Everyman and the Bible: Exploring Good Deeds, faith and salvation

25th November, 2010


God has become angry with his people. He complains in the fifteenth century English play Everyman about humans and their obsession with material items, riches, and wealth. Men and women, he feels, have taken for granted their blessings. God wants to reprimand Everyman for his sinful life and sends Death to summon him. At the beginning of the allegorical work where figures and actions symbolize general truths, a messenger shares God’s concerns. The messenger tells the audience to watch and listen closely to the morality play so they can learn a lesson about life. Everyman fears Death, and he desires to know what one must do to earn salvation and enter heaven. The writer then implies that the way to achieve salvation is by doing good works. Through positive deeds, a man has the capability of enjoying communion with Christ (McRae 306-307).

Everyman’s author wrote the play before the Protestant Reformation, so the piece of literature shares the view of Roman Catholicism during that period. Roman Catholics often rely on a spiritual leader’s interpretation of the Scriptures and some additional texts, while Protestants believe the Bible alone should studied by each individual believer. Biblical Christianity teaches something different from what Everyman does. The Bible stresses that salvation occurs through faith and belief in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for humankind’s sins on Calvary’s cross. St. Paul in the book of Ephesians writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (2.8-10).

When Christians genuinely accept Christ as their savior and make him lord of their lives, they should express their beliefs by doing good works. Doing good deeds are an important part of the Christian life, but they do not grant an entrance into God’s kingdom. Everyman, as a morality play, does still have some Biblical truth and teaches a valuable lesson about life. Thomas J. Jambeck describes Everyman as a Bernadine humanism work, a work in which a man acts as “an active agent in the work of his own redemption” (109). William Munson echoes this idea, writing that Bernadine humanism gives emphasis to a person's motive, which is the reason why a person acts the way he does (252). Both authors agree that if knowledge is what a person uses to influence his or her actions, then good works in Everyman become the play’s central theme. Knowing what to do and doing it are necessary to accomplish good works (Munson 257-58).

Everyman shows the importance of Knowledge and Good Deeds acting together when he plurally addresses them when he says, "now friends, let us not part in twain" (Line 651). Good works become the result of the two working together. Since man has fallen after Adam and Eve's original sin, Murdow William McRae argues that a true Christian must "cooperate with grace; that is, he must live well in the life of grace in order to achieve heaven" (723). This statement implies that good works save people from hell and allow them to dwell eternally with God.

When Everyman learns of his pending death and judgment, he makes an effort to change his lifestyle. Since he does not have a secure relationship with God, he is overcome by the fear his potential eternal fate. Munson writes that Everyman "now understands the limitations of what he has previously reiled upon (and) the significance of his past purposes" (253). Munson points out that Good Deeds introduces Everyman to Knowledge, who in turn shows him what he should do to become a better person. This allows Everyman to realize that his sins have misled him, and he has not had a clear vision of how God wants him to act. Everyman admits his mistakes to his previously beloved Goods by saying "thou hast had long my hearly love;/I gave thee that which should be the Lord above's" (Lines 457-58).

When he realizes just how self-centered and corrupted he has been, he scourges himself. He feels that if Christ suffered for Everyman’s sins then he also should feel pain to "act gratefully and feel fully in sympathetic response to the human God" (Munson 260). Through his new Knowledge, though, he can now do good works. He starts participating in good deeds such as confession, penance, restitution, almsgiving, Eucharist, and extreme unction. He especially focuses on giving much of his wealth to the church.

Before learning about the value of Good Deeds, Everyman becomes distressed. He does not want to go on the journey of Death alone. He attempts to bring along his friend Fellowship, close family member Kindred, and extended family member Cousin. However, all three abandon him. They will go with him if they were having fun, but they all fear Death since they must also give their own account to God. Everyman then turns to Goods, but he has invested so much in Goods that her presence will actually worsen Everyman's judgment. Lawrence V. Ryan writes “excessive love of worldly goods closes the soul to love of any higher object.

These unfaithful friends, personifications of external and ephemeral relationships and possessions, promise much, but finally have no solace to offer Everyman (726). Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five Wits also forsake him because they leave everyone's body as the person ages. Knowledge stays with him until his life ends, but it cannot escort Everyman to his grave. Only Good Deeds can ascend with him to heaven. The disloyalty of his family, friends, and belongings shows him that no one or nothing can be trusted. Only God can truly be trusted, and only Good Deeds will leave a lasting impression.

When Everyman finally realizes that Good Deeds provide his way to heaven, he asks her to accompany him. However, he has not spent much time building her up through his actions, and she is too weak to go with him. She cannot even move and is “cold in the ground” with her lack of strength (Line 486). Still, she gives Everyman quality advice so he can build up Good Deeds. Only then can Good Deeds embark on the journey of Death with him. He welcomes her assistance by telling Good Deeds that he “stand[s] in fere!/I must you pray of counseyll,/For help now sholde come right well” (Lines 489-491). Everyman now knows that “he is subject both to divine judgement and the promise of salvation, but he needs also to know what to do about it.

Knowledge gives him this practical counsel” (Munson 257). Everyman starts practicing good works. Still, Ryan expresses that “good deeds in themselves are nothing if a man be in the state of sin. What hope, then, since Everyman, since all men, are sinners?” (727). Knowledge even reveals that some priests do what appear to be good works, but some “do not lead humble and exemplary lives” (McRae 308). Ryans says the author of Everyman shows that man’s downfall reveals his “utter dependence upon God … and that in order to be saved, not only must a man perform good deeds, he must perform them” with a positive, unselfish motive (732, 735). His only motive should be to please God, not to look good for others.

