Eternity: Why it’s Important

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(From the transcript of the television program. Edited for publication.)

Dr. John Ankerberg: We are talking about one of the most important topics that anybody can talk about: How you can be sure that you will spend eternity with God. Can you think of anything more important than that? My guest is Dr. Erwin Lutzer, pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. I’ve read his book on this topic and I’ve just got to admit I think this is one of the best books I have ever read. Our goal today is to share this important information with you.

Erwin, start us off here. Why is knowing for sure where you will spend eternity so important?

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: Well, John, just think of it this way. One minute after you die, you will either have seen the beauties and the glories of Christ and of Heaven, or else you will have seen something that is so awful that you could scarcely imagine it today. I mean, when you stop to think of it, the most important question we could ever ask is where we’re going to spend eternity. I’m reminded of the words of Blaise Pascal who said that there really are only two sane men in the world. The first is someone who loves God with all of his heart, mind and soul because he has found Him; and the other is someone who seeks him with his whole mind, heart and soul because he has as yet not found Him.

Ankerberg: Yes. Scary thoughts. One of the things that stood out in your book was, you said, “Five minutes after you die, whatever you experience, you’ll know that your future will be irrevocably fixed and eternally unchanged.” There’s no second chance, no second choice. You can’t reverse your course at that point. So now is when we’ve got to decide.

Lutzer: And you know, John, I go to a bookstore perhaps to buy some books on Europe if I’m going to do traveling. I’m studying where I’m going to go, right? We all do that. And yet there are people who give no thought to the fact that there is eternity coming and they’re going to spend eternity somewhere else other than Planet Earth and it’s really important that we know where it is that we are going. And the good news is that we can know the way and have confidence.

Ankerberg: Yes. At the same time, you have got to share with people the scary story of the Tylenol incident that illustrates people have misplaced their faith. And that is something that is just horrible to think about. But let’s get to it right away and all the implications of misplaced faith: people that even believe in God, think they’re going to get to Heaven, and they’re not — they’re going to be turned away from Heaven’s door. Take it step by step.

Lutzer: Well, yes. What I tell people, John, is that faith can destroy you. There are people who have tremendous faith who will not be saved and that faith is destroying them. Back in 1982 there was an incident in Chicago where I live. What happened was, some evil man — and I don’t think they know who he is even to this day — took some Tylenol capsules and put Cyanide into them, and seven people died as a result of it. They were just taking Tylenol because they had a headache or whatever, and they ended up being dead. Now, there are two very important lessons that we learn from that experience. The first is that all the faith in the world cannot take something that is harmful and turn it into something that is helpful. Here were people who believed that they were taking Tylenol, and they had confidence that they were doing it, but all of their faith never changed that capsule into Tylenol since it had Cyanide. That’s an important lesson, which means, of course, that the object of our faith is incredibly important.

But the second lesson is even more scary: sometimes a false faith can resemble a true one, because I’m told, evidently, that the Cyanide looked a lot like the Tylenol. In the very same way, there are people who have faith — they have faith in God and they have confidence in God and they fully expect to get into Heaven — and someday the door of Heaven is going to be slammed into their faces. You know, Jesus told that story in the seventh chapter of Matthew — and this is so important that I think we should just read it. It is enough to just take the wind out of your sails.

Ankerberg: I think the reason that we need to go to the Bible right now is that people would say, “Wait a minute, Erwin. I want to challenge you on that one. I can have faith in God and still not get in?” That’s what the Bible says.

Lutzer: And you know, John, it’s even more scary than that: you can actually have faith in Christ and not get in.

Ankerberg: All right. Read the verse and let us in on it.

Lutzer: Here it is. Jesus is speaking in Matthew chapter 7, verse 21: “Not everyone who says to me, ?Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ?Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ?I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers.'”

Here are people who did the kind of miracles that actually helped people. There’s every evidence that apparently they did cast out demons, they did miracles; maybe some of their prophecies came to pass, and they were fully expecting to get into Heaven. These are not the kind of people who come into church late and sit in the back row and leave before the Benediction. These are the kind of people who are up-front spiritually. And if we think to ourselves, “Well, yes, but you know, they were fakes. They were just, you know, some people who were off the edge,” I don’t think that’s the point. I think that what Jesus wants to say is that if people who had such confidence and who had ministries in this life will have the door of Heaven slammed into their faces, think of the number of ordinary folks like us who aren’t going to make it. And if we don’t make it, it will be for the same reason that they didn’t — Misplaced faith.

Ankerberg: Those people that showed up in church every Sunday — might have been the usher, might have been the people that teach a Sunday School class, might have been people that are in a choir — they did that and they were expecting to get into Heaven. Now, what’s the reason that these seemingly good Christian people aren’t going to get in and are going to have the surprise of eternity where Jesus shuts the door on Heaven and says, “Depart from me”? What did they do wrong?

