[Many people skim the book’s table of contents and jump straight to this chapter or to the one preceding on “hell.” If you do so, you are depriving yourself of a true biblical understanding of the afterlife. If you want to read this chapter first, go ahead. However, afterward I encourage you to go back and read the book from the beginning so that you will have a solid understanding of what the Bible teaches about death and Sheol (Hades). If you’re not sure you want to invest that much time, then please at least read Appendix II which is a one-page summary of the book.]
But What About Bad People?
The other objection likely to be raised to the idea that everyone is going to heaven is “What about bad people?” We will answer this question from several angles.
Who Are These Bad People?
Who is bad? Of course, I don’t mean who is “hip,” “groovy,” “cool,” or “awesome.” I am using the word in its most basic sense as the opposite of good. Who, then is bad?
Jesus said something that bears greatly on this subject. He was approached by a well-to-do and law-abiding countryman who regarded Him as a good man. Here is their initial exchange:
“Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” Mark 10:17-18 NASB
Most people don’t protest when they are called good. In deflecting the praise ascribed to Him, Jesus was not being falsely modest. He was calling attention to a truth that ought to govern all our thinking: Only God is good.
When I was in the seventh grade my social studies teacher introduced us to a system of grading called “the curve.” Rather than having a standard range for the assignment of letter grades, she would first score all our tests. If there were a hundred questions and the best score was 90, then 90 would be an A. Under the system I was used to, 90 would only have been a B. I saw an opportunity for improvement in my grades without any increased study on my part. The only thing that might spoil my plans would be if someone in the class always scored a hundred percent. Then the curve would be of no effect.
We typically think like Jesus’ questioner. That is, we look around at the world we live in and mentally divide people into good and bad. But Jesus is pointing out that in doing this we are unconsciously leaving God out of the equation. When you include Him, it blows the curve. In the test of goodness, He scores a hundred percent and we all fail. That’s why we all die and He lives forever.
Jesus seemed always conscious of the goodness of God, and man’s inherent evil nature by comparison. For example, when He was giving His Sermon on the Mount and teaching on prayer He said,
“Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Matthew 7:9-11 NASB
The people He was teaching were His disciples, His very own students and followers. And He called them evil in comparison to God. At the beginning of this message He had called them the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Even the salt of the earth and the light of the world – that is, the best of humanity – is evil when compared to God.
“God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” said the apostle John (1 John 1:5 NASB). There is not a speck or hint of anything unseemly in God. He is goodness and love personified. We certainly want to be like that. And it is the most wholesome thing in the world when we “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” But there is something unwholesome in thinking we more closely resemble God than we do our weak and failing human brothers and sisters.
Jesus warned against this unwholesome attitude in several ways. Here is one of them:
And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14 NASB
The Pharisee was not even looking at God. All he could see was himself and this other fellow. Dividing the world into those who are righteous and those who are wicked, it is obvious to him which side of the fence each of them was on. He was “thankful” that he was not on the wicked side. On the other hand, all the tax-gatherer could see was God and himself. And it was obvious to him where the line was to be drawn. He knew God was the righteous one and he was the wicked one. Therefore, he sought mercy from God – because that’s what you can expect from someone who’s righteous. Both men wanted a good shake from God. The Pharisee thought he could get it by virtue of his own goodness. The tax-gatherer, by contrast, thought he could get it by virtue of God’s goodness. The tax-gatherer got it.
The tax-gatherer’s view of life was much more in line with reality. He counted God as an active player in this world. Measuring himself against the standard of God, he fell short but trusted God would bring him up. On the other hand, the Pharisee excluded God from the game. For all his religiousness, he did not even include God in his formulation of who was good and who was evil. He just lived his life according to what he could see with his physical eyes and when you graded humanity on the curve, he figured he was definitely in a higher percentile than the tax-gatherer. If he had only included God’s score in the curve, it would have awakened him from his false sense of superiority.
