A common misconception among non-Christians which frequently shows up in the popular media and here on Everything is that Christianity can be summed up as "good people go to Heaven, bad people go to Hell." This perception is not only incorrect, it's actually in fundamental opposition to what Christians really do believe.

If it were true that going about doing good deeds gets one into Heaven (or to be more accurate, makes one an heir to God's kingdom), then human beings would be perfectly capable of saving themselves. In this scenario, God is actually compelled to recognize that the do-gooder is, by virtue of his deeds, entitled to a place in Heaven. God Himself is not strictly necessary unless you also include the proposition that true goodness can only be accomplished with God's help.

But the real point of conflict here is that if we can attain salvation under our own power, Jesus Christ is not necessary. The whole Christian story revolves around the fact that God sent Christ because we need him; specifically, what was most needed was not simply teaching and guidance, but for God to come down and live among us as one of us, sharing our life, our suffering, and finally our death. Thus, as the hymn says, are "God and sinners reconciled". Human self-improvement always breaks down along the way. Only through the grace of God can we attain an undeserved salvation.

"Undeserved" sounds harsh, but it is only meant as a recognition of a fundamental truth -- that when you say that only good people should be allowed into the clubhouse, you have to be prepared to answer the perfectly reasonable question, "How good is good enough?" (Or of course there's the flip side of the issue, "How bad can I be and still get in?") The only answer that makes any sense if the possibility of divine forgiveness is left out of the equation is, "You must be perfect." Anyone who's spent any significant amount of time in this world knows that isn't the case for us poor humans. Some other way than weighing us solely on our merits is needed; we believe that way is in Christ.

I'm not going to use this space to address the issue of good people who are ignorant of the Gospel, or people who have made a genuine effort to believe and find that they in good conscience cannot -- my only goal is to refute a popularly-held belief that leads to the odd spectacle of, for instance, television shows having "Christian" characters who never talk about Jesus. I'll just say briefly that I believe that the person who is in charge of that whole who-goes-where department will ultimately and invariably do what is right, acting with perfect justice and mercy and with a full and complete understanding of our human doubts, frailties, and limitations.

All of the above, I should say, is an update to the original content of this node which I leave intact below since it is this that moJoe and others are responding to. I suppose the essence of the argument is the same, but I felt that a mere recitation of the reasoning behind the doctrine of substitutionary atonement didn't fully convey what I was getting at. Also, the specifics of how we are saved by the Cross is not strictly essential to us; what is essential is that we are saved by the Cross, and not a program of "good" behavior.

  1. God is good - unimaginably, absolutely, sometimes terrifyingly good.
  2. Created in God's image and therefore possessing free will, human beings chose to turn away from God. As a result we are pretty much completely screwed up - we no longer live in harmony with him, with Creation, or with each other, and are prey to sin and death.
  3. So God put into motion a plan to bring us back to him. For starts, he set aside the Hebrews as his chosen people and gave them the Law - a long list of divine dos and don'ts.
  4. At this point you might think that's enough - just follow the rules and you'll be okay, right? But how good is good enough? Just pick up the newspaper to see how well we do in following the moral law, bearing in mind that these are only the failures considered spectacular enough to make the news. Then there are the small injustices and offenses we endlessly perpetrate against each other in daily life. Finally, there are the evils that never make it out of people's heads but are there just the same; if Hitler had never come to power but still spent his life rabidly hating everyone who wasn't just like him, would that make him a good person just because he never acted on his hate? And that's an extreme example - we all have negative thoughts about others that aren't justified, and that eat away at our souls like a cancer. Again: we're just too screwed up to live a perfect life.
  5. And heaven requires perfection.
  6. So obviously we need a means through which our sins can be forgiven and we can be reconciled with God again.
  7. Remember, though - God is good. He can't just ignore evil. If you aren't going to pay for what you've done wrong, someone else has to take on that burden. In the Old Testament God keeps hinting that someone is going to come along someday who will do just that.
  8. Here's where that John 3:16 thing you always hear Christians talking about comes in. They believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die for our sins.
  9. Getting into heaven therefore involves: repentance (meaning to turn your mind away from your old ways and toward God), believing that Christ died for you, and giving your life over to him. Though you will still struggle with sin along the way (probably to a greater degree than you ever did before, since you are more aware of it), you have been marked as Christ's and are no longer a slave to its power. The more you allow Christ's nature to become your own the more good you will do; and that, really, is the proper order of things.

