A few days ago, a friend from an Assemblies of God-oriented discussion group raised an interesting topic. Since I haven’t posted much here for a while, I thought I’d share my thoughts and joyfully invite your comments.
The Good Pagan
Â« I think, and this is a lay person’s humble opinion, that a person can live a good moral life without knowing Christ as Savior. Â»
It’s a sad myth among us Christians that people can only act “good” by knowing Jesus when, in fact, Christianity is proof of the fact that good behavior is possible while not helpful at gaining eternal salvation. When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, he was not condemned by Jesus for bad behavior. The young man, in fact, kept all the commands since childhood. He said as much and Jesus, knowing his heart, did not call him a liar. But the law, for all its moral purity, is not enough because, as Jesus says, “No one is good — except God alone.” (See Mark 10:17-31.)
God has revealed himself not just in his Word but in creation as well, and many who do not believe in Jesus have perceived what is right and good through God’s general revelation. God has given a great deal of truth, knowledge, and wisdom to unbelievers, and we benefit from it every day.
When I fly safely thousands of feet in the air via a sturdy Boeing 747, I thank God for the pagans (and believers) who applied their knowledge to build that plane to fly safely. I thank God for their sense of ethics and morality in controlling quality and making constant inspections.
In short, I thank God there’s no such thing as a “Christian” airplane.
The better we understand this, the better and more winsome our conversations can be with unbelievers. I think.
Shortly after, Carissa followed up with some more thoughts, prompting me to pick up the keyboard again. …
Good People in Hell
When I wrote about the possibility of unbelieving folk exhibiting good moral behavior and enjoying God’s “common grace,” Carissa responded:
Â« There’s a friend of mine that refuses to believe in Jesus or God for that very reason. If you can live a good and moral life without Him, then why do you need Him? Especially with all the negative connotation “Christians” have on themselves. He also has a hard time with the fact that God sends “good, moral” people to hell. With as much love as I could, I explained that God doesn’t send people there, they chose to go there through His gift of free will. Â»
Sounds like you’ve had some great conversations! Keep them up.
True, individual Christians don’t always fare all that well when compared to individual pagans. Some believers act worse than some unbelievers. Some Christians, in fact, exhibit frankly evil attitudes and behaviors (just read the newspapers). We’ve all known believers who’ve cheated on their spouses, who’ve stolen, who cheat on taxes, who engage in risky behaviors, and who are addicted to vices. And yet we’ve all known unbelievers who are faithful to their spouses, who shrink at the thought of stealing, who pay their taxes honestly, who enjoy wise lifestyle choices, and who conscientiously abstain from alcohol, wacky tobacky, or thriftily avoiding gambling on the state lottery.
In any given church there are likely a handful (or more!) in whom we would be hard pressed to identify any holy behavior beyond that of appearing in church relatively sober and even-tempered on Sunday morning while a trip to the local pub might reveal a handful (or more) of relatively sober and even-tempered patrons who would be a joyful addition to any church’s membership roster. (Save for the fact that they don’t mind hoisting a tankard or two now and then. (Count among them C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who met regularly at local pubs with their friends, The Inklings, to talk theology while swilling brew and inhaling smoke.)
But Jesus didn’t die on the cross, suffer the pain of our sin and separation from his Father, and rise again three days later so we could be paragons of moral virtue for our neighbors. He didn’t save us to be good — he saved us despite our paltry attempts at goodness. Our goodness doesn’t count for much. For no matter how good our best behavior is it is never ever good enough. Not when compared to the pure, unadulterated, undiluted, pristine infinity of God’s absolute, burning holiness.
That is not hyperbole.
Even the most faithful husband is guilty of moral adultery in his heart. Even the most even-tempered peace-nick is guilty of murder in his heart. Even the most honest policeman is guilty of theft via his heart’s jealousy. And the most abstemious tee-totaling librarian is guilty of the secret vice of addiction to the drug of self-conceit. Only God is truly holy. Only god is truly good. And the detritus of our holiest ambitions are steaming piles of rotten carnage when compared to the solar brilliance of God’s fiery righteousness. In his presence the holiest of all of mankind’s venerated saints would burn to a crisp without the protection of Jesus’ grace and protection.
