Most Americans living in the United States believe in heaven. Pew Research released numbers in 2014 that indicated around 7 people in 10 understood heaven to be the place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.” A Pew Forum study conducted a few years prior found that when it came to the criteria for making it past the pearly gates, three opinions emerged: those who believe actions are the ticket; those who emphasize particular beliefs; and those who view “making it” as a combination of right faith and action. Whereas Americans are fairly unified in believing in heaven, we can’t agree on how to get there.
As religious pluralism has become more dominant in the United States, many – even professing Christians – have embraced the view that “all paths” can lead to God. You don’t need to take any particular route in the trek up the heavenly mountain, so long as you’re sincere, and lead a generally good life. The big question becomes, How good does one have to be to make it to the peak of Zion? The Bible’s answer may surprise you. “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Ps. 24:3-4)
According to Scripture, entrance into heaven isn’t for those who have lived pretty good lives – it’s for the blameless. Jesus shocked a crowd in his most famous sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20) You have to understand that for Jesus’ audience the Scribes and the Pharisees were the pinnacle of holiness. Externally they could maintain a decent front, but they continually broke God’s law in their hearts (Matt. 23:27). Heaven isn’t for people who can look pure on the outside, it’s for those who truly are pure in heart (Matt. 5:8).
Before you get discouraged, this is where the gospel comes in. You see, most people today understand that admission to heaven requires some degree of righteousness, they just never really say how much. God’s Word gives us the answer: we need a perfect righteousness. God supplies that righteousness for us in his Son, Jesus, who came and fulfilled all of the righteous requirements of the law on our behalf – and then suffered the curse of the law in our place. In Jesus, we are carried up the heavenly hill. He’s the way (John 14:6), and our forerunner (Heb. 6:20).
Psalm 24 goes on to suggest this very fact. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!” (v.7-8) The mighty warrior King, Jesus, enters through the ancient gates and brings his people with him. His clean hands were nailed to the cross, and his pure heart was stabbed by a Roman spear so that the blameworthy might become blameless, and the guilty justified.
How do we get to heaven? By trusting in Jesus Christ and receiving his free gift of righteousness by faith (Rom. 5:17). We can’t make the celestial climb on our own resources, and because heaven is a place of perfect purity, our inherent righteousness isn’t sufficient to earn heaven. God’s grace is revealed by giving us an “alien” righteousness: a righteous standing that doesn’t come from within us, but comes from outside of us. Jesus earned heaven by his life, and gifts it to his children by forgiving our sins and uniting us to himself.