Lutzer: These people apparently had faith in the ability of God to do miracles — because they were doing miracles themselves. They had all kinds of revelations that they maybe had received from God — prophecies. What they didn’t understand is the purpose of Jesus Christ’s coming. And now we can look back upon this with more knowledge even than they could have had at that moment: the death of Jesus Christ — the need for a sacrifice; that fact that God cannot be approached without a sacrifice, without blood.

Today we have all these people who say, “Well, you know, I’m accessing God this way, and you’re plugging into God that way” and all the rest. Well, the simple fact is, John, there is only one way to God.

Ankerberg: Let’s stick right there, Erwin, because I think there might be some folks that are listening that say, “Wait a minute. I don’t like that because this is the way I’ve determined sincerely that I’m going to approach God.” Okay? Now Jesus said they’re not going to get in, but tell them why it’s not good enough to be sincere and to set your own way — because there’s a real God out there that’s got His own plan.

Lutzer: That’s right.

Ankerberg: Now, tell us about that.

Lutzer: Well, to give it in a capsule here, the simple fact is Jesus is the only qualified Savior — there is nobody else out there. I attended the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1993 and I went downstairs in the Palmer House where nearly 100 booths were set up with all the different religions of the world that were present. I went to many of these booths and asked them, “Do you have a sinless Savior? because I’m a sinner and I need to be saved, and I can’t have somebody who’s a part of my own predicament.” And you know, John, I could not find one single “savior.” What you could find was gurus and prophets who tell you “this way,” “that fold…” you know, the eight-fold path, the four-fold path. I didn’t find anybody qualified to save me. Now the reason that Jesus is the only Savior is because He’s the only One who has the righteousness which God accepts which needs to be credited to my account. Apart from that I’m lost, and I don’t care how good I am and how sincere I am and how any prophets I believed and how many miracles I’ve been able to perform.

Ankerberg: I read the books of Leviticus and then Hebrews back-to-back. And if you read only Leviticus, I’d already be dead, because the God of the Old Testament, basically, said if you did certain sins, you were dead. You were killed. Okay? But in the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews says the reason we are not instantly killed is that Jesus Christ is the One who took that sin and He died for us.

Lutzer: And John, for those who reject Christ, their judgment in New Testament times is greater than the judgment of Old Testament times. Sometimes people say, “Well, you know, the God of the Old Testament was so harsh and cruel. Ah, but Jesus introduced us to this loving God who’d never send anyone to Hell.” You know what it says in the book of Hebrews? “If they did not escape, how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” [Heb. 2:3] And here we have in the text people who neglected their salvation, even though they were the religious types who were plugged into God.

Now, I think we should just stay on this text for one more minute and say, “What would that be like?” Can you imagine? In my book, How You Can Know For Sure That You Will Spend Eternity With God, I give the illustration of a man who’s in a swamp because a plane has crashed. There had been other survivors, but he’s the only survivor now. A rescue plane goes overhead but doesn’t see him, and he sinks in the mud and knows that he’s going to die. I mean, that doesn’t even come close to what these people experienced. You’re expecting to get into Heaven and the door of Heaven is slammed in your face. Why? Because you lacked faith? No. These people had great faith, but they had the wrong object. Their faith was in their revelations; their faith was in their ability, maybe even in their miracles. What their faith was not in was exclusively Jesus Christ, the only One who is qualified to save people.

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Ankerberg: Erwin, people have misplaced their faith. They might be sincere; they might think that the faith that they have in God is going to get them into Heaven, and you’re here telling them this dangerous stuff — that they might be deceived; they might be just dead wrong. And you’re really trying to be kind to them by saying, “Before you get to Heaven and Jesus says what He says in Matthew 7, ?I’m sorry. I never knew you,’ here’s what His message is.” Tell me about the two ways that Jesus talked about in misplaced faith.

Lutzer: Well, as everyone knows, Jesus said that there’s a broad way that leads to destruction, and there’s a narrow way that leads to life. Why is the way that leads to life so narrow? It’s because it’s the way of faith in Christ alone. But the broad way has many people. You know, most people don’t realize that there are going to be more people — scripturally, as far as we can tell — more people in Hell than in Heaven. The reason for that is because this broad way has so many different lanes of traffic. You can be anything that you like on the broad way. You can be what I sometimes call “a ladder climber,” somebody who says, “Well, I can get to God by my own good works.”

I was on a plane one time and a man said that to me. I said, “Are you sure that you could be saved by your good works?”

And he says, “Well, actually, no. I have some fear.”

I said, “What’s your fear?”

He said, “It’s standing behind Mother Teresa on the day of judgment and overhearing the Lord say to her, ?Lady, you could have done a whole lot more!'” And he’s next! Because there is something within us that makes us realize that, no matter how much we do, everything we do is tainted. We think we have the best of motives, but we don’t, and we’re sinners. And the simple fact is that God is so holy. See, John, in today’s society, if you ask me what the fundamental problem with all these different ways to Heaven is, we have underestimated the holiness of God.

