Of those who believe in heaven, most people think they are deserving of it, but do good people go to heaven? Most people think of themselves as good people. They believe that they will find themselves in heaven one day because, compared to all the wicked people, like Hitler and Stalin, they have not murdered millions of people; that they try to do good, and not hurt anyone. But is this the barometer that God uses as a “ticket” to heaven? It may likely come as a surprise to many that it is not, at least not within Christian theology. In other words, if Christianity is true, then there is an entirely different way in which heaven becomes our “destination.”
Now first, let’s establish one thing – for there to be anything meaningful to say about moral laws and duties, we have to take a small step back. Imagine a culture whose populace is so wicked that a more “civilized” culture (by the popular understanding) looking inside, would think it to be pure evil. What are they doing? They are comparing the “evil” culture with their own, which would go to show the various levels of depravity. But nothing would prohibit the people within that “evil” culture to individually compare their deeds within the context of the acts solely within their culture, and think themselves to be relatively good. The problem, of course, is that when we make relativist comparisons, anyone can be relatively good or relatively evil. Within that framework, religion and goodness is mere preference. To be good within that reality, one would simply need to find others who are less “good.”
One of the issues is that God’s moral law is not relative; it is absolute, objective, fixed, and applies to everyone in the same manner. God is essentially the measuring stick by which moral actions can be evaluated objectively. Without this measuring stick, everyone can be relatively good and relatively evil, it just depends on others around them. In other words, it makes moral actions completely relative, which would be a big problem. So then, if God is the measuring stick, who is good enough to qualify for heaven? No one! No one is good enough, can ever be good enough, can ever earn such goodness so as to earn their way to heaven no matter how much of what we understand to be “good” deeds we do. This doctrine is one of the most important points revealed to us in the pages of Scripture – that no one is truly good. Here’s what the apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans:
“For ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) (emphasis added)
In Mark’s Gospel we find this:
“And he [Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
Notice how there is no mention of any “good deeds.” Faith seems to be the main criteria for salvation.
Unsurprisingly, at this point, some people might object. How is that fair? How’s it fair for God to create creatures whom He will, at the point of their death, send to hell, regardless of how much relative “good” lives they led or how much relative “goodness” they did? It would not be fair if we were without guilt, but we are, all of us. And then there’s this business about fairness. Fairness is determined by a promise of what is deserved or expected. If we are all honest with ourselves, we will presently come to the conclusion that no one deserves heaven. God has written his law on our hearts, but humanity has become magnificently efficient at silencing that voice. We all do this, some a lot more than others. When what we want to do is at odds with the law of God written on our hearts, we will find clever ways to silence the law, so that we allow ourselves a path to do what we desire to do. Everyone has sinned, but the internal witness of our depravity is easily stifled, and we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re much better people than we really are. Were we to find some silence and solitude for honest and humble introspection, we might be frightened at just how much evil resides in us. And our condition only gets worse. Though the wrongs we commit against others are immediately against those people, we need to be reminded that every sin we commit is not merely against other people, but ultimately against God, for He is the one who established the law, which is an earthly emanation of His holy nature. When we lie, slander, cheat, steal, we are not only injuring other people, but we are breaking the moral laws of God – an insult of the highest magnitude.
We think we want fairness, but if we actually got what we deserved? We would be in deep water. All of us have done many things in our lives that would be considered “evil” in the eyes of a holy and just God. We think we deserve a lot more than we actually do because we fail to see reality through the eyes of the one who created that reality.
What we really deserve is judgment, and we should be ever so thankful that there should be a way out of what we deserve because the Bible is clear that everyone who simply expects “fairness” will be judged by the justice that exacts that fairness,
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” (Romans 2:12)
Let’s look at the way David expressed his gratitude for not getting what he truly deserved:
“If You, Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)
In other words, if God were to jot down and “remember” every single wrongdoing, who would be able to stand before God? No one! But David goes on,
“But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait,
And in His word do I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord” (Psalm 130:4-6)
If no one qualifies for heaven, what then? Is there hope? Firstly, heaven will ultimately be a destination when God establishes His new creation, His eternal kingdom. For now, heaven is simply being in the presence of God after death. As the Scriptures tell us,
“Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight – we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) (emphasis added)
Aside from the nature of heaven, we are presented with a problem – how can sinful, depraved creatures be in communion with a holy God? Well, God has taken care of that too – to be in the presence of God, we must be justified. Since God is holy, He will not be in communion with sinful creatures who have walked away from his presence on earth to begin with. So God took it upon Himself to launch a rescue operation to open the hearts and minds of those who are open and willing to love Him, to be with Him for all of eternity – and this is the primary appeal of Heaven – to be with the essence of pure Joy for eternity. Those who do not want God in this short life will hardly want Him for all of eternity. And God is too respectful of our wills that He will not be dragging anyone into His presence for all of eternity as they are kicking and screaming to be let go. C.S. Lewis put it best,
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)
God has given us the free will to refuse Him, because it is through this free will that many will also love Him, and this is the only way into His presence.
