On the night our parish youth group kicked off a semester of youth ministry programming on the Church, our guest speaker took questions from teens. One of them went like this: “You mentioned that it’s hard to get to Heaven. Do you really mean ‘really hard?”
A better word than ‘hard’ in this case might be ‘impossible.’ It is impossible for any of us on our earn merit to get to Heaven. This is why Jesus had to come. The Old Testament tells the story of the people of God who, after being created by God to love broke their relationship with Him (by sinning), and were never able to properly reconcile that relationship. God tries over and over again, covenant by covenant (think Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David…) but humanity is never able to uphold their end of the bargain. So Jesus came to reconcile us to God- making it possible for us to get to Heaven. The Catechism says:
By his death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ has “opened’ heaven to us. The life of the blessed consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1026)
You may understand that part already- no Jesus, no Heaven (and conversely, if you know Jesus… you can know Heaven) – but the question seemed to be asking at an even more basic level… it is hard for you or I to get to Heaven? This is a much more practical question, one I’ve been asked many times in many different ways. The answer is yes. It is hard to get to Heaven. This is what Jesus says:
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:14)
That’s not exactly encouraging. But there is a reason we call it the ‘narrow’ road, the one less traveled. What’s difficult, narrow, and constricted here is not that the road is only offered to a few people. It is offered to everyone. Jesus’ death paid the price for every human sin that has been or will be committed. Heaven is open to everyone. The problem is, not everyone wants it. If you go back to the Old Testament, the story of Exodus is one of the best examples of this. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt, forced into labor, their sons being killed by Pharaoh, strangers in a foreign land. After Moses leads them across the Red Sea, they (almost immediately) begin to complain. They complain about the food. About the water. About how far they have to walk. After a while, they stop trusting God… and want to GO BACK INTO SLAVERY. When God shows them the land He wants to give them, they doubt Him so He has them wander the desert for forty years, so that generation has almost entirely died (except Joshua and Caleb) before they actually enter into the promised land.
We are the same as these Israelites. God has freed us from the slavery to sin, and is leading us to the promised land (Heaven.) Heaven is the place where truth, beauty, and goodness reign- where every human desire find its proper fulfillment, where there is no pain nor suffering. It is the place where every tear will be wiped away, where we will have nothing to fear. It is a great place. But as we journey towards Heaven, we become distracted, disinterested, and we begin to complain. The innocence we have when we were children- and the incredible faith we have in God and His promises begins to wear away as we age- leading us to question whether we might be better off back in the sin Jesus came to free us from. And because God loves us as much as He does, He allows us the freedom to reject His gift, to turn towards sin and selfishness, and as a consequence away from Him.
When we die, we come face to face with God, who has offered us so much in this life. And, just as He does in the parables, He asks us to give an account of what we’ve done in our lives. Did we use our talents for good? Did we love the least of our brothers moment by moment? Did we trust God and follow where He led? In the ways that we say yes to these questions, we define our character, and define the place we choose to spend eternity- with God in Heaven, or separated from God forever.
That’s the hard part- defining our character by saying ‘yes’ to God not only when things are easy, but in the difficult moments of life, placing the things that really matter to us in His hands, and not simply doing what’s easy simply because “we’re teenagers. Everyone else is doing it.” God created you to stand out- don’t waste this lifetime trying to fit in.