If you were tested on how well you live up to your own standards, would you get a passing grade?
My dad stared at me in silence for a moment. “Are you trying to tell me that God will send a man to hell, even though he’s lived a good moral life, just because he didn’t happen to believe in Jesus Christ?” When I didn’t answer, he went on.
“And what about all those people who never even heard of Jesus Christ or the Bible?” he said. “Do you really think it’s fair for a man who was not aware of the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule to be condemned by laws he never knew existed?” He was silent again, and I knew he was waiting for my response.
For several minutes I tried to make up some excuses or explanations, but I could tell my dad was not satisfied. Finally he said, “I simply cannot believe in a God who would be so unjust!”
Good moral life. As I later thought about that conversation with my dad, I realized he was really asking about himself. My Dad was (and is) the most moral and good man I have ever known. He had worked long and hard to rise from the life of a mid-western farm boy during the Depression to the status of a well paid engineer and technical writer in the electronics field in northern California. He has always been a faithful husband, and refused to shade the truth in business dealings or compromise in other ways. He was generous with his money, having paid my way through college and contributing regularly to charities and the church.
So the question of God’s justice was very personal to me. Was it really fair for God to condemn a good man like my dad, just because he couldn’t accept all the doctrines of Christianity?
The question continued to puzzle me during my final year at college. Then, several months after I graduated and accepted a job in Portland, Oregon, I picked up a book called Death in the City, written by a contemporary Christian philosopher, Francis Schaeffer. About two-thirds of the way through the book I suddenly discovered the beginning of an answer to my dad’s question.
Dr. Schaeffer quoted a portion of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Do you, my friend, pass judgment on others? You have no excuse at all, whoever you are. For when you judge others, but do the same things that they do, you condemn yourself. We know that God is right when He judges the people who do such things as these. But you, my friend, do these very things yourself for which you pass judgment on others! Do you think you will escape God’s judgment?”1
Tell-tale tapes. Schaeffer then explained the passage with the following illustration: Imagine that each baby is born into the world with an invisible tape recorder hung around his neck. Imagine further that these are very special recorders that record only when moral judgments are made. Aesthetic judgments such as “This is beautiful” are not recorded. But whenever a person makes such statements as “She’s such a gossip,” or “He’s so lazy,” the recorder turns on, records the statement and turns off. Many times each day the recorder does this, as the person makes moral judgments about those around him, recording dozens of judgments each week, hundreds every year and thousands in a lifetime.
Then the scene shifts, and we suddenly see all the people of the world standing before God at the end of time. “God, it’s not fair for You to judge me,” say some. “I didn’t know about Christ. No one taught me the Ten Commandments, and I never read the Sermon on the Mount.”
Then God speaks. “Very well. Since you claim not to know My laws, I will set aside My perfect standard of righteousness. Instead I will judge you on this.” And as He pushes the button on the recorder, the person listens with growing horror as his own voice pours forth a stream of condemnation toward those around him. “She shouldn’t be doing this.” “He was wrong in that” – thousands upon thousands of moral judgments.
When the tape ends, God says, “This will be the basis of My judgment: how well have you kept the moral standards you proved that you understood by constantly applying them to those around you? Here you accused someone of lying, yet have you ever stretched the truth? You were angry at that fellow for being selfish, yet have you ever put your own interests above someone else’s needs?”
And every person will be silent. For no one has consistently lived up to the standards he demands of others.2
As I studied Schaeffer’s illustration, I realized that one of the well-known sayings of Jesus I had previously dismissed as “nice advice” was in reality an awesome warning: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”3
Hypocrisy scorned. Looking back on my years as a student at San Francisco State, I remembered seeing dozens of groups on campus openly advocating every kind of behavior society viewed as immoral, from group sex to violent overthrow of the government. But I never saw any sign of a “Hypocrites Liberation” movement. I never heard anyone stand up and proclaim, “I’m a hypocrite and proud of it!”
In fact, I found quite the opposite. The radical students who proclaimed ideas farthest from those in the Bible were also the quickest to complain about the hypocrites in the church. It seemed that no matter how gross a man became, the one value he maintained was a disgust with hypocrisy. And I now saw that God had taken this universal moral value and turned it around on man as the basis of his accountability.
But there was still something that disturbed me. One evening I watched television with both fascination and repulsion as an evangelist laid out in graphic detail every Bible verse that speaks of the horror of eternal separation in hell awaiting all who do not trust in Christ as their Savior.
“Why does the Bible have to say that some people will go to hell?” I thought. I began to wish those verses weren’t even there, or at least that preachers had the decency to avoid them in their sermons.
Grandfather image. But then a new thought occurred to me: “What did I wish God were like?” Did I really want Him to be a doting grandfather who says, “Do whatever you want – eat all the candy you can, jump on the furniture, run out in the snow with no shoes on – anything you like, as long as you’re having fun”? Did I really want God to smile down on all the Charles Mansons and Adolf Hitlers of the world and say, “That’s okay, children. Do whatever turns you on, as long as you’re having a good time”? No. If He were like that I couldn’t even respect Him, much less worship Him. I realized that I, too, was guilty of inconsistency. What I really had been wishing was that God would grade “on the curve,” with the cut-off just below my behavior and that of my friends, so that we would be accepted, while all those “bad people” would not.
I determined that I really had only two choices: I could demand that God lower His standards so far that everyone, no matter how evil, would be accepted (in which case He would cease to be a moral God), or I could take Him as He is, a holy, just and fair judge who must hold people responsible when they violate what they know is right.
Judge and Savior. At about the same time that I was wrestling with these ideas, my dad began to seriously read the Bible for the first time. Gradually he, too, began to realize that God was not unfair and inconsistent, but that he, my father, was the one (along with the rest of humanity) who was hypocritical. During his study, my dad began to pray, “God, I realize I haven’t been as good and moral as I thought. I accept Christ’s forgiveness and salvation. Now You show me what to do and give me the ability to do it.”
That was more than six years ago, and as time has passed there have been amazing changes in my dad’s life. Once a very private and serious person, he now has a warmth and openness that has drawn us much closer. He has developed an infectious sense of humor and is quick to laugh at himself.
In short, my father has discovered in his own experience the truth of the words that Jesus of Nazareth spoke about Himself nearly 20 centuries ago: “For God sent His Son into the world, not to pass sentence on it, but that the world through Him might be saved. Whoever trusts in Him is never to come up for judgment; but whoever does not trust in Him has already received his sentence, because he has not trusted in the name of God’s only Son. And the ground for the sentence is this, that the light has comeinto the world, and yet, because their actions were evil, men have loved darkness more than the light.”
1. Romans 2:1-3, Good News for Modern Man (Today’s English Version).
2. Adapted and expanded from Francis A. Schaeffer, Death in the City, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois: 1969, pp. 112, 113.
3. Matthew 7:1-2, Revised Standard.
4. John 3:17-19, Williams.
Alan Scholes, Collegiate Challenge, pp. 5, 6.
According to God’s Word, the Bible, if anyone trusts in the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for all of his/her sins, then he/she will be completely forgiven for all of his/her sins and will receive eternal life in heaven as a free gift (Rom. 6:23; Col. 2:13-14; Eph. 2:8-9).