Is being a good person good enough to earn eternal reward? This is certainly an age old question for many of us. What constitutes being deemed “good”? What determines the threshold for being measured “good enough” for eternal reward (heaven), or for that matter that there even is such a qualifying threshold?
For those who don’t believe in an afterlife, this is of course a moot point. If you don’t believe in eternal life beyond this current temporary life we live, then eternal reward is not an objective. But whether you believe in an afterlife or not, there is a good chance you have contemplated the existence of an afterlife before, and with that the question… is simply being a good person sufficient to attain eternal reward when you die?
As a Christian, I do believe in eternity and have wrestled with this question many times. I believe that I have been a relatively “good” person … I haven’t committed any egregious sins (by my definition, of course – such as murder, rape, violent assault, etc…) and my lesser sins (again, my definition) haven’t been knowingly or intentionally harming of others. I suppose I’m being what most people would consider as being a pretty good guy. Surely, living such a life ought to please God, don’t you think?
Moreover, I think my heart is usually in the right place. I generally care for others. I always try to treat people with respect and dignity. It feels good when I do something for others, and while I know I’m not perfect, I believe that God knows what is in my heart, and that ought to be enough, right?
Consider what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). There is no distinction here with respect to how severe our sin has been, only that we have sinned. Isaiah writes essentially the same thing with “your iniquities have separated you from your God” (Isaiah 59:2). I believe that God has created heaven to be a place without sin and that allowing sin to enter, no matter how insignificant we think that sin might be, it would taint the purity of heaven. I think of it as being analogous to how a parent would protect their infants health. No parent would buy formula for their baby that stated on the label “99 44/100 percent pure and 56/100 percent tainted with harmful pathogens.” Would YOU stick that bottle into YOUR baby’s mouth?
Also, with respect to thinking our hearts are good, Jesus said “you are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15) . Since God knows our hearts, not just the part that we think justifies us as being “good enough” but rather the whole of what is in our hearts, then we really can’t use that as a ticket into the presence of His purity either, can we? I know I have entertained thoughts before that were not good, and I don’t believe it works like a bank account, either – the credits to my account can’t wash the debits.
What is so ironic about this is most of us don’t really want to admit to ourselves what we know about our own dark side. Hence, if we continue to ignore it, it seems to become diminished over time and so we soften it and rationalize it and try our best to forget it, and when we do this we feel better about justifying ourselves as being a good person. We may do this, but it does not change the fact that we still carry our sin.
We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. I have heard others, and I have heard myself, recounting cruelties and falsehoods committed in boyhood as if they were no concern of the present speaker’s, and even with laughter. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ: if we have repented these early sins we should remember the price of our forgiveness and be humble. – C. S. Lewis
Still, even though we carry this baggage, we can find redemption. Knowing all the while that we will fall short of purity and still creating us to have a relationship with Him, God chooses to show us grace and mercy by giving us a means by which we can become pure – by admitting our sin, turning from it and to Him, and accepting Him as our savior.
I believe that being a good person certainly does please God. God tells us that loving Him is the most important thing that we can do, and the second most important is to love one another. But simply being good, having a (mostly) good heart and loving one another does not make us pure, and being pure is the only way we can be in His presence. Becoming pure is only attainable through the redemptive power of God’s one and only Son. Jesus made the sacrifice for us by dying on the cross and burying our sin with his death, and offered us the hope of a new life with God by overcoming that death with His resurrection.
Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. Hebrews 13:16