The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. (God Is the Gospel)
People often describe pivotal moments in their lives as “the day when God turned my world upside down.” Some experience, some conversation, some trial radically reshaped how they viewed themselves, their lives, their relationships, and the world around them. Well, in my sophomore year of college, God turned heaven upside down for me.
I grew up in a Christian home with loving Christian parents, and had been a Christian myself for a number of years at that point in college. I read the Bible and prayed most days. I was part of a faithful Bible-preaching church and was surrounded by mature and intentional Christian friends. I was even doing ministry among high school students, sharing the gospel and discipling them in the faith. And then, in a moment — in a sentence — God suddenly flooded the gospel with new meaning, new colors, new intensity and joy.
To draw me deeper into the gospel, though, God had to first confront me, but it was the sweetest kind of confrontation, the most satisfying kind of rebuke. The sentence tackled me where I sat and has never let me go.
Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. (God Is the Gospel, 47)
The gospel is the way to get people to God. The gospel is the way to get me to God. It was the kind of rare epiphany that is both devasting and thrilling. Devastating, because you realize just how much you’ve had wrong until now. Thrilling, because you have stumbled into a land you’d never seen before, an ocean you’d never sailed before, a favorite meal you’d never tasted before.
God is not just the only way to heaven; he is what makes heaven worth wanting. He is the great meal. He is the wild and wondrous ocean. He is the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44–46). John Piper presses home the surpassing gift of God himself with a haunting question:
The critical question for our generation — and for every generation — is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there? (God Is the Gospel, 15)
Could I? That was the question that turned heaven on its head for me. Could I be content in a heaven without Christ? And if not, if Christ really was what made heaven an eternity worth wanting, why wasn’t I doing more to know and enjoy him now on earth?
“The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God.” But what does God say? Does he talk about himself, the gospel, and heaven that way?
The apostle Paul knew that God was the greatest gift of the gospel. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7–9). The real treasure, the one that surpasses all others, is to know him, to gain him, to have him.
Why did Christ die on the cross? The apostle Peter says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). He suffered, bled, and died not just so that we might be forgiven and relieved of hell, but so that we might have God. The worst consequence of sin is not the fire, but the separation (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Hell will be agonizing and miserable for many reasons, but none more than being deprived of God himself. The damned will still experience the presence of God (Revelation 14:10), but it will be in horrifying wrath, rather than in grace and joy. They will never have God.
The redeemed, however, sing, “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4). “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11) — not only joys and pleasures beside him or around him, but above all, joy in him. He is the joy. He is the pleasure. His presence is paradise — and it would be so even if everything else we loved and wanted was taken away.
And, in Christ, we experience that presence in part even now. Yes, our remaining sin and the consequences of sin interfere with that experience, but when God is our joy, we taste real joy now. We savor pleasures in everyday life now, pleasures that will last forever. And so we pray prayers like Psalm 42: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” — not for deliverance, or forgiveness, or healing, or provision, or relief, or reconciliation, but for you — “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1–2). Not for the good and perfect gifts God gives, but for the far better gift that God is.
As we wait and long for heaven, many of us have clung to promises like Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” No more tears, no more death, no more mourning or crying or pain. We can hardly imagine the sweetness of these absences — a whole world without shadows.
Heaven, however, will not be defined by absences; paradise will be defined by an all-satisfying presence. When God becomes heaven for us, verse 3 rises and eclipses even the precious promises of verse 4:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”
What’s better than a world without sin, sorrow, and death? A world with God. Yes, he will wipe away our tears. Yes, he will heal our wounds and cure our diseases. Yes, he will finally do away with that awful enemy, death. But those blessings, while infinitely great, will be as puddles next to the ocean of having him and being his. A God capable of drying every tear under every eye will be our God. A God capable of curing every cancer will give himself to us — even us. A God capable of emptying graves and overthrowing death will live with us, and for us, forever.
Don’t let all that God can do for you blind you to all that he can be for you. Don’t spend so much time splashing in puddles that you never get to see the ocean. Don’t settle for any offer of heaven that doesn’t have him at the center.