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Do you have to be baptized to go to heaven?


Do you have to be baptized to go to heaven?—Anonymous

Steve Answers:

Hi, Anonymous,

Here’s the short answer: No. Here’s the short answer in the form of another question: What does it take for a person to get to heaven? (Here’s a hint: It’s a name that begins with the letter J.) If you answered the question by saying “baptism” instead of “Jesus,” then you would be someone who thinks a person has to be baptized in order to go to heaven.

But there’s also a long answer. There’s usually a story behind such a question as, “Do you have to be baptized to go to heaven?” If you believe that Jesus is the way to heaven, then the answer to your question would be no.

Seriously? A person doesn’t have to be baptized in order to go to heaven? That might lead some people to ask, “Why does anyone get baptized?”

Let’s consider a different symbol that might provide an analogy to getting baptized. I’m thinking of a wedding. Do you need to have a big, fancy, expensive wedding in order to be married? I’m pretty sure the answer is no. So let’s ask the second question: “Why does anyone have a wedding ceremony?”

Let’s be realistic—there are all sorts of different weddings. And different cultures do it different ways. For some people, it seems as though the wedding is actually a bigger thing than the marriage! And for others, the wedding is just a “necessary step” for what they really want, which is to be married.

Nowadays fewer people are getting married, which also means that fewer people are having weddings. They have seen the “lifetime commitment” of others not last for a lifetime. Many people have given up on marriage, so they don’t have a wedding either.

But others still believe in marriage. And they want to begin it with a wedding. Usually the relationship has developed quite a bit before the wedding officially initiates the marriage. Getting engaged and setting a date mark celebratory steps along the way. Family and friends want to be part of the action. There’s the shopping for the wedding dress, selecting people to stand with you, getting a photographer and videographer, choosing a pastor, choosing the music and how the processional will happen. But some people just elope and get it over with quickly.

Read the previous three paragraphs and substitute “baptism” for “wedding” and “commitment to Jesus” for “marriage.” In a sense, when you make a complete commitment to Jesus, it’s like getting married to Him. In that sense, a baptism is like a wedding.

The Bible provides some additional imagery. For example, baptism symbolizes our death, burial, and resurrection. Just as Jesus died, was buried, and then resurrected, when we give our lives to Jesus, our old life dies and is buried. But then we begin a new life—a life with Jesus and for Jesus (see Romans 6:3-5). You can find a similar message in 2 Corinthians 5:14-17.

Why do some people say, “You have to be baptized in order to go to heaven”? Probably because they believe it, or because they really, really want you to get married (to Jesus). Your baptism will make them very, very happy.

It’s not hard to find exceptions to this expectation that a person must be baptized in order to go to heaven. For example, the thief on the cross gave his life to Jesus just before he died. Jesus said He would see him in Paradise (heaven), but he certainly didn’t have an opportunity to get baptized before he died that day (Luke 23:41-43).

Moses and Elijah, two notable Old Testament heroes whom God took to heaven before Christ’s second coming, came to Jesus and gave him encouragement before his crucifixion (see Matthew 17:1-9). Moses and Elijah came from heaven, but there is no record in the Bible that either one of them was baptized. Read the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Once again, we have no record that any of these were baptized. Does that mean they won’t be in heaven?

I think one text has led well-meaning people to say, “You have to be baptized in order to go to heaven.” It’s John 3:5. The New King James Version renders it this way: “Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ ”1

With an eagerness for someone to be baptized, it’s easy to fasten on that word “water” and deduce that baptism is a hard-and-fast requirement to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Let me say two things about that:

1. I’m all in favor of people who give their lives to Jesus to be baptized and filled with the Spirit.

2. The context of that one verse (John 3:5) gives a very different message.

Baptism in that day was the pathway for a Gentile to become a Jew. (John the Baptist had started to baptize both Gentiles and Jews, which was very radical at the time.) Nicodemus hadn’t been baptized. He didn’t need to be baptized. He was already a Jew, and a religious leader of the Jews.

When Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3, NLT),2 He challenged Nicodemus’ understanding that being born a Jew was all a person needed. Jesus explained that begin born a Jew wasn’t enough; he needed to be born again.

That’s when Nicodemus asked if he needed to literally enter his mother’s womb again in order to be born again. Jesus explained that being born of the Spirit is the way to be born again (see John 3:5).

It’s not hard to tell when a woman is pregnant. And it’s not hard for the woman to know when the birth will happen. Some people think contractions are the telltale sign the baby is about to be born. Actually, there’s a better indicator. It’s when a woman’s water breaks. That’s when the baby will be born.

That’s what Jesus meant when he said “born of water.” That’s physical birth. But physical birth isn’t enough to get a person into heaven, even if you’re a Jewish religious leader! You have to be born again—born of the Spirit.

 The New Living Translation puts that same conversation this way: “Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ ‘What do you mean?’ exclaimed Nicodemus. ‘How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, “You must be born again” ’ ” (John 3:3-7, NLT).

Can a person go to heaven without being baptized? Yes. Can a person go to heaven without being born again—born of the Spirit? No. Being born isn’t enough to get to you to heaven. You must be born again (born of the Spirit).

It’s possible to be baptized and not go to heaven. The only way to heaven is by Jesus, and being born again, born of the Spirit, is the evidence that you have Jesus. Baptism provides a wonderful symbol of commitment, if that’s your reality. I hope you make a full commitment to Jesus. I hope you “marry Jesus” and that you invite many people to your wedding ceremony (baptism). But your marriage to Jesus counts only if you have the Spirit. 

1 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Steve Case is a youth pastor, popular speaker, and mission trip leader. He’s also president of Involve Youth, in Sacramento, California. Got a spiritual question? Send it to: Pastor Steve •
INSIGHT, 55 W. Oak Ridge Dr., Hagers­town, MD 21740-7390. •

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