Do good people go to heaven? Is being sincere enough?
Jesus clearly says in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me.” The claim he makes is that getting to “the father”, or heaven, is achieved not through being good but is somehow tied up with the person of Jesus.
The uncomfortable implication of this statement is that there are people living good lives, doing a whole lot of good things, who run the risk of missing out on the big reward – getting to live eternally with God in heaven. It sounds harsh. It sounds like a private members’ club: if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in. Can this really be the good news that Christians claim it to be?
There are a lot of good people who don’t have anything to do with Jesus and a lot of bad people who do things in his name. And why should a bunch of inconsistent Christians get the monopoly on going to heaven?
If there was a man or woman who was completely good, would they go to heaven? It would seem churlish of God to refuse entry to someone who’d managed to meet his requirements of 100% perfection. So does such a person exist? Do you know anyone who is good enough? Anyone perfectly sincere? Is it possible to be 100% good without knowing God, the author of all good things? If God created us, and made us in his image, the desire to do good, our sense of right and wrong, comes from him. Therefore embracing everything that is good must require us to embrace him.
The Bible contains story after story of people trying to do the right thing. Occasionally they succeed, but more often people screw up and then screw up again. In general God encourages people to be good but then has to pick them up when they fall, forgive them, and get them going again. Does this not sound a little familiar? The thing about life on this planet is that it’s complex – it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes we’d like it to: good on one side and bad on the other. Frustratingly we exist, for the most part, in the murky mess in between. Good people are perfectly capable of doing bad things; cruel, violent criminals are capable of acts of compassion. It is clearly possible to do good things for bad reasons and to do the wrong thing in spite of having the best intentions.
The great and the good, the bad and the ugly have all messed up. John, a disciple of Jesus, writes in the New Testament, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Paul adds in the book of Romans “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). None of us make the grade. Paul adds that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The consequence of us messing it up is that we don’t get to go to heaven. Each one of us, who lives, has lived and will live needs God’s pardon because we’ve all got it wrong and need sorting out.
The point of Jesus’ death was to give everyone an equal opportunity to get to heaven. Jesus, the only truly good person, qualifies for entry into God’s presence and offers each of us free, all-access, backstage passes to the biggest party ever. To get a ticket you just have to ask – none of us on our own can afford the entrance fee: living a life without putting a foot wrong. The harsh reality, which is difficult for us to swallow, is that being good is great but not good enough. Good people would go to heaven but there’s only ever been one person good enough – Jesus. He provides a way back to God, a way to heaven. When Jesus says he is “the way, the truth and the life”, this is his “way”.
Who are we to judge?
There’s a story in the gospels about a woman caught committing adultery. This was a big deal in first century Palestine; the sentence for guilt was death by stoning. Some Jewish religious leaders thought they’d challenge Jesus and expose some contradictions they saw in his teaching by asking him what they should do with the woman. It was a trap: if he had compassion and let the woman off, he’d be ignoring the law but if he upheld the law and had the woman stoned, it would contradict his message of mercy and forgiveness. In the midst of this context Jesus said to them, “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” None of the assembled religious teachers was up to the challenge and the crowd quickly disbanded. This left Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus, the only person qualified to throw the first stone, is also the only person qualified to forgive the woman. He tells her to “go and leave your life of sin.”
We love making judgements. Television shows like Big Brother are so successful because we can sit above the housemates and watch their highs, lows, loves and hates. We judge their motivations, expose their hypocrisy, laugh at their small-mindedness and generally feel superior to them as they play out their rivalries and relationships. We’re good at being judgemental – we can see through political spin and if one of our “celebrity heroes” steps out of line it’ll be all over the front pages of our papers. We love throwing stones. With morality we draw up our own scale from good to bad and place on it the people we know and the people we see on TV. But is it really our place to judge? Can we ever really know how good a person is? Is a bad person a good person who was damaged by someone else? Jesus is clear that we should not be judgemental: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way that you judge others, you will be judged.”
Do good people go to heaven? Does it matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere? We can speculate but ultimately it’s God’s call. He’s fair, he’s just and he’s merciful (Genesis 18:25). He never stops telling us how much he loves us. He tells us not to worry about the speck in someone else’s eye but to worry about the plank in our own. Will good people go to heaven? Maybe, maybe not. Who are we to say? All we can do is consider our own position.