It is not unusual for people remembering loved ones who have just passed to talk about how good they were. After each tragic mass shooting, reporters on the scene interview people who knew the victims. Always they talk about some aspect of their goodness.
I recall a conversation I had once with a person who talked about his grandmother and how he was convinced she was in heaven because of how good she was. He couldn’t imagine her in hell. I think that is true of most of us. We find it hard to fathom that good people go to hell. Yet, as followers of Jesus, we have to acknowledge this as a distinct possibility. If we think it is not, then we have to realize we are making the Cross and Jesus’ death on it meaningless.
Every organized religion apart from Christianity believes that humans earn their way to heaven, nirvana, or the opportunity to be reincarnated. Muslims have their heavenly scales which compare a person’s good deeds and bad. If good deeds outweigh the bad, then they are destined for heaven. If not, then to hell. Jews believe similarly, that a heavenly destination depends on the good works one does on earth. And Hindus see reincarnation as the way they work their way up higher and higher to successive spiritual realms.
Jesus taught something radically different: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NIV) The way to heaven is not based on what we’ve done, but on what he has done. As the Apostle Paul makes clear:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)
Time and time again throughout the New Testament, we are told it is God’s mercy and grace by which we are saved rather than by what we do. We are told we should do good works (Ephesians 2:10), but those works don’t earn us a ticket to heaven, but rather are to reflect our commitment and devotion to Christ.
So why are we so bent toward believing being good should earn us entrance into heaven? I wonder if it isn’t our pride. Much like the young child who resists a parent’s help because, “I want to do it myself,” we don’t want, nor think we need, God’s help. We want to earn it ourselves. We want to prove how good we are. Countless times I have talked with people who think they are good and that God will let them go to heaven based on that fact. I sometimes ask, “Good compared to what?” Usually, it is other people. They see themselves as living better lives; thus, they’ve earned God’s consideration. It is as though they expect God at the “pearly gates” to have as his standard the mean of all human behavior. Be better than the average and you get in.
Yet, that is not his standard; this is: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48 NIV) We most often set the bar low, judging ourselves against people we know whose lives paint us in a favorable light in comparison. His standard, however, is much, much higher—perfection. And that is a bar so high that none of us can clear it. There is then only one option: Acknowledge we cannot meet the standard and humbly submit ourselves to the one who can.
Jesus dying on the Cross made it possible for each of us to meet the standard of perfection, not by our efforts, but as a result of his. Eternity is ours only if we are willing to cease our striving to earn it and accept our absolute dependence on him to receive it. Otherwise, the Cross and the Resurrection are meaningless.
© Jim Musser 2019