Do people go to Hell just because they don’t accept Jesus?

From J. Warner Wallace at Please Convince Me. (Link is now down, I can’t find it anywhere else)

Excerpt:

A “just” God does justice, which means to punish or reward appropriately. In the Western tradition, we punish people for the actions they commit, but the extent of punishment is dependent also on the person’s mental state, and a person’s mental state is reflective of his or her beliefs. Premeditated murder is worse than manslaughter, and is punished more severely, and a hate crime is a sentencing enhancement that adds more punishment to the underlying crime. In both examples, a person’s beliefs are at play: the premeditated murderer has reflected on his choices and wants the victim dead; a hate crime reflects a belief that the rights of a member of the protected group are especially unworthy of respect. So, considering a person’s beliefs may well be relevant, especially if those beliefs have motivated the criminal behavior.

But the challenger’s mistake is even more fundamental. He is wrong to assert that people are condemned for not accepting the gospel. Christians believe that people are condemned for their sinful behavior – the “wages of sin is death” – not for what they fail to do. The quoted challenge is like saying that the sick man died of “not going to the doctor.” No, the person died of a specific condition – perhaps cancer or a heart attack – which a doctor might have been able to cure. So too with eternal punishment. No one is condemned for refusing to believe in Jesus. While Jesus can – and does – provide salvation for those who seek it, there is nothing unjust about not providing salvation to those who refuse to seek it. After all, we don’t normally feel obliged to help someone who has not asked for, and does not want, our assistance. So too the Creator has the right to withhold a gift – i.e. eternity spent in His presence – from those who would trample on the gift, and on the gift-giver.

The quoted assertion also demonstrates an unspoken belief that we can impress God with our “kind” or “generous” behavior. This fails to grasp what God is – a perfect being. We cannot impress Him. What we do right we should do. We don’t drag people into court and reward them for not committing crimes. This is expected of them. They can’t commit a murder and then claim that punishment is unfair, because they had been kind and generous in the past. When a person gets his mind around the idea of what perfection entails, trying to impress a perfect Creator with our “basic goodness” no longer seems like such a good option.

Here’s a related answer from CARM. This one answers the question about degrees of punishment in Hell.

Excerpt:

Yes, there are different degrees of punishment in hell.

[…]But, not all people are equally bad.  Though all deserve damnation because all are sinners, different people have committed different degrees of sin.

  • Mt. 11:20-22, “Then He began to reproach the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 “Nevertheless I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you…I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”
  • Luke 12:47-48, “And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”
  • John 19:11, “Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin.’ ”
  • Heb. 10:29, “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

So, if Jesus speaks of greater condemnation for Chorazin and Bethsaida than Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 11:21-22), one slave received more punishment than another (Luke 12:47-48), the one who delivered Jesus to Pilate has the greater sin (John 19:11), and a more severe punishment is reserved for those who trample underfoot the Son of God, then does not greater sin mean that greater punishment will also happen in hell?  Yes it does.

Not only are there degrees of punishment in Hell, but there are degrees of reward in Heaven, based on what you do on Earth and what strengths you start out with.

Philippians 4:10-18:

10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.

11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.

12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.

15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only;

16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.

17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.

18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

Everyone who believes in Jesus gets salvation, but your experience in Heaven will be different based on what you do while you are alive. And that’s also the answer to another common question – about deathbed conversions. Both deathbed converts and William Lane Craig will get the same experience of being in the presence of God, but there are completely different levels of reward. One person has an empty account, and the other person has huge massive amounts of virtuous action on deposit. But I think the real reason that Christians are trying to do good things here on Earth is that they like God, and they want to be his friend. They want to work on the relationship, even if it means a little self-denial, and a little sacrifice. We all have things that we would rather be doing for ourselves, but sometimes we have to things that work – things that are effective – for someone else. My values are not his values. Sometimes it is good to do something based on what He values. I don’t always have to get my way, because then it wouldn’t be a real relationship.

