The Problem of Goodness

There’s a couple of times I’ve heard people say that even though they aren’t Christian (or religious more broadly), they imagine that if God does exist, they’ll be acknowledged on Judgement Day (or whatever) for just generally trying to be a good person. It’s a fair idea – assuming God’s not an asshole, if you’re generally an alright person and you strive to make the world a better place because you think that’s the right thing to do, presumably God (again, presuming He’s not an asshole) would recognise that and give you a bit of credit. Let’s talk about it.

The broad question at hand is how salvation works. Most serious theologians agree that somewhere along the line, there’s a cut-off point, and if you haven’t accepted God by that stage, you’re fucked. Classically that point is often placed at death, which is why child baptism is such a big thing – high rates of infant mortality meant early baptism was necessary to safeguard babies from hell. Other people think there’s like a point during Judgement Day where everyone has a chance to get on board with the whole God thing before the judgement actually takes place, and others again think there are no second chances after death, but that some random non-Christians will be saved for basically being decent people. So it’s diverse. However, the one thing everyone agrees on is that you can’t be saved just by doing good things. Redemption by merit just doesn’t exist – which is weird when you consider I’ve just said some people get saved for being decent people. But there is a distinction.

A pretty key tenet of Christian thought is the role of sin in reference to salvation. Basically, people are shit. Even if you’re generally a good person, I don’t think anyone would argue that they’re perfect – and perfection is considered to be the bar for entry into heaven. This is why doing good things isn’t going to work – there’s no divine meritocracy, so to speak. It’s not a case of earning 1500 Good Points and then you’re set. You cannot be saved purely by doing good things. It’s not the end of the argument, but just hold onto that idea for a bit. Christians believe that nobody’s perfect, which means that everyone’s fucked and going to hell. That’s where Jesus comes in: he turns up, is literally God, lives a perfect life, and dies a horrific death in atonement for sin. In Christian thought, that act of atonement covers everyone. Everyone’s basically set now – and this is why the whole good works thing doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to do good shit to qualify, because salvation is freely given (and also the good shit probably isn’t good enough anyway). This is the motivating thought behind this piece: people talk about being a good person and sort of imagine that God will take that into account, and what strikes me is that unless you’re perfect, doing good things isn’t going to be enough to get you anywhere significant.

That probably sounds quite grim, uh, but we still have to get back to those people who probably get saved just for being decent people. I’d suggest that if they are saved for being good people, it’s not necessarily because as good people they’re doing good things. That’s the point of distinction – between good people in and of themselves, and the good things that they do. If they do get saved, I suggest it’s more for the first one than the second. Of course, we’ve already noted that you don’t get yourself into heaven with good works, so why might being a good person be considered different?

Let’s roll back a minute and consider the (hypothetical) mechanics of salvation. As before, you don’t earn salvation within Christianity – it’s a freely given gift. The imagery is that your own actions are overwritten: your life is ended and replaced by the life of Christ. This is the imagery of baptism, the submersion into water as death and the rising up as rising into new life. But of course we can’t argue that baptism is the sole qualification for entry into heaven – what about the Jews? What’s their condition for salvation? And what about everyone who existed before Jesus turned up and baptism was invented? Are they just fucked? There’s two options here – either every non-Jew before Jesus is fucked, which seems a bit mean, or there’s some other mechanism for salvation. We’re really just pissing in the dark as to what that might be, if it exists, but we might hypothesise some sort of existential orientation towards God, or towards goodness or justice or something by a similar name. If all good things are fundamentally from God, then any goodness found in a human being, religious or not, is alignment with the divine. It doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to say that people who’re committed to pursuing goodness are, in their own way, committed to pursuing God. Ideas of goodness might vary, and some people might perceive something as good that isn’t actually good, but fuck me, it’s not like Christians have a perfect perception of goodness either.

So again here we can see the good deeds issues come into play. If you’re someone who’s legitimately oriented towards making the world a better place, that’s what I imagine counting in your favour. I don’t necessarily think you need to have done a bunch of good things in order for that orientation to be legitimate. That is, people often sort of imagine a hierarchy of good actions: if you cure cancer, you’re fucking great, and if you do the washing, you’re okay. That kinda hierarchy isn’t necessarily the healthiest way to look at it. It privileges actors in the public sphere acting in the public interest, rather than, say, a person running a household and just putting along with day to day things. That sort of household maintenance is just as holy as any cure for cancer, which is why I say that the whole ‘good action’ paradigm isn’t necessarily the most useful. That paradigm also tends to disadvantage people with mental or physical disabilities. It might be that you’ve got awful anxiety and going to the supermarket is a mission – in that sense, your achievements are going to be bound by the limits of your ability, but that shouldn’t undermine the legitimacy of your achievements. You strive to be a better person from the place where you are, and that striving, that orientation towards the divine, I suggest, is more important in terms of salvation than necessarily what you’re actually achieving. To put it more bluntly, you’re probably not getting in based on merit, but there’s something to be said for an orientation towards goodness.

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