Who decides if a thing is a heaven or hell issue? It wouldn’t work to have a majority rule on the matter since God challenged his people not to follow a multitude to do evil and Jesus said it would be the few who found the right way instead of the many. It makes no sense to use our feelings to make the decision since people have different feelings depending on who is involved and what our hot buttons are. Solomon said there is a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof are ways of death. You can’t go by what we’ve always heard on anything since different folks have heard different things and it is too often the case that two people hearing the same person at the same time say the exact same thing, hear something entirely different. Should we go by what we read of the early church in the New Testament? Many would declare that this is the answer. But which church shall we imitate? If it is Jerusalem, at what point shall we imitate them? Shall we imitate them in Acts 2 when the church began, or Acts 4 when they had all things in common or Acts 6 when some were complaining about being neglected or Acts 15 when they met to hear the charges against Paul and Barnabas teaching that Gentile converts didn’t need to be circumcised and obey the law. Or shall we use the church in Jerusalem in Acts 21 when James speaks for the elders to tell Paul there are many thousands of converts from the Jews that are still very zealous for the Law? If not Jerusalem, then who? Antioch might be a good place to use or maybe Ephesus. What about using Corinth, since the Holy Spirit had Paul to address them as “The church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both theirs and ours?”
I suspect that someone is screaming by now, that certainly we should use the New Testament as the standard to decide whether a thing is a heaven or hell issue. I think you are right that we should. Now the question will be which parts of the New Testament shall we emphasize to make the determination? Take one example just to illustrate the point. Through the years there have been numerous denominational groups that have claimed their standard is Acts chapter two. Most Pentecostal groups say this is the place where they get the plan to speak in tongues as they gather in worship to the Lord. Those of that persuasion that believe there is only one person in the Godhead go to Acts 2:38 where Peter to them to “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” to say that Jesus is the one person in the Godhead and unless we baptize someone saying it is in His name alone then it isn’t right. Our fellowship has claimed the same verse to say that we must upon our faith turn from sins in repentance and be baptized in order for our sins to be forgiven so it is certain salvation comes after baptism and not before. The Amish and Mennonite brethren go to the following verses of verse 44 and 45 to point out they had everything in common so that we should pool our goods and live together in a fellowship.
Isn’t it interesting that different people who are honest and wanting to restore New Testament Christianity can all go to the same set of verses and see entirely different things?
Think of this point for a moment. Suppose we focus on things that God had the different writers of the New Testament to declare were heaven and hell issues. It is certain that Peter speaking by the Holy Spirit saw lying to the Holy Spirit about our giving as a heaven and hell issue in Acts 5. He saw trying to purchase the power to lay hands on someone to give them the Holy Spirit as such in Acts 8 when he said to Simon, “Your money perish with you since you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” In Romans 16:17-18 Paul said, “I appeal to you, brothers to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them for such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” So, causing division or putting obstacles in the way of those trying to live for God was seen by Paul as a heaven or hell issue. He used the same language in I Corinthians 5 of one committing horrible adultery with his step mother and challenged the church to withdraw from him so his flesh might be destroyed and his soul saved. So flagrant immorality was a heaven and hell issue.
In Galatians 1 he pointed out that some had left the grace of Christ and were preaching a gospel of their own making that wasn’t good news at all. They were trying to force the Gentile converts to follow the Old Law that was meant as a tutor to get us to Christ and had now accomplished that mission. He warned them that those who teach such things depart from Christ and fall from grace, they are accursed before God. So trying to bind things on Christians that destroy their freedom in Christ was seen as a heaven and hell issue. In Colossians he warned of those who tried to make something other than Christ necessary for true worship. He said that such things had the appearance of good but were of no value in staying away from sinful living.
The truth is one could go through each book of the New Testament and find different things that were emphasized that were considered heaven and hell issues for very different reasons based on what was going on in the particular churches. In most of these rather than declaring that those who were going wrong were hell bound he warned them of the need to change, to repent and do things right and so maintain their relationship with the Lord. When Jesus had John to pen the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia it was amazing what all was wrong with these different churches. Yet in the worst situations he declared there were still some there that had not defiled their garments and who would walk with him in white. It intrigues me that the two churches that would likely have been most acceptable to us are ones he spoke most harshly to. Ephesus had the doctrine right but had lost their first love. They were challenged to remember, repent and do the first works or he would come and remove their candlestick from it’s place. Laodicea would have seemed to be one of the great churches of the day. If you had gotten their bulletin it would likely have declared how rich, increased with goods and how they didn’t need anything there. They would have had the nicest building in town with the best known preacher to speak eloquently of how great things were going. But Jesus said they had locked him on the outside, were lukewarm and neither cold nor hot so that he wanted to vomit them out of his mouth.
So, how in the world are we to decide exactly what is a heaven or hell issue? We can declare that certain things violate the teaching of the Bible and that people are practicing things that the Bible doesn’t teach, but when it comes to deciding what God will see as a heaven and hell issue we had better walk softly. Far too many times we are ready to declare someone as a flagrant sinner who is a weak, struggling Christian trying hard to live for God and stay away from the sinful life. Far too many times we are ready to declare someone as saintly, that God would have look into their hearts to say it is all a matter of show. In realty our place is simply to teach and preach what God says in his word and leave the decision about heaven and hell to Him.