The four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are the only books of the Bible that claim to be firsthand descriptions of the words and deeds of Jesus. Because historical evidence supporting these narratives is nonexistent, acceptance of their veracity can only be based on faith. People whose beliefs encompass such faith accept the gospels as true, and those who require objective evidence do not. Others mix and match, accepting some of the narratives as true while regarding the rest as metaphorical.
Although inconsistencies abound throughout the gospels (not to mention the rest of the Bible), non-fundamentalist believers either dismiss them as immaterial or insist they’re symbolic and cannot be interpreted according to their plain language. But once any writings, particularly as voluminous and varied as those in the Bible, are accepted as metaphorical, we have entered Bordertown. Here, anything goes; readers or their preferred religious authorities can interpret the Bible any way they like, assigning whatever meanings to it to suit their outlooks, temperaments, and agendas. Because religious conclusions cannot be falsified (or objectively verified), no one can be proven right or wrong.
So let us confine ourselves to what the gospels actually say. The other books of the New Testament largely consist of their authors’ personal perceptions, ruminations, imaginings, and subjective interpretations of their own experiences. We’ll disregard the commentaries and conclusions advanced by outside parties such as Paul, Augustine, Thomas Acquinas, Martin Luther, a host of ecumenical councils, and the multitudes of others who have tried to impose their versions of the “truth” upon us. Most of the Christian religions that evolved from these commentaries are inconsistent with one another anyway and, for that matter, with the gospel teachings themselves.
The gospels present a vicious revision of God’s plan for humanity. Instead of visiting episodic misery on arbitrary individuals at miscellaneous Middle Eastern locations, God introduces a level of blanket condemnation not inflicted since the Great Flood. Having decided that his human creations are innately evil (exactly as he made them), he now sentences substantially all of them to eternal torture in Hell following their earthly demise. However, a small minority will be given a chance to go to heaven, where they can spend eternity praising God and generally kissing his ass.
This was where Jesus came in. Jesus was assigned the mission of spreading the Good News to everyone on Earth (or at least to the residents of Roman-occupied Judea and Galilee) and explaining the rules for getting into heaven. After that, he was to get himself condemned and crucified, which somehow would atone for the sins of everyone else, excluding the majority who were not expected to qualify for salvation in any case.
For this to work, Jesus had to convince his proposed converts that he was indeed the son of God, which he purportedly did by performing miracles. Descriptions of these miracles make up a significant portion of the gospel narratives.
Jesus preached that he would be resurrected after his crucifixion, return to judge humanity, and rule over the righteous after first condemning everyone else to eternal hellfire. He also asserted that Judgement Day would occur within no more than a generation after his death. See Luke 21:31–32, which in reference to the catastrophic events of the apocalypse says: “Even so ye also, when ye see these things coming to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all things be accomplished.”
The urgency of the gospel message was somewhat compromised when the apocalypse did not materialize as predicted. As readers of the Bible must realize, God never was particularly consistent about his scheduling.
In any case, the gospels provide several core requirements for getting into Heaven, which I have helpfully summarized below even though I do not now, nor do I ever, expect to meet any of them.
You must believe that Jesus died to atone for your sins and accept his sacrifice as God’s gift.
You must be baptized.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind,” (Luke 10:27).
And “(love) thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27).
You must recognize, acknowledge, and repent the “fact” that you are inherently sinful and flawed as a direct consequence of having been born human.
You must sincerely repent every sin you commit.
You must follow the Ten Commandments.
How might these requirements be manifested? The Sermon on the Mount, presented in Matthew 5:1–12, lists several broad categories of people who will be “blessed.” They’re a rather eclectic lot that includes the “poor in spirit,” people in mourning, the meek, those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who have been persecuted for righteousness.
Believers should not expect any of the promised blessings until after their deaths or judgment day, whichever comes first, as there is no evidence that anyone in the audience subsequently received them. In the meantime, how might we expect heavenly aspirants to behave?
Obviously, they should be meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful. These requirements alone would disqualify today’s entire Christian Right. It also would help if they’re poor, mournful, and/or persecuted, although attaining these objectives might require some outside assistance. But there’s more.
Jesus regarded kindness and charity toward the poor and downtrodden as essential for admission to heaven. In Matthew 25:31–46, he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats, a mandatory event scheduled for the day he returns to Earth with all the angels. On that day, Jesus will sit on his throne and direct the good guys (the sheep) to assemble on his right and the bad guys (the goats) to assemble on his left. Apparently, Jesus regards sheep as being morally superior to goats for reasons that remain unclear.