I enjoy thinking about Bible puzzles like this… so often in church we just make Christianity a checklist of things that we are supposed to believe somehow, by brute force willpower. I think reflecting on these problems, asking questions, and making sense of them on our own, is a much better approach.

9 thoughts on “Do people go to Hell just because they don’t accept Jesus?”

  1. I disagree with the varying degrees of punishment/reward view.

    From the OP: “So, if Jesus speaks of greater condemnation for Chorazin and Bethsaida than Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 11:21-22), one slave received more punishment than another (Luke 12:47-48), the one who delivered Jesus to Pilate has the greater sin (John 19:11), and a more severe punishment is reserved for those who trample underfoot the Son of God, then does not greater sin mean that greater punishment will also happen in hell?…”

    What about these verses makes one think they are applied eternally, when they are all referencing things that happened temporally?.

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  2. So do people who die as infants, or before they’re at an age at which they can meaningfully sin, go to heaven?

    Another question: Do you think a world in which salvation is only reserved for Christians is a better world than one in which God saves everyone, unconditionally? If you do, could you explain why?

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    1. I believe that Christ has covered infants.

      Sin is sin, “meaningful” or not.

      God does not save everyone unconditionally. So that world will never exist.

      But yes, I believe that a Christian-based world is MUCH better than one of anarchy. If everyone is pardoned for their sins WITHOUT the condition of repentance . . . the acknowledgement of your wrong-doing and the turning away from doing it again . . . then the only result is anarchy (I can do whatever I want to whomever I want because I’ll be “forgiven” one day).

      You can’t continue to live in sin and expect to be forgiven. Forgiveness only comes after repentance. And repentance includes a change in your heart & mind to avoid doing the things that cause sin.

      Christian means “to be like Christ”. Christ loved all and promoted a relationship with God the Father based on Christ’s example. Christ never sinned . . . not even once. It’s a difficult example to follow that requires a whole bunch of REPENTANCE.

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      1. OK, to me “repentance” seems conceptually distinct from “accept Christ as your savior”. Isn’t it possible for someone to be genuinely repentant about the sins they have committed without believing that Christ died for their sins? Take a Jewish person, for example, who disagrees with Christians about the divine status of Christ but broadly agrees with Christians about the nature of sin. Couldn’t such a person genuinely repent without accepting Christ? Or do you think there is actually some conceptual connection between genuinely repenting and being Christian.

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  3. @John – the problem is it is not just the verses above. There are verses elsewhere that say explicitly that some will get a reward that others do not. What jumps to mind immediately is the reward promised to martyrs – not everyone will be killed for their faith and therefore is not eligible for that reward, which comes in eternity; it has to, because it occurs after death. If it is the case that some get things in heaven that others do not for temporal reasons/actions (and it is) then it stands to reason that some will be punished more severely as well along the same lines.

    @Pirate – I believe yes. Traditionally people point to the passage of the grieving David when his first child by Bathsheba dies, where he states that “he shall not return to me, but I shall go to him” most often. It does not seem right or fitting that God would judge worthy of hell those who had no understanding or were incapable of making such a choice.

    As to your second point, a longer response is necessary I think so. The problem with what you propose as an alternative is that a God who just forgives unilaterally is not a just God and therefore not a good God. Every last person who ever lived has looked at things that go on in the world and asked why, and wondered if there was any justice at all. As Christians we know that God is patient and slow to act – He gives us all time to respond to Him before He moves. We also know that He has given us the ability to freely choose what we do, and for that to be meaningful, it means He has to let us choose to do wrong if it is our will to do so. However, He will not forever hold back. We all want there to be justice of some sort, and that in and of itself indicts us – we cannot meet even our own lesser standards of righteousness, let alone His.

    Imagine the worst person possible in history and then see if you think it just or right that that person would go to heaven. You probably know that is not right and you probably would hate a God who let people who were so wrong, just as you would a judge who let someone who has been convicted of crime go free.

