One of my nonreligious friends asked me a question this past week to answer on my YouTube channel. I originally planned on recording a video answer and publishing this post, but I have unexpectedly fallen ill this week (as I type this I have about a hundred degree fever). So for now, I will only be publishing this as written content, my apologies to everyone who enjoys my videos and was looking forward to this one.
Here is the question:
“If a person lives a great life, gives love to his friends, family and random strangers. If he upholds his beliefs and lives by example…
.. but he isn’t religious,
Does he get into heaven?”
There are so many things I want to say in response to this but first I’d like to say how grieved I am that Christianity is seen as a set of rules and regulations by the general population. I say this because of my background in legalism, I know that the Church has failed so many with this and I feel like this question shows that.
To begin answering this question, I must unpack a few things. First, what do we mean when we talk about heaven?
When I was growing up, I was led to believe that heaven was a super special place where everyone was floating around on clouds with angel wings. There was no pain or suffering there. I think the popular consensus of heaven is that it is the nice place where nice people go in the afterlife. This is in direct contrast to the scary place known as Hell, Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, or whatever you would like to call the place where bad people go.
This view of heaven and hell is actually not biblically accurate. Heaven is a place where a believer’s soul goes when they are separated from their body to be with the Lord when they die (2 Corinthians 5:6-9). Heaven is not the end all be all for a follower of Christ however. We believe that heaven is merely a stopping point as we await the resurrection of our physical bodies (made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection). After our physical bodies are resurrected, we believe that we will dwell in a New Heaven and a New Earth, ruled by Jesus Christ as King (1 Corinthians 15:51-53, John 5:29).
With this understanding in place, we can return to the question of what type of person partakes in this sort of eternal existence.
The answer to this is simple and makes perfect sense when you understand the underlying reality that the afterlife is spent either in communion with Christ (as expressed above) or separated from Him. People who have sworn allegiance to Christ in life (as codified in Baptism and expressed by faith) will abide with Him and serve Him. People who have rejected Christ and His rule as Lord of Creation will be refused admittance on those grounds.
It may seem a bit exclusionary, but that is, in some ways, the point. What King would want people in His Kingdom who do not care about Him or His sacrifice, much less believe in His existence?
Digging in further, the question of whether “goodness” alone can get you into heaven can be answered this way:
The world’s definition of good is largely subjective. I mean really, what counts as a good person? All have lied, stolen, lusted, hated, etc, often by their own admission. In addition to that, the bible says point-blank that no one is “good” (in themselves). Romans 3:10a NIV tells us,
“ As it is written:
‘There is no one righteous, not even one….'”
Scripture again reiterates that no one is good and that all have fallen short in Romans 2:22-24 NIV:
“This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Again, perpetual existence in resurrected paradise is not dependent upon us or our ability to be good because we are imperfect, even if we try to be “good.”