Years ago, my friend Robbie died and went to Heaven. Now, when Christians die, we presume they go to heaven. But pastors are careful about the words we choose, because we understand that you can’t preach an unbeliever into Heaven. Neither should we deceive grieving family members by giving them false hope that an unbeliever has gone to Glory. At the same time, you can’t presume that just because a person was a church member, they go to heaven when they die. Affiliation and salvation are two different things, and a person’s eternal destiny is between them and God. But I can say that Ronnie went to Heaven, because he told me so. You see, unlike most people, Ronnie didn’t stay dead. He came back to tell the tale. He said, “They sent me back because I was trying to sneak in the back way.”
Seriously, though, I was with Ronnie in the hospital, and I prayed with him before he went into the operating room. Sometime after he died on that table, I listened as he told me all about heaven’s lights, meeting an angel, and seeing family and friends who had gone before. But obviously it wasn’t his time, because he came back. I’ve seen the medical records to prove it. Robbie actually died, and had an experience of Heaven that turned around the rest of his life on earth. But his story makes me wonder…
Did you ever try to sneak into somewhere you weren’t supposed to be? People do this when they don’t want to pay admission, or when they aren’t dressed for the occasion or something. I think most people don’t want to pay the price to go to heaven. I don’t mean being a good person—there are lots of good people in this world. I mean—you know—dying. It’s like Kenney Chesney sang, “Everybody want to go to heaven, but nobody want to go now.”[i]
I can think of only two people who got to go to Heaven without paying the price of admission. In one sentence, Genesis 5:24[ii] tells the story of a man named Enoch whose earthly relationship with God transformed his eternity. “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” Hebrews 11:5 expands on this story, saying, “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.”
Similarly, Elijah never died, but was taken up to be with the Lord. 2 Kings 2:11 says, “As [Elijah and Elisha] were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” Of all the people in the Bible, these two had such a relationship with God while they were on earth that God blessed them to be able to bypass death and go straight to Heaven.
Some have seen Heaven in dreams and visions. The prophet Isaiah writes about seeing the Lord “high and exalted, seated on a throne (Isaiah 6:1).” Likewise, the entire book of Revelation is John’s account of the heavenly vision God gave him on the Island of Patmos. Similarly, Paul writes (humbly, about himself):
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).”
So, the people who snuck into Heaven without dying include just two (Enoch and Elijah) who went there physically, and a handful who have seen Heaven in visions without tasting death. Sadly, most people have to die in order to find out what Glory is like. And only a few (like Robbie) have come back to tell us about it. But there is a group of people who will, in the future, enter God’s presence without dying.
When Paul wrote to the church of Thessalonica, he wanted to give them encouragement about the saints who had already died, and the future for all believers. Paul writes:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
The Greek word for this “coming” or “presence” of Christ is Parousia. Certainly this word could apply to Jesus’ first arrival on earth, but it more often refers to the Second Coming. When Jesus returns, previous generations of Christians will be resurrected just as He was, and will ascend just as He ascended. Then, a split second later, Jesus’ people who are still alive, without needing to die, will be join them in the air. If that happens in our own time, we get to sneak into heaven. We won’t have to die, but we’ll be transformed[iii] and resurrected just like Jesus, without ever tasting death. Maybe much the same as Enoch and Elijah. You’ll be able to fly right into Heaven!
Now, I want to step back for a minute from that day in the future, whether you breathe your last or never die, and you get to enter Heaven. Jesus’ message was not, “Just wait and you’ll get to Heaven,” but “The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15)!” You might need to wait to go to a place called Heaven, but God’s reign within you is here and now, when you seek Him. As in the words of the old song, “Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul / when at the cross the Savior made me whole / My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day / Heaven came down and glory filled my soul!”[iv] The good news isn’t that you might sneak into Heaven, but that Heaven can sneak into you! This means a turnaround of thoughts and actions. My friend Robbie had a turnaround after he got back from Heaven—but you can have a story far greater than his if you repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near. Make a change before you die, and let heaven sneak into you.
[i] Chesney, Kenney. “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.” Album: “Lucky Old Sun.” 2008. . March 6, 2018.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.
[iii] 1 Corinthians 15
[iv] Peterson, John W. “O, What a Wonderful, Wonderful Day!” © Copyright 1961, renewed 1989 by John W. Peterson Music Company. . March 6, 2018.