What Sends a Person to Hell and Takes a Person to Heaven? It's Not What You Might Think
That answer is technically incorrect. A person is sent to hell or is taken to heaven based upon whether or not God considers them absolutely morally perfect in character and deed.
For example, listen to the Apostle Paul in Romans 2:7: "To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life." The phrase "persistence in doing good" is interesting. It's difficult to see in English the verb tenses of Greek. Paul's grammar refers to a continual, perfect conduct that includes right inner motives (i.e. "glory and honor" for God). In short, eternal life is the reward for absolute moral perfection while living on earth. The first three chapters of Romans is drilling into the minds of people that nobody, even the Jews zealous for obedience to the law, consistently, perpetually and perfectly obey God.
Be Ye Perfect!
God's demand for moral perfection is consistent with the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48: "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." It is often said by preachers that "perfect"in this verse cannot mean "moral perfection," but rather "completeness." Not true. The demand of a holy God upon His Creation, specifically for those He created in His image, is absolute moral perfection. Without a perfect holiness and righteousness "no one will see the Lord."
Where do we find this standard of moral perfection? God stamps within the heart of each of us an understanding of morality. Theologians call this "natural law." One may go to the darkest locales in the most uncivilized parts of this world and find the most basic moral codes (i.e. "don't murder, don't steal, etc..."), but as in all societies, compliance to natural law is incomplete and corrupt. God has written His standard in the hearts and minds of all men, but all men choose to transgress that standard (Romans 1). It is the violation of this natural law--going contrary to conscience and the inner witness of what is right--that sends a person to hell. What's worse, because the standard of God is both inward and outward moral perfection (i.e. "motives, thoughts and deeds"), just desiring to murder someone (i.e. "hate") sends a person to eternal judgment. That corrupt desire of hate is contrary to original design of God for man.
Sin Against the Creator Sends One to Hell
Let me state the above principle as simply as possible: What sends a person to hell is NOT the rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior but one's own sin against His Creator. God will send you to eternal judgment if you live a morally imperfect life, inconsistent with His character and His image which are stamped in you. But He is a also a just and equitable God. He will also give eternal life to any human who actively, continually and perfectly lives a life consistent with the character of God (Romans 2:7).
At various times throughtout history, particularly with the nation of Israel, the transcendent God condescended to man and codiefied His standard (i.e. "law") in order to further reveal mans' moral corruption. The ancients spoke of moral perfection as "light" and the lack of moral perfection as "darkness." The Bible is clear that the world is dark and God is "light." Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate God ("Emmanuel") come to earth, has "no darkness at all" (I John 1:5). In these last days God has spoken to us through His Son, revealing the ultimate standard of moral righteousness. We see God's moral perfection in the person and conduct of Jesus Christ. Our sin, what the Bible calls "transgression against the law of God," is living a life that is inconsistent with the character, motives, and actions of Jesus Christ. The Son is the fullest revelation of God's standard of moral perfection. Christ came to "fulfill" the work of the Father on our behalf. We are imperfect people in need of a Savior. We are "transgressors" and "sinners" because our disobedience to God is real and personal. Christ's presence on earth gives greater light to the character of God and further condemns those who are not as they ought to be.
God will one day judge each and every sinner for living life short of His moral standard of perfection. Ancient theologians believed the only humans excluded from this impending "day of God's wrath" are those who die as "infants or imbeciles." The latter word is definitely not appropriate in today's world, but what the old theologians meant was "God's judgment will fall on every single sinner except those who die in a state of infancy and imbecility." The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message affirms this ancient belief by declaring: "Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation." (Article III Man).
Hell Is the End of Willing Sinners
The point seems clear. God sends people to hell because of their own volitional sin. Though creation and the universe fell into a state of imperfection because of Adam's sin, and though humans are born in a state of imperfection because of Adam's sin, and though babies who die in infancy have received the penalty of physical death because of Adam's sin, God sends to eternal judgment only those who have personally and volitionally violated His moral standard.
