As a Catholic, I understand that the concept that good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell is heresy. Actually, it was condemned almost 2000 years ago.
The actual heresy is called Pelagianism; it basically says that we can earn our way to Heaven by being good enough to get there on our own.
I believe our current pelagian ideas come from school. We spend twelve or more years doing our best to be good enough to go to the next level and we translate that idea to our faith. If you are a good person, you get an A in life and, therefore, because you earned your A, God HAS TO let you into Heaven. But that is a total misreading about the message of salvation.
Salvation in Christianity is not about being good enough to get to Heaven. It is about being formed by Christ who is the way, the truth and the light.
God does everything He can to ensure you get to Heaven. Catholics, unlike Protestants, even believe in a process called Purgatory. Those who are not ready to be in the presence of God go through a purifying process, purgation, in order that they may go experience the fullness of eternal life in the company of what is pure being.
We see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit doing all they can so that you can go to Heaven. So it is not your efforts that get you into Heaven, it is God’s. It is your co-operation in His invitation and grace that get you there.
Christianity is about being humble before Christ who is the truth and, in Him, learning divine wisdom. This wisdom is the base of our morality. Therefore, our morality comes from growing in divine wisdom. (cf Romans 12:1–2) We see throughout the Bible that seeking this divine wisdom and living by it is the greatest treasure.
Who is not saved? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1037) teaches specifically those who obstinately reject this divine wisdom and live their lives outside of the will of God. In other words, it is the person who knows the ways and refuses to embrace them.
It is like the person who is drowning and refuses to get into the lifeboat, despite all the effort by those in the lifeboat to bring him out of the water. Will he drown? Yes, and whose fault is it? His own, he refused to respond to the lifesaving action and there is nothing anyone could do, not even the ones who wanted nothing more than to save that drowning person’s life.
Jesus does not give specific examples of those who go to Hell with one exception and you find it also spoken by the prophets throughout the Old Testament: those who claim to be worshiping God and go through all the motions but close their hearts to others in need. We see it in Matthew 25: 31–46 and Luke 16:19–31.
We also see His condemnation of those who close their hearts to God and therefore to neighbor. Jesus spoke with sinners, he associated with them all the time. But two sinners who spoke to Him never received a response: the bad thief on the cross (Luke 23:39) and King Herod (Luke 23:6–12). Jesus condemns by never speaking to them. Neither did He return to those who put Him on the cross after His resurrection. In all three cases, for Him to speak would have been a waste of His breath. They were obstinate in their rejection of Him as well as God and neighbor.
However, He does give specific examples of who is saved: prostitutes, tax collectors (Matt 21:31) and a thief. (Luke 23:43) each changed their lives not to be good in the worldly sense, but humbly to seek and to live by the wisdom of God in Christ.
How is it that we are saved? The answer is ubiquitous in the words of Jesus. Those who are in communion with Christ in such a way that know they are loved by him and respond in kind to love him and their neighbors, regardless of whom their neighbor may be, in obedience to the Father.
You cannot expect to go to Heaven no matter how moral you may appear if your morality does not involve loving God and neighbor. Let me give you an example: Daniel Dennett, world class atheist and professor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts teaches that you do not have to believe in God to know right from wrong. True to a point. You do have to believe in God to love the person who has chosen to destroy your life at any cost. I believe it is impossible to do anything that radical without being in communion with God through prayer and worship.
St. Maximus the Confessor taught that we are saved by the fact that Jesus lived the law perfectly. He says that was the point of His crucifixion, it was the work of the devil to get him to not love for even a just a second. Jesus loved consistently.
The law is simple to explain; difficult to do: Love the Lord your God without all your heart, mind, soul and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. In order to do this, you have to be in communion with God desiring to do His will. The example is in Jesus who was totally obedient to the Father, which Jesus continues to be. This means to be humble before the Lord and docile to His grace. No human ever lived to that standard, except Jesus’ mother. So none of us can say that we are so obedient to the Father or that we are equally holy. It is God’s grace that saves us and we attune ourselves to that grace through prayer, worship and action. St. Alphonsus Liguori said it well and simply: “Those who pray are saved”. It is so powerful a statement that it is incorporated into Catholic teaching. The reason is that this prayer made in good faith will transform the person to become more like Christ in every way.
We act immorally when we know what it is that God wants us to do or does not want us to do and we refuse to be obedient to Him. That is called hardness of heart and obstinate of heart and that is the source of immoral acts. It is the persistently obstinate who are condemned to Hell.
It is not the person who commits sins who is condemned to Hell, but who knowingly commits sins in disobedience to God and does not care. It is the obstinate, unrepentant sinner who goes to Hell. That is a choice against God. It is not an accidental action.
God wants all to be saved. Many feel that they will never see the inside of the gates of Heaven because they are not good enough. The fact is no one is, but it is the generous action of God and our response to His love to Him and to our neighbor that leads us to salvation. Prayer becomes the lifeblood of our ability to make that response.