Who Goes to Heaven

by frankbeswick

Most religions have a belief in an afterlife and hope that it will be a happy one.

It is a mistake to believe that all religions teach the same, but it is also mistaken to believe that there are no similarities between them. There is a general hope of a happy afterlife, but also a fear that a less desirable condition awaits the wicked. So the question of who goes to heaven must be asked. Atheists may say no one, but the religious will vary between those who say everyone and those who say some people.

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Facing the Gallows.

Lancaster Castle in  1616 and Roger Wrenno [Wrenall] a poor weaver, stood at the foot of the gallows awaiting death by hanging. He had just witnessed the execution of his friend and fellow Catholic, John Thewlis [Thulis] a priest whose final act was  to utter a blessing upon the assembled crowd in Latin, the sacred language of Roman Catholicism, a seditious act in itself, though he had nothing left to lose.

Wrenno's  turn to die as a martyr for  his faith came. The noose was put round his neck, the lever was pulled and Wrenno dropped, but after a few brief choking moments, the rope snapped. A new rope had to be brought and in the meantime the authorities, thinking that the experience of hanging might make Wrenno more compliant, intensified their pleas for him to change his religion. But to no avail. Finally a new rope was brought and to the sheriff's surprise Wrenno ran up the gallows' steps and seemed eager to die. When the surprised sheriff wondered aloud as to why he was eager to die Wrenno explained that he had just seen the good things of God. The execution went ahead and Wrenno is listed by the Catholic Church as a martyr.

It seems that in his dying moments Roger Wrenno underwent a profound religious experience in which he was  vouchsafed a glimpse of what awaited him. Sceptics may aver that it proves nothing, and I agree. But to open-minded people it is thought provoking. Why was this experience so powerful that it could override the natural fear of death that all have? What does it tell us about the afterlife?

Let us presume that anyone brave enough to die for their faith is displaying the highest level of courage and integrity. Martyrs show a profound commitment to truth.So moral qualities seem  to be necessary for heaven. Martyrdom is the ultimate in courage, but it is not the only way to exercise moral qualities. Many people live their lives without needing to be martyred, but display great moral qualities. Nevertheless, there are certain pertinent questions that thinkers of all religions must ask. They are as follows:

  • Can a grave sinner  repent on his death bed and still reach heaven
  • Does God weigh your good and bad deeds in the scales
  • Is going to heaven automatic or can  a  soul be lost
  • Is having a particular belief or church adherence necessary to go to heaven
  • Do sacred places and rituals enable a person to go to heaven

I will answer these from within the belief system of Catholicism, for I can do none else. Others must 

 respond from within their belief systems.

An Evil Life

Hans Frank certainly had much to answer for. Early in life he had abandoned his Catholic faith and become a Nazi. An early admirer of Hitler,  he had become Hitler's personal adviser and later head of the Nazi government of Poland, where he was responsible for untold numbers of deaths. The Poles and Jews killed were counted in millions. Eventually the Allies arrested Frank and sent him for trial at Nuremburg, where sentence of death was passed.

But defeat and imprisonment had a profound effect on Frank. Reflection led him to summon the  Catholic chaplain and request re-admission  to the Catholic Church. He confessed his sins and received absolution, and eventually died with a prayer for God's mercy on his  lips. Many people are surprised that the Catholic Church  would mediate God's forgiveness to a mass murderer, but the Church exists for forgiveness. Now here is where two views of the final judgment at death clash. An ancient view going back to the Egyptians is that the divine judge weighs your actions in the scales. So someone with Hitler's record has no chance. But the Catholic Church teaches that repentance is possible even up to the final second of life.  The scriptural word for repentance is metanoia, which means change of mind. It implies a redirection of the self away from evil.

Critics may object that the Church is allowing mass murderers salvation and that Nazis do not deserve to be saved, but the Church points out that no one deserves to be saved and that salvation  is a gift offered to all people. But heaven is not automatic, you do not simply go when you die whatever your state of mind. You must repent of your sins. 

This brings us to the doctrine of purgatory, a uniquely Catholic belief. This is a temporary state undergone by people who have repented their sins, but have either payment to make and/or spiritual development to do before they are ready for heaven. Someone like Hans Frank is a classic candidate for purgatory. Catholics do not claim to have details about purgatory, but believe that prayers for the dead can give help to those in the purgatorial state.




Belief and Heaven

"It's not about being good, it's about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal saviour" declared a student of mine who belonged to an evangelical fellowship. She was voicing a view that there is  a  belief  requirement for heaven. As evangelicals believe only in heaven and hell, by implication she believed that non-Christians fry in Hell. She is not alone in this commonly held belief. But it is not  belief universally held by Christians. The Catholic Church has for a long time thought about non-Christians who live righteously. Without Christian faith can they go to heaven? But must not a just and good God  recognize their virtues?

