What Happens to Unbelievers?
By Merle Hertzler
We have covered a lot of ground. Some of you may think we are going too far. You may have no problem reconsidering your belief in a young earth or even an inerrant Bible. Good Christians differ on these things. But can you allow all of faith--including belief in Jesus--to be questioned? Why not? Shouldn't you allow all of your opinions to be open to questioning? If you never allow yourself to question a belief, how can you be sure it is true? Often when we entertain questions about our opinions, we find that there are solid reasons for believing what we do, and our confidence increases. Other times we ask questions, and find that our understanding could advance to a higher level. And when we refuse to question, is it not often because we are trying to hide from the facts? So it seems to me that we should always be willing to ask questions. "The important thing," said Albert Einstein, "is to not stop questioning." Very well, let us not stop. Let us keep on asking.
But first, let us look at why some might be nervous about continuing. It seems that there are some very stern warnings about unbelief in the Bible. For instance, John 3:18 says, "He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." That's a harsh warning. Should we be concerned? What if our search leads us to doubt Jesus? Will we be judged for it? Should we stop our search right now, to avoid this condemnation? I think not.
What do you think will happen if we don't believe? Sure, John 3:18 says we will be judged, but are there exceptions to this rule? The verse doesn't state any exceptions, but most Christians think there are some. For instance, are babies exempt from the rule that says that unbelievers are doomed? Most believers think so. They don't think that God would condemn babies who had no ability to believe. So they make an exception to John 3:18. Apparently that verse doesn't apply to everyone that doesn't believe. Are there other exceptions? How about the mentally challenged, those who do not reach the mental capacity to understand such things? Are they doomed? Again, many believers make an exception here. How about folks in the Old Testament? Are they without hope because they were born too early? Again, many people make an exception here. So we have already found three exceptions to the rule that says that all who do not believe in Jesus are doomed. Many Christians acknowledge all three.
Then there is another possible exception-- those that have never heard. What happens to them? Some have argued that, if they really wanted to know about God, God would have seen to it that they heard the message. But has this always happened? There are many tribes that Christians did not even know about for the first 1500 years of Christianity. Are we to believe that anybody in those tribes who wanted to hear about Jesus could have? I think not. So what happened to them? Were they doomed, no matter how sincere? It doesn't matter if somebody tells us a few stories of spiritually hungry natives who somehow heard the story. What about the many that did not? Christians differ on this issue. Some take the hard line and say that those who have not heard are lost forever. Would that be fair? But others acknowledge that, if these uninformed people had sincerely sought God, God may forgive them, even if they had never heard about Jesus. So here we find many Christians make a fourth exception to the rule that states that all unbelievers are doomed. Some will allow that the uninformed heathen have a chance of heaven without believing in Jesus.
The rule is leaking like a sieve. If there are so many exceptions, why wouldn't there be an exception for the one that honestly thinks a particular event--the life of Jesus--never happened? Why would God condemn the one who honestly thinks the gospels were works of fiction? If God can accept babies and savages, why not accept the one who differs on a question of history?
Let's look at it another way. We need to define what it means to believe in Jesus. How far can you be from the biblical Jesus and still be safe? Let's suppose you think Jesus died in Bethlehem. (The Bible says it was in Jerusalem.) Are you forever condemned for making this mistake in geography? Can God forgive you for this error? Okay, what if you think it happened in Damascus? In Rome? In darkest Peru? Surely God would overlook that mistake, wouldn't he? What if you thought it happened in heaven? Should a soul be tortured for countless ages because he misunderstood and thought the crucifixion happened in heaven? It seems to me that the location has nothing to do with it.
Now, suppose somebody is mistaken about the time of Jesus' death. Most scholars say the crucifixion happened around 30 AD. (Although some think it never happened.) Suppose somebody thinks it was 100 BC? Is this person in eternal danger for making this historical error? How about 1800 AD? How about 2000 BC? How close does one need to be to the actual date? Is there a cutoff date, beyond which you are forever cursed? It seems to me that it would be silly to even suggest it.
