QUESTION: I recently had a conversation with my brother who is not a Christian, he has a very liberal “Christ Consciousness” view of Jesus and does not believe in hell. He asked me why he would go to hell and not me. I felt very uncomfortable and unprepared to respond to the question. Can you please help?
RESPONSE: Thanks for your question, and I can appreciate the difficulty of this topic – especially when it gets out of the theoretical and into the personal. It’s gets touchy. In fact, just recently, Bernie Sanders, questioning a Christian nominee seemed to imply that just holding to the idea of heaven and hell is hateful!
But actually, it’s best that the topic does turn personal, not by starting with his personal eternal destiny, but rather with yours. Before you talk about heaven, talk about this thing all Christians believe about themselves: you yourself are qualified for hell.
You should be adamant about your conviction on this. See, you know you; you know your heart; you know your posture towards a holy God. You are an authority on your own inner world. And you know in your quiet heart, you’re among the people whose pride and depravity make you fit for hell. Say it as baldly as that. It might not immediately reduce the offense your brother is feeling about hell, but to put yourself in the cross-hairs of it, takes all the presumed arrogance and hate out of the equation.
See, the first thing you’re trying to fix is the misconception that Christians believe hell is the destiny for the especially bad people. And conversely, that Christians believe we’re the especially good people. Add to this the safe bet that irreligious people think our confident goodness is bound up in certain political positions – positions he undoubtedly thinks are in some cases downright wicked! Needless to say, this whole picture is offensive to outsiders to Christ. They feel morally better than many others, including many Christians, whose sins and hypocrisies they take great pleasure in pointing out.
Well, no well-instructed Christian believes this moralistic view. How can we?, when we read of Jesus pointing to tax collectors and prostitutes and tells the good people of his day, “they are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matt 21:31)? Clearly we believe something more subtle is going on than simply “good people go to heaven”.
But don’t move too quickly to say, it’s only those who “believe in Jesus” who go to heaven. This is premature and offensive. Why? Because your brother might wonder, what is efficacious about an affirmation of belief? What is meritorious about making a simple belief statement – especially when he perhaps questions whether Jesus even existed? But even assuming Jesus belief is warranted, what kind of God makes eternal salvation contingent on true beliefs? Is God also sending people to hell for not believing in Copernicus? Are flat-earthers condemned?
Well, of course we must define what “believing in Jesus means”. When we say that those who “believe in Jesus are saved” and those that are not are condemned, what we are not saying is that they are condemned for not believing something. No, according to Jesus himself, people’s condemnation is warranted PRIOR to any beliefs we may or may not have about Jesus. Read:
And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.John 3:19
Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. Your accuser is MosesJohn 5:45
Jesus was adamant that people have the light of moral goodness set before them, in Conscience and in the Moral Law, and that we have denied the light and broken the law (that’s what his reference to Moses is about). That is the assessment of Jesus. That is really where this conversation has to start. Does your brother feel that he is a law breaker before God?
He will likely say something like, “I’m not perfect, but I’m definitely a good person”. A good question is to then ask, how do you know that? Ironically, a lot of non-Christians think Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is their guiding ethical code, and their pride in living by that code is what gives them confidence before God. “I just love, like Jesus said, I think that’s good enough, that’s all God wants.”
But this comes from not really reading the Sermon carefully. Essentially Jesus puts the achievement of true goodness out of the reach of EVERYONE in that talk. For it’s in the Sermon that Jesus spiritualizes the Law. Adultery is more than not sleeping in the wrong bed, it’s a heart thing too. A simple curse (heart murder!) puts a person in danger of hell. (Matt 5:22)
This is the discussion you need to have FIRST, before you talk about “believing in Jesus”, whatever that means. EVERYONE is in danger of hell, because according to Jesus the standard is impossibly high. Jesus says in that sermon, “be perfect.” That rules me out. This implies that hell is a default destiny – separation from God is not tied to your response to Christ, it PRECEDES your response to Christ.
So believing in Christ must begin with believing His assessment of our default posture before God. Second, to believe in the mission of Jesus which he one time stated as, “I have not come for the well, but the sick.” (Matt 9:12) He said those words in response to some very high moral performers looking down on the sad company of losers and sinners he was hanging with. So he’s clearly talking about coming as a spiritual doctor for the morally ill.
Is your brother one of the “sick” Jesus came for? Or is he one of the “well”? The whole question of hell hinges on his answer to that question. When I’ve asked that question of a seeker before, I got a troubled silence. He didn’t want to say he was “sick” because he believed everyone is inherently good. But he also didn’t want to say he was “well” for clearly Jesus considered the “well” outside the scope of his mission and he likes to think he’s more on “team Jesus” than Christians are. How should he answer?
Let your brother chew on this question for a bit, and it might be helpful to ask if he thinks his moral performance outshines people like Mother Teresa or Gandhi. If he balks at being compared to two known “saints” simply point out that both Teresa and Gandhi were deeply convinced they were among the “sick”. While Gandhi never became a Christian, he was tormented by his own inner darkness. The man your brother might say could not possibly be hell-bound wrote in his autobiography:
It is a constant torture to me that I am still so far from Him whom I know to be my very life and being. I know it is my own wretchedness and wickedness that keeps me from Him.”Gandhi
Until your brother is as convinced as Gandhi or Teresa were of their own fallenness, the very idea of hell will remain offensive. He’ll likely have host of questions about the justice of hell:
- why eternal punishment for temporal offenses?,
- how could anyone enjoy heaven while hell goes on?,
- isn’t retributive punishment inherently unjust?,
- why the frightful intensity of the pain?
CS Lewis gives excellent replies to these and other objections in his chapter on Hell in Problem of Pain.
But once he comes to the conviction that he is morally ill, and feels spiritually separated from God, these objections will fade and hell ceases to be a barbaric doctrine and becomes more an inevitable consequence of God’s goodness. Bringing him there, however, is not your job, as Jesus made clear:
“When [the Holy Spirit] comes, He will convict the world about sin”John 16:8
At the moment when one experiences this conviction, not from false humiliation or human shaming but from God, the game changes. A person so convicted gets humble, and desperate. And this desperation begins to show what it means to “believe in Jesus”.
Believing includes many ideas, the most elementary of which is to believe in the bare historical facts about him. But the more significant ideas of “belief” include
- CONFESSION: Coming to see yourself as Jesus sees you. Wholly unable to save yourself, wholly self condemned.
- REPENTANCE, a repudiation of a life lived loving our own way, seeking our own godhood. This would include acts of evil done for selfish pleasure, as well as acts of moral righteousness done for selfish pride.
- TRUST, the total casting of oneself onto the mercy of God through Jesus work on the cross to receive his absolution for sin.
Why then would you go to heaven and your brother would not? Not because you’re better than him. In one sense, because of the opposite – because you clearly feel yourself to be worse off before God than he does. You believe you have a mortal ailment, he feels he is one of the “well”. So you grasped, by confession and repentance and trust, the healing that was offered to you by God through Jesus Christ.