“People are basically good,” writes one poet. “It is only their behavior that lets them down.”
It is remarkable today that despite religion, creed, or practice, many believe they are good enough to get into heaven. Perhaps there is so much bad news about others that they conclude by comparison they are superior, and thus, deserving of a place in eternity. But then it is even more remarkable that when Christians claim they know they are going to heaven, they are regarded as being conceited, boastful, and arrogant. People immediately ask: How can they think that they are better than everyone else?
The fact that the same person can think of himself as superior to others, while at the same time criticizing Christians for arrogance, underlines one of the effects of living in a world comfortable with inconsistency. Though the contradiction is frustrating, we all need to be able to respond coherently to the questions at hand: Why can’t I just be a good person? Isn’t it unfair of God to say that you can’t get into heaven unless you believe, even though you have been a good person? Who does God think He is?
Jesus was once asked a similar question by a group of inquirers: “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6:28). Interestingly, the question was posed in plural form; it seems they were looking for a list of good things to do. But Jesus replied in the singular, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one God has sent” (6:29).
Of course, in the minds of those who feel they have lived a good life, Christ’s answer will not go unchallenged. What makes belief so special? Surely what we do is far more important than what we believe. How can a good person, who is not a Christian, be denied access to eternal life on the basis of belief?
The difficulty here lies in the assumption that is being made in each of these questions—namely, that there is such a thing as a good person. Jesus again offers further clarification in the form of question and answer. He was once asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). The theory of the questioner was clear: Jesus is a good person; good people inherit eternal life, so what must I do to be in the same group? But Jesus’s reply was surprising. “Why do you call me good?” he asked (18:19). He then answered his own question: “No one is good—except God alone.”
The simple truth is that the issue is not about good people not inheriting eternity. Alas, the problem is much worse! Jesus seems to define goodness in terms of being like God, and on that basis there are no good people anywhere. Thus, the real question is not about who is good enough to get in to heaven. The real question is how God makes it possible for anyone to know and follow and be transformed by an eternal God at all. The answer is that we need to be forgiven, and that forgiveness is won for us through the Cross.(1)
In fact, this is precisely why the Gospel is called Good News, and why Christians do well to declare it. The good news is that knowing and following God is first and foremost about forgiveness. And thus, the Christian testimony is, in fact, far from arrogant! If a Christian is sure that he is forgiven it is not because he is good, but because he has received that forgiveness by believing in Christ.
In other words, if we will trust in and rely on Jesus—his promises, his person, his life, death, and resurrection—we can be sure that we are saved and living in his presence. Christians are not good people because they live morally superior lives to everyone else. They have been made “good” in God’s eyes because Christ has made forgiveness possible—because Christ has extended his own righteousness to those who will believe.
Good people will certainly inherit eternal life. However, the path to real and eternal life today lies not in religious observances or respectable acts, but in the forgiveness of a good God, given to us through the Cross of Christ.
Michael Ramsden is European director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in the United Kingdom.
(1) For further reading on this subject, I recommend The Cross of Christ by John Stott.