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".