In order to get to heaven, is it only necessary that we be a “good person”? This is a question that has been asked, and slapped down, within Christian rhetorical circles on a regular basis. But perhaps we are too quick to do the slapping and less keen on analyzing what goodness truly means, and how moving towards the good connects to the idea of embracing salvation, and indeed where it falls short.
First up, massive disclaimer: I cannot tell you with any certainty that *any* individual is getting to heaven, including myself. The same goes for predicting which people, if any, will go to hell. It’s simply not my place, nor anyone’s place, aside from God, who is the searcher of all hearts. But that’s just it: what kind of hearts are those which God is searching out, and which are after His own heart? Surely “good” ones, we would think.
And what does it mean to have a “good” heart? Simply put, it means one which is most truly reflective of the image of God imprinted upon it, and one which is receptive to the graces made available to it. No one is perfect but God alone, and yet we all derive our own level of goodness through participation in the divine life, to differing extents and capacities. It is a free gift offered to everyone, but we must accept it by acting upon.
And if we believe in a just God, we must believe that God judges according to what we do with what we are given to work with, taken in the context of our cultures, time periods, and personal conditioning. God knows down to the last detail how we cooperated and how we shunned the natural law carved in our hearts, far better than we know ourselves, closer to us than our own consciousness, than our jugular vein. He also knows to what extent our sins remained at a surface level or sank deeper down and distorted our very souls, effacing His image.
But no matter how much good we are able to attain in this world, nevertheless we are remain imperfect, and this very state of imperfection is a barrier between God, the pristine Creator, and Man, and sinful creature. Think of the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem as a symbol of this. No matter how hard we try to reach the heights of the divine wholeness, we are still living in a fractured spiritual world through our darkened intellects and draw towards inordinate passions. Instead of being in harmony, our physical natures all too often eclipse our spiritual ones, or our spiritual ones become self-worshiping.
This, in the Book of Genesis, was the sin of Adam and Eve, the father and mother of our human condition, when they sought to become like gods by eating the forbidden fruit, and it is what we mean when we say “fallen nature.” We are struggling with brokenness so cosmic, and a separation so stark, that only a miracle from outside of time and space can bind it up. What is the miracle? That the curtain separating God and Man should be torn through the middle, so that the things of heaven may be wed to the things of earth, and that human beings may share in the abundance of the divine life as children of God.
This is where Jesus Christ comes into the story, as the Savior who binds up the broken by living and human life and dying a human death. His miracles are all testaments to this cosmic healing taking place through Him. Though He is consubstantial with the Father, an integral, outpouring aspect of the divine reality, He does not count “equality with God a thing to be grasped at”, but rather empties Himself in utmost obedience, allowing Himself to be undone by sin and death, so that He might break their power as the first fruits of a new creation. This is the Easter Gospel, the Christian message of hope.
So what do we mean when we say “belief” in Christ, or indeed when the Scriptures say it? There are Bible verses galore emphasizing the necessity to “believe” in Jesus Christ in order to be saved, and indeed that the rejecting of Him was a rejecting of the one who sent Him. More often than not, it is interpreted as an intellectual assent to Christian doctrine regarding the nature of Christ’s identity and mission. But I do wonder if many of the people Christ encounters in a positive way ever “believed” in the way many modern Christians thing, with a neatly packaged creed all written out in their heads.
I rather believe that their “faith” was often a more primal thing, a belief that, at the very least, God was somehow mysteriously working through this man in their midst, and they felt in awe of it, and sought to share in it to some extent. There are many healing miracles and even teaching encounters, that indicate anything beyond the individuals believing that Christ could indeed heal them, or those dear to them, and that level of “faith” was enough for Christ to help them, whether they were Jews or Pagans. When it came to rejection of Christ, it was usually less a matter of rejecting a formulaic creed, and more a matter of clinging to power and hypocrisy, such as is exemplified by the Pharisees.
I wonder if perhaps our understanding of “belief” has been a surface understanding, which can only be properly configured in context of other revelations of what it truly means to share in the very life of Christ. Think of the famous verse John 3:16 for a moment, if we heard it more like this: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Beloved Son, that whoever *lives in Him and through Him* may not perish, but have everlasting life.” Did not all those people in the Gospel stories respond to the grace that was presented to them, and find themselves living in and through Him, as a conduit of the divine life pouring from Him?
