CAN NON-CHRISTIAN GO TO HEAVEN?
Will non-Christians go to hell when they die? What’s going to happen to all the people who die knowing Jesus Christ? Would a loving God sentence them to hell?
This question has given rise to reams of theological debate, contention and even bitter criticisms. It became so problematic back in the 1980s, and 1990s that the Doctrine of the Faith’s Congregation, under the leadership of Joseph Ratzinger, published (with the full approval of Blessed Pope John Paul II) a thorough study of the issue which you might want to read.
Most of the Christian community claims that if anyone does not embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior today — in this life — he or she will go to hell.
This doctrine has launched millions of Christian missionaries (and even crusades) with the aim of getting as many people to accept the name of Jesus Christ. This also created a lot of concern and uncertainty about the final fate of many people.
This doctrine is the major reason several individuals question the validity of Christianity.
We don’t question the sincerity of those who are inspired to preach Christ because of this belief. But we must question ourselves if this idea was really taught by Jesus Christ.
DID JESUS CONDEMN NON-CHRISTIANS TO HELL?
Did Jesus Christ teach that those who do not accept Him in this life — non-believers or non-Christians — will go to hell when they die to spend eternity in agony?
Have the billions of souls who have lived and died without ever hearing the name of Christ gone to hell? Are the billions of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and atheists living today condemned to hell unless they accept Jesus before they die?
JESUS IS OUR ONLY WAY TO SALVATION
Before we answer the questions above, we must establish that the Bible teaches us that we must accept Jesus Christ to be saved. Millions have read the clear scriptures of the Bible that declare the exclusivity of Christianity — the scriptures that inform us that Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation. These scriptures are completely valid!
• John 14:6: Jesus Christ dogmatically said, “… I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” The only means to have a relationship with God is through Jesus Christ.
• John 3:16: The most popular passage of the Bible declares: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This verse proclaims the love of God and the need for humanity salvation,it also includes the reminder that they must “believe in Him” in order to have eternal life.
• John 3:36: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
• Acts 4:12: The apostle Peter, talking about Jesus Christ, declared, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” We cannot be saved until we recognize and believe in Jesus Christ and what He has done for each one of us.
• 1 John 5:12: “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”
But here is the problem: what about all the people who have not met the basic requirements of these scriptures? What about those who have lived far away from ever hearing of Jesus Christ?
What about those who might have heard of Jesus, but did not really understand who He was and is, or what He taught? How about all the children who die without ever knowing or recognizing the name and message of Jesus?
Have they lost their only chance? Are all these non-Christians going to hell?
WOULD A MERCIFUL AND LOVING GOD SEND NON-CHRISTIANS TO HELL WITHOUT KNOWING THE TRUTH?
How about the Bible verses that demonstrates God’s grace, mercy, kindness, and desire to save mankind?
The Bible declares in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love” and “wants all men to be saved and come to the understanding of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
Here are some other Bible verses about the mercy and love of God:
- Deuteronomy 4:31: “(For the LORD thy God is a merciful God 😉 he will not forsake thee.”
- Psalm 36:5: “Thy mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds.”
- Psalm 86:15: But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion and gracious, long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth.”
- 1 John 4:10-11: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son tobe the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.”
Will a caring God commit men to hell who never had a chance to learn about Jesus? Will a caring God send people to hell that never had a chance to read the Bible or to have the real gospel preached and explained to them?
Consider the millions of people throughout history that have lived and died in remote parts of the world — for example, the aboriginal people of Australia, the Native Americans, and the isolated tribes of Africa. Are these souls all burning in hell because they just happened to be born in the wrong place, and at the wrong time?
What about the men who existed before Jesus came to earth — and never had any contact with the Bible?
JESUS REVEALS THAT THE PEOPLE OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH AREN’T IN HELL
In Matthew 10, we read about the instruction of Jesus to His twelve apostles before they went out to preach the gospel. Within those instructions, Jesus made a vital point that leads us to the answer to these questions.
After asking them what to do when people rejected the Gospel, He made this interesting statement: “Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment, than for that city.”(vs. 15)
Jesus applied to Sodom and Gomorrah, the notorious cities in Genesis 19 that God killed for their moral depravity. He said on the Day of Judgment; it would be more tolerable (or bearable) for the people of these ancient cities than for the people who would reject the gospel taught by the apostles.
Many would have assumed that the evil and depraved people of Sodom and Gomorrah would have been sent to hell long ago to be punished for their evil ways.
But Jesus said nothing about these men being in hell or being lost forever. Essentially, he said that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah would be resurrected at the same time that the people of the time of Christ would rise. At that future time, the “Day of Judgment,” one group will be given more leniency than the other.
THE STATEMENT OF JESUS TEACHES US TWO ESSENTIAL TRUTHS:
1. The judgment of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and the people of the time of Christ is yet to come. This opposes the common belief that people are judged when they die and are sent to heaven or hell.
2. The ultimate destiny of these people is not yet determined. This, too, contradicts the popular belief.
This is supposed to make us stop and re-think. Perhaps there is more to learn about what happens to non-Christians after death than we might have been thought.