And how about the nature of his death? If we think the instrument of death was not a cross--some historians think it was actually a stake--are we doomed? Is a man a filthy heretic if he thinks Jesus was killed with a stake, a sword, or a gun? I think not.
How about the pronunciation of the name? If we pronounce the name Hay-sus or Jay-thus or X-thus are we lost? What if we spell it Jethus or Jithus or Mithus or Mithas or Mithras? Are we doomed if we commit the social error of misspelling the name? I think not. How close do we need to be?
How about the story of his life? Must we believe that Jesus walked on water? Must we believe that he told the women condemned in adultery to "Go and sin no more?" Probably not. After all, evangelical scholars now believe that this last story was inserted into the Bible many years later and does not belong there. If we need to know the exact details of his life, all are in peril. For we can never be sure exactly which stories, if any, were altered. If today's gospel texts were altered, how could we be expected to know what was in the original so we could believe it?
What about Jesus' characteristics? Must we believe that his body was made of molecules? That he was of Jewish descent? Must we have the correct understanding of the nature of the incarnation? Surely, the answer is no. Surely these things do not condemn a person.
Let's put it all together. What if somebody believes that the virgin-born son of God was named Max and was killed with a sword in Peru in 1950? Can he be saved by trusting in Max? Or is he condemned forever because he got so many details wrong? How many details can somebody have wrong without receiving condemnation? And why would it matter to God if a sincere person was mistaken on certain trivia? Would God cast a person out forever because he was mistaken on a question of history? But if you think that God could accept such a person, then it seems that your Christianity is not so exclusive after all. And it would seem that you agree that one need not believe the gospel stories to have salvation.
What if somebody mistakenly thinks that the virgin-born Son of God was named Mithras or Horus and died in the spirit world? Is that close enough? If not, then exactly where was the line crossed? On the other hand, if these beliefs are close enough, then understand that, in ancient Egypt, many believed in Horus, a savior-god who supposedly died and rose again to bring salvation. Now did ancient Egyptians who trusted in the salvation provided by Horus truly receive salvation through Horus? Some Christians will tell me "No," that Jesus saves but Horus doesn't. But what if those Egyptians had used the name "Jesus" instead of Horus? Would they then have received salvation by accepting that "Jesus". Many will tell me that this would not be sufficient, that this would be a different Jesus. But why is their "Jesus" not considered to be the same? Some will say he is different, for the details of the life of Horus differ with the gospels. And yet the story of Horus is surprising close to the story of the gospels. (See sidebar.) Both are said to have had twelve disciples; both preached a Sermon on the Mount; both died of crucifixion; and both arose, according to the stories. So if the ancient Egyptians had changed the name of the dying savior from Horus to Jesus, would that have resulted in eternal salvation? Many will tell me, "No," for the real Jesus is the one from Nazareth. This Horus is from somewhere else. But is one to be condemnend forever for getting the mailing address of the Christ wrong? The story of salvation is losing all of its plausibility. It is starting to sound like believers are saying that whoever is close to their opinions of the savior will have eternal happiness, and those who have other views will be condemned. Why would God condemn people based on trivia? On the other hand, if you allow that one could differ on the location of the savior's life; differ on the name; differ on the date; differ on certain other details, and still have salvation, you have conceded salvation to the ancient Egyptian believers in Horus. Belief in the gospel would lose its importance.
It seems to me that a loving God, if he exists, could not condemn a man who differed with God on what happened in history, provided he really wanted to be forgiven for his sins. How could God judge a man simply because he disagrees about whether a particular event is historical?
Was the crucifixion necessary?
Let's look at another issue. What about those who do not believe that a dying Savior God was necessary? Are these people doomed? Think about what the requirement for a dying savior means. Surely this is one of the most unusual demands that anybody could make.
