Do good people go to Heaven?


Part 6 in a series of posts about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a religious phenomenon which the National Study of Youth and Religion suggests is the largest religion among young people in the United States. For more, check out Kenda Creasy Dean's Almost Christian.

We've now looked at four out of the five convictions of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Before we take a look at the fifth and final belief of MTD, let's refresh our memory on the big picture:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
— "Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," Almost Christian, p. 14

Now, this week: Do good people go to heaven when they die?

On the one hand, a number of biblical passages can be gathered in support of this idea. Jesus' description of the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is only the most memorable. Jesus suggests that the sheep go to heaven because of how they treated Jesus through "the least of these my brothers," while the goats go to hell because of their failure to do so.

But I don't think this is the kind of thing that is meant when people claim things like, "I am a good person." They are claiming something a bit softer, like that they have only good intentions or try to be nice people. This is a far cry from the self-sacrificial behavior Jesus praises in Matthew 25, a passage which doesn't suggest that the sheep get into heaven because they are sheep, but that the sheep get into heaven because of the things that they did.

So there's need for a bit of nuance here.

But a different angle from the Christian tradition suggests a different, but still negative, verdict on the idea that good people go to heaven when they die: what if there are no good people around? What if none of us qualifies as good enough? It turns out Paul's letter to the Romans mashes together bits from two psalms to say exactly that:

There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.
— Romans 3:10-12 NIV

So, some might say, conviction #5 is true, only it doesn't matter at all, because there aren't any good people who get in that way. Instead, the classical Christian idea is that only sinners get into heaven, because sinners are the only people around, and, more importantly, because we have a God of grace.

Admission into heaven isn't something you buy through your moral niceness or your noble intentions. It only comes as a gift. A gift that is only received through the grace of Jesus Christ. A great many people who think they are 'good persons' might be included as recipients of that gift, but the generally safer route is much humbler: own up to the fact that the world is a broken place, and you are a part of that brokenness. You are a sinner (of course, I am too!), and taken in the best sense of the Christian tradition, that is actually good news for you. It's good news because you can be honest about all your shortcomings and you can own the ways that you are imperfect without falling into a shame spiral. And it's good news because then you'll be able better to receive the further good news that though you are a sinner, you have a God who loves you anyway, who thinks you are to die for. In spite of all your imperfections and weaknesses, dying for you is precisely what that God did.