One of the nagging problems that people have with the Bible is the notion that God will judge people that we might consider good (as in better than me). That does not sit well with me, of course. Because we do not fully understand the issue, we fire off the accusatory question: if God is good and loving, how can He condemn good people to hell?
Part of the problem with the question is that we may not accurately understand the problem. The Law (morality) was not given to us so that we might measure up to it; the Law was given to us to show us that we do not measure up! In fact, the very point is that we do not measure up, and we cannot measure up.
Goodness and badness are not really the point; moral standards, the Law, only expose the problem. A moral standard is completely incapable of accomplishing what we need; it only reveals that we need help.
Thus, when the Pharisees boasted of their good actions, Jesus raised the ante: He said that even thinking bad thoughts is sin! When the rich young ruler asked what he needed to do to be saved, Jesus told him to go sell everything – something Jesus knew he could (would not be willing) to do. The point of the Law is to bring us to the realization that we cannot measure up on our own.
If we are trying to measure up and “be good” in order to get to Heaven, we have failed to understand the problem. We cannot even begin to understand the solution if we fail to understand the problem.
The problem is that we are set against God in our sinfulness. Our nature is set against God’s nature. While everything else in the universe was created to be finely-tuned as God intended, by the choice God gave us, we deviated from plan. This choice gave us the possibility of having a relationship with God, our Creator, but it also set us up for corruption as we inevitably would go our own way, being imperfect creatures, and not gods (let alone God).
We wanted to be like God and, so, became opposed to Him. In this way, we introduced corruption (sin) into the world that resulted in death (and all that leads to death – decay, degeneration, disease, etc.)
Transformation is what we require to be able to have fellowship with God and to enter in to His Heaven. But, we cannot achieve that transformation ourselves. In fact, we are completely incapable of it on our own.
This is where the solution comes in. We must recognize, first, that we are incapable on our own of righting ourselves with God. The solution comes from God, not us.
Recall also that the root of the problem is pride – wanting to be like God (or to be our own gods). We are infected with this root (sin). Yes, God made us in His image, but we are not God.
The solution to our problem is entering in to right relation with God, and that begins with recognizing Him for who He is! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10) Fear of God – recognizing Him for who and what He is – is the first step toward coming into right relationship.
The fear that leads to wisdom is respecting God for who He is, and learning who God is leads us in an entirely different direction than going our own way.
Fear of God is just the beginning. God does not leave is cowering in fear, though we may be overwhelmingly inclined to cower in God’s presence. As God said to Isaiah, “Do not fear for I am with you!” (Is. 40:10)
When we turn to God, God meets us. He is with us! God turns toward and favors those who are humble and contrite of spirit, who “tremble” at His word (treat it with respect and reverence). (Isaiah 66:2)
When we believe in and trust God, He reveals His self to be trustworthy. Not that we deserve it, but His heart is that none would perish (2 Peter 3:9); that all would be saved. (John 3:16)
And God provided the way, of His own doing, for us to be saved from this dilemma of sin and opposition (in nature) to God. When we come to Him humbly, not trusting in our own goodness (rightness) but in God’s goodness, He provides us what we need.
God, alone, measures up to the “standard”. Thus, God, alone, can cause us to measure up to that same standard. He demonstrated this when He emptied Himself of His glory, humbled Himself, and took on human form. In doing that, God lived up to the standard, which (frankly) only God could do, as one of us (in human form). Then He stood in for us, taking our place in the divine court of justice, and allowed Himself to be sacrificed in our place, taking on whatever judgment we deserve.
When He was done, it was finished, once for all time. Nothing more needs to be done but for us to accept what God has provided – salvation, a free gift that none of us have earned. And that is the point! – that none of us could boast. It was not just sin that was eliminated on the cross, but any boasting that we might do. Pride, the root of that sin, is put to death when we humbly accept what God has done for us.
But this talk of goodness and badness and justice and standards is not all there is. In accepting this divine mercy and grace that has been provided for us, we are transformed (born again). For the believer, this is no theoretical idea; it is a living transformation, and the proof is in the experience.
When we come to the end of ourselves, submit our wills and hearts to God and accept His divine gift, He enters in to the only temple in which He ever intended to dwell – within our hearts. God takes residence in us and we in Him. We enter into the right relationship that we were always meant to have with God.
The transformation is God’s work in us. It is nothing that we can manufacture. When we submit to Him, He does the work in us, and the fruit that we bear is the proof.
In the end, we discover that God is not a harsh judge who condemns good people to hell. God is simply God, and we are the problem. The Law reveals the problem (sin), but the Law (morality) is powerless to resolve the problem of our separateness from God. Resolution requires an act of God, literally.
When we turn from our oppositional state to face God humbly, He is there to accept us and offer us the antidote to our condition. What He offers us is Himself! In this way we literally become born from above (born again). This new birth is a spiritual experience that is as real as our physical birth. (John 3:3-7)
I do not claim to have this all figured out, but I am confident in the goodness of God. Our right relationship with God, which he desires and purposed for us, depends on Him, not us. We simply need to align with Him and connect in to what He has already provided for us. For additional thoughts on the subject, see the postscript.