JESUS ADDS MORE INSIGHT ABOUT THE JUDGMENT DAY
Jesus made other comments that will give us some insight into the coming judgment on non-Christians. When speaking to the Pharisees who were asking for a sign from Him, Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the south shall rise up the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the Wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.”(Matt. 12:41-42).
Jesus talked again of the Day of Judgment, but not in the way he was popularly thought of. This judgment is not a quick condemnation. There will be the ancient Assyrians from Nineveh, the queen of Sheba, the Pharisees from the time of Christ, and those from Sodom and Gomorrah (the people who lived apart for centuries!)—all alive at the same time!
Notice they “rise up” this time — meaning they are resurrected from their graves and given physical life.
WHAT HAPPENS ON THE JUDGMENT DAY?
The statements of Jesus give us two small snapshots of the people who will be living again on the “Day of Judgment,” but a few more details. How are these people going to live again? In what form are they going to live again? What’s going to happen then?
These answers can be found in two biblical books dedicated to prophecy: Ezekiel and Revelation.
WHEN IS THE JUDGMENT DAY?
Revelation 20 is one of the most significant parts of the Bible because it reveals details of the sequence of events that will happen after the second coming of Jesus. We read about Satan being bound for one thousand years immediately after Christ returns to earth the (verses 1-3) and the resurrection of the saints — the faithful servants of Christ across the ages (verses 4-6). Jesus and His saints will rule for 1,000 years (generally called the Millennium).
After the Millennium, a different group will be resurrected to life for the judgment day. The group is called “the rest of the dead” (verse 5).
WHO WILL BE JUDGED BY JESUS?
Verse 12 shows who these people are: “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before God.” This will include the large majority of those who have lived and died over the thousand years of human history — all resurrected at the same time.
It is the resurrection that will include all the people Jesus used as examples — the people of Nineveh, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Queen of Sheba, and the people of the time of Christ.
A vision of this coming resurrection was given to the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:5-6). He saw how God was going to give physical life back to what turned out to be billions of people.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN ON THE JUDGMENT DAY?
After these people are granted physical life, they will have the ability to hear about the Word of God. We read, “Books were opened” (Revelation 20:12). The texts (Greek Testament) refer to the books of the Bible. Those who were blinded to the reality of God before (Mark 4:11-12; Revelation 12:9) must then have the Bible opened to them — so that they can truly understand it!
Revelation 20:12 say, “Another book has been opened, which is the Book of Life.” This is an opportunity for eternal life to be opened to all these people. This will be done by God giving His Holy Spirit to billions of people during that period (Ezekiel 37:14).
All these people, billions upon billions, will eventually be able to understand the Bible, learn and believe, and follow Jesus Christ, and have the chance to live forever.
HOW LONG WILL THE JUDGMENT DAY LAST?
We do not know specifically, but we do know it’s not only going to be a 24-hour day. In this context, the word “day” refers to a period or an era. The “day” of judgment will be a time that will give people enough time to know the Word of God, to repent of their sins, to be given the Spirit of God, and to live according to the teaching of God.
Some have suggested, based on Isaiah 65:20, that it may be around 100 years. The length of time is not known, but we know that God will give enough time for these billions of people to bring forth “…fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
This is the hope of all the people mentioned by Christ — people like the Queen of Sheba and the people of Sodom — and of all the others who have ever existed and not known the true God and His truth.
THREE REASONS WHY SOMEONE MAY GENUINELY NOT FIND THE TRUTH OF THE FAITH:
1. IGNORANCE: What we are talking about is invincible ignorance. A just God is not going to hold you accountable for anything beyond your control. If you have never heard of Jesus, that’s not your fault. It’s not the same thing as deliberate ignorance, where you chose not to know. This is demonstrated when the advertisements on the TV show the poor, disabled children in the world, and we change the channel, so we don’t feel guilty. We prefer to be naive so that our lives will not be affected. Unless we deliberately ignore the issue of God because of how it will bother us, then that is not a valid reason.
2. SCANDAL: Imagine your only encounter with Christ is through those who hurt and abuse you. Or imagine that your most important experience of Christ is through the abuse of a member of the clergy. Is it true that this is an enormous impediment to your coming to know the truth of the faith? Yes, this is possible.
3. SUFFERING. The crosses that we carry may bring us closer to the Lord, but the mystery of suffering, particularly when it seems to our dim human reason to be pointless, can be a great stumbling block.
It is possible that each of these may lead to an impassable barrier between a person and Christ. Note that I am very vague in the language because this is something that can only be judged by God in the person. I can’t tell if someone’s ignorance is overwhelming, or whether they’re using the scandal as an excuse to escape faith. But God knows, and we should leave the decision to Him.
Even if there is a real hindrance to understanding Christ explicitly, a person must still live a life of virtue. This isn’t to say that every religion is the same paths to God. All things must still go through Christ, albeit anonymously.
Many who don’t know Him by name, but who live a life striving for goodness, may be saved. Remember that it is “may” and not “will” because, like Christians, non-Christians must be judged by their decisions and why they made them. But if they strive for goodness, then, in reality, they are striving for the source of goodness.