The sheep will be those who had fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, taken in strangers, clothed the naked, and/or visited the sick and imprisoned. The goats will be those who declined to do so. The sheep will go off to Heaven, and the goats will burn forever in Hell.
To be a proper sheep, one must also be humble, unselfish, and modest, and live by the Golden Rule as described in Luke 6:29–31: “To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also. Give to every one that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”
Now we look to the importance of being nonjudgmental and forgiving from Matthew 7:1–2: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you” (reiterated in Matthew 6:14–15 and Luke 6:36–37).
Perhaps the most difficult sheep requirement is to love everyone—and Jesus means everyone—without exception. “Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you. … For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same?” (Matthew 5:43–47)
Note the disparagement of publicans (Roman-appointed functionaries, generally tax collectors) and gentiles (non-Jews). Evidently, this particular audience was composed of Jews not involved in tax collection.
The requirements of forgiveness and tolerance are ubiquitous throughout the gospels. Rather than criticizing the shortcomings of others, Christians are told they must first look to themselves and correct their own failings (Matthew 7:1–7:5; Luke 6:41–42). Mark 11:26 takes this even further, flatly stating that God will not forgive the trespasses of those who don’t forgive others. In Matthew 18:21–22, Jesus says his followers must forgive their brothers for sinning against them up to seventy times seven times. Luke 17:4 provides that if your brother sins against you seven times in a day and then repents seven times, you must forgive him. (The foregoing admonitions are somewhat contradicted by Matthew 18:15–17, which describes specific steps for dealing with anyone who sins against you but adds that if the steps don’t work, you may relegate the transgressor to “gentile and publican” status. The verses do not explain what such relegation would entail.)
Of course, we cannot overlook kindness and mercy. The story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37) provides clear guidance. A traveler is robbed, beaten, and left half-dead by the side of the road. Passersby, including a priest, ignore him and cross the road when they see him. Finally, a Samaritan happens by and stops to treat the victim’s wounds. The Samaritan loads the traveler onto his own mount and takes him to a nearby inn, where he tends to the hurt man until the following day. Before leaving the inn, the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to continue caring for the victim. He tells the innkeeper he will reimburse him for any additional expenses when he returns.
Jesus displays the epitome of kindness, mercy, and forgiveness in the story of an adulteress sentenced to stoning by the scribes and Pharisees (see John 8:1–11). When Jesus tells the accusers, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” they all slink away. Jesus himself then refuses to condemn her and sends her on her way.
Check Your Privilege
A good sheep is expected to be humble and self-effacing. Luke 14:10–11 says, “But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest place; that when he that hath bidden thee cometh, he may say to thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have glory in the presence of all that sit at meat with thee. For everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Also see Matthew 6:1–8, to the same effect.)
However, Matthew 5:16 appears to conflict with the humility directive: “Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
The immediately preceding verse notwithstanding, Jesus generally makes it clear that he expects humility and self-effacement of his followers. He is less consistent about exhibiting these virtues himself, going back and forth between asserting his own humble status and reminding his audiences he is the “prince of this world” (John 12:31) who will sit at the right hand of God to judge them all (Matthew 25:31–33), and that his followers should consider themselves his servants (John 12:26). He forbids his followers to let anyone call them “master,” because only “the Christ” is master. He tells them that whoever is greatest among them will become a servant to the rest, and anyone who exalts himself will be humbled. Those who make a show of their piety and privileged positions will receive “greater condemnation” (Luke 20:45–47). Conversely, anyone who humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:10–12; Mark 9:33–35; Luke 14:11).
A proper sheep also eschews greed, covetousness, and earthly ambition. Luke 12:15–23 states, “And he said unto them, ‘Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth … .’ And he said unto his disciples, ‘Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. For the life is more than the food, and the body than the raiment’” (reiterated in Luke 12:29–33). In Luke 16:13–15, Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. And he said unto (the Pharisees), ‘Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.’”
In Matthew 6:25–34, Jesus goes even further. He tells his followers not to worry about lacking even the most basic of earthly goods or concern themselves about where their next meal is coming from, for the Lord will always provide. “Therefore I say unto you, be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. … But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Unfortunately, the Lord has proven inconsistent about fulfilling this promise, often forgetting to fill the food bowls and water dishes of his designated sheep.
If you’re doing well here on Earth, you’ll probably be in trouble after you die, as seen in Luke 6:24–26: “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you, ye that are full now! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets.”
