A young boy sat in front of a man he believed to be God’s greatest representative on earth. He is visibly nervous as he approaches Pope Francis to ask him a sincere and heartfelt question.
The Pope embraces the boy like a grandfather with a gentle and welcoming presence. This touching moment has been making the rounds on social media, and it’s easy to see why. The young boy asks a question that many of us have wondered about. His dad had died and was an atheist, so the boy wants to know if his dad will be in heaven.
This would be a difficult question for anyone to answer, not because it’s a hard theological question but because it is so deeply personal. After Pope Francis says a few words that seem to be ambiguous but hopeful, he then makes some statements that deserve some consideration.
Pope Francis turns to the crowd and asks, “… with a dad who was not a believer, but who baptized his children and gave them that bravura, do you think God would be able to leave him far from himself?” Those in attendance shouted a resounding “no!” He continues to ask, “Does God abandon His children?” Does God abandon His children when they are good?” Once again they all shouted, “No!”
Several times in answering the boy’s question, the Pope talks about how good the father’s boy must have been because he had his children baptized and because the boy was strong enough to ask such a tough question. At the end, he seems to suggest that God doesn’t abandon His good children. Most people have understood his words to mean that good people go to heaven.
In moments like this, we should always be compassionate, but we should also tell the truth. So the question is, did the Pope tell the little boy the truth? I have read in other interviews and letters written by the Pope where he suggest that as long as people are good, God will not abandon them, which sounds like the way things should work.
I mean, it seems like common sense. Good people go to heaven, and bad people don’t, and if the little boy’s dad was good then he has nothing to worry about.
After all, this is the way we want our world to work – good people get rewarded, and bad people get punished. And for many, this sounds like good news, but may I suggest that it is, in fact, the opposite. The good news that Jesus offers isn’t that being a good person gets you into heaven. What He tells us is that nobody is good, but if we believe in Him we have everlasting life.
The reason I would suggest that what the Pope said is not good news is because it is work based. Almost every faith is work based, which means if we do certain things then we get to go to heaven.
Christianity is unique because it is not based on any work that we can do; it is based upon the work that was done for us.
I think the reason the Popes response strikes a chord with so many is because we all see ourselves fundamentally as good people. Many of us have also lost people who were not believers but were people we would consider morally good.
The question that always comes to my mind when I hear such statements though is, how good does a person have to be?
To the boy who asked the question the Pope mentions that he must have been good because his father had his children baptized. Does this mean if you don’t baptize your children you are not good? If only good people get to heaven then who decides what is good, and is the line clearly drawn between bad and good, so that we can know for certain that we will be saved?
I, for one, think I’m a good person, but I am also aware that I have done and will do bad things. I’m not perfect which means I’m not always good. If I am honest with myself, sometimes I think really bad things about myself and others, and in those moments, would I still be a good person?
For Muslims, there is this invisible scale, and as long as your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you go to heaven. The problem is you never know where you fall on those scales. You can never know if you have been good enough. This is the problem with any work-based faith; nobody knows what good enough looks like which means there is no security for the believer.
Consider what Paul says in Eph. 2:8-9:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
This means that we are not save by our good works, but we are saved even when we are bad people, so that we can do good works. This is the real good news. As Jesus was dying on the cross, there was a criminal being crucified right next to him. It’s safe to assume he had not been a good person because such a death was reserved only for the worst criminals.
Right before he died he realized who Jesus was and believed in him. Jesus then tells him that “today you will be with me in paradise.” This incredible statement shows us that even though this man who had been bad his whole could still be saved.
If we are saved by our works, Jesus would not have been able to say that to him. If being good saves us, then it would have been too late for that criminal on the cross. The good news is that Jesus saves bad people, of which I am one. By His grace, my sins have been paid for, and I can know for certain that I will be with him when I die.