Why Good People Won’t Go to Heaven
May 20, 2006
I’d like to talk to you about who goes to heaven. We all know that the Bible teaches the reality of heaven and the reality of hell. Jesus himself spoke of both places many times. All of us, I’m sure, would like to go to heaven if we could. Even if you are not a Christian, I’m sure if given a choice, you would choose heaven, whatever it is and wherever it is.
I begin with a very simple observation. Not everyone is going to heaven. Jesus said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). A line from a Negro spiritual says it well, “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t goin’ there.” Lots of people talk about heaven, and most people think they are going there, but that’s not what Jesus said. There are two roads in life–one leads to heaven, the other leads to hell. There are many on the road to hell, only they don’t know it. This means that millions of good, decent, religious people who think they are going to heaven will one day find out how wrong they were.
My second observation is that most people believe that good people go to heaven. According to one poll, 53% of Americans agreed that “Good works can earn a place in heaven.” So I ask the question very pointedly: Will good people go to heaven? I believe the answer is no. In this message I’m going to share four reasons why good people won’t go to heaven.
I. Because You Can Never Be Good Enough.
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (v. 1). This is a truly shocking statement. Paul (a Jew himself) was praying for his Jewish friends to be saved. That raises a troubling question, doesn’t it? What about all the people in the world who aren’t Christians but they have their own religion and they are happy with it?
*What about the Muslims?
*What about the Hindus?
*What about the Buddhists?
*What about the followers of Confucius?
*What about the millions who follow tribal religions?
*What about people who follow the Baha’i faith?
*What about the practitioners of Native American religions?
For that matter, what about the millions of people with no religion who seem perfectly happy just as they are?
Before I say anything else, we must acknowledge the prevailing view that all religions are essentially the same. They are simply different roads leading up the same mountain. One road goes east, the other west, but the all end up at the same place. According to a 2005 Newsweek/Beliefnet poll, “eight in 10 Americans–including 68 percent of evangelicals—believe that more than one faith can be a path to salvation.” George Barna reported that 64% of Americans agreed with the following statement: “Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others all pray to the same God, even though they use different names for God.” Barna reported that 62% of those surveyed agreed that “it does not matter what religious faith you follow because all religious faiths teach the same lessons about life.”
“If It Works For You”
What can we say in the face of those statistics? For one thing, we’re living in a confused generation. Once we lost the concept of absolute truth, it was only a short step to opening the door to universalism. Barna’s findings ought not to surprise us or depress us. They simply alert us to the fact that lost people are truly lost. Lacking any solid foundation for truth, they have adopted a kind of “anything-goes” mentality. “If it works for you, it must be okay.”
Earlier this week I met a man who serves as a youth pastor in a mostly liberal mainline denomination. We discussed the difficulty of convincing today’s teenagers that there is such a thing as absolute truth. The youth pastor said many of his students have trouble with the concept that homosexuality is always wrong. He went on to say something like this: “Many people want to say it’s alright to be homosexual and also be a Christian at the same time. If you press them on tough passages like Romans 1:24-26, they will respond by talking about Jesus in a vague, fuzzy way. It’s as if having an ’experience’ of Jesus trumps anything the Bible actually says.” That’s a convenient theology because it allows you to disregard what the Bible says about sin and still claim to be a Christian. You end up with a fuzzy experience that allows you to bypass all those pesky dos and don’ts in the Bible.
Against all of that we have the majestic words of Jesus. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). When Jesus said, “I am the truth,” he was making an utterly exclusive claim about himself. A few years ago Moody Magazine carried a cover story about living in “Post-Christian” America. How do you do evangelism in a society that rejects any concept of absolute truth? One writer commented that many people have shifted from being agnostic to ignostic. An agnostic says, “I don’t know if God exists;” The ignostic says, “I don’t know what you mean.” We’re now dealing with people who don’t know who God is, or who Jesus is, or what the gospel is, or what salvation is all about. That means we have to start at the very beginning. We can’t assume that people know the basics about God. Most of them don’t. We’ve got to go back to the ABCs.