We must ask ourselves, who are the ones who live in Him and through Him, who are made a new creation and who we see responding to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and bearing the Fruits of the Holy Spirit? Those who do what He commands. And what are His commandments? To love God, and to love one’s fellow man. Indeed, if we love one another, we will be known as His disciples, and at the final judgment, Christ explicitly states we will be divided up according *to our deeds*. The fact is, calling Jesus “Lord” could mean next to nothing if we don’t act on it, and acting on it could be equivalent to calling Him “Lord” in the first place.
And yes, all this flows right back to…that’s right, being a good person. But being a “good person” is not some easy, off-handed cop-out to buy us a ticket to heaven. It takes a lifetime of striving, working out our salvation in fear and trembling. Firstly, we don’t “buy” anything: every good thing we do is only through grace we are freely given. Secondly, our “goodness” is only truly efficacious if it is based upon genuine love, which of course is in itself a grace we respond to and which grows in our hearts, and as such it has nothing to do with counting out good deeds to buy ourselves a vacation golf course on Cloud 9.
It doesn’t work like that; it’s a matter of sharing in the dynamic mystery of the divine life for all eternity, which requires utter openness and humility and recognition on our own, we can do nothing. As Islamic tradition emphasizes, we are not truly in sync with reality as it is unless we submit to God. This is something which either exists within us before death, or we will never realize it afterwards. That’s really the crux of heaven and hell: An eternity with God, or an eternity where He doesn’t exist, which in and of itself is a horror story, a shadowy non-existence akin to the Ring Wraiths of Tolkien’s fantasy universe.
So what about other Bible verses when Christ explicitly states “No one comes to the Father but through Me”? Since I believe that Christ is the “I Am” that exists in time and out of time, “the Lamb Slain from the Foundations of the World”, I believe anyone who has ever embraced the life of grace, either before Christ’s earthly life or after it, has indeed been a part of that mystery which weds heaven to earth, and reaches its culmination in the Incarnation. Only Christ is God incarnate, and only He could tear that curtain separating God from Man. Being a part of His Body is the only way for us to see God as our “Father.” But I believe more people have had the curtain torn within themselves than any one club membership quota.
Yes, I believe this even of people who believe that, on an intellectual level, the incarnation makes no sense. Perhaps they do not even believe the curtain has been torn, nor do they see it as needing to be torn. Yet they may be far better followers of Christ than I am, far more intermingled with the mystery of the cross than many who wear it. Because this is another point about being a “good person”: it is about our holiness, our “wholeness”, as much as we can feasibly reach for it, in whatever station of life we find ourselves in. This concept is littered across the stories of Jesus, about the least likely people obtaining the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is what Jesus came to do: To bring God’s saving grace to all people, and let the wind of the Spirit “blow where it will”. We see stories of outcasts of every stripe touched by Christ or indeed featured by Him in stories about the Kingdom of Heaven. Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, Samaritans…many sins are forgiven BECAUSE OF WHAT? Because they LOVE GREATLY (louder for the people in the back). And what is the sign of the greatest love? That one should lay down their very life for a friend, or forgive an enemy, or give a cup of cold water to a little one out of pity. Even to a thief who begged to be remembered in a last desperate moment, after defending Christ from mockery, He promised a place in Paradise. Love is the true identity of repentance.
Taking all this into consideration, I hold firm in the belief that there are many ways in which the Holy Spirit can work, and many ways in which we can become a part of the Body of Christ, and by extension be “members of the Church”. If I did not believe this, I think I would find it almost impossible to get through life, because I am inclined to see the best in people, and indeed see God through the best in people. I know so many friends, some Christian, others Muslim or Jewish or Pagan or without any religion at all, who remind me on a daily basis that God is alive and well within us all, and that grace is not to be shut up in a box, but to flow like a river.
This is why the Church has asked, and continues to ask, pragmatic questions that make the simple answers far more complex. For example, what about babies or young children who cannot make any type of faith commitment? What about people who simply grow up and ultimately die in environments where Christianity has little or no influence? What about people who were taught the faith in such a poor way as to turn them away from it? What about people who lived and died generations before Christ, in pagan lands? Life is messy and nuanced, even in these bare-bones examples. That is why the Church holds out hope for salvation for those who responded to whatever grace they were given as best they could in the circumstances life afforded them.
