Updated: May 1, 2021
Recently I was asked a question about hell. Basically, do people go to hell simply because they don’t believe? I’ve heard many different versions of this question. The sassier versions involve people questioning the goodness of a being that would eternally torture people for not loving him. The fact that this question comes up so much shows there’s a lot of confusion about this issue, and in my opinion, shows that most people think of this issue in a completely backwards way. I thought I’d share my response with you.
This idea often times gets flipped on its head, and is misunderstood, because the person is understanding the point, but in the wrong way. I know that sounds weird. The way you’ve worded this question is that you’re asking if a person goes to hell if they don’t repent. That is correct, in a sense, but backwards. It’s not that you go to hell if you don’t repent; it’s that you are already on the path to hell, and God loves you enough to offer you salvation. Here’s an example:
John 3:36 = Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
The key word here is “remains”. It’s not that God says, “hey do you believe in my Son? Because if not, I’m damning you”. It’s that you are already damned, and God saves you from that, through Jesus. If Jesus is your Lord (or representative, head, authority, etc.), then He, in a sense, stands in your place, receiving the punishment that you deserve. If you do not have Christ as Lord, then the wrath of God “remains” on you, because of your sin
Here’s another famous passage, John 3:16, but notice the verses that follow it:
John 3:16-18 = For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Notice, it’s not that condemnation comes if you reject Jesus, because Jesus didn’t come to bring condemnation. As humanity, we were already condemned, and Jesus brought salvation. You are already in a state of condemnation, and only by calling on the name of Jesus as Lord can you escape the punishment that you already deserve.
Here’s a key verse in understanding how this concept continues:
Hebrews 2:17 = “Therefore, He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
Here, it says Jesus had to be human, for the purpose that He could pay the price of our sins for us (propitiation just means to “appease”, in other words, Jesus pays the price we owe, which appeases the justice of God towards our sin). Here’s another couple of verses that show this point:
2 Corinthians 5:21 = “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
1 Peter 3:18 = For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.
The concept here is that Jesus became human, and through this took on the guilt and sin of humanity. He was innocent, but became guilty on our behalf, so that we could have a righteous standing before the Father. Again, we are already on the path to hell, and Jesus entered into humanity, to become guilty with us, so that He could pay the price of our sin for us, so that justice would be appeased, and we could have forgiveness. If you reject that offer of forgiveness, then you will continue on the path that you are already on, which is to hell.
Now this response I gave got some push back from a few people. Isn’t that the same thing? You go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus; that’s the same thing as saying if you don’t accept Jesus you go to hell! It’s just reversing the order! However, I think I’ve made a crucial difference here. God isn’t damning you for not loving Him; you are already damned, and there’s an offer of grace and forgiveness being made to save you from that, because God loves you.
Here’s a little analogy to help convey the point. Suppose you’re hanging from a cliff, and I offer you my hand to help you up. Someone could say, if you don’t accept my help, you will fall to your death. Is rejecting my help the reason you fall to your death? No. You’re already hanging on the cliff. I’m not the cause of your falling to your death; you were already in this situation to begin with. I’m offering help, and if you refuse the help, you will suffer the consequences. That’s far different from a case where, if you don’t let me help you, I’ll shove you off the cliff. The two situations are entirely different. In the sense of hell, it’s not that God sends you there because you don’t love Him; you are already on the path to hell because of your sin, and yet God wants to save you from that. If you reject that offer of forgiveness, then you will suffer the results of your own sin.