What I most need reminding of when I start feeling good about my own efforts and my own false sense of purity is that Jesus’ sacrifice and victory over death doesn’t save me from Hell — it saves me from God himself. For without the debt of my moral bankruptcy being forgiven in full by God through Jesus, my eternal death would be the price I would pay upon entering eternity.
God’s holiness suffers no sin. In his presence sin will not be tolerated — the very hint of it would result in destruction. Only by submitting to the covering of the sacrifice and blood of Jesus will I be admitted into his presence. His death “covers” my debt. His sacrifice doesn’t magically make me good: it mercifully loans me his goodness.
The rest (being good) I must learn, with the help of the Holy Spirit, constant training, meditation on the Word, worship, prayer, service, and fellowship. That’s what discipleship is. That’s what sanctification is. That’s what growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ is. Hopefully, by God’s grace, in ten years I’ll be a “better” man, closer to being like Jesus, than I am now. That doesn’t make be a bad Christian now, or less likely to enjoy Heaven. It just makes me “on the way.” And that’s true for the new believer, the old believer, and the scarily ineffective believer who still does bad things while burning up grace minute-by-minute. (That’s me, by the way.)
In the scale of things, when compared to God’s purity, I am no more clean and worthy of eternal joy — now, or ever — than is bin Laden, Pol Pot, Hitler, Mussolini, or Dahmer. Sure, compared to them, I look great. But on my own and compared to God, I’m in their league, not his.
You’re right. God doesn’t send “good” people to hell. They’re already there. It’s only by his grace, love, forgiveness, and mercy that we are saved from life without God by God himself.
May I ever be mindful of his grace and mercy.
Finally, there were a couple follow-up emails that I had missed and failed to respond to in my previous post, so I rounded them up and sent one final email.
As a follow-up to my recent post, I realized there were a couple other comments I wanted to chime in on, please forgive me if I act like I “have all the answers.” I don’t, but I do have a perspective, and I hope it helps.
Conversation with Good, Happy Pagans
Last Tuesday, March 11, Steven wrote:
Â« I’ve found that the “good” and the “moral” are the hardest to witness to. They don’t see their need for a Savior. Anybody else found that to be true? Â»
And Carissa followed almost immediately with agreement:
Â« Definitely… To be honest, I was kind of at a loss when my friend pulled that card. All I could think was, Jesus makes it better. Â»
I think it’s not the morally “good” people that are the hardest to talk to about faith. Rather, I think the morally “self-righteous” seem hardest to talk to — and that’s true whether they are believers or not. And when you read the gospel accounts, the morally self-righteous are the ones Jesus spoke most harshly to. Self-righteousness comes in many forms, I guess, but the worst are the religiously self-righteous, and they need to be help as much as the happily unchurched “good” folk do. Why? Because it seems the zealously good self-righteous crowd will be the the most surprised on the Day of Judgment. They will remind Jesus of the good things they’ve done in his name, the sacrifices they’ve made, and the moral acts they’ve performed. Instead, Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
You’ll find that text in Matthew chapter 7. Interesting, that’s also the passage where Jesus makes the point that everybody knows, basically, how to be good, but that God is even better. He illustrates this by saying, “Look, compared to God, you’re evil — but even so, you know how to be good to your children. When your son asks for bread, you don’t hand him a rock to eat. God does even better than that!” (My paraphrase. See Matthew 7:9 and following.)
But their moral goodness toward their children, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t count for much in the eternal scale of things because, in the end, only those who do the will of the Father in heaven will be counted as inheritors of heaven. What is the will of the Father? It’s not only obedience to his commands — his will is that everyone call on his name, repent, and confess Jesus Christ as Lord of their total life (John 6:40, Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17, Luke 13:3, Acts 3:19, Acts 17:30, Romans 10:9-10, 1 John 1:9).
