Where in the world did we ever get this idea that you have to be good to go to Heaven - or that if you are good you will go to Heaven (and nothing else is required)?
The more I think about it the more baffled I get, because it's definitely not in the Bible.
But then again, there are hundreds of misconceptions about what's actually in the Bible, and this could just be one of them. Perhaps it's like the "biblical" promise that "God helps those who help themselves," which is not in the Bible. That one comes instead from the decidedly un-Christian Benjamin Franklin, who ridiculed the idea that God would take an active role in people's lives.
So, if the idea that we are saved by behaving ourselves is not in the Bible, where did it come from? I've managed a few theories.
1. A couple of the usual suspects are blissfully-ignorant pop culture and misunderstood Sunday School lessons. They're an odd couple perhaps, but these two seem to work very effectively together - each inspiring the other to increasingly ludicrous obsurdities. Take, for example, the impression many have that deceased humans become live angels complete with harps and wings. And how about the vague popular belief that Satan has horns and a pointy tale?
2. If not ignorance & confusion, maybe it came from the debate among the early Christians over whether or not a person had to obey the Law of Moses to be saved. But that was never really about being good. It was about being Jewish. The question was, does a non-Jew need to become a Jew (and follow the Jewish law) in order to be a Christian and thus be saved.
3. For centuries the Church taught that works done in church or for the Church were the key to salvation. Things like tithing, ceremony, perfect attendance, unthinking obedience to Church leaders, etc were held up as requirements for eternal life. Do them, and you will live. Fail in them, and hell awaits. Sadly, God's way of salvation was taken hostage and warped to control God's people. It took men like Martin Luther to re-discover the biblical truth of salvation by faith alone.
4. A sloppy reading of the Old Testament could also be to blame. The Old Testament is full of promises to those who are faithful and righteous - but they are promises of physical, emotional, material, and spiritual blessing - not salvation in the Christian sense. Salvation like that only appeared when Christ did, and to my knowledge, it is never linked with "being good". (It is, however, very often linked with "righteous living" - see below.)
5. Or maybe it's a result of the desperate desire we humans have to see a recognizable relationship between what (other!!) people do and what happens to them in the end. And it's true that the New Testament does recognize a direct correlation between righteousness and salvation. It's just not in the direction people normally expect, so they miss it.
It is not: If righteous, then saved.
It is: If saved, then righteous.
More on this last topic next week.