If a person lives a morally good life, but doesn’t believe in God, does he or she go to heaven?
This is an important question. If we rephrase this slightly, we can give a positive answer. That is, a person who lives a perfect life, with absolutely no sin at all, can go to heaven.
The problem is that even the best people we know – those who live by the highest moral standards – are still not perfect. Everyone has sinned and violated God’s law. And because God is just, He must punish sin. If God did not punish sin, He would stop being God.
Let me provide an illustration. In Chicago, Navy Pier extends about one kilometer into Lake Michigan. Imagine that a contest is held to see who can jump the farthest off the end of Navy Pier and out into Lake Michigan. I might be able to jump about 15 feet. An Olympic long jumper could jump almost 30 feet, and that would be impressive. But now consider that the other side of Lake Michigan is 90 miles away. From the perspective of someone on an airplane, who is high enough to see both sides of the lake, the differences between all of our jumps is insignificant.
Similarly, God is infinitely far away from us morally. From the perspective of God’s perfection all of us fall far short of God.
But someone might say: “How guilty am I? I’ve never done anything really bad like murdering someone.” Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount that if I am angry with someone, that is the equivalent of murder (Matthew 5:21-24). John elaborates on this and says that he who hates his brother is a murderer (1 John 3:15). Jesus went on to say that if I lust after a woman in my heart, that is equivalent to adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). The first of the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other gods before me.” But I have treated other “gods” as more important that God countless times – for example, people or possessions. So if I see my life in light of God’s perfect justice, I stand condemned for all my sins, including those in my mind and heart. And even if I was somehow able from this day forward not to sin again, I am still guilty for all the evil I have already committed. If God were to act in perfect justice, He could sentence me and every human to be separated from Him eternally.
But God is also patient and merciful. He sent his Son Jesus, who became a human being and lived among humans. He is the only person who lived a perfect life – that is, Jesus is the only person who actually deserved to go to heaven based on his good life. But he died the death of the worst kind of criminal to pay the penalty for our sins, so that if we believe in him, our sins can be forgiven and we can be credited with his righteousness.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
So we can answer the original question, “Can a morally good person make it to heaven?” There are no “morally good” people – no matter how “good” we imagine them to be – who can make it to heaven. We all need Jesus Christ, who made the way for all people to be restored to God.
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