Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Do good people go to heaven?

When I was on a date in high school one night, I slid off a slippery road and got my car stuck in a muddy ditch. These were the days before cell phones (except for KITT on Knight Rider), and I wasn’t sure how I would get my car back on the road. Within minutes a guy came driving by on a tractor (thank God for growing up in the country), and asked if I needed help. He quickly pulled me out of the ditch and went on his way barely giving me time to say thanks. My car wasn’t damaged and a simple visit to the car wash concealed all evidence that I was driving too fast on a wet road. This experience and many others have taught me that there are a lot of good people in this world.

With so many good people in the world, I am faced with the question of whether or not good people go to heaven. Over the years I have encountered several well intentioned people who have insisted that they simply don’t need Jesus. Most of these people believe in God and believe that God will give them a fair shake when they meet him at the “Pearly Gates.” After all, think about how many country music songs talk about going to heaven with no mention of Jesus or the cross. ;-)

Perhaps, the harder question is, “do good people go to hell?” In Matthew 19 (also in Luke and Mark) we read a story about a rich young ruler coming to Jesus. The man asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to “obtain eternal life” (19:16). The man insisted that he had kept all the commandments of the Bible since his childhood (19:20) and reasoned that he must be good enough for heaven. Jesus told him that he only lacked one thing. If he would give up all of his possessions and follow Him, then he would be good enough for heaven. The man went away “grieving” (19:22). The encounter with Jesus seems to indicate that even attempting to follow the Bible isn’t enough to merit a ticket to heaven. Jesus told the man that he must follow Him in order to find eternal life.

Ultimately, the claim that I am good enough to get into heaven on my own is a denial of the work of Jesus on the cross. If we are capable of getting into heaven without personal faith in Christ, then Jesus didn’t have to die for us. He could have simply told us how to get to heaven through the back door. There is no back door (Matthew 22:10-14). Hours before Jesus went to the cross, he was confronted with the question of the necessity of the cross. He asked if there was another way to reconcile people to the Father and give them access to heaven. The answer Jesus received was that He must go to the cross if mankind were to have any hope of eternal life with God.

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Mathew 26:39

I must admit that it is not easy to come to Christ. Following Christ means acknowledging that I am flawed beyond the hope of repair on my own. I can’t read enough self help books to right my wrongs. I can’t find the answers by looking inside myself (contra Oprah). I can’t do enough good things to outweigh the bad in my life. My only chance for heaven is that God will be gracious and merciful.

The cross is the eternal nexus of God’s grace and mercy. Forgiveness, grace and mercy are found at the cross, if I will lay down my pride and begin following Christ. Good people do go to heaven - those who are good as a result of God's grace.

I say all of this with a great sense of humility. I do not pretend to have all the answers to the world’s problems. I only know that I once thought that I was good enough without Jesus. I have found that I am not as good as I thought I was. My only hope is the cross.

If you have experienced a time when you realized you simply weren’t good enough on your own for eternal life, please share your story with us.