Do Good People Go to Heaven?

By James M. Rochford

Despite the incredible advances in modern medicine, we still haven’t been able to change the fact that the mortality rate for humans is still 100 percent. The old maxim is still true for the human race: none of us are getting out of here alive. While some of us will live for a century and others for only a decade, our final outcome is the same no matter who we are: death.

But is there something after death?

Most people today believe in life after death in one form or another, but they haven’t thought about what this will be like. Isn’t that odd? We might spend 70 years on Earth, but we’ll spend eternity someplace else. If life after death exists, wouldn’t it be worth figuring out what this will be like? Many smart, educated, and accomplished people from all over the world are banking their eternities on the theory that we simply need to be good people in order for God to accept us into heaven. They assume that we can’t know about what happens in the afterlife until we die, so we might as well just try to be good people and hope that this is good enough.

But as odd as it might sound, the Bible nowhere teaches this theory.

This might be surprising to read—especially for those who might have grown up going to church, but it’s true. The Bible nowhere teaches that we can earn eternal life through trying to be a good person. Instead, the Bible teaches that we are fully forgiven for all past, present, and future sins at the moment we invite Christ into our hearts. We cannot earn salvation in any way; instead, God freely gives us salvation as a gift that we can accept only by faith in Christ. Let’s consider the biblical teaching on this subject.

God’s standard is perfection

The Bible repeatedly teaches that we cannot earn salvation, because God’s standard for us is absolute moral perfection. Jesus said, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). Of course, the scribes and the Pharisees were the most moral people in Jesus’ day, and he says that even they were not good enough for God. He also said, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Imagine that! We cannot just be “good enough” for God. Instead, he demands that we are perfect.

The rest of the New Testament authors agree on this point. James writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). And Paul writes, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them’” (Gal. 3:10). Both James and Paul agree that breaking even one law will result in judgment from God.

One sin pollutes our entire body. In the same way, when someone defecates in a public pool, the entire pool becomes contaminated. No one says, “Hey, come down to the deep end… nobody pooped down here!” Instead, everybody has to get out. Likewise, when a patient develops cancer in his lungs, this affects his entire body—not just his breathing. Or imagine putting one drop of poison in a glass of water. While the water is mostly pure, it is still completely poisonous water. In the same way, when we sin at all, we become sinful before God.

We have all sinned against God

At this point, someone might say, “I might have sinned against people before, but I’ve never directly sinned against God.” However, God doesn’t see it this way. When we hurt and violate people that he cares about, he views this as directly sinning against him. For example, imagine being at a park, and someone comes up to your kid and pushes him off the swing set, kicking dirt in his face. You run up to punch the guy, and he says, “Hey buddy, this isn’t between me and you; it’s between me and the boy! Back off!” Would you accept this as a valid argument? Of course not! To sin against your son would be to sin against you. And, to sin against people is to sin against God himself (Prov. 14:31; Mt. 25:40; Acts 9:4; Ps. 51:4).

The Law was never meant to save us

Over the years, I’ve asked a lot of people what they think the central purpose of Christianity is. I usually hear: “We should follow the Ten Commandments” or “We should try to be good people.” However, the Bible doesn’t teach this. Paul wrote, “The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). He also wrote, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Could Paul be any clearer? God never gave us the Law so that we would measure up to it perfectly. Instead, he gave it to us so that we could see just how big of a problem we have with him!

For example, when you’re trying to lose weight, you might buy a scale. The scale will help you chart your progress. However, the scale isn’t the thing that will help you lose weight. It only shows you if your diet and exercise are paying off. In the same way, the Law shows us that we’re not perfect, but it doesn’t help us to become perfect people. And God never intended it to.

No one is perfectly obedient to the Law

Imagine if your thoughts were broadcast above your head on a teleprompter. Every thought that popped into your head would immediately become clear on the screen. Every selfish notion, every lustful urge, every dishonest decision, every judgmental thought. Do you think this would have an effect on your relationships? Do you think any of your friends could stand to be around you? How do you think this would affect your boyfriend or girlfriend (or your spouse)? If this happened to me, I know that I’d quickly become a very lonely person!

But God knows our thoughts and the intentions of our heart (Jer. 17:9-10). He sees all of it. He not only knows our outward sinful actions, but he also knows our inward sinful attitudes and motives. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:27-28). For all of us, the question is not, “Have I ever lusted for another woman?” Instead, if we’re honest, the question is, “Have I lusted for another woman today?”

The Bible lumps internal attitudes right alongside the external actions (Mk. 7:21-23; Gal. 5:19-21). Both of these are judged by God, and every day we are racking up sins at an alarming speed. If we had a “sin meter” attached to us, the dials would be flying at incalculable rates!

