Are We Basically Good?
At the beginning of the Harry Potter series, we meet Harry’s aunt Petunia and uncle Vernon. Throughout Harry’s childhood, they’re horrible to him. They make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. They constantly say and do mean things to him. They wish he didn’t exist. When Vernon has important guests over, he tells Harry to stay in his bedroom, make no noise, and pretend he doesn’t exist. If Harry (aged one) hadn’t defeated Voldemort, Vernon and Petunia would probably be dead. Voldemort would have taken over the world, and his followers would be killing Muggles like the Dursleys just for fun. But Vernon and Petunia think they’re being incredibly kind to let Harry live in their house. They don’t think they’re bad people. In fact, they think they’re really very good.
Most of us like to think we’re basically good people. We know we’re not perfect. We sometimes do bad things. But at heart, we think we’re pretty good. We’re not like the murderers we hear about on the news or read about in history books. So the idea that we might one day be judged by God doesn’t seem fair. But what if, at heart, we actually aren’tgood?
You know when you’re reading a comic book and there’s a cloud-shaped bubble over someone’s head, showing that character’s thoughts? Imagine for a minute that you had one of those bubbles over your head in real life. Imagine all your thoughts would ping up there, moment by moment, so anyone could read them. What would people think of you?
Try an experiment between now and this time tomorrow. Notice what you’re thinking and imagine other people could see your thoughts. Scary, right? If that happened to me, all my relationships would be ruined—even with the people I really like! It’s not that all my thoughts are bad. But many of them are. Even when I’m doing something good, I always have some messed up thoughts mixed in. And here’s the thing: the Bible tells us God can see our thoughts. It’s like he has x-ray vision to see right through us, even when we’re looking pretty good to other people. And God’s standards are really high.
In The Good Place show, only people who have lived a really good life have enough points to get into heaven. But Jesus sets the bar even higher. For example, we might think that murdering someone would be bad enough to deserve God’s judgment. But Jesus says that anyone who is angry with someone else deserves God’s judgment (Matthew 5:21–22). At first, this sounds crazy. We wouldn’t dream of murdering someone! But if you think about it, for most of us, murdering someone else wouldn’t make our lives better—quite the opposite. But what if we were in a situation where murdering someone else would make our lives better?
There are lots of examples throughout history of people murdering to get something they wanted or because of peer pressure from the people around them. You probably know that Hitler was a really bad person. He was. But if you learn about Nazi Germany, you’ll discover that thousands of seemingly normal people—who were probably nice to their families and friends—were willing to join in with the murder of six million Jews. Many of the Nazis didn’t think they were bad people. They thought they were patriots.
I’m sure you know that slavery is wrong. But if you learn about the history of slavery in America, you’ll discover that thousands of white Americans were willing to keep black people as slaves, and many were willing to beat and abuse their slaves without thinking they themselves were bad people. It’s what everyone around them was doing. Few people in my country (Britain) owned slaves personally, but many people made a lot of money from selling enslaved Africans.
We probably think we would have been different if we’d been in Nazi Germany or in Britain or America during the time of slavery. But Jesus, who knows us better than we know ourselves, doesn’t think so. If you read his teaching in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 5:21–48) you’ll find that you don’t measure up to God’s standards—not even close. Like Eleanor, we need to realize that if there’s a place called heaven, we don’t deserve to be there.
The Bible says that God is perfectly good and holy, and sinful people like me and like you can’t be where he is (e.g., Isaiah 6:1–5). It’s like when you switch a light on in a room and none of the darkness can stay.
Is There Hope?
What hope is there for people like us? Should we just try to be better? Or try somehow to hide from God? Or pretend God doesn’t exist, because Jesus’s standards make us feel bad?
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry realizes that part of Voldemort’s soul is stored in him. The only way for Voldemort to die is if Harry dies too. Voldemort’s evil can’t be extracted from Harry any other way. The Bible tells us that we each have sin lodged in us like that piece of Voldemort’s soul in Harry. The punishment for sin is death: there’s no other way to get it out. But the amazing message of the Bible is that if we put our trust in Jesus, his death on the cross becomes our death. Paul puts it like this: “our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6). But if we trust in Jesus, we also get to share his life. That’s how Jesus was able to say those wonderful words to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die!” (John 11:25–26).
