What if you could discover what average Americans believed about heaven and hell? What if you interviewed 100 people across all the Main Streets in America? Suppose you attended 100 funerals and took notes about what you heard and saw. What would you learn about what people really believe about heaven — and how to get there?
In my nearly 20 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with average Americans about heaven and hell. I’ve talked to people at churches, at shopping malls, even on hiking trails in the woods. I’ve performed dozens of funerals and spoken to countless family members and friends about the afterlife.
In all that time, I’ve discovered that most Americans hold to one of four views when it comes to eternal salvation — but only one of them is affirmed by the truth of God’s Word. Here they are.
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1.) Salvation by death: Many Americans are convinced that to get to heaven, a person must merely die. So for many people, going to heaven is as easy as closing one’s eyes here — and opening them there.
This view, called universalism, assumes that because God is so loving, everyone goes to heaven when they die — everyone, that is, except horrific villains like Adolf Hitler.
I have been to many funerals and heard people speak in glowing terms about the deceased — that he or she must be in heaven. Unfortunately, this view doesn’t hold up to the Bible’s teaching that people are not naturally good — but naturally sinful (Romans 3:23). Jesus spoke often about all humanity standing before God in judgment — and that not everyone reaches heaven (Luke 16:19-31). The Bible teaches that for many, hell is the final destination (Revelation 20:14-15).
2.) Salvation by good works: Visit the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., and you will see several representations of Lady Justice both inside and outside the building. Lady Justice is blindfolded, with a sword in her right hand and a set of scales in her left. The idea is that Lady Justice considers each case impartially, judging only by the hard evidence presented.
This is how many Americans think it works with God. They believe God holds the scales, and as long as a person’s good works outweighs the bad — heaven is the result.
Unfortunately, the Bible says, “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). Even our best efforts at goodness fall desperately short of God’s holiness and the righteousness He demands for entrance into heaven. No matter how hard we try to be good, our most valiant efforts are still stained by sin (Isaiah 64:6). True, we’re not as bad as we could be — but in the end, no amount of goodness can tip the scales in our favor.
3.) Salvation by faith and good works: Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, wrote, “Religion is man’s attempt to reach God, and you just can’t do that.” While her statement is true, it hasn’t stopped millions of people from pouring themselves into religion, believing it to be the ticket to heaven. Sincere religious practice must be good enough for God, right?
Not so fast. Scripture teaches that salvation “is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9). In other words, not even the combination of religious faith and good works is enough to cleanse our sins. The Bible affirms that salvation is “not because of the righteous things that we have done…” (Titus 3:5).
The Bible is clear: Eternal salvation isn’t automatic with death, and it isn’t found through morality or religious deeds …
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4.) Salvation by faith alone: All of us understand there’s more than one way to make a pizza, mow the lawn, or travel to Europe. But when the destination is heaven, the Bible says there is only one way to get there, and that is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Jesus explained this explicit route, saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This important truth is why some passionate sports fans hold up yellow signs saying “JOHN 3:16″— “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The Bible is clear: Eternal salvation isn’t automatic with death, and it isn’t found through morality or religious deeds. It comes as God’s gracious gift to us, received through faith in Jesus, who died to rescue us. “For by grace you are saved through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8).
When I was a young pastor just starting out, my father jokingly remarked that pastors need to be prepared to preach or pray at a moment’s notice. While his comments were on target, 20 years of experience has taught me that pastors also need to be ready to answer questions about heaven and hell— in stores, on sidewalks, even on woodsy trails.
I’ve come to treasure these conversations, because nothing is more important than knowing where we will spend eternity.
Americans love to say that “life is about having options,” but that isn’t true when we’re talking about the way to heaven. We must have Jesus — He is the only way.
Pastor Ryan Day is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where he has served for 19 years.