No Fuzzy Thinking!
I talked with a friend about the moral and spiritual crisis in his community. We both agreed that the spiritual darkness is deepening. But does that mean we just cut and run? No, it means that the darker the night, the brighter the light must shine. My friend made a compelling point that the world slides farther into the moral relativism where “anything goes,” we who believe the Bible must equip ourselves with basic Christian truth as never before. It won ‘t be enough to say, “I go to a good church.” No one out there cares about it. It won’t be enough to give some touchy-feely testimony about how good Jesus is. You can’t start there because too many people think Jesus is just another New Age guru–a glorified Santa Claus who helps you handle your problem. In the days to come, testimonies will only matter if they are actually based on objective truth.
If we’re going to reach this generation, we’re going to have to study apologetics, which is the art of explaining the Christian faith to those who don’t believe it. We’ve got to be able to answer questions and give a rational explanation for what we believe and why we believe it. Fuzzy-headed Christianity won’t cut it because the people of the world are already fuzzy about God. Believers are going to be put on the spot–at work, at the neighborhood block party, at the Rotary Club, at the local high school, at the country club, at the grocery store and in the car pool. You won’t be able to get by with pat answers. We’ve got to get serious about our Christian faith.
It Took Him Four Years
Not only that, we must take the time to build bridges with unbelievers. A man spent four years patiently sharing the gospel with someone he met quite accidentally. Over that time, he has invited this person to church, has explained the gospel over and over again, has answered hard questions, sometimes calling me for advice, has shared tapes and books, and has prayed repeatedly for his friend. Finally the friend called and said, “I did it.” “What did you do?” “I asked Jesus to be my Savior.” Think about that. It took four years of hard work and prayer, but it finally paid off. That’s what it’s going to take if we’re going to win our friends to Jesus. The day is long past when we could simply float a gospel blimp over our town and drop Bible tracts over the side, hoping to bomb people into the kingdom of God. That never worked very well. In an ignostic age, it doesn’t work at all.
One other implication. You can’t expect your pastor to do evangelism for you. No matter how eloquent the preaching may be, it’s not enough. Remember, the people “out there” truly don’t understand what the pastor is talking about. In the future, we’re going to have to see ourselves as a “team” in which we build bridges through relationships, while at the same time offering various “entry-point” small groups, events, classes and programs. Sunday morning sermons won’t do much good unless you’ve already been doing some bridge-building beforehand.
But all of this means getting dead serious about our Christian faith, which includes dealing with the uncomfortable truth that outside of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation. Nothing you can say goes more against the grain than this. But Paul said, “I’m praying for the Israelites to be saved.” We must say the same thing, believe the same thing, and be prepared to stand our ground when we are called narrow-minded.
Let us be crystal-clear on this point. Good people don’t go to heaven–not even good people from other religions–because no one can be good enough.
2. Because Good People Are Fundamentally Deceived About Their True Condition.
“For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (v. 2). When Paul says they were zealous for God, he knew what he was talking about. When we think of the law, we usually limit it to the Ten Commandments. But observant Jews went much further. By their own count, there were 613 commandments in the Old Testament–”Do this, don’t do that, don’t touch this, eat this, don’t eat that, bring this sacrifice, don’t bring that sacrifice.” To those commandments, the rabbis had added thousands of additional commands. They had rules on top of rules, all designed to keep people from sinning.
There were two problems with that system: 1. There were so many rules that the average person could never be sure of keeping them all. That’s what Jesus meant when he accused the Pharisees of putting a heavy yoke on people (Matthew 23:4). There was too much to remember. 2. There were so many rules that many people ended up trying to keep the rules but not worshiping God from the heart. So you either ended up failing or you became a hypocrite who just went through the motions.
Religion tends to do that to people. It turns people into failures or hypocrites or both. The same thing happens today when people base their acceptance with God on outward conformity to rules and regulations. You either feel guilt because no one is perfect or you feel proud of how good you are–and that pride is sin.
Good people won’t go to heaven because they are fundamentally deceived about their true condition. Isaiah 64:6 uses a very graphic picture to describe the truth: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Have you ever seen a rag after a man has used it to clean his engine? It’s covered with dirt, grease and grime. Now imagine dragging that rag through a puddle of human excrement and then dipping it in diseased human blood. That’s the picture behind the phrase “filthy rags.” That’s what God sees when he looks down from heaven at your life. Even the good things you do are polluted with sin. We say, “Look at me, God, I’m so good.” And God says, “All I see is a pile of dirty rags.”
3. Because Good People Think They Don’t Need Jesus.
“Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to estalish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (vv. 3-4).
We now arrive at the crux of the problem. Good people don’t go to heaven because they think they don‘t need Jesus. That’s what happened to the Jews. Because they didn’t seek the righteousness that comes from God, they sought to establish their own. That’s what all those rules and regulations were about. That’s why they added so much to what God had already said in the Old Testament. They were trying to “establish” their own righteousness. To put it in simple terms, they didn’t want God’s way so they set up their own way to go to heaven. They didn’t understand God’s plan (salvation by faith) so they came up with one of their own. They made up their own rules, so to speak.
They didn’t understand that Christ is the end of the law. The word “end” means completion, fulfillment. Everything in the Old Testament points to him. All those animal sacrifices pointed to his bloody death on the cross. Even the Ten Commandments pointed to him because he’s the only one who ever kept them perfectly.
Many of the Jews thought that by keeping the law they could be good enough to go to heaven. But they had it backwards. The law was meant to show them that no one was good enough to go to heaven. They missed the whole point. The law was like a schoolmaster to lead the Jews to Christ (Galatians 3:24). How? By revealing their failure and showing them their need for a Savior. But they missed it.
What About Baptism?
A few years ago I talked with a woman who had just started attending the church in Oak Park. She enjoyed the services, but she had a serious problem. “Pastor Ray, I love the church but I have a hard time whenever you “pray the prayer” at the end of the service.” That’s because she comes from a church that teaches that you must be baptized in order to be saved. So it bothers her when I lead in a prayer to accept Christ. “Do you think people really become Christians when they pray the prayer?” My answer is, Yes, if they are sincere. But you aren’t saved by prayer but by Jesus Christ. If when you pray, you sincerely turn from your sin and trust Jesus to be you Savior, at that very moment you are born again.
Many people are as confused about how baptism fits into the picture. “We believe in baptism. Nobody believes in water baptism more than I do,” I told her. I pointed out that when we remodeled the sanctuary, we built a baptistry. That fact was vital to me because the church had gone seventeen years without baptizing anyone in our Sunday worship services. We had to use borrowed facilities for all those years. We spent thousands of dollars redesigning the front of the sanctuary to build a baptistry precisely because we believe baptism is important. It happened that the very next day I talked with a man who asked if he and his family could be the first ones baptized in the new baptistery. Since no one else had asked, I said sure, he and his family could be first.
Baptism is vitally important. But let’s not confuse it with salvation. Baptism means nothing unless Jesus is already in your heart. If he’s in your heart, then you are already saved and forgiven and baptism is a public expression of your inward faith. Baptism does not save you or help save you. You’re not a Christian just because you were baptized as a baby or as an adult. I can hold you under water so long that you’ll come up singing “Amazing Grace,” but that won’t make you a Christian.
Romans 10:4 makes it plain. Righteousness comes to “everyone who believes.” Not “everyone who is baptized.” Not “everyone who joins the church.” Not “everyone who is a good person.” God’s righteousness is given only to those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Even church members need Jesus. I received a letter from a man who had attended Calvary for a short time before he moved to another area. As I was preparing this message, his letter came to my mind because he was in the situation so many people are in today–religious but lost.
