What, if anything, happens after we die? Do we simply die and that’s the end of it? Or is there something else that happens after death? It’s so easy to get so caught up in our daily lives that we tend to forget about it. Or perhaps we simply avoid it. If you think about it for any length of time, it’s bound to make you uncomfortable. If your conclusion is that this life is it and that there is nothing after, it gets pretty depressing. But if you believe that there is something after death, and that you can affect the outcome by your actions while here on Earth, then the stakes escalate. For example, if you believe in a Heaven, then you will likely want to do whatever is necessary to get there. On the other hand, if you believe in Hell, you will probably want to do whatever is necessary to avoid it.
I know there are all kinds of potential variations on this theme. Some people believe in Heaven, but don’t believe in Hell. But even among the people who believe in Heaven, there are differences as to exactly what Heaven is like- everything from pearly gates, to gold-paved streets; variations on the theme, if you will. Some people believe in reincarnation- you keep coming back to Earth after you die, in a form that is roughly related to your performance in the previous life.
In the young man’s case, he believed that there was at least the possibility that there was life after death. A lot of people followed Jesus because they thought he was a wise teacher. Perhaps the rich young man admired and respected Jesus. Presumably, the young man was well-educated. Perhaps he enjoyed lofty spiritual debate. It’s hard to tell from the dialogue. But he thought enough of Jesus to ask Him what it would take to live forever.
Jesus’s response was simple. He told the young man that he should obey God’s commands. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Do what God wants you to do and you will live forever. Of course, the execution of it becomes infinitely more difficult.
This is why the rich young man asked the next question. He asked, “Which commands?” He intuitively knew that there was no way that he could obey every single command. It isn’t humanly possible. In a way, he was challenging Jesus’ advice. He was, in effect, saying “Come on Jesus, you and I both know that it isn’t possible. Get real. Tell me which commands are really important.”
But here’s the thing. Jesus knew it was possible to live a completely sinless life; He was living proof of it. Nonetheless, He went with the question. He said that if the young man just obeyed what were in essence the Ten Commandments, he would live forever.
But the rich young man was pretty fired up at this point. He was, after all, intelligent and rich. That should amount for something, shouldn’t it? He quickly responded “I’ve always obeyed these commandments.” I imagine he thought the discussion was over at that point. He had gotten Jesus to agree that he was going to Heaven. He had lived a good life. He had passed the test.
But, like most of us who feel pretty good about our lives, the rich young man couldn’t stop there. He decided to go for an A plus. He asked Jesus “What else do I need to do?” Something tells me that Jesus knew, before the conversation even started, that the young man would eventually get to this point.
And then Jesus got to the point. He told the rich young man that if he wanted to get to Heaven, he would need to give up everything and follow Him.
I remember as a kid, seeing funny picture book of monkeys. The monkeys were dressed up as people, and put into people situations. Three monkeys were playing cards, smoking cigars and drinking scotch. On another page, a “husband” monkey and a “wife” monkey were having a spat. And there was a picture of a monkey “family” picnic- a “mom” monkey and a “dad” monkey, with “brother” monkey and “sister” monkey eating sandwiches and drinking lemonade. The book was funny because the monkeys had been dressed up and put into human situations.
But here’s the thing. As cute as the pictures were, the monkeys were still monkeys. Off camera, they probably messed up the props and sets. They fought. Their handlers were careful, and didn’t for one minute get fooled into thinking that the monkeys wouldn’t bite them if agitated. A monkey, no matter how you dress it up, is a monkey. The same applies to humans.
Deep down inside, if we really think about it, we understand that we can never earn our way into Heaven. No matter how hard we want to, or how hard we try, we are going to fail. It’s just not humanly possible for an imperfect human to earn his way into a perfect place. In my own case, I can assure you that my thoughts and actions typically diverge from God’s will within five minutes of awakening each day. The cares and worries of this world quickly take over. Before I know it, and despite my best intentions, I take a path that is different from the one God wants me to take. Certainly, I do my best to correct my path to conform to His will. But no matter how hard I try, I simply don’t measure up. I’m simply human. I can dress myself up, I can go to church, I can give money to charity and all of the rest of it. But at my core, I’m a human being and all that comes with it.
