If you were to ask me today, “Do you know what will happen to you when you die?” I would be able to look you in the eye and say, “Yes.”  And then I would want to tell you what I believe and why I believe it.

I would tell you that after my body dies, my soul will live on.  After my death it will be given a new physical body, but it will be different from this one.  It will not be subject to corrosion or corruption.  It will have capacities I can’t even imagine right now, and I will live in this body forever in the presence of my God, in a place we call Heaven.  It will be beautiful.  It will not have pain or loss or anger or cruelty.  But it will have purpose and work and art and music and enjoyment and fulfillment.  And, while I am not looking forward to physically dying, because I do fear that the process of dying might be painful, I am looking very much forward to my life after this body dies.  

Most people, on hearing what I believe, would agree that they would be very happy to believe the same thing I do with the same conviction.  So, I want to tell you that I don’t believe this because I want to (although I really do want to).  I believe this because I am convinced it is true, and you can be justified in believing it too.

So here is my reasoning.  It all pivots around the historical person we know as Jesus of Nazareth  If the following propositions are true about him, then I can know that I will go to heaven when I die.

  1. Jesus was a real, historical person who lived on this planet in Roman occupied Israel somewhere around AD1 – AD33 (The calendar has been screwed with over the millennia and that’s probably off by about 6 years)
  2. Jesus believed that the Jewish scriptures (which now form the Old Testament of the modern day Bible) were the actual words of God, told through prophets at his direction.
  3. People who knew Jesus accurately recorded the events of his life and the lives of some of the first generation of people who became his followers.
  4. He claimed to be the son of God, to have the authority to forgive sins, to have power over death, and to be the only way to God. (John 14:6) 
  5. He predicted that he would be executed in Jerusalem and that three days later he would rise from the dead.
  6. He was executed by crucifixion by the Roman government at the request of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and then on the third day after his death his tomb was found empty. For 40 days after that, individuals, groups, even crowds of as many as 500 people (both believers and skeptics) claimed to see him and speak with him and even eat with him.  And many of those people died holding to that claim, leading me to believe that he literally came back to life days after dying, which does not happen.

Number 6 is really the “king pin” of my whole belief.  I love philosophy.  I have been accused, jokingly, of being a thinky-girl.  I think it is stupid and irresponsible to believe and trust in something that you don’t have good reasons for.  So, I have good reasons for believing all 6 of these things.  If you ever want me to go into greater depth on any of these points, please ask me, and then get a coffee, because you’re going to need it.  I love talking about this stuff.  

But let me touch on 1 – 5 quickly and then zero in on 6, because if it’s not true, everything I believe is a joke.

  1. Honestly, no serious historian of this time period (say 500BC to 1500AD) disputes this point.  There are literally thousands of historical documents, some biblical, some Jewish, some Christian, some Roman that all attest to his existence.  
  2. Hinging on point one, the documentation of the life of Jesus is clear that he was a devout Jew.  The Jewish scriptures were established a couple hundred years before he was born and he was raised in a culture that centered in every way on those scriptures.  He believed them.
  3. The writings of the New Testament that document Jesus’ life and the lives of his followers have been subjected to intense analysis and criticism within the church and without.  There will always be people who will question the authorship of various books, but the great majority of historians of this time (Christian, Jewish, atheist etc..) agree that they were written within one generation of Jesus’ death by people who knew him personally or had heard first hand about him from people who knew him personally (like your mom telling you stories about a grandparent you never met), AND many were persecuted and even killed for the claims they made, but they did not recant even when they were killed for their beliefs.  (There is an astonishingly large body of work on verifying the authenticity of the 27 books and letters that form the New Testament)
  4. These claims are documented in the books of the New Testament that I mention above, but various ones are also documented by historians of the time and by following generations of Christians who were told of his claims.  Historians generally won’t bother to argue whether he said these things or not.  They are better documented than any other quoted historical figure (like Julius Ceasar or Alexander the Great).
  5. This is one of the claims that is very well documented.  It is recorded by all four of the bible authors who wrote biographies of Jesus, and affirmed by the writings of many, many people who wrote about him.  (To be fair, it was a really weird thing to say, so it stuck in people’s minds)

So basically, beliefs 1 – 5 are not all that controversial.  Of course, a lot of people just don’t want to believe them, because their possible implication can seem unattractive or undesirable.  (Jesus was actually the son of God, thus there is a God, thus it’s possible that there is an authority above and beyond me, thus I might not be the master of my own fate and I might not be able to do whatever I want without consequence) Regardless, if we subject the writings about Jesus to the same tests to which we subject any other historical document, they are every bit as trustworthy (and they are much better supported) than the stories about Caesar, Alexander the Great, Atilla the Hun, or any other character who existed in the ancient world.