    The reason people ask the question you posed is generally a) because they think that sin isn’t a big deal; b) that most people are generally good and c) there are people they know and love (maybe including themselves) who stand on the wrong side of this currently. Not sure if any of that applies to you btw or if you’re just curious or you have another reason. But it is a huge deal and people are not good at heart. All you have to do is put two children into a room with one toy and leave the room to see that even children are not born basically good – they are born basically selfish. We have to be trained to do the right thing, we aren’t born doing it.

    Sin introduced death, imperfection and all manner of evil into what was good. Nothing less than the death of God Himself could satisfy the cost and so He became a man to pay the price so that any who would call upon His name could be saved. God considers sin horrible in any form. Since He made all things including the rules by which we must live, and because He knows all things, we have to take it that He knows better than we do the seriousness of the issue.
    It may not be the answer you are looking for but I believe it is correct, nonetheless.

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    1. My understanding of Christian doctrine is that nobody deserves salvation, not even Christians. Salvation is a gift from God, a gesture of mercy towards someone who actually deserves damnation. Is that an inaccurate characterization? If it isn’t, then I don’t really get your “just God” point.

      What would it mean for God to be just? It can’t mean giving everyone exactly what they deserve, because then everyone would end up in Hell. God is apparently already willing to grant gifts of mercy to the undeserving, so giving people more than they deserve is not incompatible with His justice. If that is true, why draw the line at people who are Christians? Why not also allow people who attempt to lead good lives who are not Christian? Or even people who don’t attempt to lead good lives.

      You ask me to imagine the worst person in history going to Heaven, and say that this would seem completely unjust. But it seems to me a far greater injustice to make anybody, even Adolf Hitler, endure eternal suffering. So if you are asking for my intuitive response, then I would say a world in which the worst person goes to Heaven is in fact better than one in which he or she goes to Hell. Perhaps this makes me weak-willed, but it is how I feel.

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      1. The Bible doesn’t go into the reasoning for Hell being eternal that I can recall (and I’ve read it all and taught most of it), beyond the fact that God has decreed it to be so. My general opinion of it is that we have intentionally offended the only eternal, holy, matchless being, our creator and we’ve done it time without count, but whether or not that is the case is not really the issue. At core, we don’t understand just how much God hates sin. Our judgments about God’s judgments flow from that basic point – that we think some things are no big deal. From God’s viewpoint there are no small sins. We judge God for His reactions to and declarations about sin as though we know more than He does about what is at stake. I encourage you to ponder that truth for a moment.

        I don’t think you’re weak willed. I think you just find these things confusing and a bit disturbing. I sympathize, for I do likewise. It has (and probably will again in the future) caused me a lot of sleeplessness. What it boils down to, and the reason I default to what I stated above, is I’ve lived with God enough and known Him enough to know that His judgment is better than mine in all things, and that in any place where I am uneasy about things He has said of Himself, the problem lies within me and not within His word or nature. I have to say that if you (generic you) never ever have these questions, you’ve probably never really explored what faith is or had to ask any hard questions. God is not shy about who He is and that will at times (or even most of the time if you’re like me) will make us uncomfortable.

        It’s a hard doctrine and I don’t blame you for your reaction to it. I’ve done the same. At the same time, the seriousness of it is the reason it is so important to be following God at all times and in all places, seeking out any willing and desiring to know God. And it is also at least one of the reasons He tarries in His judgments, so that all may have a chance to know recant and to know Him.

        For whatever it is worth, my prayers are with you.

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  4. Here we are, swatting at flies. The greater the opportunity, the greater the loss. Will not Chorazin feel the loss greater because Jesus himself gave the invitation?

    As for whether God will forgive the sins of the one “too young to know better”, “The soul that sins, it shall die.” People are ready to let children off the hook with no Biblical proof, and yet these same people deny baptism to infants as a means of grace. Perhaps there are degrees in Heaven and Hell. After all, there are degrees on Earth. I am better off than a starving child in Pakistan. But I still suffer in this Hell-bent world. I would not like my present condition for eternity any more than I would like the plight of the starving child for eternity. Both are eternal suffering. And, as David wrote, “I would rather be a door keeper in the House of the Lord than do dwell in the tents of wickedness.” I don’t care who has a better heaven, it’s all good!

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