God, knowing the state of humanity, took it upon himself to prepare a way through which people might be saved from hell, and enter into His presence for eternity. The most stunning thing about it all is that God reaches out to us with His amazing love by sacrificing His Son on the cross… in spite and in the midst of our rebellion. You see, in more ancient days (Old Testament times), a spotless sacrifice (most appropriately a lamb) was required to be made by a priest to wash away sins. When Jesus enters world history, He enters it with God’s plan of being that perfect sacrifice for all of humanity, once and for all. This is why Jesus Christ is known as the High Priest (Hebrews 2:17 among many others) and the Lamb of God (John 1:29 among others) – He both prepares the sacrifice, and He is the sacrifice. He died for all of our sins to reconcile us to the triune God.
It is not necessarily a difficult thing to understand, but if you’ve never thought about this before, you’re not alone; even the religious leaders of Israel during the life of Jesus did not comprehend this. Consider Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus shortly before his crucifixion,
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these [a]signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born [b]again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus *said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born [c]again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever [d]believes will in Him have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His [e]only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the [f]only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”” (John 3:1-21)
Notice how Jesus makes no mention of any “good deeds” or “good people.” The primary emphasis of his teaching is that people must believe in him. So there are no good people in the presence of God, there are only redeemed people. Heaven is a place of battered hearts who have accepted the healing that God’s love has granted. Remember that though humanity has spit in His face many times, God continually attempts to reach us through his love, and draw people into His presence:
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
This is the greatest love imaginable! When Jesus died for all of us, He paid the price for all of our sins. Therefore, the only way to find ourselves in God’s presence after we die is not through any works, or by pretending to be perfect, or by carrying out any meaningless religious rituals, or by presenting any other offering to God. All of those things are utterly meaningless in and of themselves! No salvation can be found in those pursuits. The only way to find ourselves in the presence of God after death is by simply believing in Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, turning away (as best as we can) from our sins, and following Jesus and His teachings. The Holy Spirit will thus work in you, slowly changing you inside and out. We will never be perfect; we can’t be, but we will find our wants and needs gradually changing into the kinds of things that are increasingly more valuable within God’s economy. This is how God’s love changes people.
Before we consider what God offers us, let us first look at what God does NOT offer us. God does NOT offer us a life of comfort, freedom, health, wealth, or any other thing to which humans typically aspire – this is clearly communicated within the pages of Scripture. Almost none of God’s people throughout the ages have had any of those things. No one gets any of those things though prayer – God is not a vending machine. What God promises those who love Him is a peace that surpasses all human comprehension, not apart from any difficulty, but through our pain, suffering, sorrows and disappointments. As the apostle, Paul tells us we are to be conquerors of those difficulties, not people who will be spared the troubles,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35,37-39)
God gives us the strength to carry on, looking forward to our ultimate destination. It’s also comforting to keep in mind that Jesus is the second Person of the triune God – in other words, Jesus is both human and God. His Godhood can be seen all throughout the Scriptures, reaching its crescendo at His resurrection from the dead. His humanity can be seen in that Jesus often divested Himself of his prerogative of power to feel what we feel. Since He felt pain and suffering, He can come to our aid at all times with full understanding of our pains and sorrows,
“For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” (Romans 2:18)
We may still aspire to comfort, freedom, health, wealth, but we have to understand that those things are utterly meaningless in the end. Whatever material and physical goods are in view, in the end, they are of little value. The most expensive substances in God’s economy are humility, repentance, and love – this is the only way to find ourselves in God’s presence after we die.
We cannot earn heaven. It is given as a free gift from God to those who believe Him, love Him and follow Him. There are no other means available to us to find our way to God apart from the cross of Christ. So how can one start that journey to heaven? It’s quite simple really, so simple that it is almost too good to be true. All that is needed is a simple prayer in your own words to God genuinely recognizing yourself to be a sinner, asking for forgiveness and accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. That’s all. Once one humbles oneself under God’s Love and salvation, one shall find oneself immediately as a child of God. The most immersive truth in all of the world is that one should find the most expensive of gifts on one’s lap, wrapped with nothing but a simple prayer. The cross is our gift and the only path to heaven.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.