Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series that I’m calling “Tough Topics.” I will explore several theological hot-button issues that I have wrestled with, or am still wrestling with, in some cases. I don’t pretend to have all the definitive answer to any of these questions, or even to explore them exhaustively. My hope is that this series will help others who are thinking about these topics and expand the thinking of those who have never considered them before.
Does God send people to Hell who’ve never had a chance to hear and believe the gospel?
I think this question is probably one of the most recurring difficult questions I’ve encountered. It’s one that nearly every Christian I know has wrestled with, to some degree. After all, if we believe what the Bible says about Jesus being the only way to God (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), then it seems that those who have never heard about Jesus and had the opportunity to believe have the deck stacked against them from the beginning. If the fate of people who have never believed is eternal, conscious torment, but they never had a chance to escape it, then it really would be better for them never to have existed in the first place.
Is this really fair?
The intensity of this question is compounded even more when one begins to become aware of how much one’s culture shapes what we believe or are willing to believe. Many people in the United States, for example, believe in Christianity because western culture has been shaped so deeply by it. It guides so much of our assumptions about who God is. Even if one is a fairly secular non-believer, what comes into the average American’s head when you say, “God” is something close to the Judeo-Christian idea of God. However, this would not necessarily be true in a Muslim or Hindu culture. A lot of what we believe or find believable is dependent on what culture we grew up in.
The idea that these billions of people who never had a chance to hear and respond to the gospel are destined for an eternity of eternal, conscious torment strikes many Christians as incredibly unfair and even cruel. It seems to contradict the belief that God’s character is love (1 John 4:16). Even if one counters that claim that God is also a God of justice, it’s hard to credibly sustain the claim that this end for these people is just. For example, when one looks at the people of North Korea where Christianity is illegal and has been repressed and replaced with communist ideology for three generations, eternal hell doesn’t seem justice for them. Especially since their earthly life already is hell, in many respects.
Every thoughtful Christian must face this challenge in one way or the other and there are a few major options out there that some Christians have put forward.
Some hold to what I call the “just the way it is” view. This view simply says, yes it seems unfair to us humans, but our understanding of fairness and sin is tainted and imperfect. The strength of this view is that it really tries to take the Bible’s warnings about hell seriously and also provides a major impetus to share the gospel. Its weakness is in the problems stated above.
Others hold to some form of Christian Universalism. This view says that in the end, God will actually save everyone and hell, if it exists, will be empty. I call it “Christian” universalism because it doesn’t claim that all religions are equally valid paths to God, but maintains that salvation is through Christ, but he just saves everybody. The strength of this view is that it seeks to be thoroughly consistent in maintaining the idea that God is love. Its weakness is that the Bible seems to be pretty serious about its warnings about hell, and this view is quite confident that those warnings won’t be reality.
A Middle Way
As I have wrestled with these questions, I think that there is a middle way between the extremes of saying, “this is just the way it is and even though it seems unfair, we need to get over it” and saying with confidence, “in the end, everybody is saved.” I think there is a way to look at this question that holds out hope for every individual, but does not deny the possibility of hell.
Whenever we think about hell, we need to start from the place of God’s heart for human beings, specifically as it is revealed in the life of Jesus and the atonement. To illustrate what God wants for the world, I would point to texts in Scripture such as the well-known John 3:16 passage, but also the following verse, that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Also, the verses in the New Testament claiming that God desires all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). This should be our starting point: God does not want anybody to go to hell.
From God’s desire for all people to be saved, I would then point to the extent God went to in the cross to achieve that. Paul repeatedly tells us that the cross and resurrection of Jesus is more powerful than the sin of Adam (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Just as Jesus described himself as the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the lost one (Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7), God has demonstrated that through the cross he will do everything within his power to bring anyone home. Put another way, if there was anything more God could do, he would have done it!
If we believe that God’s character is perfect love and justice, then we must believe that in the end, that love and justice will be perfectly demonstrated. Because of this, we can have full assurance that nobody will not be saved by accident. God will have exhausted every possible means to save that person and nobody will walk away thinking that God’s justice is unfair. Furthermore, as Karl Barth pointed out, the one who exercises the final judgement (Jesus) is also the one who died for all people. What better judge than the one who suffered and died for those under his judgment.
In light of all of this, I think we can have confidence in God’s judgement, even on those who have never heard or have only heard distorted versions of Christianity. We must be content to recognize that God’s desire for individuals to be saved far exceeds my limited, fallen desire for their salvation. God has also done more to make salvation possible for all people than any of us ever could. To make any sort of prediction about the eternal destiny of anyone is not our place as human beings.
Yes, scripture repeatedly warns of the eternal separation of the unrighteous. That is something we should not take lightly nor dispense with. If someone purposefully ignores the call to repentance because he or she thinks, “Well, God will probably save me anyways,” that is a sure way to not be saved. That is conscious rejection of the offer of the gospel’s freedom. That is hardening one’s heart against God.
We can hold out hope for every individual. If we know God’s love, his justice, and the power of the cross, we can rest assured that God exhausts every effort with people. I believe those who are not saved in the end will not be condemned by accident or circumstance, but by hard-hearted rejection of God’s grace through Christ by whatever means he used to reach them.
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
Dare We Hope that All Men be Saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell by Hans Urs von Balthasar
“Rethinking Evangelism” by Dallas Willard