Why is it that being a "good person" will not get you into heaven?
Let's start with this call yesterday. Many of you heard the call. I think his name was Charles. The important thing is that Charles raised an objection based on the observation of an absurd circumstance it seems could obtain if Christian theology about forgiveness is actually true. The Christian theology is that anyone can get forgiven if they believe in Jesus, but if they don't believe in Jesus they're not forgiven at all.
Often times when this issue comes up, the question of forgiveness isn't discussed too much. The notion of forgiveness is collapsed into another kind of statement that I think Christians are guilty of saying by itself, and it creates confusion as a result. The more bleak way of saying it is, if a Hitler believes in Jesus, then he goes to heaven, and if a Mother Teresa doesn't believe in Jesus, then she goes to hell. (Apparently she does and apparently he didn't, so this is hypothetical. But according to Christian theology, that's the way it would be.) It just seems absurd that someone like Hitler, as evil as he was, could be admitted into God's holy heaven, and unconscionable that someone like Mother Teresa could be condemned to hell.
Jesus is not a wrinkle in theology. Jesus is an antidote to a deadly disease.
The reason people raise this question is because Christians have not been careful in how they've explained their faith. They've not been careful to communicate what's going on here and why belief in Jesus is the pivotal factor. It's because belief in Jesus solved a problem. The problem itself is what condemns people to hell, and if He doesn't solve the problem then the problem doesn't get solved. He's the only one capable of dealing with it.
Think of it like sickness. People with cancer die unless they get a doctor. And if they get the right doctor, with the right medicine, they can be rescued. But only if they get the right medicine. So, it's not just an incidental detail of theology: Well, if you just happen to believe in Jesus, you go to heaven. Lucky you. But if you just happen to think He's not worth believing in for whatever reason-maybe you don't like Him, maybe you like another religion better-you just happen to reject Him. In other words, you get one wrinkle of theology mistaken and God gets so mad at you that He sends you to hell forever. Put in those terms, it sounds rather ridiculous because Christians haven't been careful to explain what exactly is going on here.
So I tried to back up a little bit and explain it to Charles yesterday, to make it more clear to him. I don't think he called interested in getting a clear answer, to be honest with you. I think he had formed his opinion already and was making a statement and trying to make Christianity seem as ridiculous as possible. But, in any event, I gave an answer yesterday and I'm going to articulate it a little bit more clearly now.
Here's the way it works: Jesus is not a wrinkle in theology. Jesus is an antidote to a deadly disease. Some people have the symptoms of the disease more obviously or in a greater manner than others. But everybody is sick. The sickness, the Bible says, is sin. The manifestation (or the symptom) of the disease is evil behavior.
The proper way of looking at this is not as a wrinkle in theology, but seeing mankind as desperately ill.
Some people have more symptoms than other people. They have much more evil behavior symptomatic of their sinful condition. Hitler was one of those. Jonas Salk, on the other hand, though a sinner, didn't have the same symptoms that Hitler had. He had fewer symptoms. In fact, he did great good for everyone. But the fact is, even though he did good, it didn't nullify his sin. The good that he does isn't a medicine that cures his sickness. It's just behavior that happens to avoid the sickness for a period of time. It's like some people who have a disease, and in having that disease, their bodies deteriorate and they turn into irascible people because they're in pain. And others not.
I was watching A&E yesterday. Annette Funicello has MS. What a stunning thing. Yet here is a woman who glows so powerfully in the midst of this awful sickness that you can hardly tell she is withering as the sickness takes hold of her body. So here two people can have the same disease but some display the symptoms of the disease more aggressively than others. Some seem to weather the disease with a smile and with goodness coming out of them in spite of the disease. But note that the goodness they do doesn't cure the disease. It just seems to delay, or set aside for the time being, the symptoms or the adverse affects. But eventually the disease kills everyone. Unless...
The proper way of looking at this is not as a wrinkle in theology, but seeing mankind as desperately ill, deathly ill with a disease that will kill everyone. The disease manifests itself differently in different people such that some have more egregious symptoms of it, and some less. In fact, some seem to have almost no (from our perspective) symptoms at all and instead have what appear to be symptoms of moral health, not moral decay. But every single person, in spite of appearances, is still deathly ill. The goodness that they manifest morally at some occasions before us has value, but it's not enough to heal the sickness. Sooner or later, the sickness will get everyone, unless they have the antidote.
What is the antidote? The antidote is forgiveness. It's available to everyone from the very One whom we have offended--God Himself. He offers forgiveness to the great and the small, to those who are the greatest sinners and the least sinners, the ones who have the most manifestation of the symptoms of their moral sickness and the ones that have the least manifestations of their moral sickness. God says, in fact, You are all deathly sick and here is the antidote, my Son Jesus who I have given to you. Now you have a choice. Take the medicine or don't.
Some seem to think it's unreasonable of God to heal some who are especially sick, and others who don't seem to be sick at all, not to heal them. My response is, God gives the offer to all. The fact is, some with the most bizarre manifestations of the symptoms of their moral sickness (because of the nature of the symptoms) are more ready to accept the antidote because they know they are dying. The symptoms of their disease are overwhelming them.
That's why someone who is an egregious sinner might be more likely to acknowledge his need. That's why Jesus said, I've come to heal the sick, not the healthy. A physician comes to heal the sick. I've come to call sinners, not the righteous. That's why the whores, the tax gatherers (extortionists), the scum of the earth will make it into the kingdom before you will. . . pointing at the self-righteous religious leadership. Why? Because the self-righteous religious leadership was looking at their own symptoms of sickness and they'd say, This ain't so bad. Yet, the others looked at their lives and were consumed with the symptoms of their moral decay and they said, God help me!
Those who say God help me get God's help. Those who say I can do it on my own don't get God's help. That's the long and short of it.
You see, it's nothing bizarre from God's perspective because the offer goes out to everyone. It's made to each individual who is dying of this desperate disease. Some who have greater symptoms see the wisdom in receiving the antidote, which is forgiveness in Christ. Those who don't think that maybe they can get by just eating health food and exercising a lot. But it's not going to happen.
The antidote to the deadly disease is available to each
and every person. It's up to us to accept it or not.
The fact is, everyone owes God. Some owe a little, some owe a lot. But everyone owes God because of the sin they've committed. God is willing to offer amnesty to every single one. That's the greatness of His mercy. That's the fullness of His mercy. This does not speak of a bizarre and unrighteous God. It speaks of a God who is abundant in mercy, who can save--as Paul said--even the greatest of all sinners. If He is capable of saving the greatest of sinners, then He can save all the pedestrian sinners like you and me.
That's the answer to the question. The offer of forgiveness goes out to everyone. The antidote to the deadly disease is available to each and every person. It's up to us to accept it or not. If we don't, we perish, not because of God but because of us. If we do accept it, we don't perish, we live forever, not because of us but because of God and His mercy.
This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show "Stand to Reason," with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©1995 Gregory Koukl