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.

Photo courtesy of Northern_Punkie,of Pixabay

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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 06/05/2021

The British usage is the same as the American.

blackspanielgallery on 06/03/2021

Some words have different connotations in the U. S. than in England. Here, a vice is something harmful that one has a penchant to repeat, that harm might be physical as smoking or moral.

frankbeswick on 06/03/2021

I think that vice was used thus after the sexual revolution of the1960s.

Veronica on 06/02/2021

Great article Frank, as ever. i certainly hope for the happy ever after.
I am interested in the discussion about the concept of "vice ". I think the term " vice " was used in the past almost as an accolade.

frankbeswick on 06/02/2021

It is an inscription in honour of those unjustly executed. I think that there is a tradition tthat if thee rope breaks the miscreant goes free, but the Catholics were considered traitors, so Wrenno's hanging went ahead. .

DerdriuMarriner on 06/01/2021

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical information and the product line, of which already I've read the book and seen the film version of Heaven Is for Real and the book Heaven.
What is the story behind the image next to your title?
Is there a tradition in England that if the rope breaks, the person to be hanged gets to go free? I thought that was one of the controversies about the fate of Captain William Kidd, that the rope broke and that the executioners operated contrarily in persisting in the hanging.
Thewlis and Wrenno seem quite extraordinary in blessing those come to witness, not stop, death and in sharing with others the confirmation that God and Heaven exist.
In terms of heavens, it always touches me as an arborist that Hinduism incorporates gardens, such as their king of the gods, Indra, having all the flowering plants that existed and that exist in his Svarga.

frankbeswick on 06/01/2021


blackspanielgallery on 06/01/2021

You article reminds me of Rollo, the Viking chieftan who settled Normandy, As pert of the agreement he and the other Vikings converted to Catholicism. As he neared death and wished a good afterlife he prayed to Jesus, but aleo had 200 prisoners executed as a sacrifice to his Norse god. Heaven or Valhala, he wanted to have his best chance at one. Even ancient religions often had an idea of Heaven regardless of what they named it.

blackspanielgallery on 05/31/2021

The person referrenced had a much more serious vice.

To those who use Christianity as a perceived requirement for Heaven, they need consider Moses, Noah, and Abraham, along with numerous others in the Old Testament. I am afraid the idea of Christianity being a requirement for Heaven is the basis of much discrimination against Jewish people. There is no place for anti-Zion attitude.

frankbeswick on 05/31/2021

Those who think that they are entitled to a vice confuse vice with a weakness. My late mother-in-law had a weakness for cakes called French fancies, and as she lived her 97 years in kindness I don't think that anyone, God included, was bothered. But vices hurt people.

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