What do Muhammad Ali, Jan Crouch, and my friend Bob, all have in common? They are all standing before their creator and either being welcomed into forever joy and happiness with God, or else forever despair and torment apart from God.
Are Muhammad Ali and Jan Crouch in Heaven? Well, I don’t know. I cannot know. The good news of the gospel is that no matter how many years we’ve lived in rebellion against God, there is still held out for us the news of forgiveness through Jesus, and just like the thief on the cross, even on our death beds, it’s possible to “be with Christ in paradise”.
But, my unfortunate guess regarding the eternal fates of Ali and Mrs. Crouch is not very hopeful. Why? Because they both prized earthly greatness over heavenly glory. They did not seem to agree with Paul that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” They did not seem to think that “all other things are garbage compared with the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus the Lord.” They did not seem to live so that “by any means possible, they might attain the resurrection of the dead.” It seemed throughout their lives that they treasured many things more than Christ.
And to fail to treasure Jesus, is to fail to reach Heaven.
To fail to live in such a way that dying is where you believe real gain is found, is to say that there is something greater than Christ that you treasure. A Christian believes that dying is gain, because to die is to “depart and be with Christ, and that is far better!” Paul said that his desire is that Christ would be magnified and honored in his body, whether by life or by death, and the way that Paul imagined that happening was by Paul’s counting death as gain. In other words, if you don’t treasure Jesus in such a way as to see being with him as the supreme value and goal of your life, then it is doubtful that you are a Christian. How can you be the person who found a treasure hidden in the field and OUT OF JOY, go and sell all else to gain that treasure, if you at the same time believe that the earthly greatness you would have to be rid of is so worth keeping?
Do I know if Ali and Mrs. Crouch are in Heaven or Hell? No, and my prayer is that they repented of their exchanging the Creator’s glory for the creation’s, and then treasured Jesus. But, I’m not hopeful that they did that, based on what was so apparent from their lives.
But, contrast that with my friend Bob.
My friend Bob died today, at 74 (same as Ali). He had very late stage cancer, and he’d been fighting it for months, but it finally took him. He died peacefully and in his sleep (he’d been asleep for a few days actually). His body was frail, his mouth was droopy, his eyes never opened, he would occasionally be jittery and shake uncontrollably (though the hospital did very well at helping with that). In short, he was a broken, ugly, picture of what death is. There was no earthly greatness, there was nothing beautiful or glorious about him lying there on his deathbed.
And yet, Bob lived his life for Jesus. He was a minimalist in terms of earthly possessions, because he spent most of his money on books to study his bible better, so that he might know God and make him known better. He was desperately concerned to see his lost friends and family come to know Christ as the treasure that He is, and Bob lived life with that aim. For Bob, to live is Christ.
But, for Bob, even more so, to die was glorious gain! When Bob got cancer, he decided that he wanted to fight it, not because he was afraid of dying, but because as long as he lived, he wanted to be able to tell others about Jesus. During his months at the hospital, he would often try to speak about the gospel to his nurses and doctors. So, it was most certainly not his fear of dying, but his desire to see others treasure Christ that made him fight. But, there was also an ever-present desire in him to just be done so that he might go home and be with Jesus. He was 100% at peace with death. He wasn’t the least bit afraid of it. He never once showed any fear of the unknowns of death, because for him, there was nothing unknown about it. He was fully assured that to die was to be with Christ, and that was far better than living. Bob was the most amazing example I’ve ever seen of what it means to honor Christ in your body through death, because for Bob, to die was nothing but gain. On his deathbed, he certainly didn’t appear to be great, but he was. He was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, because he showed exactly how a Christian should face death – with great joy and longing!
I don’t know the eternal fate of anyone, but scripture says that to store up your treasure, and your hope for greatness, on earth, is to lose it. But, to live this life in order to gain God through Christ, the greatest treasure, is to have fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. True greatness is found in treasuring Jesus, and if that’s the standard, then Bob was one of the greatest ever!
As these three people stand before God, there are many things that could be said that won’t matter.
For Ali to say “but I thought that I was the greatest” won’t do.
For Jan Crouch to say “but I thought that earthly prosperity was the greatest” won’t do.
But I know that Bob will say “I lived my life to say that the ‘I AM’ is the greatest.” He lived his life to say that the good news that Jesus reconciled him to God was the supreme treasure. And to that, I believe God will say “well done my good and faithful servant.”
“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage, now as always, Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death, because to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
– Philippians 1:20-21