If good people do not believe in God, how can a good God send them to Hell? If God is good, as Christians claim, how can a good God judge good people? This is a perplexing question to many people.
Some of the difficulty comes from the question itself. The question assumes, as frankly most of us do, that goodness is the standard to “get into Heaven”. There certainly is good reason for that assumption. Christians are always talking about sin and morality. So, let’s take a deeper look at. Is that really what is going on?
A central theme of the Old Testament is the Law. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 31:18) and also instructed Moses to create “statutes and judgments” for the people to follow. (Deut. 4:13-14)
God continually judges the people God calls His own and the nations around them in relation to this Law. This is the story of the Old Testament – God gave His people the Law, and His people continually ignored, failed or even refused to follow it. (You might see some parallel to the modern church here.)
Contrary to some popular opinion, Jesus does not make things any simpler. If you have the impression that Jesus did away with the law, think again. Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law. (Matt. 5:17) He took the Law even further when He told the Pharisees that the measure of goodness is not just what we do, but what we think! (Matt. 5:21-31)
Understanding the point of the Law. The question posed in the beginning is a bad one because it makes assumptions that are misleading. The reason that the Law was given was not to give us something that we must live up to; it was to show us precisely that we do not measure up! (Romans 3:20) Whether it is the Ten Commandments, the law of Moses or any set of standards we come up with for ourselves, we fall short of perfect.
We do not even measure up to our own self-imposed standards, if we are honest. Without the law we might never know that we don’t measure up. We might not know that we have a problem that separates us from God.
I will come back to that, but first, some of the confusion arises from the fact that we want to measure up on our own. The root of this desire is human pride.
Because of this desire, we tend to gloss over own short comings. We compare ourselves to other people and find comfort in being better, or at least not worse, than other people. (E.g. Luke 18:9)
“I have never murdered anyone” might be a snarky response to the question of whether you are a good person. More earnest variations might include any number of things like, “I do my best” and “I try to be nice to people” and “I do not cheat or steal”.
We measure goodness and badness in relation to other people, including other people in the church. When we measure ourselves by the people in the church, we are tempted to conclude that we are ok because we see people in the church acting like everyone else. We feel like we measure up against the “religious people” and, therefore, we do not need God.
In fact, we are tempted to measure God by the people in the church. We label church people “hypocrites” because they do not live up to a perfect standard, and we falsely attribute the imperfection of religious people to God. (Though every man be a liar, still God is true. (Romans 3:4))
Some people seem to be generally bad. Mass murderers, rapists and gang leaders might qualify as the worst of the bad. Most of us have no problem judging them worthy of Hell.
Some people are, or appear to be, generally better than others. We call these people “good”. The best of these people might be in the category of Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi. We tend to think that, if anyone deserves Heaven, these people do. The shades of good and bad stretch from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Precisely where is the dividing line between heaven-worthy and hell-worthy?
I think most people might say that the preponderance of the goodness versus badness is a “fair” test. If the scale tips slightly one way or the other, that determines good from bad.
I think most people see themselves with more on the positive (good) side of the scale than on the negative (bad) side. In this way, we reason that we have earned Heaven because we have been more good than bad. At least, we have not earned Hell. We figure we are ok.
But all of this quite misses the point. Yes, there is a standard of goodness – God is that standard. God is the standard because He is God. Goodness is good because God sets the standard. In fact, without God, there is no objective morality.
Goodness is God’s nature. He cannot be other than He is – which is good. God is good not simply because He says so, but because He is good. He is the definition of good.
The Law shows us that we cannot measure up to God’s goodness. God is perfectly good because He is the standard. We cannot measure up to His integrity (always good, never deviating). We are not God; we cannot be perfectly good as God is good. We are, each of us to some varying degree, not good. Paul says, “We have all fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
When we look at each other on our own level, we are aware of differences in height, weight and body make up. If we climb to the top of the John Hancock Building (110 stories high), we would have a hard time distinguishing those differences. God is infinitely greater than the John Hancock Building, and our relative goodness or badness in relation to other people is virtually indistinguishable from that perspective. The varying degrees of human goodness/badness are insignificant compared to the perfect goodness of God.
There are no “good” people when the standard of measurement is God.
So what does all this mean?
Consider this: if life is a competition, as we sometimes seem to think, achieving perfect goodness would be something like swimming from California to Japan. The best swimmers would far outdistance the worst, but even the best swimmers would fall far short of completing the journey (without help).
If no one measures up, how can a fair and just God hold people accountable? To get to an answer, we need to examine the problem in more detail which I do next.