Please indulge me as I proceed to conduct a bit of a thought experiment. Note that if I quote the Bible, I am not doing so in an attempt to prove that the Bible is true (that would be a circular argument) but rather to allow it to speak for itself as to what it really claims.

Mr Burns - One evil dudeThe question to ponder is: How can Christians claim that all human beings are "sinners"? Isn't that just being unnecessary pessimistic? Aren't people essentially good?

Yes, people are, in a sense, "essentially good". But Christians use those words in a slightly different way. To say a person is essentially good means that since people are made in God's image (that is, resemblance, likeness) we never are able to fully erase that essential quality, regardless of how much we may deface it.1 Essential goodness in this sense means that we cannot entirely remove or escape our divine worth; since God has given us this worth, it is not within our power to expunge it.

However, a more widespread expression of "essentially good" has a different meaning. What does it mean to be good, in this context? That is, what is the most important thing? It seems that in this popular worldview, the most important thing is that you should be nice to people. In our society (and most churches, for that matter) this is the most important thing. I mean, of course it is … right? What else could be more important … ?

As it happens, Jesus was once asked this very same question by the religious leaders of His time: What is the most important thing?

… but before we consider Jesus' answer, consider this short parable:

Guy by waterA man was walking by a river, when suddenly he heard a splash, and saw a woman flailing her arms in the water. The man recognized that she could not swim. He knew that she would surely drown in the fast moving water. Throwing off his coat, he dove in the river, grabbed her arm, and dragged her to safety.

For saving her life, the man was lauded as a hero, and the tale of his act of valor began to spread. Observers called for the man to be awarded a medal of honor, and a reporter even interviewed the man for the local paper.

However, the next day's newspaper told the rest of the story. When asked why he saved the woman, the man answered "I don't care about the woman herself. I only saved her because she owed me a hundred dollars. I'm an expert swimmer, and I knew that if she drowned she would never be able to repay my money. Frankly I couldn't care less if she drowned." The townspeople were aghast, and no one ever spoke again of awarding him a medal of honor.

Now, why do we react differently to the story after hearing the man's intentions? The act itself does not change, and although the act is not entirely negated, it seems in a sense tainted by the man's motivations. The man could no longer be considered a hero. It seems as though if a person does a right act for a wrong reason, we are innately (and rightly) repulsed by it. Motivation matters. For example, a person who commits manslaughter receives a lesser sentence than one who commits first degree murder; what differs is their motivation. So we can agree that motivation for an act can change the worthiness (or unworthiness) of the act. Let's keep this fact in mind.

Back to Jesus. When Jesus was asked what was most important, He answered by twice quoting the Old Testament:

Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:37-39)

Notice what is first: Loving God. This is what Jesus said is the most important thing. Loving God = #1. Loving your neighbors (by which Jesus means all people, even your enemies) is #2. Still important, you understand, but secondary. And according to Jesus, our #2 flows from our #1: our acts made in love for God will likewise be manifest in love for others, but the reverse is not necessarily true. John explains further: "This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome." (1 John 5:2-3)

Hope doveIf Jesus is right (this is how Jesus argued, not me) how can we be "good" if our motivation for acting ignores what Jesus claimed is most important? How can a person be "good" if their motivation is all wrong? How can a person be "good" if they ignore God?

Some will say, "But I believe that God exists. Just not in the Christian God."

Notice how Jesus responded to temptation, by quoting the Old Testament: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only." (Matthew 4:10, Luke 4:8) He didn't say to worship any 'ol god, but to worship the Lord. There are many false "gods" in the world, but only one God. I am reminded of James' admonishment: "You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror." (James 2:19, NLT)

Back to our original query: Are we basically good? Generally nice guys/gals? Mostly free from sin? That's like asking if a glass of water that's been repeatedly spit in is still "mostly good to drink". As Paul said, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) Sorry to be blunt, but sometimes doctors have to be blunt in order to begin a process of healing. Jesus Himself noted "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17)

The CrossTrying to 'save ourselves' (by our own effort) won't work, either. I know that's counterintuitive in our culture, because we're always told to do it ourselves. But how can someone drowning in quicksand pull themselves out? The good news (that is, the "gospel") is that we don't have to save ourselves. In Jesus Christ, God Himself came into our world in the flesh in order to save us from ourselves and certain death, and show us the way. Paul explains:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Maybe you've never been inside a church and your life (I know I avoided churches like the plague before I started following Jesus) and have never considered this before. Or maybe you grew up in a church but never heard any of this before. There are a lot of terrible churches out there, but that doesn't affect one bit the truthfulness of what Jesus said and did.

No matter where you're coming from, what you've just read is something worth thinking about. Anyone who says all the religions are basically the same has never really grasped what Jesus was offering: Good people don't go to heaven. Forgiven people do.

All that remains is to accept God's offer of grace.

Thanks for listening. Please feel free to read my story or contact me.

Further reading:

1 Thanks goes to Rev Victor Shepherd for his way of stating things so eloquently.
Note: Bible quotations are from the NIV or TNIV unless otherwise noted.