The rich young man’s question presumed that with enough effort, he could earn his way into heaven. I understand the presumption. After all, the young man was rich. Rich people tend to believe that they earned their riches. So it makes sense that he would believe he could earn his way into Heaven.
But the truth is, it all comes from God. God created the universe. He created mankind. He created you and me. And everything that we have, one way or the other, can be attributed to God. Our health, our intelligence, our gifts; all come from God. How can we earn our way into God’s graces by giving Him back something that He gave us to begin with? It’s sort of like the child buying Dad a birthday present with money Dad gave her. It’s sweet and thoughtful and all that, but from an economic perspective, it was a net zero transaction to the Dad.
And that was Jesus’ point. And it was also the point made throughout the Old Testament, in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. It’s simple. The just shall live by faith. Beginning with Abraham, the father of our faith (you can read about him in Genesis), God has sought one thing from humankind- faith in Him. We “earn” our way to Heaven by believing in Him. This is what it means to be saved by grace, through faith. God gave us a free gift in the form of Jesus as savior, and we accept the gift through faith. It’s so simple that many people have a hard time accepting it. Like the rich young man, they prefer to keep a running tally of their lives. They mistakenly believe that their good works will somehow created indebtedness by God toward them. But again, it’s impossible for God to be indebted to any human because He gave us everything that we have. As a result, from the day we are born, we have a deficit balance in our eternal bank account. And, like the national debt, it only gets bigger over time.
And that’s why the rich young man left, saddened. I’ve heard some people explain that he was sad because Jesus told him to give up his riches. He had put his money before God. But I think it runs deeper than that. Jesus also said, “Follow me.” And that was the real bottom line. If we want to get to Heaven, we have to follow Him.
But there’s good news. To follow Jesus, we must first have faith in Him. We accept through faith His free gift of eternal salvation. And once we accept this gift, He steps in. He gives us His Holy Spirit. He comes to live within us. And this makes it infinitely easier to follow Him. Faith begets more faith. We make the decision for Him and we begin to see its result manifest in our lives. We are changed. We become more like Him. And the change reinforces our faith. We stop living in our own effort and we rely on Him. We study His words and we learn more about Him, which in turns results in more and more of this remarkable transformation that so many people have undergone.
Are there bumps and bruises along the way? Certainly. We will always have the free will to make decisions. And sometimes we make the wrong decisions. And wrong decisions have consequences. But He is always there for us. His sacrifice means that He does not see our sin. Instead, He sees us as sinless. And He loves us no matter what.
So, the rich young man either could not or would not follow Jesus. And when the debate was over, he walked away sadly and left Jesus standing there. But it didn’t have to end that way. The rich young man could have embraced Jesus. He could have stayed with Jesus. Or he could have received Jesus’ teaching and left in jubilance, laughing and dancing.
And the same holds true for each of us. There is a popular Christian saying, “Know Jesus, know peace. No Jesus, no peace.” And this brings me to why I believe what I believe. Jesus said that He was the only way to God. This causes some people heartburn. “Surely, there is more than one way to Heaven,” they reason. But I believe Jesus because everything else that He said, as recorded in the Bible, has been absolutely true for me in my life experience. Every single day of my life, His version of things has been validated in my life. A Man who lived two thousand years ago still speaks to me through his words. And He speaks to me through His Spirit.
I’ve wondered what happened to the rich young man after he left that day. We have no way of knowing. But something tells me that it wasn’t the end of the story. Once you’ve seen the light, it’s pretty hard to go back to darkness. If he was as smart as I think he was, I’ll bet he kept thinking about Jesus’ instruction. And I’d bet that not too long after, he made a decision.
I’ll leave it to you to decide.
 John 14.