before I was born, he named me from my mother’s womb.  He made my tongue a sharp sword and hid me under the shelter of his hand; he made me into a polished arrow, in his quiver he concealed me.  He said to me, ‘Israel, you are my servant through whom I shall win glory.’  Once I said, ‘I have toiled in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing, and to no purpose.’  Yet my cause is with the LORD and my reward with God.  The LORD had formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him that Israel should be gathered to him, so that I might rise to honour in the Lord’s sight and my God should be my strength.  And now the LORD has said to me: ‘It is too slight a task for you, as my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob, to bring back the survivors of Israel: I shall appoint you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach earth’s farthest bounds’” (Isa 49:1-7 REB).

But how many Premillennialists are there in the world that could possibly be called “a great multitude?  Even if we allow that many will be saved during the fictional Great Tribulation, the number of saved could only ever be a tiny minority of the world’s population at any time; and the “Tribulation” is a set time of 3 ½ years, so how will that number be significant? 

How many Calvinists are there in the world?  How many throughout the history of the Church in comparison to the whole population of the people in the world?  How can the great multitude be restricted to all the elect when the number of the elect is comparatively so small and always has been?

And how many sabbath-keepers have there ever been in the history of the Church?  Even the Seventh Day Adventists acknowledge that there are few because they call themselves “The Remnant”.  And will every individual in heaven be carrying a King James Bible in their hands as they sing to the praise of Jesus?

No, this is all wrong.  Jesus never restricted the number of persons who can enter the kingdom of heaven, except to say that all must repent (Mk 1:15) and be born anew (Jn 3:3, 5).  He didn’t state a set of beliefs either.  He didn’t tell us that we must believe in the Five Points of Calvinism or in the Tribulation, Rapture, and earthly Millennium, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or that we must use a particular version of the bible, or anything else that modern day Christians have imposed onto the Gospel.  When asked the important question by the crowds who were following him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent (Jn 6:28-29).  And John tells us why he wrote his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31). 

The universal Creed

The only creed with which most Christians could agree (although there will always be some extremists on the lunatic fringe who won’t even accept this) is the Apostles’ Creed.  It contains the essence of Christian belief and the gospel.  Every other creed, even the Nicene, has had various points disputed; but the Apostles’’ Creed has been universally accepted.  The earliest trace of it is found in the works of Ambrose (3rd century) but not inserted into the liturgy until the 11th century.  “In early ages it was not admitted with the Liturgy, though catechumens were required to subscribe it before they were admitted to baptism.  The repetition of it in public worship was first instituted in the Greek church at Antioch, and introduced into the Romish church in the eleventh century, whence it passed into the service of the Church of England at the Reformation” (Farrar, J, 1878, p. 51).

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.

So, with the early Church requiring candidates for baptism to memorise and recite the Apostles’ Creed before they could be baptized, surely churches today should stop restricting who can enter heaven by imposing strict limitations and narrow theology on them, and consequently the Gospel; and effectually calling God a liar who said he sent his Son to into the world because he loves humanity (the world) and is not willing that any of them should perish.  The early Church and the Apostles’ Creed are testimony to the fact that the gates of heaven swing open much wider than the narrow-minded, bigoted, Evangelical/fundamentalist Christians will allow. 

Even Catholics, whom fundamentalists love to hate, believe in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, that Jesus died to save sinners, and all the other cardinal doctrines of Christianity and the gospel as shown in the Apostles’ Creed; in fact, the Apostles’ Creed was formulated by the Catholic Church!.  Admittedly, there are some things Catholics and Orthodox believe that evangelicals and fundamentalists find difficult, even offensive, but these can be found in the books of the Apocrypha; so Catholics and Orthodox haven’t just invented praying to the saints or intercession of the saints; or a middle realm between heaven and hell where Christians go after death to atone for sins they’ve committed after baptism.  In fact, the Apocrypha were regarded as scripture by the early church universally; so they regarded these beliefs as being scriptural, to the extent that prayers for the dead were in the liturgies, and tombstones often had inscriptions on them with requests to the deceased to pray for the living relatives.  If there is wrong here it is on the part of the Reformers who removed the books of the Apocrypha from scripture without warrant from any authority to do so; and much of Protestantism since the Reformation has maintained this position.

And considering that the apostle John told us he wrote his gospel so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31), on what basis do they deny salvation to Catholics?

Jesus himself said to the apostles, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Lk 17:6).  And when the apostles were arguing over who should be the greatest among them, Jesus, “…calling to him a little child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt 18:3 RSV).  These verses show the smallness and simplicity of faith required to achieve such great things; so by what right or warrant do evangelicals and fundamentalists exclude from heaven anybody who trusts in Jesus and believes he is the Son of God? 

It doesn’t take extensive or precise knowledge of doctrine to please Jesus; anybody, even unbelievers, can learn doctrine just as they can the laws of physics or mathematical formulae.  What Jesus values is that a person loves him.  He said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father and I will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn 14:23).  And he said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, ‘Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (Matt 7:21-23).  

Unless otherwise stated, “The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright 1993 and 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.”  “Published by Catholic Bible Press, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee 37214.