Dear Pastor Ray,
A little over a year ago, I attended Calvary for the first time. Being a Catholic, I was brought up believing that attending another religious denomination church was a sin. With the help of my wife who is a Christian, I ventured out because there was an empty void in my life.
Together we attended Calvary, but I must admit the first encounter was only okay. It didn’t move me, but I liked the no kneeling part. The following week I went back to the Catholic church and Marion continued coming to Calvary. Little did I know the seed was sown. Two weeks later I asked Marion if I could go with her again! That Sunday the Lord spoke to me through your sermon on Tetelestai (The Greek word that means “It is finished”). I finally understood the free gift of salvation and asked Jesus Christ to be my personal Savior.
Shortly thereafter we moved to Algonquin, Illinois and became members of the Village Church of Barrington. Not only did the Lord bless us with the house, but He also provided us with a boat. When it came time to name the boat, the Lord was at it again. Without hesitation, “Tetelestai John 19:30” was what we called it.
Not only is the word “Tetelestai” very special to me, but what a wonderful way to witness. I have had all age groups ask how to pronounce the word and ask its meaning. I even had one man ask if my name is John and if I was born in 1930. (I was hurt. My mom was born in 1930.) To date I have had only one elderly man who was sitting on the pier fishing, look up at me at say, “It is finished! I like that!” How ‘bout that… only the fisherman knew!
God’s love and peace,
(Click here to read the story of Craig’s testimony after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.)
There are many wonderful things in that letter, but I pause to point out only one. Craig first came to church because although he was very religious, he still felt there was an empty void in his life.
That void was filled when he met Jesus.
What happened to Craig can happen to you. He discovered the wonderful truth that being saved and being religious are two different things. Being saved depends 100% upon the finished work of Jesus Christ. When Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” he meant it! The work of salvation was complete, the price had been paid, the penalty removed. All that is left is for you to believe it.
4. Because Good People Wouldn’t Be Happy If They Did Go to Heaven.
This is the final reason why good people won’t go to heaven: They wouldn’t be happy there. That may seem like a startling statement because heaven by definition is a place of eternal happiness. The answer is yes, but heaven will be a happy place only for those who truly belong there. Good people would be unhappy there because they don’t belong there.
Who belongs in heaven? Saved people. People redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 7 speaks of this when it pictures a vast multitude standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They are black, white, Asian, Hispanic, tall, short, men, women, young, old, from every tribe, tongue, nation and kindred. They have come from every corner of the earth to praise God for his salvation. Who are these people will the courts of heaven? The Apostle John gives us the answer in verse 14: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” Washing the robes speaks of forgiveness, white speaks of purity, the blood speaks of Christ’s death on the cross.
Years ago I learned a little chorus in Sunday School called Heaven is a Wonderful Place:
Heaven is a wonderful place,
Filled with glory and grace.
I want to see my Savior’s face.
Heaven is a wonderful place.
How true and appropriate those words are. Heaven is for those who call Jesus Savior. If he’s not your Savior, then heaven would not be wonderful for you, even if you went there.
Bored in Heaven!
Have you ever wondered what we’re doing to do in heaven? Some people think you sit around all day polishing your halo, eating grapes, plucking a harp, and floating from one cloud to another. Other people think it’s going to be like an eternal frat party, only you don’t get drunk and you don’t get in trouble. The Bible paints an entirely different picture. Heaven will be a place of intense activity where we will spend our days praising our Lord who saved us from our sins. Jesus will be the focal point of heaven. All our activity will revolve around him.
Good people would feel out of place in heaven. Only saved people will enjoy it. Good people would get tired of all that singing and worship. They would wonder what all the fuss is about. They would feel bored after a while. After all, good people think they deserve to go to heaven. Saved people know they don’t deserve to be there. Good people secretly believe they are good enough to be there. Saved people know they aren’t. Good people like Jesus but they don’t feel like they owe him anything. Saved people know they owe him everything.