(Since I wrote the above, a healthy debate has arisen over the issue of faith versus works. This is all well and good, but I don't think either position contradicts what I say in this writeup; the question before us is, "Does redemption come from our own efforts, or from the Cross?", and Scripture answers unequivocally for the Cross.)

Interested parties may follow this debate to its next node, Revenge of "Christians Don't Believe".

This is where the issue gets quite sticky for me. Obviously there is the entire "No proof" thing, we will skip that. We will assume that there was a being, all powerful and all knowing and omnipresent who can empathize with every human emotion and is completely plugged in and in touch with not only us but every vibration, every sound, every thought and every person place and thing in all the known and unknown universe for trillions upon trillions of light years in every direction. Now please understand that I'm not being sarcastic here nor am I trying to make this somehow sound impossible or even improbable, I am trying to say that if indeed God is real and is omnipotent, this is what it means. He would know everything in all the vastness of space and be aware and possibly even contemplative of absolutely everything; even in four dimentions (time) and beyond. He would know infinite love and if not know, at least create the possibility of and potential for, within the conceptual vastness of his being, infinite hate as well.

On one hand we have, for instance, the man who created the homepage godhatesfags.com, Pastor Fred Phelps. An extreme case, I loathe to even associate him with you, but for argument sake humor me. He is, after all, a Christian. He has without ANY doubt accepted Jesus as his savior. He is misguided and a complete sociopath, but he has accepted Jesus.

Now on the other hand we could have quite a few different people, and depending on what faith you belong to, some of these people will not cut the mustard.
  • A man whom has grown up deep in the jungles of the Phillippine islands and has never once in his life laid eyes on a white man. He has no idea Jesus even exists and yet still lives a decent life by anyones standards. I once asked a Christian fellow his take on it. He said, "Ignorance is no excuse, of course he will go to Hell". Uhh...
  • A person who lives a pious life but decides that Jesus isn't for them. Perhaps they were raised as a Hindu. They have faith. They have faith in what their loved ones taught them. They want to be good. Or Perhaps they just can't believe in something and have no faith at all. But no Jesus, so many say its off to hell with the lot of them.
  • Now how about a Christian. Donates to the plate, goes to study group, loves Jesus with all his heart. Problem is, he finds himself sexually attracted to other men. He not only commits this mortal sin, but feels no remorse for it. It says right in the bible that this is wrong. He is at peace with himself and just cannot see it as wrong. Does he go to H-E-double-hocky-sticks? Fred Phelps says God not only is going to send him to hell but laugh gleefully as he twists in agony. God hates him. Does he?

I am not gay and even that being the case, nothing about homosexuality bothers me one bit. What does where you stick your dick have anything to do with the condition of your soul? It can! But does it always? Everything is conditional and relative...blahblahblahblahblah.

If you could feel see and hear the vibration of an atom 43 trillion light years away. If your existance dwarfed the very universe by way of trancending the mere physical, would you be THAT petty? I am a human being and I have more forgiveness. I belive in educating and listening to people when they have done wrong. I belive in empathy. Would god not be infinite empathy? Would God honestly be able to "experience" the lives of every living creature in the universe simultaneously through out all of time and not be able to plainly see that a man who believes in an obscure panthanon of primitive gods and wears a loin cloth, yet loves his children and his neighbors, lives within the spirit of the infinite goodness of the lord through his ignorance and consequently his innocence more than a man like Pastor Fred Phelps could ever hope to?

Makes sense to me.