Let me illustrate. Suppose you do something that upsets a good friend of yours. You find out that he is upset, and you do not want to lose his friendship. You go and apologize. Now suppose that this friend tells you that he would like to forgive you, but since what you did made him very upset, somebody will need to suffer. You watch as he pulls a whip out of his closet and asks his son to lean over a chair. Then he hands the whip to another man who begins to whip the boy. You beg for the man to stop. Blood is everywhere. You are horrified as the lifeless body of your friend's son falls to the floor. Then your friend retrieves the whip, puts it away, turns to you with a smile, and announces that you are now forgiven. He says that his son has died for you, and has paid the price in full. Your friend tells you that his wrath is satisfied, and that you are now reconciled to him. What do you do? Would you embrace this man? No, I think not. You would not want to be friends with that man, would you? He must be a lunatic.
And yet how does the gospel story really differ from this? Are we to believe that God needed to do something very similar to what this lunatic did? We are told that God could not forgive until he had made his innocent Son suffer. I thought God was supposed to be able to do anything. If I can forgive people without resorting to such an act, why can't he? How do you know that Calvary was necessary? Yeah, I know it is in the Bible, but as we have discussed earlier, that book may be mistaken. Is there any other reason to believe this? I cannot think of any.
So suppose somebody wants God's forgiveness, but is not sure that the story of a bloody death was necessary. After all, demanding that one's own innocent son be killed before forgiving somebody else is a demand that no normal person would make. Does God make this demand? Perhaps the divine world is so different from ours that this makes sense to him. Yet somehow I think not. So why would God demand that we believe this story to be forgiven? I do not think he would make such a demand.
What about Hell?
There is a little word that is seldom heard in church anymore--hell. The concept of eternal torment in an inescapable fire does not fit well with the culture of self-esteem, unconditional acceptance, and a personal relationship with a compassionate God. Can you relate to a God who would treat his creatures thus? Could you, for instance, hold a dog's paw on a hot frying pan for hours, ignoring its yelps? Could you do it to a person? No? Are you too compassionate to do that? So how could God keep a man in unimaginable fire? If you were God, would you condemn your decent, moral atheist neighbor to eternal hell without chance of parole? Are you that kind of person? Or would you show mercy? If you would show mercy, and you have a close personal relationship with a God who would condemn people forever, shouldn't you tell him that you disagree with hell the next time you two have a chat? And if you tell God you disagree, shouldn't you also tell your pastor you want your church doctrinal statement corrected? If, instead of objecting, you sign a document that says you will support a doctrinal statement that includes hell, then people will need to assume that you are the kind of person who approves of tormenting people forever without mercy. If you sign it, people will assume you mean it.
I hope you understand why I am confused when someone says belief in eternal torment without mercy can be compatible with the teaching of unconditional acceptance that is so popular in the church today.
Just in Case?
You may have another question: What if I am wrong? Should I follow anyway, just in case it might be true? But if I were to do that, which way should I follow? Should I follow Catholicism, just in case? Should I follow the Eastern Orthodox religion, just in case? Should I also follow Islam, Mormonism, Satanism, Hinduism, Bahai, Judaism, and the dirt-covered long-bearded fellow at the airport, just in case they are right? I would never be able to follow all of these, for these religions conflict with each other. Oh, you want me to follow just yours? So your way is better? How could I know that your way is better if I do not ask questions? So I ask questions. And the answers I get do not seem to validate dogmatic beliefs.
There is another possibility. Perhaps God, if he exists, desires intellectual honesty. Perhaps he wants us to examine things openly and truthfully, and then to be honest about what we find. If this describes God, then I am doing the right thing by being open with my views. I would hate to face an honest God after living a lifetime of pretending to believe something I don't. So if I must step up to the table and place my bets, I will bet that, if God exists, he wants me to be honest. I will call it as I see it. I see no value in doing it any other way.
Can we choose to believe?
Some would argue that God is not telling us to ignore the evidence. They would say that he is simply asking us to believe the overwhelming evidence for Christ. Very well, let us look at the evidence. But let us do it with an open mind. Let us not worry that we will be lost if we misunderstand. Let us honestly search for the truth. Let us question the belief in Jesus.
Copyright Ó Merle Hertzler 2002, 2004. All rights reserved.