Can you imagine a heaven that admits Adolf Hitler and excludes Mother Teresa? The Christian heaven might be like that. Where do I get that idea? From Jesus.
Jesus told a parable. You can read about it in Luke chapter 18 verses 9-14. It is the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
There is no doubt that the story doesn't carry the weight it did in Jesus' time. Pharisees have a reputation as hypocrites and a tax collector, though feared and despised, is just a bloke with a job that has to be done. For a present-day audience we ought to talk about the parable of the church-goer and the chancer.
In Jesus' day a Pharisee was a member of a group that was fastidious about church attendance. The Temple Courts were full of them. They were those who studied the Bible. They kept the Mosaic Law. They wore a phylactery on their heads. They were very careful about tithing. They liked nothing better than a religious discussion. In First Century Jerusalem they were respected figures who took their religion seriously - even St Paul called himself a Pharisee of Pharisees.
Tax Collectors on the other hand weren't just hated because they collected taxes. None of us likes paying taxes, but this wasn't just a case of 'shoot the messenger'. Tax collectors were collaborators with the occupying power. It wasn't just collaborating, either. This was a case of knowing which side your bread was buttered; seizing the main chance and taking advantage of the financial situation. Tax collectors were rich men. We know from the story of Zacchaeus that they used to defraud the public and salt up treasure for their own benefit. They were traitors, they were crooks and they were rich. No wonder they were hated.
The Pharisees were fastidious. Not content with keeping all those food laws, laws about sacrifices and laws about relationships, they used to use the book of Leviticus for bed-time reading. Fasting is commended, but where does it say in Scripture that you should fast twice a week? For fear of falling short in any respect, they made up rules to supplement the Law of Moses.
They missed out on the purpose of the Law. It wasn't there so that we could boast about how well we could keep it, but to show us the impossibility of being good enough for God by our own actions.
We can be like the Pharisees. I go to church twice on Sundays. I never miss the midweek meeting. I'm always there for weddings and funerals - not like some who only put in a token appearance and never give the church the support it deserves. I'm always the first one they call on when something needs doing, whether it is painting the porch or replacing light bulbs. If someone needs picking up from the airport, I'm the first to volunteer. I serve in the soup kitchen and offer hospitality to students.
Now all these are good things; I'm not decrying them. They are good works. But who is the comparator? The Pharisee thanked God he was not like other men. My imaginary churchgoer boasted that he was 'not like some...'. When we get like this we choose whom we compare ourselves with. Have you heard people say, "I may not be perfect, but I..." That's the problem, if we are trying to be good enough for God by our own actions then the standard we should compare ourselves is perfection. We need to compare ourselves with Jesus.
Before I was converted I tried to be good. It was only when I realized that I couldn't even live up to my own standards that I saw that I needed a savior.
Some people venerate the Virgin Mary. She was a blessed woman. She was obedient to God when it was shaming and terrifying. There is a lot to praise her for, but listen to Mary's song: "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Some Christians regard Mary as being without sin. If that were so, why should she address God as 'my savior'? Jesus was without sin, yet he never calls God his savior. He addresses him as 'Abba' or in English, 'Daddy'.
The truth is that Mary like all mankind was steeped in sin. She needed a savior just as much as the next person. There is no-one so good that their own righteousness can get them to heaven, save only the Lord Jesus Christ - God incarnate. Our righteousness is decried as 'dirty rags' - a polite translation of the Hebrew.
The tax collector knew he was a sinner. He didn't push himself to the front; he stood at a distance. He wouldn't even look up to heaven. Instead he asked for mercy. The Greek word for 'mercy' is elsewhere translated 'propitiation'. In other words, he asking for someone else to deal with his sins because he knows that he can't be good enough.
Let me tell you the story of Manasseh (which is found in 2 Chronicles chapter 33). He was the young son of Hezekiah who was one of Judah's good kings. Manasseh come to the throne at the age of 12 and reigned for 55 years. He was perhaps the worst king of Judah. He did evil in the sight of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. He even had his own sons made into human sacrifices. We read that the LORD brought an army from Assyria against him and that they took him prisoner, putting a hook through his nose and binding him with bronze shackles. But later, in his distress he sought the favor of God and humbled himself greatly before the LORD. We read that the LORD was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea.
The story of Manasseh tells us that no-one is so bad that he can't be saved, just as the story of Mary tells us that no-one is so good as not to need saving.
Will Hitler be in heaven? I think it unlikely, but if Hitler realized the magnitude of his sins and cried to God for mercy through the propitiating blood of Jesus Christ, then there is hope even for Hitler. Will Mother Teresa be excluded from heaven. Again I doubt it, but if she was relying on her own good works, however good they were, and not on the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, then, yes, she might be denied heaven.
What about you, my friend? Are your good works the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life, the consequence of your salvation, acts of gratitude to God for your wonderful salvation, or are they what you think will win him over? If it's the latter, how would you ever know that you had done enough? Are you relying on a dustbin full of dirty rags? Do you think that two dustbins full would be better?