Not long ago, I gave my weekday Mass crowd two theological statements and asked them to raise their hands if they thought the statement was correct. Here was the first one: “We can earn heaven by living a virtuous life, being faithful to the sacraments, and truly loving our neighbor as ourself.” About half the people raised their hand and nodded in agreement.
I proceeded to tell them jokingly that in the Middle Ages the people who raised their hands would have been burnt at the stake for heresy! Pelagianism was a condemned heresy in the early centuries of the church that stated in part that we could earn heaven by our own goodness. If St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul the Great are in heaven, they certainly don’t deserve to be there, because we can’t deserve heaven. It is pure gift. It is pure grace. The key word to the “theological” statement was the third word, “earn.” It is impossible to earn heaven. It is impossible to deserve salvation.
Here is the second theological statement I presented to the same Mass crowd: “We can earn hell by living a vicious life, away from God and the sacraments, and despising our neighbor.” Those who raised their hands to that statement were right on target.
Hell and damnation are always earned, but heaven is impossible to earn. St. Paul sums this up in one single verse in his Letter to the Romans, when he says, “For the wages of sin is death (spiritual death), but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23).
Notice the terminology St. Paul uses when he says “wages.” Wages are what we earn; it is our pay for the work we do, so we deserve our wages. Paul says that the wages of sin is a spiritual death, a separation from God.
Notice again the terminology he uses for eternal life and heaven. He calls it a “gift of God.” No one deserves gifts. Gifts are freely given as signs of love and affection.
No one is going to show up in hell and say, “How in the hell did I get here?” People who end up in hell, presuming there are people there, chose to be there. They earned it by how they lived life on this side of the grave. One of my oft repeated lines is that we cannot expect to have a good relationship with God in the next life if we did not have one in this life. Our eternity is solely based on how we live this short span of time. We either earn the bad or we open ourselves to the grace of God. It is always our choice. God never forces himself on us.
Some people might think this is unfair of God that we cannot earn heaven but that we can earn hell. What gives? Here is an analogy that comes from my own childhood. When I was in sixth grade I fell head over heels in love with one of my classmates. She was beautiful, but it was just puppy love. I vividly remember praying fervently that she would be made to fall in love with me. Thankfully my prayers were weak, because it didn’t happen.
But suppose my prayers actually worked, and somehow she was indeed forced to love me. Because it would have been forced, it would have been hell for her (as good of a guy as I am). If you force yourself onto someone, it is hell for the other person. In the physical world, we call it rape. God will never force himself onto us. He wants us to be open to his grace. He wants us to welcome him into our lives by our own free will.
After the rich young man left Jesus because he had too many possessions, Jesus gave us the now famous line, “It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” With that the disciples were “completely overwhelmed” and then asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus responds with, “For man it is impossible; but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Heaven and salvation are indeed impossible without God. We cannot earn heaven in any way, shape, or form — it is pure gift. But if we refuse that gift, God will respect our free will. It is up to us.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]