I was guilty of the Pharisee’s mindset. When I was in my twenties, I used to drive home late from work. On the way, I would pass a part of town where drunks could be seen staggering and sleeping on the curbside. I told myself that surely God must be more pleased with me , for I went home when I got drunk and didn’t abandon my family for the streets. When I would lose my temper with my wife I told myself that I wasn’t as bad as those husbands who beat their wives. I could always think of someone worse than me so I didn’t have to think of myself as a bad person. But once I began to consider Jesus of Nazareth, my thinking changed. I saw myself as having a lot more in common with the drunks of the street than Him. And I saw a lot more similarities between my behavior and that of wife-beaters than I did between my behavior and His.
This business of comparing ourselves to others not only gives a false sense of reality, but actually contributes to declining morals. You can always look around and find someone who seems worse than you. Therefore, we justify ourselves and don’t make strong efforts to improve. We don’t necessarily beat our chests and shout, “I’m righteous.” But neither do we make concentrated and sustained efforts at being more like God. As a result, morals keep getting pulled down lower and lower. The whole class’s grades go down because we threw out the Top Score and focused on the lowest score, just trying to beat it. In a period when society’s morals are declining, this attitude only intensifies the downward spiral.
The toxicity of this moral environment is made worse by the Pharisaic judgmentalism with which we increasingly view each other. We’re always noticing the bad in others because this keeps us from ever feeling like we need to change – that is, repent.
Therefore, if you take God out of consideration, “bad” is only a relative term. But since it is He who gave us life and He who raises us from the dead, it is only fitting that He should be included in our consideration of who is good and who is bad. And when we include Him, the question “But what about bad people?” becomes “But what about us?”
God Raises Both the Righteous and the Wicked
Do you remember this statement from Paul that we read earlier?
…there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. Acts 24:15 NASB
By now, you should be able to see how the righteous and wicked are divided up. Jesus is the righteous. That was the first resurrection. The wicked means everyone else. That was the resurrection of the dead.
The first resurrection was truly the resurrection of the righteous. One of Jesus’ many titles was “the Righteous One.” Take note: One. The apostles were quick to catch on to Jesus’ point that no one was righteous compared to God. Paul made the point emphatically in the book of Romans. He used both Old Testament passages and personal experience to drive it home:
…both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; Romans 3:9 NASB
as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one;” Romans 3:10 NASB
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23 NASB
Jesus Christ is the only one hundred percent righteous person who ever lived – and that’s because He was, and is, God. Every one of the rest of us has at least a little something to be ashamed of. True?
God drew the line between the righteous and the unrighteous by raising all the righteous at the first resurrection (there was only One that fell into that category) and everyone else at the second. We got included in the resurrection because the Guy who got there first put in a good word for us.
Without Jesus and until Jesus there was no resurrection of people. No one was found righteous enough to deserve exclusion from the penalty of death. And our being locked up under the power of death was the very problem that brought Jesus here. As Paul says in another place:
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. 1 Timothy 1:15 NASB
As long as we, like Paul, are seeing our trip to heaven at death as a gift of God’s mercy, rather than an award for our goodness, we are standing on solid ground. But if we still think the word “sinner” or “bad” is a label best reserved for people less righteous than ourselves then we have never gotten a good look at Jesus Christ and are living like Pharisees.
There Is Varying Glory in the Resurrection
Since Jesus Christ is the only one righteous and everyone is going to heaven does this mean our goodness is of no interest to God? No, no, and a thousand times no! It is of the utmost interest to God that we do good and not evil. It has been this way with Him from the beginning and will never change. God loves righteousness and He wants us to love it, too.
If you are a parent, you know the joy of bringing a child into the world. That child does not have to win your affection and devotion. You are seeking it with open arms even before the moment it springs from the womb. The child’s goodness does not win your love, the child itself wins your love. For even when the child is not good, you still love. Maybe even more. And your continual interest in the whole rearing process is for goodness – both goodness from the child and goodness for the child. If you and I can feel this way having played only a part in the child’s creation, how much more does God care, having orchestrated the whole thing?