(heheh, sorry, here we go again? :P(I told you I couldn't pass up a good argument))

There are some Christians who believe that "being good" will get you into Heaven/get you salvation: the post-Vatican II Roman Catholics (who make up the majority of Catholics in the US if not the world). From a priest himself, I heard that they believe that all other religions have at least a portion of truth, and thus have just as good of a chance at Heaven as people who believe in Jesus and the Christian God. Which basically means you don't have to believe in Jesus or God to get into Heaven.
I can't possibly imagine a higher power being that stupid... but if it is, I'd rather rot in hell along with the rest of my atheist, agnostic, deist, and Hindu friends than worship such a monstrosity.

What you're missing, moJoe, is that we have free will. God does have infinite empathy--but we have an infinite, God-given right to reject that empathy. The best exposition of this idea is in The Great Divorce by C S Lewis. It's a series of dialogues between a bunch of damned people and their saved friends. All the damned people have to do to be saved is walk to heaven--but they won't. The saved people try desperately to convince their friends to leave Hell behind, but most of the damned people decide that Hell is more attractive for various reasons.

The whole point of human spirituality is to come to a closer relationship with God. Since each person's relationship with God is somewhat different, each person is going to have to do somewhat different things to further it. That's why "being a nice guy" doesn't necessarily cut it. If being a nice guy doesn't bring you closer to God, it won't get you closer to heaven. On the other hand, being an asshole (or whatever) doesn't definitively cut you off from God either. To paraphrase the Pope, there must be a Hell, but nobody has to be in it. If humans have ultimate freedom, then we must have the right to choose our own destiny, to be with God or not. But whether anyone chooses to abandon God is all about them, not about God. Furthermore, the decision to abandon, or not abandon, God is such a personal one that it's generally better to refrain from guessing about the state of other people's souls.

Update: Baptism by desire was traditionally applied to people who died during the preparatory period before baptism, not to people who were part of different religions. The Catholic Church still says that there is "no salvation outside the Church," but it doesn't clearly say what you have to do to be in the Church. I spent 6 months researching the topic for my MA thesis in Catholic theology. Vatican II presents three different descriptions of "membership in the Church" without either endorsing or rejecting any of them. It also makes a rather confusing distinction between the Church and the people of God that meant different things to different people, even at the time it was written. It's safe to say that the Catholic Church doesn't have an official teaching on this subject at the moment.

The Catholic/Lutheran agreement is only tangentially related, since the question of justification by faith or works is separate from the question of how those works and/or faith are recognized.

I think the "savage" question is the most interesting. I was talking to a Christian about that, mentioning all of the Native Americans who were living in America before any Christians got there. I asked if they could get to heaven if they were basically good people. Some of his comments:
- they would've had to follow the Bible to the 't'. I pointed out that some of the Bible's rules seem strange and arbitrary, and how would such a person ever know what actions were sinful

- the person would have to accept Jesus Christ as his personal lord/savior/favorite soft drink. I asked how the person could possibly know, and he said that Jesus would appear to him(i.e. a one-on-one with God). I asked him if he, or anyone else he knew, had become a Christian in this fashion - nope.
- I also asked how such a person could ever do something like get married and have sex morally, since no Christian minister would be there to do a proper marriage. he had no answer for this

My guess is that on questions like this, and like what happens to an aborted fetus, or a baby that dies stillborn, is that the real, original belief was that they go to hell. However, at some point the people in charge realized that to most normal people such a belief is revolting, and makes God look like a real jerk, so now the religion has been dressed up to look nicer.

To clear up a few points: in Roman Catholicism, there is a prevailing belief that: without being baptized, a person cannot go to heaven. Or as some would put it: "there is no salvation outside the Church".

However, there is such a thing called a "baptism of desire." So that while a person is not formally baptized (because he/she belongs to another religion, is an fervent atheist/agnostic or whatever), he/she can be implicitly baptized, and thus a member of the Church.

