The Synoptic Gospels all tell the story of a young man who once ran to Jesus to ask him a most urgent question. “And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Though unnamed in the Markan version, this young man is commonly referred to as the “rich young ruler.” He comes to Jesus troubled by the question of “eternal life” and how he can secure his spot in the afterlife. A modern rendering of this inquiry might be, “Teacher, how can I be sure I’m getting into The Good Place?” You have, perhaps, been troubled by a similar query. Indeed, the question of what happens to one’s body, one’s consciousness, in death has been a troubling philosophical exercise for ages.
Jesus, though, doesn’t answer this young man in the way he, or anyone else for that matter, expected. He replies with a question of his own: “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). The young man had approached Jesus as though he were merely a spiritual teacher or guru, one who had the keenest insights on life and existence. His hope, therefore, was that he, too, would be clued into the precise actions necessary to guarantee his inheritance of “eternal life” in paradise. In his mind, the door to heaven was opened just by following a few steps. If he did “enough,” if he checked the right boxes, he would be safe. One might say that this young man was desperate for approval. He wanted to be assured he had done enough. He wanted the endorsement that his activity had earned him his spot in The Good Place. He wants to hear those words, “Good job, you’re more than good enough to enter heaven’s pearly gates! Come on in!” But what does Jesus say? Jesus turns his attention back to Scripture:
Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. (Mark 10:18–19)
These, of course, are the Ten Commandments — those divine injunctions we might also call the “litmus test for goodness.” “Goodness looks like this,” Jesus seems to say: not lying, not stealing, not cheating, not fooling around with someone who’s not your spouse, etc. That’s the rubric for goodness and, more to the point, that’s the heavenly standard. It would appear, then, that Jesus of Nazareth has just divulged “the secret” to “eternal life” to this young man. All one needed to do to “inherit enteral life” was be good. The young man certainly understood Jesus’s words as such.
Without even flinching, the young man “answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth” (Mark 10:20). “I’ve done all that since I was a kid,” he says in effect. “I’ve always been good.” According to this young man, he’s never told a (big) lie; he’s never (actually) killed anyone; he’s stolen anything (of great value); and he’s never been (physically) immoral with anyone. In the mind of this young man, he’d done “enough” already. Perhaps, like me, your eyes widen at the arrogance on display by this young man, who apparently thinks he’s “good enough” for heaven. But because he is full of love, the swagger of this “goody two-shoes” prompts Jesus to have compassion on him. “Then Jesus beholding him loved him,” the Gospel says (Mark 10:21). Such is the tenor which ought to color the Savior’s following words:
One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. (Mark 10:21)
There’s almost a sadness in Jesus’s words. “You’ve done a lot, a lot that’s good,” Jesus seems to say, “but there’s still one thing you haven’t done. There’s one thing you still lack.” And that one thing meant everything, as Jesus proceeds to tell him that the entrance to heaven is a heckuva lot stricter than he ever thought. Apparently, his bank account wasn’t large enough for the down payment. He couldn’t buy his way in. His charitable donations weren’t cutting it. He had to sell everything. He had to give perfectly. And that’s when the startling terms of “eternal life” began to sink in.
The young man’s goodness wasn’t good enough. And that’s because heaven’s door isn’t opened by merely being good or doing good, it’s opened by perfection. The Good Place, we might say, is for those who are perfect, in every sense of the term. Such is why when the young man hears these words, he goes away “grieved” (Mark 10:22). Those words were too much for him. That standard was too good for him. And, to be sure, this isn’t a polemic on finances but on faith, on what the young man was trusting in to get him “in.”
At this point, perhaps you, too, are grieved by this interaction between Jesus and the young man. “Did Jesus really mean that? Is perfection really the standard we have to meet? Doesn’t God make exceptions for, you know, normies like us who can’t be perfect?” Despite the validity of these queries, Jesus, knowing, perhaps, that similar questions were rattling around in the brains of the onlookers, turns and presses the matter even further.
And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:23–25)
Jesus’s followers are utterly baffled at this point. In fact, Mark says that “they were astonished out of measure” (Mark 10:26). They vocalize the question that’s likely in everyone’s heads: “Who then can be saved?” “Uh, Teacher, you seem to be saying entrance into heaven is impossible, care to clarify? Is that really true? Are you sure, Jesus? Who can meet that standard?” To which Jesus says:
And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible. (Mark 10:27)
Yes, Jesus meant every word. The goodness of The Good Place isn’t just “good enough.” That doesn’t pass. That won’t fly. The standard is perfection — 24/7, 100%, unwavering, unflinching perfection. No exceptions. No minutest mistakes allowed. If you, like this young man, are trying to “inherit eternal life” on your own, this is the standard you’re obligated to meet: be perfect (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7; Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:15–16). I wonder how that might be going for you? Especially considering the fact that Jesus’s rubric holds murder and anger in the same condemnatory breath (Matt. 5:21–22). According to the Savior, both are failures of his Father’s goodness and perfection. Fumbling either one means you’re not getting in — you’re not inheriting “eternal life.”
This standard sounds impossible. And it is. Such is Jesus’s entire point. Being “good enough” for heaven is impossible on your own. Entry into the kingdom is a categorical impossibility in and of yourself. You cannot “inherit eternal life” by being good, or spiritual, or pure, or right, or loyal, or moral, or political. “Saving ourselves is an impossibility,” writes Larry Parsley, “no matter how brightly robed we are in pious deeds.”1 The way to paradise is opened only by righteousness — and, more to the point, by a righteousness which isn’t won by your religious purity or activity. Indeed, the only righteousness that counts is the one that’s yours by faith. It’s the righteousness Jesus came to fulfill (Matt. 3:15).
When Jesus went to the cross and had nails pierce his hands, and a spear gash his side, and a crown of thorns beaten into his head, and had blood streaming down his face, he was fulfilling all righteousness for the likes of you and me, mulish sinners who can’t help but keep on sinning. On that ratty Roman scrap of wood, the impossible was made possible. For those who could never be “enough” on their own, the Lord of glory became their “enough-ness.” There the Perfect One took on all imperfection. The Pure One took on impurity. The Sinless One who became sin. “What we cannot do, Christ has done for us, and does in us.”2 He himself is the impossible possibility who accomplishes the impossible on your behalf and mine, fulfilling the minutest point of the law for all who believe. He lived perfectly, paying the ultimate price for all our failures, and then gifted us his perfection in his battered and bruised body. Such is the “unspeakable gift” of God in Christ, which extends to sinners the “enough-ness” of the Son and life eternal with him.
Contrary to what you might’ve previously thought, heaven is not a place for people who’ve lived perfectly. It’s not a place that’s full of other “goody two-shoes.” No one ever got to heaven because they were good. The only people that get to heaven are only there because Jesus was fully good for them. He was perfect on behalf of those who are wholly imperfect. He makes a way when there is no way; he provides access to them who are afar off, bringing “strangers and foreigners” into the “household of God” (Eph. 2:17–18; Rom. 5:1–2; John 10:7, 9). That’s what heaven is: it’s a place for those who don’t really belong but who’ve entrusted their lives to the good news that perfection was given to them. It’s a place for those who know that while they can never be “enough,” they’ve been given the “enough-ness” of Christ alone. And that’s more than enough.
Larry Parsley, An Easy Stroll Through a Short Gospel: Meditations on Mark (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2018), 116.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 8:2.80.