God rewards righteousness both in this life and the one beyond. Just because all go to heaven does not mean that all will share in the same glory once we get there. Jesus has the place of the greatest glory in heaven because in the whole history of mankind no one ever showed so much goodness.
In analyzing the goodness of Jesus we must take into account how much evil was done to Him. For it is much easier to show goodness when goodness has been shown to you. When people are nice to us we tend to be nice to them. This is human nature. But divine nature is seen when goodness is shown in return for evil. After all his miracles of kindness and humble life, Jesus was utterly rejected by humanity. He was executed in cruel fashion to the taunts and jeers of bystanders. In return, He changed the destiny of the entire human race so that they would exist forever with Him in heaven. Never had so much goodness been shown in return for so much evil.
As you saw earlier in this book, no one really anticipated the nature of the resurrection from the dead. Even Jesus’ disciples expected His kingdom to be one of earthly glory and prestige. Two of them asked for a place of privilege in it. Let’s listen in on the exchange:
They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Mark 10:37-38 NASB
They did not realize that they were asking to be treated as shabbily as He was. For the more one bears up under undeserved suffering in this life, the more God will honor that person in the life to come. Of course, Jesus was God in the flesh but, as we have said, He didn’t get the highest place of honor in heaven just because of that. He earned it by the way He lived on earth. One of the two men who made this request of Him was himself executed because of his proclaiming the good news of a resurrected Jesus. His name was James. I am sure you will see him shining brighter than many in heaven.
Have you noticed that there is varying glory among the lights of the sky? The sun is brighter and bigger than the moon. Some stars are brighter or bigger than others. The lights in heaven are not uniform. Paul used this as an analogy to the resurrection of the dead in that long 1 Corinthians 15 passage that we read together. Here was that particular part:
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead… 1 Corinthians 15:41-42 NASB
You see what I mean? When those two disciples asked Jesus to be able to “sit with Him in His glory” they thought they were asking to be Vice-President and Secretary of State, or something like that. But they were unwittingly asking for glory in heaven for that’s where Jesus’ kingdom is. To “sit in glory” there would mean a life marked by intense goodness in the face of intense evil.
The varying glory in the resurrection, however, has not to do just with great and dramatic moments but with everything we do. Everything. Do you recall this from the passage where Hades gave up the dead?
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Revelation 20:12-13 NASB
What do you suppose was written in those books that the dead were judged by? Everything they did. Jesus said we have a God who counts and knows the number of hairs on our heads. If we are subject to this much attention, how likely is it that some of our activities might have escaped His notice? Some people strive for stardom or celebrity because they desperately crave attention. If they only knew how much attention they are already getting! And that stardom in heaven is possible for everyone.
Therefore, even though everyone is going to heaven God will show honor where it is due. You should, therefore, live daily in such a way that will secure the type of seat you would like to have. Beyond that, however, righteousness is not something to be pursued only because it brings reward in the life to come. We saw in the last chapter something of how it can spare us from much (though not all) trouble in this life. Unrighteous living invites judgment. Moreover, righteousness is its own reward and brings peace in this life. Thus we have abundant reason to seek the righteousness of God.
And one more thing. When we arrive in heaven do we want to be hanging our heads in shame because of the miserable and ungrateful way we’ve lived our lives on earth? Wouldn’t it be better to show up before Him eager because we thought better of the folly of our selfishness and began making amends while we were still on earth?
None of us will “deserve” heaven but we can at least make it look like God didn’t make a mistake when He invited us.
Just Be Glad You Got in the Door
In our pursuit of righteousness, let’s be sure we don’t fall back into attitudes of thinking ourselves superior and worthy of more honor than the next guy. Jesus told a parable to help us with just this issue:
And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:7-11 NASB
In other words, let’s just be thankful we got in the door of heaven and not go counting the number of “really bad” people who will have to sit behind us once we get there. We might get a rude surprise.
