PART 1 OF 2: Really? “Bad guys” can go to heaven?
On the day Jesus died, two criminals were hanging next to him, one on either side. One mocked Jesus. The other, recognizing divinity, would see his Savior in paradise.
“The salvation of the thief on a cross gives hope to every sinner,” writes Trevin Wax in his March 6, 2018 blog, The Scandal of Sheer Grace. Wax, author of several books and a LifeWay Bible and Reference Publisher, says the story of Jesus dying between two criminals (Luke 23:32-43) “is an astounding picture of the sheer grace of God. This account tells us that even the worst of the worst—someone guilty of countless crimes—can receive forgiveness through Jesus and access to God. The cross of Christ gives anyone who repents—including the vilest offender—a pardon.”
“Now wait a minute,” someone is thinking. “A pardon? The bad guy gets a pardon, eternal life, AFTER all his Bad Stuff goes down? There’s no justice in that! What kind of Jesus is this, anyway?”
Jesus’ endless grace can boggle us, especially when we consider someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer who murdered and dismembered 17 boys and men. Wax reminds us that Dahmer was imprisoned in 1991 and died in 1994 after a fellow inmate beat him to death. Before Dahmer died, it is said this sinful soul repented his sinful past. He put his faith—and life—in Christ.
Is it possible Jesus granted Jeffrey Dahmer eternal life? Yes.
Here’s a flipside. Is it possible a gentle neighbor and community advocate who willingly shares his garden to everyone yet never knows Christ will face judgment? Yes.
Yikes. This can be hard for us.
Wax agrees. “If this bothers you, you haven’t truly grasped just how radical the gospel of grace is. It means that, deep down, you still think good people go to heaven and bad people to go hell.”
We not only think this, we want this. Somewhere deep within our psyche, many of us brand a theology of self which loosely goes like this: if we basically do a lot of good things, like the gardener everybody loves in town does every year, then we will naturally make it to this sorta vague Next Life Thing (a.k.a. heaven). We’ll get to the Good Place, whatever it’s called, so there’s really no worry. Just be nice. That will work.
Actually, ‘just being nice’ does not work.
And this deeply troubles some of us. No. Really. Truly. This. Troubles. Some. Of. Us. Big. Time.
I get this upset. I’ve heard disagreements from some who believe unsaved-non-Jesus-lovin’ people are, in fact, heaven bound. Given the magnitude of this conversation, we will talk more about this in the following blog.
Consider this in the meantime. Wax says, “The radical message of the gospel is that our problem—sin—is worse than anything we could ever imagine. But also the solution—grace—is better than anything we could ever deserve… Hell is full of people who think they deserve heaven. Heaven is full of people who know they deserve hell.”
Think about amazing grace. That is a sweet sound. Why? It saves wretches like all of us.
This first appeared in The Independent on April 11, 2018.