A reader asks this about good people:
There seem to be a lot of good people doing kind things out there; it’s hard to believe they will be condemned to hell because the only way there is Jesus. I reconcile myself with knowing my Savior is 100% good. But does God send good people to hell just because they don’t accept Jesus as Savior?
To paraphrase R. C. Sproul, “Nothing happens to good people because good people do not need salvation.” Of course, the clear teaching of both the Old and New Testaments is that although some people appear outwardly good, there are no truly good people:
The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. Psalm 14:2-3
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23
Now, the Biblical notion that no one is good puzzles people, especially Americans. A 2006 Barna survey found that Americans “generally see themselves as good people, spiritually stable, and living a good and honorable life.” They “hold a generally favorable impression of themselves”: 97% think they are “a good citizen,” 94% think they’re “friendly,” and 90% say they’re “generous.”
So why the disparity between what Americans think about themselves and what the Bible says? I think that’s best explained with an analogy.
Fifteen-foot New Zealand tea trees with ruby red flowers screened and shaded our yard for twenty-five years, until they died suddenly a few weeks ago. When we pulled them out, our five-foot wood fence covered in English ivy stood visible for the first time in decades, swaying a bit. That night, the wind knocked the fence over, stripping away ivy as it fell and exposing extensive termite damage and decay.
A fence can look good without actually being good.
So can people. Here are seven reasons why.
1) Looking Good Doesn’t Make Us Good People
Today in America, we’ve got a “fence” of laws and etiquette rules. We tend to think that those who stay on the law-abiding side of that fence are good people.
In Jesus’ day, there was a group of people who likewise had a “fence” of rules that went beyond what God commanded, rules that, if you followed them, most people would say that you’re a good person. Though we think negatively about them now, in Jesus’ day most everyone thought the Pharisees were the epitome of good. Except Jesus: Jesus knew their hearts weren’t pure.
Americans are like Pharisees: We think law-abiding, charitable people are good, because we forget the heart.
The English ivy covering our fence hid the infestation of termites beneath; we had to look closely and peel back the ivy to see the true condition of the fence.
In the same way, outwardly following decent laws and rules can cover what’s in our hearts and can hide an infestation of hatred, lusts, self-indulgence, and greed within. We need to look closely and peel back our outward good deeds to see the true condition of our hearts.
For example, Jesus explained that fantasizing things you want to do but don’t want to get caught doing—such as hurting someone you hate or sleeping with someone other than your spouse—is sinning in your heart and taints you (1 John 3:15; Matthew 5:28); after all, if the only reason you don’t do what you want to do is you don’t want to get caught and suffer the consequences, then you’re refraining out of self-interest, not goodness. Jesus called controlling outward actions while letting the heart run amok to be equivalent to splashing white paint over a sepulcher of decay, stench, and rot (Matthew 23:27-28).
2) Mere Looking Good has to Go
Although Clay had often examined the fence closely and knew of the termite damage for years, the neighbor who planted the ivy declined replacing the fence because it meant losing the ivy he liked so much. Similarly, we can decline to fix our heart issues because it may mean we’ll lose the outward trappings we think make us look good.
3) Doing Good Doesn’t Make Us Good People
In a narrow stretch where the tea trees didn’t grow, our fence started curving awkwardly beneath its green ivy load a few years ago, letting us know something was amiss. But an orange honeysuckle vine took root and quickly shot up a dozen feet, hiding the evidence that anything was wrong with the fence while displaying gorgeous orange trumpet flowers that delighted rufous hummingbirds and bright yellow orioles.
Likewise, if we donated money to help Hurricane Katrina victims and watch our neighbors’ yards while they vacation, these good deeds shoot up, look gorgeous, and delight those they help. But just as the honeysuckle hid the termites but didn’t remove them, so our good deeds may hide our sins but can’t remove them.
4) What Darkness Hides Decays
The variegated ivy that clambered up the fence and tea trees grew so thick that sunlight couldn’t break through. In the dank darkness, the fence decayed.
In the same way, Jesus said those who thought they were good—“who trusted in themselves that they were righteous”—wouldn’t bring their deeds to God’s light because “anyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Luke 18:9-14; John 3:20). Because they didn’t acknowledge their sins, they didn’t ask for forgiveness and so they were left unjustified, with their moral decay spreading in spiritual darkness (Luke 18:14, 16:25; Matthew 23:27).
5) What Darkness Hides BreedsThe darkness under the thick ivy drew rats that nested and bred more rats. Ugh.
Similarly, those who believe they’re good have the dark environment that draws hypocrisy and lets it nest and breed. Here are hypocrisies Jesus identified in outwardly good people
- Publicly giving donations and offering showy prayers to gain others’ admiration (Matthew 6:1-6)
- Showing contempt towards others (Luke 18:9-14)
- Making a show of following some of God’s commands while ignoring the greater—but less eye-catching—commands of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23)
- Excusing in ourselves what we condemn in others (Matthew 23:28; Matthew 7:1-5)
- Using human laws unjustly (Mark 7:9-13)
6) Unfallen Sometimes Means Untested
When our tea trees came down, the fence couldn’t stand on its own against the wind. Though it survived strong winds with the tea trees’ help, by itself it fell to minor gusts.
Sometimes we think the reason we haven’t fallen to a particular sin is our goodness, when really it’s just that we’ve never been tested without supports such as health, steady income, strong relationships, dutiful children, success, peace, security, etc.
For instance, the Pharisees claimed they would never have committed their ancestors’ sins, such as killing prophets; they were too good for that. Not true, Jesus said (Matthew 23:29-36). Their “goodness” was being upheld by their positions of authority and popular opinion. When Jesus’ popularity caused those to fall, jealousy and rage set them to do the very deeds to which they were sure they’d never stoop.
7) What’s Perishable Perishes
The trouble with wood fences is that wood by nature is susceptible to termites and decay, so it’s not eternal.
Our bodies are susceptible to sin and decay too. In fact, “all have sinned” and no one is truly good (Psalm 14:3; Romans 3:10, 12, 23).
But there’s good news. Jesus told Nicodemus—an outwardly good Pharisee—that without Jesus all stand condemned, but with Jesus we can born again and have eternal life (John 3:1-21). Our present bodies will die, but we’ll enter God’s kingdom with a new, imperishable body that’s neither sinned nor been sinned against (1 Corinthians 15:42, 50-54).
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