Through the years I have had the opportunity to talk with many people about the bigger questions of life. These questions include: Is there a God? What happens when we die? If there is life after death, must we do anything to make sure it ends well for us on the other side? Here is what I would say comprises the majority opinion in the United States:
While these are not the opinions of all, recent polls are consistent with my findings. Of these three predominant beliefs, the one which is perhaps most conflicted is the third one. By conflicted, I mean that while there is still a large number of people who think Jesus has some role to play in getting us to heaven, for many Jesus just opens up the possibility, but it’s our good works that seal the deal.
On the surface, the criterion of good works seems like a good one. It just doesn’t seem fair to have those who have lived a horrible, perhaps even violent life, enjoying the same end as those who sacrificed much for the sake of others. Besides if God is good, wouldn’t he want only good people hanging around him for eternity? But as appealing as the good works case might be, there are problems with it being a particularly helpful guide in our path to heaven. I will list a few here.
I have to agree that gaining entrance into heaven by good works does sound fair on the surface. But as we see, it is not as good a standard as it is cracked up to be. It might make you wonder if God sees fairness differently than we do, especially since Jesus made it clear that some of the religiously good people of his day would not make it into heaven, while promising some with a very shady past that they would enjoy a heavenly home with him.
And then consider this: The Bible declares no one to be good. That’s right, it says no one is good. In one place, it flat out says, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Jesus himself said, “No one is good, except God alone.” So what do we do with that? If good works are the way in, but the final verdict is that we all fail the good works test, are we not all doomed?
Interestingly, that is just what Jesus said. He said we all stand condemned already. We are guilty of the crime of not measuring up, of not being good enough. I don’t know about you but that is not very encouraging. That sounds like bad news.
From time to time, you may have heard someone say Christianity offers good news. Given the weakness of the good works system as well as our own lack of goodness, some good news might sound a bit refreshing at this point. It was this good news that Jesus was all about dispensing.
It was late one night when Jesus spoke to one of the Jew’s top religious leaders. The man came to him wondering how he could have life with God forever. Their discussion was a lively one, but it ended with Jesus speaking of the good news that Christianity is known for. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that whoever believes in me shall not die, but have eternal life.” Notice what Jesus did not say. He did not say, “For God so loved the world that whoever lives a good enough life will not die, but have eternal life.” And he did not say that, because the good works system fails for all the reasons mentioned above. If there is a way to heaven that is truly representative of a good and loving God, it cannot be based on good works. It just can’t. It must be based on the mercy of God.
At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he shares a parable. It involves a dutiful religious leader and a tax-collector who was considered a traitor. The first man stood up, eyes towards heaven, and prayed that he was glad not to be like all the other “sinners”. In his prayer, he reminded God he was faithful in his donations to the temple and in his weekly fasting. The second man, in contrast, hung his head when he prayed. He was too ashamed to look up to heaven. He knew his works would never get him to heaven, so he cried out for mercy. That was his only hope. After Jesus tells the story, he reveals its lesson. He says that in God’s economy it’s not people like the first man who will be right before God. Rather, it will be people like the second man-- humble enough to recognize they need God’s mercy--who will enjoy God forever.
When you think about it, Jesus’ declaration that the way to heaven is not through good works but through a humble cry for God’s mercy is very good news. It is good news because it doesn’t matter how much you have stacked against you, there is still a path forward. It also doesn’t matter if you are young or old, man or woman, of European, Asian, or African descent, or live in the 4th century or the 24th century. The news remains the same. You are not good enough. Never will be. But you are not without hope, because God is good enough. He has shown his goodness through the extravagant and loving sacrifice of his Son, Jesus. Cry out to him for mercy and regardless of your score on the good works scale, a spot in heaven is reserved for you.
 “Most Americans Still Believe in God,” Gallup, June 29, 2016. “Most Americans Believe in Heaven…and Hell,” Pew Research Center, November 10, 2015.
 How Good Is Good Enough is the title of a short book by Andy Stanley. It is an excellent look at the same topic as this article and one that I leaned on here.
 Matthew 23:29-33; Luke 23:39-43
 Romans 3:11
 Mark 10:18
 John 3:18
 John 3:16
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.