Some Christians insist that all non-Christian form of practice should be condemned, even if we in fact agree with it. But is it sound to believe it is a sin to encourage people to pray, fast, and do acts of charity? To worship God and love their neighbor, which sums up the law and the prophets, according to Christ Himself? We actually *shouldn’t* encourage people to do what we ourselves are told to do by Our Savior? I can’t conceive why it would be harmful, or indeed why it would be unhelpful to that person’s soul, for a Christian to encourage a person *in so far as they possibly can* in anything which is directed towards the good.
To quote Pope St. John Paul II on the subject, “It must first be kept in mind that every quest of the human spirit for truth and goodness, and in the last analysis for God, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The various religions arose precisely from this primordial human openness to God.” (Address to the Members of the Roman Curia, 22 Dec. 1986, n. 11; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 5 Jan. 1987, p. 7).”
I realize that the responses may include a debate about whether such works are “efficacious” outside the Body of Christ in terms of having salvific power. My response would once again be that such works, if done out of a sincerity of heart and truly for the glory of God and love of others, prove that one is indeed a member if the Body of Christ, knowingly or unknowingly. And yes, I believe that mystery of that grace has salvific merit. I believe the entire world is overflowing with a sacramental quality, and that people drink from this stream in many ways, based upon the Image of God in their souls that is ever calling them to it.
If I did not believe this, and viewed all things as totally depraved by nature and impulse, I would be utterly sick with myself and the world around me. Yes, we are all wounded and broken by the condition of sin, but God is seeking all of us out to mend us, and redeem us, because this reality if ours is worth restoring. Yes, I still believe the full force is this redemption is made manifest in the dying and rising of Christ, the God-Man, and by sharing in the Sacramental life of His Church. But do I believe that God can bring to Himself anyone who takes even an increment of a step towards Him in good faith, through His inexhaustible mercy?
Yes, of course I do. If I did not, God would not be that which He is to me. His mercy is a fathomless abyss for those who desire that mercy, and I cannot imagine Him withholding it based upon the perfect use of words nor clarity of doctrinal understanding. I believe it is only sensible to believe that God finds ways to save anyone who genuinely yearns for Him, yes, even if they do not know what they yearn for, nor form the prayer ever so precisely. I believe that the heart is ever His prerogative, and any heart with an ounce of good left pulsing in it will be drawn back to Him. Even where there seems to be no way, He is more than capable of opening one, to any who truly seek and supplicate.
We are so quick to judge one another based on preconceptions, though we are explicitly told not to judge, and to focus on our own salvific walk before declaring another to be beyond it. Some complain that this “liberal attitude” towards non-Christians somehow jeopardizes the desire to evangelize. But I disagree, in that, if you believed in something as deeply as I would hope most Christians believe in the stories of our faith, we would want to share them *for their own sake*, without counting the cost or hanging upon the outcome. Our job is to spread the good news, and indeed to live the good news, but the rest is entirely between God and each human soul.
Yes, we are to share the Gospel, and tell of Christ’s great work of salvation through dying and rising. Yes, we are to call sinners to righteousness, and to ever be mindful that we ourselves are the sinners most in need of repentance. Most of all, we are to seek to be disciples of our Master with a fullness of intent and integrity of purpose, and guide others along that path of living as He would want us to take, and persevering to the bitter end. And again, many times, I have seen non-Christians act as better disciples of Him than we have, who bear His name. He will know His own, and call His own on the last day; I have no fear of that.
We must always maintain the mystery of the faith, and indeed the mystery of salvation, until the day when all things in this universe are brought to their consummation. There will be “a new heaven and a new earth” truly and transparently united in the fullness if time, which is how Christ “rules as king” eternally, our “first fruit”, of this resurrection. His subjects will be those who drank from the waters of divine life, and it is my full expectation we may well get more than a few surprises about who were true “disciples” and who were not.
Indeed, Christ seemed to relish such twists in His parables more than almost anything else. Is not everything about His legacy a paradox, beyond all paradoxes? Perhaps it is the easiest thing for us to expect, that such prophecies will unfold before our eyes on the Day of Judgment, that those we thought last shall be first, and those we thought first, last…