Catholics came up  with the doctrine of limbo. Convinced that baptism  and faith in Christ were necessary for salvation,  they were reluctant to condemn good-living non-believers to Hell, so an intermediate state for virtuous non-Christians was postulated. Some thinkers regarded limbo as a less miserable version of Hell, but later thinkers regarded it as a lesser version of heaven.

However, more recently Pope Francis reminded us that heaven is a gift of God. As Christians who have accepted Christ we have already accepted God's offer, but this does not exclude God's being able to extend his gift to  virtuous non-Christians. Our view of the afterlife must do justice to the goodness of God and to the   freedom  that he has given humans. God's goodness implies that he offers eternal life to all, but humans are free to accept or reject his love.

Now here comes the reason for my disagreeing with my student. Yes, she and I both accept Jesus as our personal saviour, but I do not confine acceptance of Christ to acceptance of a specific formula. There is a distinction between acceptance of a conceptual formula, a set of words, and acceptance of a person. Verbal formulae are aids  to accepting a person, but alone they are not enough. It is possible to have expert knowledge of theology and world religions, but have no personal acceptance of God.  Deep academic knowledge can sadly be combined with  a shallow prayer life. We need to accept the person of God. This means turning mind and heart to him.

As we are saved by turning heart and mind to God there is no place in Catholicism for reliance on sacred rituals and places. While Catholicism is rich in ritual and sacred sites, they are aids to religious life and are pointless unless they aid the proper direction of heart and mind to God.

I have addressed this fundamental question through the lens of my Catholic faith. I cannot do otherwise, for  there are no neutral standpoints in religion or philosophy. Readers may  disagree from their own standpoints. Feel free to do so.  I hope for vigorous discussion.


Updated: 05/30/2021, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/24/2024

French fancies are very sweet and have jam and cream. They provided a light source of sugar for an old lady.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/23/2024

Today I caught up with comments other than my own ;-D in the comment boxes below.

Your comment from May 31, 2021, got my attention. You mention Maureen's mother preferring cakes called French fancies.

What might a French fancy be, look, smell and taste like?

frankbeswick on 01/21/2024

Weighing good anď bad deeds is a Jewish rather than a Christian idea. Christians believe that you can be saved up to the moment of death.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/20/2024

The second question at the end of the next-to-last paragraph under the first subheading, Facing the gallows, asks, "Does God weigh your good and bad deeds in the scales?"

The aforementioned question causes me to think of Genesis 18:16-33, where Abraham perhaps defends the possible few good people in Gomorrah and Sodom.

Abraham goes from saving the above two cities for 50, then 45, then 30, then 20, then 10 good people.

Is it known why Abraham stopped at 10?

Is there some tradition of 10 commissions or omissions as the tolerable limit of bad deeds, feelings and thoughts?

frankbeswick on 01/20/2024

I presume so, but we don't have much information to go on.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/19/2024

The fourth paragraph to the second subheading, An evil life, considers that "This is a temporary state undergone by people who have repented their sins, but have either payment to make and/or spiritual development to do before they are ready for heaven."

Does the person in purgatory know on her/his own what to do or is there a spiritual guide such as a guardian angel there to help?

frankbeswick on 07/20/2022

Human affairs are complex and we cannot be responsible for all consequences that ensue from an action where the decisions of others are involved.orders can have unpredictable consequences as well

DerdriuMarriner on 07/19/2022

The past couple three years the phrase that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission appears to have been popular in film contexts.

For example, Magnum PI and his two pals defy a direct order because they think that they can save a fellow serviceman's life. They not only do not save him but cause other deaths. They express sorrow but they also justify what they did, somewhat in line with if I had to do it over, I'd do it again.

Would it be forgivable that they're sorry that fellow servicemen died instead of surviving but that they're not sorry that they didn't sit back and do nothing?

frankbeswick on 11/01/2021

I forgot to say that I am in full agreement with your view that heaven and hell can be right here in the present life, but I would say that they begin here and are fulfilled in the next life.

frankbeswick on 11/01/2021

Human theories, yes, but not entirely subjective, for our human theorising/speculation is derived from our reasoning and an understanding of the ultimate reality. For example, those who believe in karma are working on a perfectly credible belief that good and evil are rewarded and punished. This view, like all others in this subject, is justifiable, but not certain. We are dealing with metaphysics here, an area in which mere human minds grope darkly.

Christianity rests on the belief that God was revealed in Jesus Christ, who knew God intimately. This can be held rationally, but not proved with certainty. Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism are perfectly rationally credible belief systems and their afterlife beliefs can be held without breaking the rules of rationality. Ultimately each one of us must find the belief system that seems the most credible.

My own opinion is that Jesus was special, but I do not delude myself that Christian thinkers have got everything right. They have not, and sometimes our own thinkers have done us a lot of damage.

I value your opinions because whenever you have commented you make your point rationally, wisely and politely. You are confident in your views, but respectful in disagreement.

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