“Are you going to Heaven?” “I think so. After all, I’m basically a good person.” Like me, you’ve probably heard versions of this conversation countless times. It relies on a simple but attractive theological premise: since you’re basically a good person, it would be unjust to send you to Hell; therefore, you’ll be in Heaven forever. But how does this line of reasoning stand up to close inquiry?
The Heart is Deceptive Above All Things.
There’s a reason that God says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Self-deceit is easy:
But I do also want to let you know that there was harmony in that home. There was harmony at home. I was – I was a good person. Being brought up, I never had a record. I just hope that they find it in their hearts to forgive me and to maybe do some research on people who have addictions to – so they can see how their addiction takes over their lives.
That’s from Ariel Castro’s closing speech at a trial in which he pled guilty to 937 criminal counts, including kidnapping, rape and aggravated murder (the murders in question were of his own unborn children). Throughout his statement, he continually excuses his behavior by claiming sex addiction (“I’m not a monster. I am a normal person. I am just sick. I have an addiction — just like an alcoholic has an addiction”) and that, deep down, he’s a good guy (“I’ve been a musician for a long time, maybe 25, 30 years. And to be a musician and to be a monster like they say that I am, I don’t think I can handle it. I’m a happy person inside.”). Contrast that with this:
I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
That’s St. Paul (1 Timothy 1:12-16), and note how different he sounds. Rather than claiming to be a basically good person, he describes himself as the worst of sinners, a man who was guilty of blasphemy, of insulting Christ and persecuting Christians, and yet a man upon whom Christ had mercy.
Most of us don’t have the sort of track record of Ariel Castro, or perhaps even of Saint Paul (who had his share of blood on his hands). But all of us have unclean hands. All of us have done things we’re not proud of: all have sinned. And we can respond to that in one of two ways. Either we go Castro’s route of self-deceit, minimizing our sins, excusing them by writing them off, or simply forgetting about them entirely; or else we go the route of St. Paul, of confessing that we’ve sinned and are in desperate need of mercy.
Here’s one problem with Castro’s approach: it doesn’t really mean anything. Who can’t describe themselves as “basically a good person”? My natural inclination, and yours, and everyone’s, is to judge other people harshly, while making excuses for our own mistakes and sins. We shrug off our bad behavior because of our good motives or intentions, or because our bad behavior was provoked in some way (by our addictions or weakness or somebody else’s bad behavior, etc.). In other people, like Ariel Castro, we recognize this as guilty evasion. But it’s easy to overlook how we do it to ourselves. That’s how self-deception works, after all.
You Don’t Really Deserve Heaven.
Underneath it all, “I’m basically a good person” seems to mean “I haven’t murdered anyone” or haven’t committed some other giant sin. So what? Were you ever seriously tempted to do so? If not, it sounds like you’re really just saying that you haven’t done those awful things that you’ve never been seriously tempted to do. But what about those sins that you were tempted to commit? How did you fare on those? Not so well, am I right?
But maybe I’m wrong: maybe you really have led an extraordinary life, and maybe it’s not just self-deception leading you to say that. Fair enough. You still don’t deserve Heaven, and it’s more than a tiny bit narcissistic to think that you do.
Imagine if I said, “Congress should award me the Congressional Gold Medal, because I’m basically a good person.” When pressed on the great things I’d done to deserve the medal, I just mention all those times that I didn’t rob banks, and that I tend to be nice most of the time, or at least when I happen to be in a good mood. You would rightly say, “it sounds like you’re achieving the minimal standards of human decency: why do you think you deserve to be awarded for this?” And you’d be right; but I’d be right to ask you the same thing. If not-being-awful doesn’t earn me the Medal of Honor or get me a holiday named after me, why in the world does it earn you something infinitely higher than that for all eternity?
There is a Better Way.
So no, you can’t earn Heaven with your good deeds. But there’s another approach, that you’re going to Heaven, not because you’re so great, but because God is. This is closer to the mark, because it tells the most important truth: God alone is the Good that will satisfy our hearts. The Bible will tell us, theology will tell us, but we know it on a more fundamental level. Today’s the feast day of St. Augustine, who famously begins his Confessions by saying,
Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud, — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.
Nothing other than God can ever satisfy us for long. Augustine’s autobiography bore witness to this truth, and so do many of our lives, as well.
But God’s infinite goodness is. if you will, a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it explains why He glories in having mercy on us, despite our transparent unworthiness. The Saints aren’t in Heaven because of their own greatness, but because of God’s. But on the other hand, it means that if we reject God – and this life clearly bears witness to the truth that He gives us the freedom to reject Him – then we’ll be miserable. You can’t say that God is infinite Good, the source of all goodness, and then expect to find goodness apart from Him. That’s like looking for some sort of infinity-plus-one happiness: it doesn’t make sense, and it just can’t exist. So if you’re a “basically-good” person who decides to commit their life to something other than God, you’re committing to eternal misery. That’s what it means to say that God is the source of all goodness: He’s an all or nothing deal.
Once we recognize this truth, and our utter unworthiness of the goodness of God, the logical response isn’t to plead our basic goodness, or our mostly-good works, but to cry to Him for mercy. We know that God alone will satisfy our hearts, and that we don’t deserve Him. In fact, we don’t just not deserve Him (even a sinless person wouldn’t deserve Him). We’ve actually done positive damage to our relationship with Him via our sins. We need His mercy and forgiveness (be that for a lot of sins, or just a few), and we need His salvation. Fortunately, the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. It’s up to us to stop deluding ourselves and realize that this means us.