Jesus wanted to make sure that we understood how God views things differently than the world views them. Thus He warned us,
“But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” Matthew 19:30 NASB
Even though God is a God of justice, many inequities show up in this life. There are many people living quiet, honest lives whom we know nothing about. In the ages of heaven, God will allow us to see the glory of their lives that never made the evening news. Many of us will be so humbled by the stories of their simple faith and love that we truly will be thankful that we ourselves even got in to the same place as these folks.
Imitating, Not Begrudging, Generosity
That all are going to heaven is an act of God’s generosity. And generosity is not something that can be dictated from without. It must come from the heart of the giver himself. And once it does, no one should begrudge it. Once again, a parable from Jesus on the subject:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? ‘Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?'” Matthew 20:1-15 NASB
It would not be very becoming in God’s sight for us to be envious that others got into heaven with us. As any parent at Christmas time knows, the doling out of presents sometimes provokes envy instead of gratitude. Yet we love our children and try to teach them better.
In the time of David, a warring band had carried off the women, children, and goods of David and his 600 men. Just returned from a journey, 200 of them were too weary to go in pursuit. Nonetheless, the 400 achieved victory with the help of God, recovering from the enemy every person and every item that had been taken…plus some. On the return, some of the 400 insisted that the 200 who didn’t make the journey should be cut out of any of the extra spoils taken in the battle. David, however, would not allow it. Since the Lord had given the victory, the spoils belonged to all. And it was made a law in Israel. It is interesting that in the account, the Bible applies the adjectives “wicked” and “worthless” not to the 200 who were too exhausted to make the trip, but to the ones who wanted to cut them out of a share. Of all the attitudes revealed in this story, it is more than apparent which ones God would have us adopt and which ones He would have us reject. What is generously given ought to be generously shared. I’d like to say that again. What is generously given ought to be generously shared.
Rather than begrudging God’s generosity, we do best to mimic it. If we don’t, we can only expect a cooling of God’s affections. Another parable:
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord *said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:21-35 NASB
Do you have problems forgiving people? Imitate God. For to the extent that you withhold mercy from others you withhold it from yourself as well. As the Bible elsewhere says,
For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13 NASB
And for this reason it also says,
The merciful man does himself good,
But the cruel man does himself harm. Proverbs 11:17 NASB
Has the world hurt you? Forgive. It’ll heal you.
So, the first and best answer to the question, “But what about bad people?” is “Are there any other kind?” For only when we begin to understand and become truly aware of God is our sense of right and wrong adjusted to reality.
And even if someone has led what seems to us to be a despicable and worthless life, should our limited awareness of the details of the circumstances and issues of the person’s life be accepted as final judgment? Think about your own family. You can say what you want to them but woe to the outsider who says anything bad about them. If we are so zealous for what is ours, even when they are wrong, should we deny that God would be as protective for that which is His? Especially when we ourselves are among the ones He’s protective of? We never know all the details of a person’s life, and had we been in their shoes we might have performed even more poorly than they did.
None of this means that our actions don’t matter, or that we shouldn’t repent. All our actions matter, and all of us should live a life of repentance toward God. If we see someone else doing evil, we ought to go to school on it rather than just mentally condemn them. For the Bible says,
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. Romans 14:10 NASB
Our goal, therefore, is not to put down our brother. Or even to try to be better than him. It is to try to be a better person today than we were yesterday. Every day.
When you try to live this way, you become so much more aware of your own shortcomings. After all, since most sins have to do with thoughts or motives, no one could possibly know as much about your sins as you do. And having this kind of awareness makes you all the more likely to rejoice when you hear that bad people go to heaven, for it’s only then that you have assurance that you yourself will make it.
End of Chapter Eleven