For most people, when pressed on their belief in the eternal usually reply something like this: Yes, there may be a God; they will concede. But “I’m not worried,” they say. “I’m a good person, after all, and God will judge me accordingly.”
I’d like to explore a different approach, by examining what people mean when they say they are “good” and why a God they never bothered to get to know should care.
We can be “good” at things that do not involve others. For instance, we can be good at building sandcastles or doing crossword puzzles. But usually, when we say we are good at something, we mean that our performance is meeting or surpassing expectations. While we might not be aware of it, we are sneaking in a standard against which we judge what we have done. For instance, if we’re talking about sports, we mean we possess the skillset, discipline, and experience necessary to play effectively and to win. If we’re dealing with academics, we mean that we are sufficiently bright, hardworking, and knowledgeable to demonstrate our mastery of the subject on the test or in the class we have taken. If we’re thinking about the work environment, we mean that we know what is expected in our role, and we have the skills, experience, and dedication to accomplish our goals.
In each of these scenarios, we are buying into a game that we know we did not ourselves create. Someone who came before us outlined the parameters of what was expected and set the rules. While new games, new challenges, develop over time, we seem to be built to intuitively look for the rules of the “game” and seek to compete. And while often there is a specific reward we have a mind, a moment’s reflection should demonstrate that we seem to be, by nature, hardwired to try to surpass a standard we know is there.
Pursuing this line of thought to the next step, what else do these ways of “doing good,” of surpassing expectations, have in common? In addition to measuring up to a standard deriving from some preceding standard-setter, they all involve some form of relationship with the one, or the group, that sets the standard. We measure the good based on what performance is expected of us by someone who is in charge and who, in the end, will measure the performance. Whether the ref, the teacher or the boss, if we really want to stand out as good – no, as truly excellent and worthy of praise and a reward – we’d be well advised to find out what the particular judge thinks qualifies as good. An Olympic skater waiting for the judges’ score has in mind a clear understanding of exactly what performance is being measured, and what gaffs or missteps would qualify as a failure. And, the more powerful the judge and the more important the competition or event, the more crucial it is to understand the standard and to get it right. After all, it’s more important for the employee or the prison inmate to understand what good means than the person who is trying to finish a crossword puzzle.
Now, of course, for any particular event or competition we have in mind, the only sure way we can know with certainty what qualifies as good is to get to know the one who will be judging the performance. However, successful in other areas of their lives, the modern secularist simply does not see the point in doing this with the ultimate question – why am I here and who or what put me here? They are not troubled by the apparent disconnect – why does it matter in every other pursuit in life but not to the central pursuit, the most basic and ultimate one regarding origins…and the ultimate destination. The modern secularist doesn’t know anything about the One who, in the end, will judge his performance, the One who is going to say whether all these so-called good works amounted to anything of value. More importantly, they don’t even care. How odd this seems, to be so concerned about being “good” at lesser things and not put any effort into asking the right question about the “whole thing.” No doubt if pressed, they would say that God hasn’t bothered to communicate the standard to them, hasn’t made Himself known in the right way. Perhaps they think that justifies not trying harder to see if this is true.
I suspect most nonbelievers expect that God if he is actually there, will appreciate all the “good deeds” they did over the years and be happy with them. Perhaps they are picturing a sort of cosmic subway station; their many good deeds over the years will act like coins in the gate, allowing it to swing open for them if they’ve guessed wrongly and there really is a judge awaiting their arrival.
Christians, by contrast, know that our good works don’t earn us admission into heaven. But the secularist isn’t thinking that way. When he tells you he is good, he means he expects God to see this as well. You should remind him that by his own standard, he may be in a bit more trouble than he thinks. The coins he is depositing are from a different realm, and they don’t work with the guardian of the gate. It’s actually the wrong currency.
Think of it this way: can I ask the teacher of a different class to give me an A based on the good work I am doing in my class? Can I ask your employer to pay me for the good work I am doing for my employer? Should I expect my friend to give my son an allowance for the chores he performs at my home? If you weren’t doing the work for someone you knew, the way you knew he wanted it, why would you expect to be compensated, let alone rewarded?
Why then should the secularist who knows nothing about God, and cares even less, expect God to recognize any of his works as good?