The real pivot point is #6.  Up to now we just have a guy whose life and teachings are remarkably well documented living a little over 2000 years ago, saying some fairly strange things (also some really wonderful, wise beautiful things – many people who don’t believe he was supernatural, still believe he was a wonderful moral teacher).  

So it doesn’t really mess with anyone’s life to believe 1 – 5.  Also, the belief that Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers at the request of Jewish authorities is completely uncontroversial.  That is one of the best documented events in history.  So the real pivot point here is whether or not he came back to life after his death.  For one thing, that doesn’t happen.  For another thing, he claimed to be the son of God and therefore equal to God, so if something supernatural happened to him, that would appear to validate his claim (and everything else he ever said).  Think about it.  If I told you that I was the daughter of God, that I would forgive you for everything wrong you ever did if you asked me, and that I would take you to heaven to live with my father God in peace and joy forever, you would think I was nuts.  But if I also told you that I was going to die and then come back from the grave three days later, and then I actually died and came back from the grave three days later, you might start to wonder if  my other “crazy” claims were actually true.  People don’t recover from death, so if I actually did, then it stops being crazy to believe that my father really is God and really did give me authority to forgive evil, and invite people to heaven. In fact, it’s kind of crazy not to believe me, right?

So, again, if “the resurrection of Jesus” (him dying and coming back to life 3 days later) really happened, then I am justified in believing that he can take me to heaven to spend eternity with him when I die.

And I really DO believe it happened.  I think it is the best explanation for the fact that the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed on the night of his death was found empty on the third day after.  History documents that the Jewish authorities had the Romans place a guard at the tomb because they knew Jesus had told people that he would be executed and then come back to life.  But it was found empty first by a group of women that knew him, later by some of his male followers.  All the authorities would have had to do to stop the crazy rumor that Jesus was alive again, was produce a body.  But no one ever did.

Some people think that his disciples stole it and hid it. Well, that is possible.  History documents that Jesus’ closest friends in life claimed that the tomb was empty and he was alive, but its possible that they were lying, at least at first. But after a while this became a very uncomfortable claim to maintain.  They were massively persecuted for their faith.  In fact of the “12 disciples” who were Jesus closest friends and followers, 1 killed himself the day Jesus died because of guilt for selling Jesus out to the authorities, 1 was exiled for his beliefs and he died in exile, and the remaining 10 were tortured and murdered for their beliefs.  All any of them would have had to do to avoid horrible deaths, was deny that Jesus was raised from the dead.  None of them did.  They went to their graves believing they had seen him alive several times after his crucifixion.

What’s even more compelling is another guy who was also murdered for believing that Jesus was raised from the dead.  He was actually one of Jesus’ younger brothers.  His name was James.  While Jesus was alive and teaching, he didn’t believe in him and even tried to get him to stop teaching and come home at various times because Jesus was becoming a bit of an embarrassment to the family by making weird claims (like being the son of God and that he would die and be raised back to life).  After Jesus died, James tells us that he saw Jesus alive. James would go on to lead the church as it began in Jerusalem and eventually he was murdered for his belief. Again, from the moment he saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, he never changed his story.

Then there was Paul.  He was one of the Jewish authorities at the time of Jesus’ death.  He hated Jesus because Jesus claimed to be the son of God, which was the same as claiming to be God.  That did not set well with a very well educated Jewish rabbi.  He set out to imprison and, in some cases, kill everyone who taught that Jesus was God.  Then Paul had a really wild encounter on the road to Damascus where he was going to arrest a bunch of Jesus’ followers.  Jesus actually showed up and spoke to him.  From that moment on, he started researching the Jewish scriptures and came to realize that Jesus was actually both the Messiah (Deliverer) that the Jews were expecting, and the son of God.  Paul became a missionary and spread the stories of Jesus all over the Mediterranean.  Throughout his missionary career he faced severe persecution for his teaching.  He was beaten, thrown in prison, stoned (like with rocks, not weed) and eventually executed in Rome.  He never changed his story either.

