Question 230:

The Islamic belief that the fate of people after their death - paradise or hell - is decided by weighing the good deeds and the bad deeds on a scale, sounds confusing. Does Christianity also believe that good deeds can eradicate bad ones?



This question touches on a central topic of Christian faith teaching, the question of “justification”. Winfred Henze believes that it ultimately is about something that can be explained casually as: the art of accepting gifts. He writes:

“At the time of Jesus there existed a great number of religious laws, requirements of fasting, rules for cleansing and purifying, regulations for prayers, precise instruction of the Sabbath, for example how many steps one was allowed to walk. And some Pharisees [i.e. a group of religious Jewish teachers at the time] believed: if we adhere to all of this in the smallest detail we stand before God without blame and we can present him our deeds just like an itemised invoice. Jesus criticised them sharply and St Paul, who used to be a Pharisee, later confirmed time and time again: We are not reconciled to God by fulfilling the Law (=the prescriptions of the Tora) but it is Jesus and our faith in him as our saviour that who justifies us. He has died for sinners and only those who accept his grace, who receive love in faith and who reciprocate it are justified. Being a Christian means: to be ready to accept all as a free gift from God. Those who open themselves fully to him receive incredible treasures: the forgiveness of sins, liberation from meaninglessness, from hopelessness and friendship with God. They become a new creation, live in the light instead of the dark, participate in the rising of the Kingdom of God and are not subject to the senseless pressure of having to work their own salvation. It is a gift.

This insight does not please everyone. Many believe that people can save themselves [through their good deeds], without God’s grace. The ancient heretic Pelagius claimed this around 400, and today there are still countless people around who think that they can save themselves, apart from God’s gift in Christ. The Church teaches something else.

See the words of the ancient hymn to the Holy Spirit “Venis Snacte Spiritus” (around 1200):

O lux beatissima,

reple cordis intima

tuorum fidelium.

Sine tuo numine,

nihil est in homine,

nihil est innoxium.


O most blessed light,

fill the inmost heart

of your faithful.

Without your grace,

there is nothing in us,

nothing that is not harmful.


(Winfried Henze, Glauben ist schön. Harsum, 2001, p. 102f.

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