Many churches firmly believe that anyone who has ever died without accepting Christ will burn in hell forever. But are non-Christians condemned to hell?
One doctrine has launched thousands of Christian missionaries and even crusades throughout the world 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. For some, this doctrine is even the reason they question the validity of Christianity.
This is the doctrine that now is the only day of salvation, or in other words, that those who die without accepting Jesus Christ are condemned to hell for eternity.
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 is actually what Christ taught.
Did Jesus Christ teach that those who don’t accept Him in this life—and those who are deceived by unbiblical forms of Christianity—are lost to hell forever?
Questions that must be answered about fairness and who will be condemned to hell
Millions have read the Bible passages that declare the exclusivity of Christianity—the verses that tell us that Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation. And these scriptures are absolutely true!
Jesus Christ dogmatically stated: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
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” (Acts 4:12).
But here is the dilemma: What about all of those people who have not fulfilled the basic requirement of these scriptures? What about those who have lived far removed from ever even hearing the name of Jesus Christ? What about those who may have heard the name, but did not really understand Jesus or His message? What about all the children who have died?
Is that it? Have they missed their only chance—only to go to hell?
What about the scriptures 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). The Bible’s most famous verse declares that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).
Could a loving God sentence people to an eternity of torment for not having a chance to hear Jesus’ name?Could a loving God sentence people to an eternity of torment for not having a chance to hear Jesus’ name?
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?
Jesus, Sodom and the day of judgment
In Matthew 10 we read about Jesus’ instruction to His 12 apostles before they went out spreading His message. 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 reject 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 completely 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 apostles.
He did not say anything about going to hell or being lost forever. He essentially said that these people will rise in the same period of judgment, but that one group would be given more leniency.
That should make us stop and think. Maybe there is more to learn about what happens to non-Christians after death than you might have thought.
Jesus adds more insight about the day of judgment
Jesus made similar 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—all alive at the same time!
The details of 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? 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” (verse 5).
Who? 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. 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? After these people are given 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 at that last judgment (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.
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.