How does God decide who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell?
When the Great White Throne Judgment comes at the end of the final battle with Satan (in Revelation 20:11), who takes the "up" escalator with the sheep, and who's on the "down" elevator with the goats?
The kindergarten answer - "all the good people go to heaven, and all the bad people go to hell" - is wrong, of course. This greatly irritates many folks, especially the "Christians at heart", the Christmas & Easter churchgoers, the deeply humane and kind atheists, and anyone else with what they consider substantial accreditation in the field of "good".
To them, the true answer, Christ's answer (and pardon the bluntness, my friends, but He would definitely know the right answer on this topic), is callous and unjust. John the Baptist summarized that answer succinctly in John 3:36 --> "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him."
Translation (as if the learned reader needed it!): Believe and obey Christ, and go to heaven after your earthly death. Fail to do so, and you go somewhere other than heaven – a place where the "wrath of God remains upon" you. Colloquially, that 'where' is called 'Hell'.
Why, goes the standard argument, wouldn't a 'just and merciful God' simply look into a man's heart (as of course, He certainly could), and determine who's been naughty and who's been nice, like Santa (theoretically) does?
Many theologians, most much wiser than I am, have eloquently expressed the godly response to this - we are all sinners, there is no such thing as a righteous man, and it is only through the salvation of Jesus, through His sacrifice on the cross at Calvary, that any man could be viewed as being sufficiently clothed in righteousness for the Lord Almighty to accept into His sinless Home of heaven. Be you a pastor, a pope or a king, it doesn't matter: only by accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior can we be accepted into heaven after our earthly life has expired.
However, my personal preference among the various descriptions of the situation for the uninformed strays towards a reframing of the definitions of "heaven" and "hell" as "being eternally with God" and "being eternally separated from God". For, no matter how "good" you are by whatever arbitrary standards you choose to judge yourself by (and, just out of curiosity, what standard of "good" are you using if not the Biblical one?), the essence of heaven is basically the eternal worship of the omnipresent Lord - and if in your earthly, "shadow" life you chose not to open yourself up to even the comparatively marginal presence and level of praise Christ asked of you here, would you not be absolutely miserable spending eternity in the place where that's seemingly ALL that goes on? Wouldn't "heaven" be hellish for you?
Another way to consider this version of the question is as follows: When it's your turn at the Great White Throne, perhaps it's not so much that you will be "judged by what was written in the books, according to what (you) had done" (Rev. 20:12), as much as you might be asked one single, crucial question:
"Did you choose Christ?"
I mean, really choose Christ, chose Him as your guiding light by which you led your life? Or, did you not?
Simple as that.
If you chose Christ on earth, you chose to live with Him after the end of earth. If you did not, then you chose not to live with Him. "On earth, as it is in heaven." None of this, "Were you a good enough person?" hogwash. That's not relevant; if you really did choose to obey Christ while you lived, your actions would have said so. (I am absolutely convinced that it's impossible to make the saving choice to obey Christ without it showing up in almost every aspect of your life. If someone who's born again can spend even a day with you has to ask if you're a Christian… then you're not one.)
I'd like to suggest another angle on this whole "heaven or hell" topic. It's not that different, except that the viewpoint is flipped – away from the human deserving (or not deserving) to go to heaven, and towards God’s perspective for a change.
Imagine, for a fleeting and idolatrous moment, that YOU are the fourth member of the mythical "quadrene God" - Father, Son, Spirit, and You. (Don't get too comfortable: it won't last long enough for You to blaspheme about Your new role.)
At the end of Time, You are going to put on an Eternal Party - we'd call it a sleepover, except there will be no need for sleep ever again! - at Your Place. You know... Your Place – Heaven.
Who are You going to invite?
Personally, if it were me, I would only invite the people I liked. But that's not God's way - that's not Your way of doing things. The God of the Bible is the God of Love; so if You are truly as loving as the Father is, You will probably make it an open invitation to anyone and everyone. That sounds more like Your style! (But don't get cozy! This isn't going to last!)
So, You issue an open invitation to every human who has ever lived:
"Party at Our Place! Starts immediately following the Millennium! Lasts forever! No cover charge! All the gold you can eat!" (See, now, just listen to yourself! I told You not to get too comfortable! The Other Three are going to throw You out any moment now!)
Here's the catch:
"All you have to do is simply accept this Invitation sometime before your death, and agree to abide by Our House Rules."
Think about it.
If you're throwing a party in your own home (notice the lower case "your"? Oh well, it was Fun While It Lasted...), those are basically the two conditions your guests would reasonably expect, right? Let you know they're coming, and follow your house rules. Pretty basic etiquette, I'd say.
For a party in your earthly domicile for, say, Super Bowl Sunday or something, that translates into, "we need to know how many pizzas to order, so tell us for sure if you're comin', bro'!" and, "Hey, don't put that glass on the tabletop, you slob! Use a coaster!" Nothing outrageous; but it IS your party, and you have every right to exclude gate crashers and to expect some common courtesy.
For a Party At His Place, a.k.a., Entrance Into Heaven, God expects the same thing. If you're planning to attend, He's looking forward to seeing you There... providing that you RSVP and follow His rules.
The RSVP to accept His open-to-all invitation is written in Romans 10:9 - "Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead." (Consider that your password into the speakeasy, if you prefer. It sounds a touch sacrilegious to me, but whatever...) This way of thinking about heaven also justifies God’s accepting deathbed conversions, too. Heaven is not so much a reward for being good as it is a thank you for choosing to follow the Lord. (So, if you choose to believe in and follow the commands of a different deity, it’s their responsibility to provide a life-after-death for you, assuming they can find a way around the whole “fire-and-brimstone” arrangement already in place. And, if you choose not to align yourself with any deities, then you have no spokesman to work for you in the afterlife business. It’s probably like dealing with a government aid agency on your own….)
The house rules are, admittedly, a bit lengthy, but they're easily found - why, you probably have at least one copy already in your home! After all, it IS the best-selling book in history, and it’s available as an ap for your phone or tablet now, too.
And if you don't want to do one or both of those things, or you simply don't WANT to go to His stupid party anyway! - you don't have to. There's another option. The Lord is certainly not going to force you to come into His Home if you don't want to – hey, I mean, we wouldn't force you to come were it our party! The last thing you'd want to see at your party, in your home, would be some party crasher who can't follow your rules, right? "Hey! You! Get off my table! Put the cat down, you jerk! I'm calling the police!"
Of course, God won't need to call the police. He IS the police. And this will be one Party that will never need to be broken up by the cops!
...while we're on the subject...
…Have you accepted your invitation yet?
It's going to be a whale of a great Party!
I'd really love to see you There!
I mean it, man.
I'd really LOVE to see you There.
I mean it, man.
I'd really LOVE to see you There.
Don't miss It.