Someone says, “We have cows for milk; we have sheep for wool; and we have God to come along and to confirm our every craving.” We’ve made God into our image. So He is a God who can be appeased, if we live a good life.

Well, number one, nobody lives a good life because we’re all sinners. But number two, John — here’s the good news — reading this today is someone who has sinned greatly, who has committed crimes. What chance does he have to work his way up the ladder? The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ came for him — He came for the worst of sinners. And so that’s why ladder climbing is really a wrong way of salvation. They are on the broad road, as Jesus talks about, that leads to destruction.

Ankerberg: You’ve quote Barna’s Research Report in your book that almost all Americans believe they are good enough to get to Heaven, and you talk about the religious types that are in for a bad surprise up ahead.

Lutzer: Well, you can be good and even be secular, and not believe in God. Atheists can be good because they’re created in God’s image. They can do good things. But then, on the other hand, you have the religious types. These are the “goody-two-shoes,” I think I refer to them, who really have never done anything really bad; they’re the church goers, and they’re the people who give their money and all this stuff. And many of them are going to be lost, too. As a matter of fact, they’re going to be lost, not because they aren’t good people, but because they aren’t good enough, because God accepts only perfection. That’s why we need His Son. So that’s why you have the religious types and the passage of Scripture that we read earlier, these people who cast out demons and prophesied in the name of Christ. These are the religious types, and they’re finding out that they’re not entering into Heaven and are hearing from Jesus, “Depart from me.”

Ankerberg: Let’s drive that in and slow that down. People won’t get into Heaven because they think they’re too good. They think of themselves pretty highly. You’ve got another portion in the book where you say, “When they evaluate themselves against other folks, they always raise their position because they say, ?I’m better than those folks.'” All right, how do you talk to those people in terms of illustrating to them that that may be true — they might be better than others — but in terms of their sinfulness before God, there is such a chasm.

Lutzer: Well, let’s take this illustration. There’s the Sears Tower in Chicago. Now, the Sears Tower is a lot taller than the First National Bank. And I’m sure that we could figure out exactly how many feet and how many yards. But if you change the question and say, “Which building is closest to the nearest star?” — which is a couple of thousand light years away — Oh! The difference between the buildings is really not that great. You see, if we stop judging ourselves by ourselves and start, rather, judging ourselves by God, the differences between us are really negligible. They aren’t that great.

So, the problem with human beings is this — Luther said it so well: people perceive themselves to be alive and to be good and all these things, and then, what they don’t realize is, they are also blind and do not realize that they are miserable sinners, judged in the presence of a holy God.

There was a little boy who said to his mother one time, “Mother, I’m eight feet tall” — and he was, according to the ruler that he had made. People judge themselves by a false standard. If you come to the Bible, you find out that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” [Rom. 3:23]. And the folks who are least likely to accept God’s grace are the good folks who go to church.

But there is another category of people, John, particularly in our age of spirituality, and these are the spiritual types, the mystical types. We’ve got people “plugging into God” and trying to think that somehow they know God. The simple fact is, the Bible says that the wicked stumble over things and they don’t know what they’re stumbling over [Prov. 4:19]; but it also says there are people who perceive themselves as being too good to do any wrong [1 John 1:8]. And they are sometimes the greatest sinners and the hardest to reach. Why? Because they can pull out of their life all of these good things that they have done and they do not understand that they also need to be saved, even more desperately than the drunk who is on skid row.

Ankerberg: Let me ask it another way, Erwin. How close can people get to the Lord Jesus, true faith, to getting into Heaven, and still miss it?

Lutzer: You know, at the Parliament of World Religions I met a woman who said that the Urantia book that she was reading gave Jesus back to her. She was raised in a home where she heard about Jesus and loved Jesus. She went to a church, and as a child she was not allowed to stay in the auditorium. She was supposed to go downstairs with the other children. And when she was bawled out for staying upstairs, she left the church and never went back. Now she said this book (which gives some stories about Jesus, evidently, when He was a boy), “This book has given my Jesus back to me.” And she read me a story about how Jesus at the age of 12 helped a little boy.

Now, this woman is crying. I said to her, “You really love Jesus, don’t you?”

“Oh,” she said, “I love Him.”

I said, “Tell me why you love Him.”

She said, “I love Him as a friend. I love Him because He’s the Lord. I love Him because He’s a teacher.”

And I looked at her and I said, “Do you also love Him because He was a sinless Savior who shed His blood on the cross to reconcile us to a holy God?”

And she broke eye contact with me, and she said, “You know, I have never thought of that before.” Now, here’s a woman who loved Jesus — and there are people reading this who “love” Jesus, but they are still not believers because they have not trusted Christ for the reason that He came. And their good works actually are a stumbling block because they mask their real need. You see, as long as they’re good people, they forget that they need a Savior. How tragic to know Newton, but not as a scientist, or to know Shakespeare, and not as a man of literature. How tragic to know about Jesus, and even love Him, but not know Him as a Savior.

Copyright © 2006 John Ankerberg, used with permission.

Read more at johnankerberg.com

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