Good people simply wouldn’t fit in in heaven. They don’t belong there, they wouldn’t be happy there, and they aren’t going there. If you’re planning on going to heaven because of your good life, forget it. You’ll never make it, you aren’t good enough, and if by some accident you ended up there, you’d soon put in for a transfer.
Heaven belongs to those who are saved by the blood of Jesus. No one else will get in.
Are You a Good Person?
I close my remarks by pressing home the question: Are you a good person? I’m sure you are or you wouldn’t be reading these words. I’ve no doubt about your upstanding character. I’m sure your friends and neighbors would vouch for you. I’ve no doubt that you pay your bills, mow you grass, go to work every day, and take care of your obligations the best way you can. I can even imagine that you may well be a model citizen, the kind of person others would like to be if only they could. Please accept my compliments on the good life you’ve been living. Every society needs fine people like you. What would we do if everyone were a crook? Thank God for good people, decent people, patriotic people, law-abiding people.
So we’ve established that you are a good person. That leads me to a second, far more important question: Are you a saved person? Perhaps you don’t know how to answer that. Many times good people have trouble understanding their need for salvation. They feel that to be saved is to admit some kind of personal failure. As a matter of fact, that’s correct. The Bible says that we are all sinners. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Are you willing to admit that you are a sinner in the eyes of Almighty God? The Bible also says that sin leads to death. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Are you willing to admit that your sin leads to eternal death and separation from God?
The Bible also has some good news for you. Christ died on the cross to forgive you of all your sins. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The Bible also says that “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).
If you are a good person and you want to go to heaven, there is one thing you must do. You must call upon the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
I began this message by saying that good people won’t go to heaven. That’s certainly true, but you have to add a statement to make it clear. Good people won’t go to heaven as long they trust in their goodness to get them there. There will be no one in heaven who can boast of their goodness. In heaven the only boasting will about how Jesus has saved us from our sin.
Can a good person go to heaven? Yes, if he is willing to turn away from his goodness and trust Jesus Christ for his eternal salvation. As long as you cling to the slightest shred of your goodness, you’ll never see the gates of heaven. Once you let go of the rags of your own righteousness, you can be saved.
That means there is hope for everyone. I’ve got good news and better news. The good news is: You can be saved–no matter how bad you’ve been. The better news is: You can be saved–no matter how good you’ve been. We’ve always known the gospel can save sinners. Now we know it can even save good people if they are willing to let go of their goodness.
Ponder the words of this little verse:
Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
I risk my whole eternity.
That is what it means to be a Christian. It means trusting in Christ so much that you risk your eternity on what He did for you in His life and in His death. I have sometimes told people that trusting Jesus for salvation means to trust Him so completely that if He can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there. Are you willing and ready to do that?
Perhaps it will help you to form your words into a very simple prayer. Even while I encourage you to pray this prayer, I caution you that saying words alone will not save you. Prayer doesn’t save. Only Christ can save. But prayer can be a means of reaching out to the Lord in true saving faith. If you pray these words in faith, Christ will save you. You can be sure of that.
Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I know that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. I am ready to trust you as my Lord and Savior. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior. Amen.
If you have prayed this prayer in sincere faith, you may want to write the prayer, initial it, and put it in your Bible along with today’s date as a reminder that you have come to Christ in faith, trusting him as your Lord and Savior. In the end I can’t believe for you or you for me. Jesus said, “Come unto me.” Will you come? Come and see for yourself. Come and discover how Christ can change your life.
If you are fearful, put your heart at ease. He avoids no seeker. He will not turn you away. You will see for yourself. God invites you. But still you must come. Do not hesitate. Stop making excuses. Give up the notion that you can be good enough to go to heaven. Come to Christ and be saved. Trust in him and your new life will begin. Amen.