I could go on with other historical documentation of the empty tomb of Jesus, but the point is.  When Jesus died, nobody was standing with him except a couple of the women who loved and took care of him and his disciples when he was teaching.  His disciples literally ran and hid.  Three days later there is a report by those same women that the tomb was empty.  Some of the disciples checked it out and found it that way too.  Then Jesus started showing up all over the place, meeting with people who knew him and some who hadn’t known him before he died.  After that the disciples and many others became fearless and relentless preachers, who never gave up their belief that Jesus was alive and that after their deaths, they would join him in heaven forever.

 So, from them knowing they would go to heaven when they die, how do I get to knowing I will too?

In those (very well documented) records of Jesus’ life and teachings, he offers eternal life to everyone who believes in him, accepts his forgiveness and payment for their sins, and chooses to follow him.  He offers eternal friendship with him as a completely free gift that we just have to accept.  Yes, he does have expectations of the actions and attitudes of his followers, but we don’t go to heaven by being good.  Instead, we try to behave in ways that give him joy as a way of demonstrating our thanks, not earning the gift.

The most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 says, God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

And the letter to the Romans says in chapter 10, If you declare with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

That sums it up really.  There are two components to becoming a follower of Jesus, and as a result having confidence that we can go to heaven when we die.  One, is declaring that Jesus is Lord and the other is believing that God raised him from the dead.  So part 2 is, I guess, the easy part.  Based on what I have said so far I am intellectually persuaded on good evidence that God raised Jesus from the dead.  I do believe it. I hope I have persuaded you as well.  The evidence is pretty compelling.   

Part 1 is the challenge though.  The implication of “declaring with my mouth that Jesus is Lord” is much more than simply saying something.  In fact, there is another verse in James (the book of the Bible written by Jesus’ brother who only believed in him after his resurrection) that says, “You believe that there is one God.  Good! Even the demons believe that and shudder.” So it seems reasonable to understand that the belief that saves a person and allows them to spend eternity in Heaven with God is more than just intellectual assent.  I could tell you that I believe I can fly, but until I am willing to demonstrate my belief by jumping off a tall building, you aren’t going to believe me.  You are going to assume that I am just saying something weird that is never going to influence the way I live.  Declaring that Jesus is Lord is not just saying something out loud.  It is letting the implication of that statement change who you are and what you do.  By saying Jesus is Lord you are acknowledging that he has the right to decide what is right and what is wrong.  He has the authority to determine what is valuable and what isn’t.  He even has the right to ask you to do things for him.  Think about historical Lords and serfs.  It’s a poor analogy since human Lords often were self-serving and abused their authority.  The more you read about who Jesus is, who the God of the Bible is, the more you will understand that his kindness, self-sacrifice and love for those who declare him as their Lord is completely supernatural.  It’s extravagant.  The more you understand it, the less sense it makes because he is SO good to people.  But the analogy is still helpful.  A Lord basically owned the people who declared their allegiance to him.  He determined the laws for his kingdom and the roles and responsibilities of his servants.  He was the authority, absolutely.  If you didn’t recognize that, you had no business being in his kingdom.  Making Jesus Lord will change you, and it will keep changing you.  The change in you won’t be what makes you a follower of Jesus.  It won’t be what gets you into heaven, but it will be the unavoidable response of making him your Lord.  Making him your Lord will mean spending time understanding what his standards are, and then pursuing them in your own life. It will probably mean giving up some things that you do or believe.  It will mean that you will spend the rest of your life as a work in progress, progressing toward being like Jesus.  I have been in this process for over 40 years. Pretty much everyday I have to wake up and declare that Jesus is Lord all over again because at some point yesterday I started trying to be my own Lord.  God knows that it’s a process and he promises to be really close to us all the time helping us in so many ways, one of which is helping us through the process.  Staying motivated is all about getting to know Jesus better.  As you learn about who he is and how he sees people and how he loves us, it inspires you to make him Lord.  

I guess I just want to commend the process to you.  I do not regret the commitment I have made.  It gives me hope, purpose, peace, perspective, comfort, joy…. And I want the same for you.

Photo courtesy of @keirsten_c