Done vs. Do
See, the self-righteous believe that it’s what one does that earns a way into heaven. But alone among all religions stands Christianity teaching that nothing we do earns us eternal life. It’s only what has been done by Christ that works. All the rest, our obedience, flows from that, but even then it’s not to our credit for it is God who works in us and through us to do his will. (Philippians 2:12 and following.)
How Do We Know What Is Good?
For discussion with unbelievers, I believe it’s good to discuss the reality of good and evil to help introduce God’s goodness and what he considers evil. What’s great about this is that unless you’re a committed materialistic humanist who believes that all of life is merely “molecules in motion,” that we are simply advanced forms of protoplasm, then a belief in the moral good has to have something that informs it.
In other words, if we are simply massive collections of molecules, then ideas such as good or evil, right or wrong, or beauty and ugliness have no real meaning. If we are mere matter and nothing more, then it makes no difference whether you murder or love me, all that would matter is whether murdering or loving was useful for the moment. For the committed materialistic humans, there is no more literal value on a person’s life than a rat’s. Fortunately, few people outside academia or death-row are that fully committed to materialistic humanism: it takes a sociopath to truly believe that.
So, the good news is that since your friend believes in good and evil, half your work is already done. The question that you can wrestle with together is this: Where does he get his ideas of good and evil from? What justifies his belief that, say, murdering an innocent person is wrong while feeding the poor is good? How does he make this judgment? If goodness, beauty, and decency are to have any meaning at all, if there is some sort of moral law underpinning our codes of conduct, then where did we get this law from? Who, then, is the law giver? If your friend has ever experienced guilt, shame, or regret, ask him why? What made him feel this way? Would his life be better off if nobody ever felt guilt or shame from wrongdoing? What kind of a world would that be like? On the other hand, what kind of a world has rules for what’s good and bad and where violators are expected to feel remorse? And how would that kind of world merely evolve into being?
If God Is Good, Then…
If God, who created all these molecules, is the source of this universal moral code, then it makes sense to find out what his expectations are. And now! And, I believe, only Christianity points the way. Only Christianity describes a law-giver who not only created the universe and all that is in it, but also condescended to reveal himself to his creation not only generally, through nature and our own innate sense of right and wrong, but also specifically through revealed writings (the Bible), and personally in the person of Jesus Christ.
Further, in all other religions, what one does is the measure of one’s worthiness of reward. Only in Christianity is God the one who acts on our behalf to save us from the effects of sin. Only in Christianity is man seen as innately flawed and incapable of self-redemption. That’s why in nations influenced and shaped by Christianity, you’ll see checks and balances on power because Christianity recognizes that man is innately flawed and susceptible to evil. And that’s why when any other religious system is in political power in a nation, despots rise up and great evil follows. We only have to look at the Middle East to see this truth.
Embrace Doubt, Then Examine It
Finally, your friend’s doubts are healthy. But it might be helpful to talk about how his belief system is itself informed by leaps of “faith” that are essentially presuppositions and assumptions. For instance, in his view, people are (probably) basically good and that left to their own devices, people will usually make good choices. However, the reality is that people are heavily driven by self-interest and will often make bad choices, especially when manipulated by the need to be accepted, loved, praised, respected, followed, or feared. A number of psychological studies have shown this to be true, from subjects who thought they were giving volunteers electrical shocks to other subjects who abused “prisoners” in campus experiments conducted in the last century.
There’s more that could be written on this, but I’ve already written too much. I encourage you to seek out Tim Kellers’ book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism and C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity. I understand Chuck Colson’s recent book, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters, also covers this ground nicely, though I haven’t read it yet. Also, noted and influential (former) atheist Antony Flew, after decades of leading the charge against Christianity, recently converted to Theism and now accepts the possibility that there is a God. He’s not fully Christian (yet!) but his account of his “conversion” may be helpful, it’s titled, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
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