Life, Hope & Truth

From the September/October 2015 issue of Discern Magazine

Did Jesus Teach That Non-Christians Go to Hell?

Will all non-Christians go to hell when they die? What happens to all the people who die without knowing Jesus Christ? Would a loving God condemn them to hell?

Much of the Christian world believes that if someone doesn’t accept Jesus as Lord and Savior today—in this life—he or she will go to hell.

This doctrine has launched thousands of Christian missionaries (and even crusades) with the goal of getting as many people as possible to accept the name of Jesus Christ. It has also caused much worry and anxiety over the ultimate fate of many people.

This doctrine is even the reason some question the validity of Christianity. 

We do not question the sincerity of those who have been motivated to preach Christ because of this belief. But we must question whether this idea was really taught by Jesus Christ.

Did Jesus condemn non-Christians to hell?

Did Jesus Christ teach that those who don’t accept Him in this life—nonbelievers, or non-Christians—go to hell when they die to spend eternity in torment?

Have the billions of people who have lived and died without ever even hearing the name Jesus gone to hell? Are the billions of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and atheists alive today condemned to hell unless they accept Jesus before they die?  

Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation

Before we answer the above questions, we must establish that the Bible does teach that we must accept Jesus Christ to be saved. Millions have read the clear Bible verses that declare the exclusivity of Christianity—the verses that tell us that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. And these scriptures are absolutely true! 

  • John 14:6: Jesus Christ dogmatically stated: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” The only way to have a relationship with God the Father is through Jesus Christ.
  • Acts 4:12: The apostle Peter, speaking of Jesus Christ, proclaimed, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” We cannot be saved unless we accept and believe in Jesus Christ and what He did for each of us.
  • John 3:16: The most famous Bible verse in Christianity declares: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (emphasis added). Even this verse proclaiming God’s love and desire to save people adds the caveat that they must “believe in Him” to have everlasting life.
  • John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
  • 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.”
  • 1 John 5:12: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

But here is the dilemma: What about all of the people who have not fulfilled the basic requirement of these scriptures? What about those who have lived far removed from ever even hearing of Jesus Christ?

What about those who may have heard of Jesus, but did not really understand who He was and is or what He taught? What about all the babies and children who die without ever hearing or understanding the name and message of Jesus? 

Is that it? Have they missed their only chance? Are all these non-Christians going to hell?

Would a loving and merciful God send non-Christians to hell without knowing the truth?

What about the Bible verses that show God’s love, mercy, compassion and desire for mankind to be saved? 

The Bible declares that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4, see also 2 Peter 3:9).

Here are some other Bible verses about God’s mercy and love:

  • Deuteronomy 4:31: “(For the LORD your God is a merciful God), He will not forsake you.”
  • Psalm 36:5: “Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.”
  • Psalm 86:15: “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.”
  • Ephesians 2:4: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us. …”
  • 1 John 4:10-11: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Would a loving God send people to hell who never even had an opportunity to hear of Jesus? Would a loving God send people to hell who never even had an opportunity to hear of Jesus? Would a loving God send people to hell who never had a chance to read the Bible or have the true gospel preached and explained to them?  

Imagine the millions of people throughout history who have lived and died in remote areas of this earth—for example, the aboriginal people of Australia, remote tribes in Africa and the Native Americans. Are these people all burning in hell because they just happened to be born at the wrong place, at the wrong time?

What about people who lived before Jesus came to earth—and never even had contact with the God of the Bible?

To learn what the Bible teaches about hell, read “What Is Hell?” and “What Christianity Gets Wrong About Hell.”

Jesus indicates that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are not in hell

In Matthew 10 we read about Jesus’ instruction to His 12 apostles before they went out preaching the gospel. Within those instructions, Jesus made an important point that introduces us to the answer to these questions.

After telling them what to do when people rejected the gospel, He made this fascinating statement: “Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!” (verse 15). 

Jesus referred to Sodom and Gomorrah, the infamous cities from Genesis 19 that God destroyed for their moral depravity. He said that it will be more tolerable (or bearable) for the people of these ancient cities in the day of judgment than for the people who would reject the gospel taught by the apostles. 

Many would assume that the wicked and depraved people of Sodom and Gomorrah would have long ago been sent to hell to be punished for their evil ways.

But Jesus didn’t say anything about these people being in hell or being lost forever. He essentially said that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah will be resurrected at the same time the people of Christ’s time will rise. At that future period of time, “the day of judgment,” one group will be given more leniency than the other. 

