“You’re saying that Hitler and Mother Teresa would both suffer the same fate before God if they didn’t believe in Jesus?”
The words echoed over the radio airwaves as the host of “Religion on the Line” on ABC’s L.A. affiliate station patiently waited for me to answer. I knew the question was coming, but I had no tidy theological retort that would put the ball back into his court.
Someone once said that if you word the question right, you can win any debate. The question that evening was a classic case in point. The host might as well have asked, “Do you still beat your wife?” Simply answering “yes” or “no” wouldn’t do.
At the root of this discussion is the issue of Jesus as the only way to salvation. It is one of the biggest stumbling blocks of Christianity to those who are sincerely interested in leading moral lives and working hard to mitigate the impact of evil in the world. To make Jesus the sole issue of salvation seems to ignore the obvious difference between people of conscience and others who are entirely without scruples. Does that make sense?
Radical Surgery Required
Let me give an analogy that may add perspective. All things being equal, it’s good to practice healthy living. People who eat their vegetables, get proper rest, exercise sensibly, and don’t smoke or drink to excess, generally reap the benefits of longevity and vitality. Those who don’t, get sick.
But what if all things aren’t equal? What if there’s a hidden element, a terminal disease quietly sucking life out of the body? Healthy living does nothing to avert the underlying disease. In that case, the undisciplined junk food addict and the diligent athlete suffer the same fate. The silent tumor breaks its silence; the grave claims them both.
There’s a parallel to this in the spiritual realm. On the one hand, it’s good to live righteously. Holy living contributes to spiritual health. Those who continually practice sin eventually suffer its consequences.
There’s another side to the equation, however, a crucial element too often ignored. Our most valiant attempts at goodness are met with failure because a deep-seated malignancy sucks the life from our efforts. No matter how hard we try, each of us is dying from a spiritual disease no amount of righteous living can heal.
The sad truth is this: Ultimately, no person lives completely right. Sure, they’re capable of doing good things, sometimes phenomenal things. Even a dying patient can have healthy eating habits. But good works, like good meals, cannot restore vitality to a diseased patient; they can only maintain it. Restoration must come through surgery.
At first glance, it seems unfair that God wouldn’t consider all the good we’ve done. Think about it, though. When was the last time you received a letter from the D.A. congratulating you for not holding up a bank or shooting your neighbor?
Obedience to the law is expected. A year of good behavior doesn’t cancel out a year of lawbreaking, evening up the record. Every person, from the greatest to the least, has broken God’s law. That makes them guilty, and guilty people must seek God’s surgery: forgiveness. Agreed, some need more forgiveness than others—sometimes much more, just as a disease can ravage one body more violently than another. But every person is fatally stricken, nonetheless.
Ever Heard of the Ten Commandments?
Have you read the Ten Commandments recently? Take a quick inventory by asking yourself these questions.
Have you ever given allegiance to anything else over God in your life or used anything as an object of worship or veneration? Have you ever used God’s name in a vain or vulgar fashion? Have you worshiped God on a regular basis? Have you even once disobeyed or dishonored your parents? Have you murdered anyone, or even had harsh thoughts about someone (see Matthew 5:22)? Have you had sex with someone other than your spouse, or even thought about it (see Matthew 5:28)? Have you taken something that wasn’t yours? Have you lied? Have you simply wanted something that wasn’t yours?
Sound tough? It is. This is God’s Law. These are God’s requirements. Even in grammar school, 60% is a flunking grade, yet who among us has not violated each of these commandments many times?
Reducing the Ten Commandments to only two doesn’t help. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40). Even the best of us violate these two laws daily.
Whenever you’re tempted to trust in your own ability to please God, take a good look at the standard, God’s Law, then look at your own score card. To use Paul’s words, each of us is “shut up under sin” (Gal. 3:22). Our mouths have been closed, and we all have become accountable to God (Romans 3:19). Saved by our own goodness? The Law gives us no hope.
Try this calculation. If you sinned only ten times a day from your tenth birthday to your sixtieth—and keep in mind we’re not just talking about rape, pillage, and murder, but the full range of human moral failing, including heart attitudes and motives—what would your rap sheet look like? You would have amassed 182,500 infractions of the law. What judge in his right mind would turn you loose with a record like that?
Ghandi vs. Al Capone
The worst of us tend to whitewash our own contribution to evil. Al Capone said, “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.”1
By contrast, Ghandi—a man utterly committed to a life of virtue—was not so optimistic. Towards the end of his life he lamented, “It is an unbroken torture to me that I am still so far from him whom I know governs every breath of my life and whose offspring I am. I know it is because of the evil passions within me that keep me so far from him; yet I can’t get away from them.”
C.S. Lewis captured this contrast with these words:
When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less.... Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.2
If Lewis is right, then the One who is most holy sees sin most clearly. The One who is perfectly righteous understands the full tragedy of even the most “trivial” breach of goodness. God’s purity is without flaw, so He sees sin as it really is. That’s why He is not so inclined to dismiss our moral imperfections with a “boys will be boys” mentality.
Hitler and Mother Teresa
Could Adolph Hitler and Mother Teresa suffer the same fate? No and yes.
No, because they’d answer for different crimes and, as such, their judgment would be different. Just as there are degrees of sin (see John 19:11), there are degrees of punishment. Jesus said Sodom would fare better than Capernaum in the day of judgment (Matthew 11:24), though each would be condemned.
Yes, because each person must ultimately answer for his own sins—Hitler for his, Mother Teresa for hers, you and I for ours. Unless, of course, Jesus is allowed to answer for them.
That is the good news: Jesus, though rich, for our sake became poor, that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).
To stay alive physically, first cure the disease, then keep fit to maintain your health. To experience spiritual well-being, God must do surgery on the root problem, sin. Living righteously afterwards secures our spiritual vitality, but it can never cure our disease. Only Jesus can do that.