That's pretty doggone bad news. Why? Because there is no single human being--not the Pope, not the Virgin Mary, not Mother Teresa, not Billy Graham, not anyone--who has ever lived a continuous morally perfect life. All have sinned and fallen short of God's standard and God's glory. We are all destined for hell because of our personal sins.
God Need Save Nobody
If God never intervened to save sinners He would remain just, holy, righteous and all the other attributes that you could ever think of that speak of His moral perfection. In other words, He would remain God. Sending sinners to hell is not the devil's work. It is the work of a holy, righteous God. Pharoah will be in hell because he disobeyed God. I deserve hell because I have imperfectly kept the standard of God's morality. Hell is not Dante's inferno. It is the withdrawal of God's gracious hand. It is total and complete darkness and isolation from people and from God as a punishment for moral imperfection. Those who loved darkness will be turned over to darkness. Though God is present in hell, He is present as Judge, and the punishment and righteous vengeance toward lawbreakers will be meted out righteously. "God will give to each person according to what he has done" (Romans 2:6). There will be various degrees of punishment in hell. The child sexual abuser will be punished far greater than the person who lived his life caring for children. For this reason, the person who is morally imperfect ought to be as good of a person morally as possible, for it is a "fearful and dreadful thing to fall into the hands of a living God" (Hebrews 10:31).
God's Blessing Are Reserved for Those With Absolute Moral Perfection
But what about heaven? What takes us there? Again, the only thing that takes you to heaven is complete, perfect morality and righteousness in thought, deed and character. You must be perfect. You can have no blemish on your record in regards to God's standard. There can be no sin. Your life must have been lived for the glory and honor of God. Every single thing you have done on this earth must be unselfish, peformed in love for the good of others and glory of God, and morally unblemished. What takes you to heaven is absolute perfection in compliance with God's standard of what is right (righteousness).
You don't have this perfect morality. I don't have this perfect righteousness. Nobody does. "There is no one who is righteous, no not one." Only God has perfect righteousness. Man lost his moral perfection when he rebelled against God by living contrary to His standard of moral perfection. For us to be taken to heaven, we need God. That's why the good news is so good. God came to earth (Emmanuel) and lived the perfect life required. He then promised to give all the blessings that come with perfect righteousness to anyone who will trust HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS TO TAKE THEM TO HEAVEN. When the righteousness of Christ is credited to the account of the believer through faith, God treats that believer as perfectly righteous. It's why the ancients used to say "God sees no sin in His people" judicially. It's why the Bible calls believers "saints." We have a perfect righteousness that is not our own, but comes from God, and is received by faith.
Listen to the Apostle Paul: "Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss. What is more I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness that comes from (my obedience) to the law, but a righteousness that comes from God and is found by faith in Jesus Christ" (Philippians 3:8-11).
The Great Transaction
I tell people that when one trusts the person and work of Jesus Christ, a great transaction takes place. God has given to Christ all the righteous judgment due my sin, and God has given to me all the blessings due the righteousness and obedience of Christ through His moral perfection in relation to the law of God. My faith in Christ makes me a "co-heir" of Christ. The rewards I receive for eternity, whatever they may be, are all the result of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ on my behalf.
Heaven is different from hell in one regard. What I receive in hell I have earned. What I receive in heaven Christ has earned.
So, let's answer the question of the title of this post - "What sends a person to hell and takes a person to heaven?
Imperfect obedience to God's moral standard sends a person to hell.
Perfect obedience to God's moral standard takes person to heaven.
The Importance of a Christ-Centered Gospel
Until we Southern Baptists learn to teach people that absolute perfect righteousness takes a person to heaven, we will be prone to the error of telling people that "their decision" or "their commitment to God" or "their walk down an aisle" takes them to heaven. That kind of error is prevalent in Southern Baptist evangelism, and in my next post I will show how prevalent that has become.
What takes a person to heaven is the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. What takes a person to heaven is not election, not faith, not commitment, not anything but the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. Everything else has its place, but the perfect and absolute moral perfection of Jesus Christ is one's ticket to heaven. Reject the only Savior God gave to obtain a perfect righteousness in the place of undeserving sinners, then you will answer to God for your own moral imperfections.
That's the gospel truth.