Jesus’ statement teaches us two essential truths:

  1. The judgment of the people of Sodom, Gomorrah and the people of Christ’s time is still future. This contradicts the common belief that people are judged when they die and sent to heaven or hell.
  2. The ultimate destiny of these people isn’t already determined. This also contradicts the common belief.

That should make us stop and think. Maybe there is more to learn about what happens to non-Christians after death than we might have thought. 

To learn more about why people aren’t eternally lost to hell now, read “Are Most People Eternally Lost?

Jesus adds more insight about the day of judgment

Jesus made other statements that give us more insight into this coming judgment on non-Christians. 

While speaking to Pharisees who were demanding a sign from Him, Jesus said: “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:41-42). 

Christ was again speaking about the day of judgment, but not in the way it’s popularly thought of. This judgment isn’t a quick condemnation. There will be ancient Assyrians from Nineveh, the queen of Sheba, Pharisees from Christ’s time, and those from Sodom and Gomorrah (people who lived centuries apart!)—all alive at the same time! 

Notice they “rise up” at this time—meaning they are resurrected from their graves and given physical life.

What happens on the day of judgment?

Jesus’ statements give us two small snapshots of individuals who will live again in the “day of judgment,” but few other details. When will these people live again? In what form will they live again? What will happen then? 

Those answers are found in two biblical books devoted to prophecy: Revelation and Ezekiel. 

When is the day of judgment? 

Revelation 20 is one of the most important parts of the Bible because it reveals details about the sequence of events that will occur after the return of Jesus Christ. We read about Satan being bound for a thousand years immediately after Christ’s return (verses 1-3) and of the resurrection of the saints—Christ’s faithful servants throughout the ages (verses 4-6). Christ and His saints will rule for 1,000 years (commonly called the Millennium).

Then, after the Millennium, another group will be resurrected to life for their day of judgment. This group is called “the rest of the dead.”Then, after the Millennium, another group will be resurrected to life for their day of judgment. This group is called “the rest of the dead” (verse 5).

Who will be judged by Jesus? 

Verse 12 reveals who these people are: “I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God.” This will include the vast majority of those who have lived and died through the thousands of years of human history—all resurrected at the same time.

This is the resurrection that will include all the people Jesus used as examples—the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the people of Nineveh, the queen of Sheba and the people of Jesus’ time.

The prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of this coming resurrection (Ezekiel 37:5-6). He saw how God will give physical life back to what will turn out to be billions of people.

Make sure you read his description and try to imagine what this will be like when human bodies will be reassembled and then resuscitated.

What will happen on the day of judgment?

After these people are given physical life, they will be given an opportunity to learn about God’s Word. We read, “And books were opened” (Revelation 20:12). The books (Greek biblion) refer to the books of the Bible. Those who were blinded to God’s truth before (Mark 4:11-12; Revelation 12:9) will then have the Bible opened to them—so they can truly understand it! 

Revelation 20:12 then goes on to say, “Another book was opened, which is the Book of Life.” This represents the opportunity for eternal life being opened to all these people. This will be accomplished by God offering His Holy Spirit to billions of people during that period of time (Ezekiel 37:14). 

All of these people, the billions upon billions of them, will finally be able to understand the Bible, know and believe and obey Jesus Christ and have the opportunity to live forever. 

How long will the day of judgment last?

We don’t know exactly, but we do know it won’t be just a 24-hour day. In this context, “day” refers to a period of time, or an era. The “day” of judgment will be a period that will provide enough time for people to learn about God’s Word, repent of their sins, be given God’s Spirit and live their lives in accordance with God’s teaching.

Some have speculated, based on Isaiah 65:20, that this could be about 100 years. The length of time isn’t certain, but we do know God will give plenty of time for these billions of people to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

This is the hope for all the people Christ mentioned—people like the queen of Sheba and the inhabitants of Sodom—and all the other people who have ever lived and not known the true God and His truth. 

An invitation to study more about life after death

This topic is huge. In fact, it’s literally one of the biggest topics there is!

Learn more about the topic of life after death and what happens when you die.

Download a booklet written on this topic titled The Last Enemy: What Really Happens After Death? It delves into scores of scriptures to show what really happens after we die and the great hope for every person who has ever lived. 

We want to share that hope with you. 

About the Author

Erik Jones

Erik Jones

Erik Jones is a full-time writer and editor at the Life, Hope & Truth offices in McKinney, Texas.

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