For this reason, the Bible explicitly teaches that no one is good enough to earn God’s standard of moral perfection. Paul argues that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Solomon states, “There is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46) and “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). The psalmist writes, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3) and “For in Your sight no man living is righteous” (Ps. 143:2) and “There is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). The Proverbs ask, “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9)

At the end of our lives, we are all going to have to stand before God. We might tell God, “But I’m not a murderer!” or “I’m not a rapist or a pedophile!” And he will say, “You’re right. You’ve never committed those sins… but what about the sins you have committed?” This would be similar to standing before a judge in a court of law. He says, “How do you plead to the crime of armed robbery?” And you tell him, “Guilty… but I’ve never jaywalked!” That doesn’t matter! You aren’t on trial for jaywalking; you’re on trial for robbery. God will be perfectly fair in judging us, but that includes us having to pay for our own sins.

God will judge every sin—not just some sins

We couldn’t love God if he wasn’t just. For instance, imagine if your grandmother was raped and beaten to death by a gang of thugs. The Police catch every last guy in the gang, and they drag them into court. Just before the judge passes his sentence, the gang leader says, “Your honor, we feel really, really, really sorry for what we did.” He starts to cry. “We promise never to rape and kill any more old ladies ever again!”

Now imagine if the judge turned to the men and said, “Well, it seems like you’re really sorry. I’ll be loving and give you guys just 40 hours of community service. Case closed!”

How would this make you feel? Do you think that the judge was being “loving” in this situation? If you ran into that judge at a bar that week, would you smile at him? Would you shake his hand? Would you buy him a beer?

Of course not! You wouldn’t be friends with a judge like that. You wouldn’t love a judge like that. In fact, you’d probably want to kill a judge like that! But in a similar way, if God didn’t judge sin, we couldn’t respect or love him. And the Bible is unambiguous on this subject. In fact, the Bible teaches that we will be judged for hypocrisy (Mt. 23:14), disobedience (Eph. 5:6), sexual immorality (Heb. 13:4), misuse of wealth (Jas. 5:3), unrighteous judgment (Mt. 7:1), careless language (Mt. 12:36-37), being unforgiving (Mt. 18:32-35), not using our gifts for God’s purposes (Mt. 25:28-30), stumbling others (Lk. 17:1-3), and for each and every wrong thing we have ever done (Rom. 2:6; Rev. 20:12). The Bible also teaches that we will “all” have to stand before God and give an account for our lives (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10).

The Solution? Grace!

The Bible gives us two options in gaining eternal life. Either we can earn it through perfect obedience to the Law, or we can accept it through the free grace of God in Christ’s work. This is the good news! We can be accepted by God completely apart from our moral works. Paul writes that God “has forgiven” us (Eph. 4:32) for “all our transgressions” (Col. 2:13). He writes that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Read these Scriptures for yourself:

“To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

“If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21)

Could the Bible be any clearer? God wants to forgive us through the work of Christ—not through our own moral works. Jesus forgave the thief on the Cross, simply because he had faith in him—moments before he died. After the man asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). With his hands nailed to the cross, this man could not have performed any good works. Instead, he was forgiven completely by grace. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (Jn. 5:24). On the Cross, Jesus said, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). He completely paid for all of our sins. Note this parable from Jesus (Lk. 18:9-14):

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:10  “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.11  The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.12  I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’13  But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’14  I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.

This is the scandal of grace! According to Jesus, the sinner gets into heaven for trusting in God. But the self-righteous person goes to hell, because they trusted in themselves and their own good works.

Need to receive the gift

The love and grace of God is not unconditional. God puts one (and only one) condition on his grace for us…

We need to receive it.

Scientists will never find the “Christian gene” on the human genome. Christianity isn’t something that you’re born with; it’s something that you choose. Some people think that they are Christians, because their parents were Christians. The logic goes like this: “I’m not a Muslim… I’m not a Buddhist… I must be a Christian!” But the Bible disagrees with this. You need to personally decide to trust in Christ.

I can stand in a garage, but that doesn’t make me a mechanic. I can stand in a kitchen, but that doesn’t make me a chef. I can wear a tutu, but that doesn’t make me a ballerina! In the same way, I can stand in a church, but it doesn’t make me a Christian. To become a Christian, you need to personally choose to receive God’s forgiveness. John writes, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (Jn. 1:12-13 NIV). Here John emphasizes that we need to personally receive Christ in order to be forgiven and accepted by him.

Think about it like this. A guy inherits one million dollars from a deceased relative, and he walks around with the inheritance check in his wallet for a week, telling everyone that he’s a millionaire. But after a week goes by, he gets into a car accident and he’s killed on impact. He dies before he can cash the check.

Was he ever a millionaire?

No. Instead, he was almost a millionaire.

All he had to do was walk down to the bank, sign the check, and hand it to the teller. But he never did. In the same way, in order to cash in on the free grace of God, we need to call out to God in faith and receive this gift. The Bible never explains what words to use or how to pray to receive Christ. It is most likely silent on this, because this is supposed to be a free expression of the heart—not a scripted and mechanical prayer or magic words. Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

If you’re struggling with receiving Christ and having faith, remember that you don’t need perfect faith or 100% conviction. Instead, you just need a “mustard seed of faith” (Mt. 17:20). Jesus responded to the man who was struggling with “unbelief” (Mk. 9:20-22). But, he won’t respond if you never place any faith in him.