If someone strictly follows Everyman’s lesson, he or she will not have a clear understanding of what the Bible says about salvation and good works. Biblical Christianity teaches that the Holy Bible, as the inspired word of God, should be the only guide for living life on earth. The Bible does say that “faith without works is dead,” but the Scriptures also reveal that God loved humans so much that he sent his son Jesus Christ to die on a cross for their sins, and “whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life” (James 2.20, John 3.16). Salvation occurs when a person has faith in Christ and accepts his sacrifice for all the sins of humanity. God will send to hell people who do not believe in Jesus Christ, regardless of their good deeds, according to The Bible.

If good works grant salvation, then the criminal crucified on a cross next to Jesus on Calvary would not have reached heaven. However, when he recognizes that Christ is God’s son and man’s savior, Christ tells the thief that they will meet again in Paradise (Luke 23.43). Even if the burglar gained some knowledge on the cross about his sinful ways, he did not have extra time like Everyman to accumulate good works before death. Still, Jesus granted him salvation through faith alone. Though humans do not deserve to enter heaven because of their sinful nature, God’s grace gives them an escape. Good works have their importance, but they do not grant salvation.

Biblical Christianity also teaches that humans are capable of having a personal relationship with God. Prayer and Bible study can accomplish this connection. Prayer, as most Christians believe, provides a way for men and women to speak to God about their concerns and desires. Bible studies can reveal to the reader God’s character, plans and directions for life, and some believers consider these studies equivalent to hearing directly from God. The Bible says God has never changed his standards, and it describes itself as “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 13.8, Heb. 4.12). As with human-to-human relationships, people often do good deeds to please their family member, friend or romantic partner. A relationship with God follows the same principle. Jesus said to love God “with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22.37-39). When a person becomes a true Biblical Christian, he or she should develop a desire to do good works for God and help other people. True and sincere good deeds result from faith.

After Christians establish their faith, good works gain importance. God wants non-believers to avoid hell’s torture, so he relies on his believers to influence the lost to accept the gift of salvation. Preaching the gospel may reach non-Christians, but the cliché of actions speak louder than words can be the best evangelical practice. The Bible says to "let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5.16). When people start to see a Christian acting out their faith with a genuine motive, it can often lead people to ask questions about Christianity. The answers may intrigue them, and they may become interested in exploring and converting to the faith.

In addition, the Bible reveals that believers should be good toward others because “by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 3:12). Angels typically inhabit a spiritual body, but a few verses in the Bible imply that these messengers and ministers of God sometimes manifest themselves through a natural body. Even Satan, revealed in the Bible and in John Milton’s Paradise Lost as the leader of fallen angels, enters a serpent to convince Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. Since some people may actually be the manifestation of an angel, Christians should be determined to do good deeds for others.

Most importantly, the Bible says God will judge a human’s works before entering heaven. The Bible reveals that “the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through flames” (1 Corin. 3.13-15). Though God saves humanity by grace, he may grant the believer his or her rewards and roles in heaven based on good deeds. This idea is similar to the one in Everyman when Good Deeds accompanies Everyman to his grave. Scriptures say that God has a “book of remembrance,” and “we shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Mal. 3:16, Rom. 14.10). Knowing about God’s pending judgment should give believers the greatest motivation to do good works. Life is a journey to death, as revealed in Everyman. The actions of believers between birth and death will affect what they will be doing in heaven.

While Everyman teaches a good lesson about living life, it fails to stress the value of faith. In several verses, the Bible makes it clear that good works alone will not benefit a person when they die. Some people act with a selfish motive so they can be praised for their good works. These types of good deeds will be meaningless without faith. However, a genuinely faithful person will receive rewards for his or her good deeds. Those who truly love God will want to return the love to him through good deeds, such as tithing, giving the church offerings and dedicating themselves to prayer and Bible studies. Then, the welfare of other people becomes the focus. Examples of good works toward each other may include greeting someone with a smile, hug, or handshake, asking them about their life and listening to them, donating money, goods, and services to the needy, and encouraging people with genuine compliments.

Good acts toward others provide an opportunity for the development of new relationships, which builds trust between people and allows believers to share their faith. The Bible says people will know who a true Christian is by the evidence of his or her works (Matt. 7.20). After receiving salvation through grace and faith, a Christian’s purpose on earth then becomes to reach as many people for God’s kingdom as possible. Having a relationship with God and gaining knowledge through the Bible allows a believer to know what do and when to do it. That is when good works truly make an impact. Good works do not save a person, as Everyman teaches, but they may lead others to salvation.

Works Cited

Munson, William. “Knowing and Doing in ‘Everyman.’” The Chaucer Review, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Winter 1985): 252-271. Penn State University Press. 04 Nov. 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25093922

McRae, Murdo William. “Everyman's Last Rites and the Digression on Priesthood.” College Literature, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Fall 1986): 305-309. College Literature. 29 Oct. 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25111714

Ryan, Lawrence V. “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman.” Speculum, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct. 1957):722-735. Medieval Academy of America. 27 Oct. 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2850293

Jambeck, Thomas J. “Everyman and the Implications of Bernadine Humanism in the Character ‘Knowledge.’” Medievalia et Humanistica, NS 8 (1977): 109. The Bible. New King James Version.