How does one become implicitly baptized? By following the natural law as much as one can given one's limited understanding of it. What is the natural law? It can be summed up by the Ten Commandments or alternately the two principles of moral action: "Love God above all." and "Love your neighbors as yourself." Thus, if one follows the golden rule, one can attain heaven

Finally, the Catholic Church recognizes that the Holy Spirit is present in all religions of the world (with the possible exception of satanic and similar cults). However, only Christianity received the fullness of revelation (and thus considers all other religions flawed in one way or another).

Salvation by faith alone is a characteristic of the Protestant brand of Christianity. See also Martin Luther.

update: May 13, 2000 Let me just quote som relevant stuff from the Catechism (1992 edition):

"1260 'Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.' Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity."

Also, regarding the fate of unbaptized children: "1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,'allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism."

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian: this is what I understood from religion classes. Corrections in matters of doctrine are welcome.

Actually, the Roman Catholic Church just recently changed their stance on the whole thing... well, partially. Let me pull out my copy of The Pilot, America's Oldest Catholic Newspaper...

Ah, yes, here it is... November 5, 1999 issue. Front page headline:

Catholic-Lutheran agreement hailed as milestone

"A key dispute duing the Protestant Reformation was whether believers were justified and saved through grace alone or whether salvation required a combination of grace and good works.

"The Catholic-Lutheran agreement states that justification comes through faith alone, but that good works are an essential sign of true faith."

For some reason, I find this article very funny. Perhaps it's because there's a picture of the president of the "World Lutheran Federation" and the president of the "Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity" signing some documents, and it looks very much the signing of the Middle East peace treaties. Then there are some quotes from the article:

"Wherever Lutherans and Roman Catholics live together, let the world know that they are not enemies, but sisters and brothers."

"If on the day of judgment I have nothing else to present to the Lord when we asks me, 'Did you do anything good during your life?' I can say I signed the joint declaration."

I think that if I'm outside the gates of heaven, and the only thing good I can say about myself is that I signed a piece of paper, I'm in deep, deep trouble.

"God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion . . . One may eat a cake with icing either straight or sidewise. It will taste sweet either way."

I think it's important here that people realize that most christians know that believing in Jesus is definitely not what gets you into heaven either. The thing is, in the Bible, it doesn't say what happens to babies who die and cannot understand, or to people who have never been introduced.

On the subject of "Pastor" Fred Phelps. He obviously doesn't get his information from the bible. It does not say anywhere that God hates homosexuals. In fact, it says he loves them. Not that I'm comparing them, God loves thieves, murderers and rapists. And he hates to see them burn in hell.
I guess I'll throw in the Mormon perspective on this issue, since some people consider us Christian. The LDS are very devoted to the "faith without works is dead" mantra. They also adhere strictly to Mormonism being the only true Church, and the necessity of Baptism into that Church.

This is a bit of a problem. We don't want to go around sending Hindus, "savages", people born after the apostles but before Joseph Smith, babies, the mentally handicapped or people who have an uncontrollable fear of being dunked under water to Hell, now do we? So, to reconcile this problem the doctrine of Baptism for the Dead was used. You still need to be baptised into the Church, but it's ok for someone to do it in proxy for you after you die. So, if you're one of those unlucky ones to never join the Church you will be judged by God based on your own knowledge of right and wrong. Well, as far as judgement goes, I really don't know what God will do. I'll do a separate write-up on Baptism for the Dead sometime. For now, it suffices to say that Mormons don't condemn everyone else in the world to hell.

Some clarification on the "works" stuff. We believe that Jesus Christ saved everyone from physical death. He basically gave you immortallity. This can be a good or bad thing though. Christ will also make up for all the mistakes we make in our lives. This doesn't mean we get a free ticket for believing in him though. In the end He will make a judgement of how well you did in your life given how much you understood of the Gospel. So, you can be a lunatic and commit horrible atrocities but still do ok, or you can live a perfect life 99% of the time and screw up big time and not fare so well.

So, worry not all you Catholics, anti-theists and Pagans, there is still a chance!

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