If you’re rich, your best chance of getting into heaven is to sell all your worldly possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Because it’s exceedingly hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, your odds of gaining entry should improve considerably if you impoverish yourself (Matthew 19:16–26; Mark 10:17–28; Luke 18:20–27).
All Christians are expected to repent. Because everyone is automatically born into a state of sin, and it is virtually impossible not to commit thought crimes (such as lusting, coveting, or wishing harm to others), aspirants to heaven must strive to maintain a constant state of repentance, expressed in Mark 7:20–23: “And he said, ‘That which proceedeth out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man.’”
Even though he is busy with the administration of the entire universe, God remains aware of every unexpressed thought and emotion experienced by every person. It doesn’t matter if you fight your sinful impulses and refrain from acting on them; you’re a sinner just for having such urges. Accordingly, good Christians must begin repenting as soon as they experience a sinful thought, impulse, or emotion.
Repentance generally will be rewarded with forgiveness (see Luke 15:7, 15:10, and 17:3–4). However, the level of repentance that warrants acceptance into heaven requires an ongoing effort throughout one’s life, ending only with death or the advent of Judgment Day. If you haven’t repented your latest sins (those you’ve committed since your last repentance), you’re probably going to Hell.
Let’s Not Overdo It
Certain personal attributes that many of us value do not appear to be required for admission to Heaven. In fact, some would lower your chances of getting in.
Courage: Although Jesus himself exhibited this virtue, he never addressed it as a worthy aspiration, and his disciples were outright cowards. When their master was seized for trial, they ran away rather than remaining to speak up in his defense (Mark 14:50). Peter—the “rock” upon which the church was to be built—cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave (which Jesus then healed), but he did not challenge any of the armed soldiers who accompanied the accusers. After running off, he denied his association with Jesus three times, cursing his interrogators for emphasis (John 18:10; Matthew 26:69–75).
Wisdom and love of learning: Substantially all of Jesus’s followers were illiterate, and the literacy of Jesus himself is open to question. He obviously was familiar with the Old Testament, but whether this was through oral or written teachings is unclear. What is clear is his position that the world could only be properly perceived through faith in his own proclamations. Any wisdom or learning that might contradict those proclamations was to be avoided on penalty of hellfire.
Ambition and independence: Jesus obviously didn’t care for these characteristics, at least in relation to his own agenda. See Matthew 10:38: “And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me.” In other words, he expected his disciples to abandon their former lives and join his traveling evangelical magic show. Afterward, they were to continue delivering his message in accordance with his instructions.
Reasoning and critical thinking: These activities clearly could ruin your chances for salvation and probably would get you roasted for all eternity.
The gospels tell followers of Jesus to be meek, humble, generous, forgiving, loving, merciful, nonjudgmental, noncritical, and repentant. Christians must turn the other cheek when slapped; share their property and give it to those who would take it; always go the extra mile; and accommodate those who would borrow from them. They must love their enemies and pray for their persecutors (Matthew 5:38–45; Luke 6:27–30; Luke 6:36–38).
Jesus also forbids his followers from being angry with their brethren, on pain of judgment and hellfire, and urges them to reconcile and come to agreement with their adversaries (Matthew 5:23–25). He admonishes them to treat others as they would have others treat them (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31), and he warns them against “taking up the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
But how many self-professed Christians actually behave according to gospel values? Such believers would never, for example, deny anyone food, shelter, or medical benefits, regardless of the needy party’s condition of birth, financial circumstances, race, immigration status, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. They would not look down on the poor and consider them unworthy of help. They would welcome immigrants, especially those seeking asylum, rather than imprisoning them. If their churches were wealthy, they would demand the sale of church assets to help fund care for the poor. They would not hoard weapons of war or attempt to overthrow honest elections. And they would laugh at the “Christian prosperity” proponents, who according to the gospels have received their reward and will receive nothing more in Heaven.
According to Jesus, people should view life on Earth as a trial venue, an audition for heaven, in which their behavior will largely determine where they’ll spend the rest of eternity once they die. Those who fulfill his stated criteria (and also happen to be gifted with God’s “grace”) will ascend to heaven (John 12:25 and 12:28). Everyone else (i.e., most of humanity) will be tortured forever in Hell. Judging by widespread Christian behavior, this torture will include enduring the company of most of the self-professed Christians who ever lived.
The four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are the only books of the Bible that claim to be firsthand descriptions of the words and deeds of Jesus. Because historical evidence supporting these narratives is nonexistent, acceptance of their veracity can only be based on faith. People whose beliefs encompass such faith accept the gospels as true, …