Martha didn’t deserve eternal, joy-filled life, and nor do we. But Jesus promises that anyone who believes in him will get just that. He’s done the dying. He’s taken the punishment. He’s paid the price. He was the only truly good person who has ever lived. But he took the sins of anyone who would believe in him, so that instead of dying forever suffering God’s judgment, we can live forever enjoying God’s love.
I wish I could tell you a story to explain this. But people don’t write stories in which good characters die for bad ones. I could say it was a bit like when Lily Potter threw herself in front of Harry to protect him from Lord Voldemort. And it is a bit like that, because her sacrifice saved Harry’s life. But God isn’t like Lord Voldemort, and we’re not like an innocent baby. It would be more like if Dumbledore had died to save Tom Riddle.
I could say it was a bit like when Anna threw herself between Elsa and Hans, to save Elsa from being murdered. And it is a bit like that, because—like Jesus—Anna took the hit and the power of her love meant she came back to life again. But really, Jesus dying for us is more like if Anna had sacrificed herself for Hans.
I could say it’s a bit like the moment in Titanic when Jack decides to give his life for Rose, and freezes to death in the water, because he loves her so much. And it is a bit like that, because Jesus loves us desperately. But it would be more like Jack dying for Rose’s mean fiancé.
Paul explains the strangeness of the cross like this: “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7–8).
If God is the one who gave us life and breath and everything we have—if he even sent his Son to die for us—and we act like he doesn’t exist, we’re worse than the Dursleys. We’re like a kid whose parents loved him and cared for him and gave him everything, but the kid just acted like his parents weren’t there. If then, one day, after years of loving patience and inviting him into relationship, his parents said, “It’s time for you to leave,” we wouldn’t think they were unfair. We’d think that kid deserved it.
Jesus told a story in which a son acted just that way to his father: he took his father’s money, left home, and spent his father’s cash on having fun. When he ran out of money, he realized how stupid he’d been and how miserable he was. He assumed his father wouldn’t want him back as a son, but thought maybe he’d take him back as a servant. But when he came within sight of his father’s house, his father ran out to meet him and flung his arms around his son and kissed him. He even threw a big party to celebrate his son’s return (Luke 15:11–32). Jesus says God loves us like that. He’s not just willing to have us back. He’s eager for it, running down the street, hugging us tight and throwing a party to welcome us home. But Jesus is also very clear throughout his teachings that one day it will be too late (e.g., Matthew 25:1–13; Luke 16:19–31). The door will be shut. The windows will be closed. There’ll be no way to come home anymore.
We all have the chance to put our trust in Jesus. Whatever we’ve done, whatever we’ve thought, however we’ve lived. If we cry out to Jesus, he’ll welcome us with open arms. In fact, even when Jesus was hanging on the cross, a criminal who was also being executed admitted that he deserved his punishment and then said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus replied, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This man knew he hadn’t lived a good life. If there was a good place, he didn’t deserve it. But in the real Good Place, Jesus is King, and anyone who trusts in him is welcome. All we have to do is admit that we need him, say we’re sorry for the ways we have failed to love God and others, and trust that Jesus died for us.
When we come to Jesus, we find out two things: (1) we are more sinful than we ever thought, and (2) we are more loved than we ever dreamed. The one truly good person who has ever lived knows everything about you. He can read your thought bubbles and has the right to judge you. But he loves you so much he was willing to die for you and take that judgment on himself. Maybe this all seems offensive to you.
Maybe as you examine Christianity, it still looks like Sirius Black before Harry realized he’d been falsely accused. Or maybe you’re starting to get interested in Jesus, but you still have questions. If that’s you, it’s okay to keep asking questions. I’ve been a Christian for ages, and I still ask questions. But I make sure I ask hard questions not just about Christianity but also about the alternatives, including atheism. Every time I do, I find that Christianity—crazy as it might sometimes sound—is actually the most believable option.
This article is adapted from 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin.