My Neighbor Isn’t Going To Hell, Right?

Mar 15

In a recent post, I already touched on hell, but focused mostly on those around the world who have never heard the Gospel–is it fair they go to hell? If you are interested in that topic, I suggest you read that post. In today’s post, I want to focus on my next-door neighbor or the people in our own communities. Most of them have already heard the Gospel at one point in their life. They can’t claim ignorance. Yet they have refused to give their lives over to Christ. Why as churches are we not motivated to reach out to the large number of people who refuse to trust Christ with their lives? Why are we not passionate to reach them? I only see this passion when it comes to growing our churches. I believe there’s a difference between really trying to reach people for Christ and trying to grow our church. Why are there so many “church growth” mega-conferences, best-selling books, models out there, but very little when it comes to investing in people who don’t know Christ? It is a shame that so many of us church leaders think these are one-in-the-same, but that is another topic altogether.

I think too many Christians (especially in the South) want to assume that these people in our communities are generally “good folks,” and we have bought into the lie that people around us don’t need to believe in Christ–in the end, they won’t really go to hell, will they? We just think it would be a good idea for them to start coming to church. It would “help them out” in their lives, and it would also help our church grow. Win-win. Too many Christians feel believing in a literal hell for literal people is simply mean. I must admit, the idea of people going to hell is very hard for me to swallow. If there’s one theology in Christianity that gives me the most problems internally, it is the theology about hell.

C.S. Lewis also had this problem. In his chapter on Hell in The Problem of Pain, He said,

There is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this [hell], if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, especially, of our Lord’s [Jesus’] own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.

What I like about C.S. Lewis is that he recognizes that it doesn’t “lay in my power” to remove this from our faith. If Scripture teaches it, if Jesus teaches it, if our entire history of Christianity has always affirmed it–who are we today to begin denying that those who don’t put their faith in Christ continue on that road because of their sins?

C.S. Lewis also goes on to say:

As things are, however, this doctrine is one of the chief grounds on which Christianity is attacked as barbarous, and the goodness of God impugned. We are told that it is a detestable doctrine–and indeed, I too detest it from the bottom of my heart–and are reminded of the tragedies in human life which have come from believing it.

Further on, he states (and I paraphrase):

The problem is not simply that of a God who consigns some of his creatures to final ruin. That would be the problem if we were Muslims. Christianity…presents us with something knottier–a God so full of mercy that He becomes man and dies by torture to avert that final ruin from His creatures, and who yet, where that heroic remedy fails, seems unwilling or even able to arrest the ruin by an act of mere power.

In other words, what we struggle with as Christians is that Jesus died such a heroic, torturous death for the salvation of humanity–and yet it will only count for a small few? The rest still go to Hell? After going through all that, can’t God do something to bring the world to salvation–at least the vast majority of it? He continues:

I said glibly a moment ago that I would pay ‘any price’ to remove this doctrine. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact. And here is the real problem: so much mercy, yet still there is Hell.

Understanding our struggle with this doctrine, C.S. Lewis begins his apologetic on the doctrine of hell by stating:

I am not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable. Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral, by a critique of the objections ordinarily made, or felt, against it.

If you wish to read what he says about hell, I recommend obtaining a copy of The Problem of Pain. But I want to focus on the “tolerable” part. Many Christians find a belief in hell to be intolerable, so they reject it. Others do believe in hell, but they have simply accepted that the vast majority of people are going there. I think this is part of my problem: I realize that I am too tolerable of my neighbors, friends, co-workers, family going there.

I live my life as if everything’s ok with everyone. I don’t engage people around me. Do I really believe in hell or not? Why am I ok with doing very little for those who I’m afraid are heading there? When I shared with a pastor friend of mine that maybe I am not obeying God fully and should be living somewhere in Tibet, because I believe that they are lost without God, he stated that if he believed in hell like I did, that’s where he would be living. He’s probably right–my actions don’t line up enough with my beliefs. Why aren’t I doing more? I fear that even if I moved to Tibet, I would still feel paralyzed to share the Gospel. After all, I’m not doing it here in the States where there is much greater freedom of religious expression.

So the idea of our neighbors going to hell is intolerable–we can all agree on that. But what is our response? As I see it, we have three choices.

  1. Reject the idea of hell, because it is too intolerable to believe any longer
  2. Somehow convince ourselves that everyone around us going to hell is tolerable
  3. Find it intolerable that everyone around us is going to hell, and do something about it

I ask myself, which response would Scripture say is what God is calling His Church to do? I believe we are called to reach new people in bold ways for Christ, so that they become bold people living a new way in Christ. But I don’t want to just hold that belief or mission statement: I want to carry it out. Right now, I’m failing at it.

Soon I will probe how we can carry this out in love. Is there a way to hold this belief that people around us are going to hell without Christ and not be mean?

8 comments

  1. Audra /

    Let me add a fourth choice to your list. I’m not suggesting this is a rational response, but I think it’s the one that I rely on the most, because it is comforting. This probably is going to sound contradictory to some of my other comments I’ve made on your blog, but the human mind is easily capable of holding contradictory beliefs. Anyway, here is what I usually believe:

    4. My neighbors, friends, co-workers, family, etc. are all, deep down, in their hearts, believers in Jesus.

    I hope this, think this, because after all, we don’t know what it’s in somebody’s heart. Growing up in the Bible belt like I have, most people around here go to church and have heard the Gospel at some point. Maybe they do have a connection with Christ that I don’t see. So there’s a fourth option for you.

    Also, if you want to move somewhere to be a missionary–let’s just pick someplace warmer, ok?

    • You knew I would ask this, but I still have to: Is going to church and/or hearing the Gospel the same thing as trusting one’s life to Christ?

      I’ve noticed that, compared to people in the North, many people in the South “go to Such-and-such Church” by mere association. Even if a great number do go regularly (hard to say), it seems to often be little more than a time-honored, cultural practice for a decent number of people. Yet rather than judge our neighbors, I would propose getting to know them. Instead of assuming faith in Christ or a lack thereof, learning through relationship what faith in Christ they have, if any. Wouldn’t this be the responsible thing to do for a Christian who desires to carry out the Great Commission but is unable to carry out (or not-called to) evangelism overseas?

      You have a point. Maybe choosing a climate where it is unusually hot, people may be more easily convinced that they don’t want to go to hell. It may be harder to convince those who live in the frigid cold. That’s what you were thinking, right? 🙂

    • If you do go to Nepal, I’m a guaranteed visitor. Wait, that won’t sell you on the idea. Let’s move on.

  2. Audra /

    I’m not trying to say that just because people go to church, that they are Christians. But, I like to think that people who go to church (even if not regularly) have at least had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. (However, we all know that doesn’t happen in all churches.)

  3. One of my favorite Lewis quotes on this subject goes something like this: “If we don’t say ‘Thy will be done’ to God in this life, He will say ‘thy will be done’ in eternity.”
    There is much to be said for the fact that hell will be full of people who rejected the God of heaven and therefore made themselves eternally incompatible with the heaven of God.

  4. In principle, that any person will experience infinite torment after death is in and of itself intolerable. But if God is all-loving and Hell is real, option number 2 is the only logical response.

    Either people do deserve to go to Hell (in which case their fate is not “intolerable”) or they don’t. And if they don’t, an omnibenevolent God would neither send them there nor allow them to “send themselves” there, as though they were making the choice by direct contract with God and in full possession of the relevant information (like a sadomasochist choosing to be tortured for sexual pleasure does). “They will be done”, nonsense. If Hell is eternal torment, then no one could begin to “will” themselves into Hell, in a just universe. And the notion that billions of humans throughout history have either masochistically “willed” themselves there or found Christ at the last minute is absurd.

    Aquinas famously said that viewing the agony of the damned will be among the pleasures of paradise. I think our culture has happily moved on from his, to a point where we much more embody the notion of Jesus-style love for all humanity. That’s why your option 2 feels wrong — because you know that the very idea of Hell is wrong. Horribly wrong.

    People sometimes wonder how atheists like myself can feel that life is meaningful and good, if death is its end; why we don’t just howl at the universe in despair. Well, just for starters, the belief that billions upon billions of people will not find themselves tortured forever and ever and ever is a comfort. I know, I know, I’m being all too proud of a horrible, sinful, disgusting, depraved species (or a species that will tragically find themselves damned? Which is it?).

    And it’s definitely a comfort knowing that the idea of Hell is much more likely a simple means by which religions, from Christianity to Islam to modern sects, spread themselves, than that it is based on some actual truth. When Lewis said “it has the support of reason” I’m somewhat curious what he meant.

    (Of course, at times, Lewis seemed to believe that Hell wasn’t all that bad anyway — remember his other famous line about it, that its doors are locked from the inside.)


    • Lenoxus:

      Either people do deserve to go to Hell (in which case their fate is not “intolerable”) or they don’t

      Thanks for being willing to share your viewpoint! I appreciate you taking the time to contemplate what I wrote, even though you disagree. I understand what you are saying–if people deserve hell, it’s shouldn’t be so intolerable for them to go there, right?

      My response would be this: Even if we deserve such a fate, yet if God has selflessly provided a way out (and that cost God himself to become a human and die for us), it is intolerable that anyone should still follow that fate simply because Christians are unwilling to share with others that great news. Even if they do deserve hell.

      In other words, it would be selfish of me (who deserves hell as much as anyone else) to find the way that delivers me from eternal death into eternal life, and to not share that way with everyone else who deserves hell. Especially in light of how selfless God has been to give me this eternal life (and countless others throughout history and today who were selfless enough to share it with me, when it cost many of them persecution or even their very lives).

      I do not know if hell is a place of literal eternal torture (I haven’t been there). I would simply argue that the ways Jesus describes it in Scripture faithfully describe (whether literally or somehow figuratively) the essence of this death of eternal consequences. I believe He warns us for very good reason.

      I think you are right that many Christians (or people of other faiths) use the concept of hell simply to coerce people into their religion; yet I am proposing that some share their faith with others out of genuine love and selflessness. Just because the concept of hell can be and has been used to manipulate people into becoming converts doesn’t say one way or the other whether it exists or not.

      I understand that we don’t agree on the existence of hell, and that we don’t agree on the existence of God either. But I appreciate you genuinely considering what Christians believe, and I hope you feel I have done the same for you!

  5. Here’s a different perspective to consider. The truth is we as human beings are horribly poor judges of what is evil and what is not. We’re also very bad at discerning whether a person we know has a good heart or one full of evil. We are far more likely to judge their “goodness” based on how they appear to us on the outside and how well respected they are in the community. If they are a pillar in the community, they must be good, right? We also tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when we don’t know one way or another.

    Not too long ago I read a book called “The Franklin Cover Up” by John DeCamp. It’s about a famous embezzlement case that took place with the Franklin Credit Union in Omaha, Nebraska. The upshot is that as this embezzlement was being investigated, it was discovered that the perpetrators were also involved in a wide variety of other horrendous crimes that included sex trafficking of minors, kidnapping and even ritual child sacrifice. No fewer than fourteen people lost their lives while the case was being investigated (presumably because what they knew turned out to be a threat to some very powerful people). The book talks about how these crimes and the group of people perpetrating them went all the way up to the level of the White House (or some evidence was presented–that was never actually formally settled).

    My real point in bringing this up is that all the people who were implicated in these unspeakable crimes were pillars in their community. They were respected, they had money, they had wealth, they had power, they donated money to the boy scouts and little league sports and all kinds of other good causes, they were positively featured as role models in the newspaper, and they even attended church (some of them anyway). They were the sort of people you and I might look at and say “These are good people; shouldn’t God allow them into heaven? They don’t do bad things, they don’t kill, they don’t hurt anyone.” When it turned out all along they were doing exactly those things with their own hands.

    OK, so these are particularly awful people who didn’t get caught. They should go to hell, but come on, most of my neighbors aren’t like that; they’re not covering up secret crimes. My neighbors should go to heaven.

    Oh really? Well what if your neighbors had the kind of power these people had. Would you be so sure?

    Sin, or slavery to sin, is not entirely about the degree of horror your particular crimes add up to. It is also about how it has blemished you as a person, how it has turned your heart away from God and towards evil, how it has captivated you and will drag you down into the pit of hell it has created (your crimes getting worse and worse each time)… unless you are rescued (and shall we say, cooperate with your rescue)?

    I look at myself. In general my life appears to reflect that of a good person, but here is the deal. If there is any goodness in me, it is only because I have given my life to Him. I have made Him in charge of my life, and that allows Him to rescue me from the tangles of sin (and the hell that sin creates), not just in one epic moment of conversion, but on a daily basis. And even more fundamental, the only reason I could give my life to Christ is because He made a way for that.

    There is no middle ground. You will either be a slave to sin or a slave to Christ. It would be nice if there was a third option, which is to be your own master, but there isn’t. If you don’t submit to Christ, well, Satan and sin will get the better of you. God may believe in free will, but Satan doesn’t.

    If I don’t follow Christ, I am following Satan, and that road leads straight to hell. The only reason I may never commit the atrocities that others (like the people in The Franklin Cover Up) have committed is because I lack the resources and the power to do so. Given a heart full of evil (which is what you get if you don’t give it to Christ and allow Him to rescue you from evil) and unlimited power and the confidence that I can hide behind my respectability and not get caught, then I would most likely commit those same unspeakable atrocities. Why? Because sin is deceptive and captivating and seductive and in the end a most cruel master. It starts small and “acceptable” and then scales up. Add some power and resources and plenty of time, and before you know it you’re doing stuff you can’t believe. Do you really think Hitler started with putting Jews in the gas chambers?

    The thing with Jesus is that He is a most just judge. When He looks at us, He strips away all the power we might have and whatever else we might hide behind, and looks straight into our hearts, our souls, and judges us by what’s there. And Scripture says that what’s there is a heart that is given to evil and will do the bidding of the evil master that controls it–sin. In a way all of us good folks are really just frustrated and deferred hardened criminals. Maybe all our crimes have been only little ones, only because we lacked opportunity, but God knows what our evil hearts are capable of and judges them accordingly.

    Thank God there is a way out! Never mind the real hell, what an awful way to live right now. The options are turn your life over to Jesus, or continue along with sin as your master. Sin will try to make you believe it’s not really your master, that you really are serving yourself, that you of course can easily rise above the horrors of evil, but that is a deadly deception.

    Going back to our neighbors, we have no idea what they are involved in, nor what lies in their hearts. If they are involved in the kind of evil I mentioned above (either as perpetrator or victim) they aren’t going to tell you! Rather than trying to judge them prematurely as righteous, we should consider that at the very least they might be in grave danger and be willing to introduce them to Christ. My suspicion is that the type of evil mentioned in the book I read is not unique to Omaha, NE. It’s everywhere and it lurks and hides around every corner. It’s hurtful, awful and destructive. That’s the kind of evil that Jesus would send us right into the middle of as sheep among wolves, if only we would go. Why does he send us? Because at that level of wickedness those involved are already living as if they were in hell and He wants to save them. And those who aren’t quite at that level, well, they’re just a few more sins away from getting there and need to be rescued just as badly.

    Are we willing to go?

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