Is Being Good Enough to Get to Heaven?
Some time ago, I had an in-depth discussion with a college student about the morality of hell. Even though I provided every philosophical and theological justification I could muster, he simply couldn’t accept that a loving and just God would send anyone to hell.
After about an hour of conversation, it finally dawned on me. His primary problem was that he believed in the essential goodness of mankind. From his perspective, hell seemed like total overkill for basically good people who commit a few small indiscretions.
In one sense, he’s right. If hell were the consequence for small missteps, it would seem remarkably unjust. However, in The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis has rightly observed, “When we say that we are bad, the ‘wrath’ of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God’s goodness.”
Human Nature in the Bible
The Bible has a very stark view of human nature (Ps. 14:3; Rom 7:18; Titus 1:15; Mark 7:20-23). While human beings are the most valuable creation of a loving God, we have utterly rebelled against our Creator. We are deeply affected by sin. In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem explains:
“It is not just that some parts of us are sinful and others are pure. Rather, every part of our being is affected by sin—our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts (the center of our desires and decision-making processes), our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies.”
Thus, from a biblical perspective, God doesn’t send good people to hell; there is no such thing as a good person. And that includes you and me.
Human Nature in History
This depiction of human nature can be confirmed by looking at the history of humanity. My colleague Clay Jones has spent decades studying the problem of evil. He closely examined the evil perpetrated in the twentieth century by Nazis in Germany, communists in Russia, China, and Cambodia, the Japanese in World War II, and other nations including Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Sudan, and the United States. After immersing himself in these human tragedies, Jones concluded:
One day I was reading The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, in the course of reading about one sickening rape or torture or murder after another, suddenly I was struck by the fact that horrendous evil is human and that most books on theodicy didn’t go far enough. Those who do genocide are not inhuman monsters—they’re all too human. They are precisely human. Genocide is what the race of Adam does.
Human fallenness makes the gospel powerful: we can only appreciate the extent of the work of Christ when we understand the evil and corruption we and the world truly contain. This does not mean unbelievers cannot do some good in society—of course they can! However, sin has separated us so deeply from God that we have no power to save ourselves apart from God’s grace (Eph. 2:1, 2).
Why Jesus Came
This is why Jesus came, and this is ultimately what we are celebrating this Christmas season. Although Jesus was (and is) fully God, he humbled himself to take on human flesh (Phil. 2:5–7) and experience the death that humans deserve. As a result, we can experience forgiveness for our sins and come to know God personally (John 17:1–5). Jesus explains:
“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
So, is it enough to be a “good” person? It’s true that many people may live outwardly good lives, but for Jesus evil is a matter of the heart. According to Jesus no one is good (Mark 10:18). Anyone who honestly reflects upon his life, and sincerely probes his heart, knows that this is true. Our only hope is found in Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).
*This article was adapted from the updated and expanded Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.