Who Goes to Heaven, Who Goes to Hell?
James R. Aist
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called the “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” in the flesh by human hands, were at that time apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. – Ephesians 2:11-12
“Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” This quotation from C. S. Lewis is a good synopsis of what this article is about. Jesus Christ made it clear that He is the only way to God/heaven (John 14:6), and this claim is reiterated elsewhere in the New Testament. But, is this true only of those who actually hear or read about Jesus and believe in Him? Lewis, making use of a rhetorical question, declares that such a limited scope of salvation would be a “frightfully unfair” thing for God to do, clearly implying that He must not have done it. He then postulates that God must have made secret arrangements for the others, because to exclude them without giving them a chance to accept Christ’s offer of salvation would be unfair. Finally, to complete his hypothetical scenario, Lewis posits that people can be saved through Christ without even knowing of Him, by means of His presumed, secret “arrangements about the other people.”
To most evangelical Christians, such claims may seem like wishful thinking at best, but the fact is that some mainline Christian denominations and several popular TV preachers agree with Lewis on these points. For this reason, I will attempt to break this teaching down into its component parts and then test each part against the biblical witness. Is Lewis’s view a sound, biblical teaching about salvation, or is it nothing more than a transparent attempt to explain away something sobering about God that he cannot bring himself to believe?
What Does the Bible Say?
In order to discover what the Bible says about these things, we must first understand that when the Bible speaks of “God” or “Lord”, it is speaking of the one true God, the one God who created the entire universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and Him alone. This is “the God of the Bible.” There is no other God, only false gods. And we must also understand that, although the New Testament books were becoming available to be read to the people, word of mouth was the only widely available method of communication in New Testament times. Nowadays, reading the Gospel and believing it is the functional equivalent of hearing the Gospel preached and believing it; both result in salvation.
That said, let’s take a look at a few New Testament Scriptures that speak most directly about this matter, beginning with John 3:16-18: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten 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 that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned. But he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Here, Jesus says that those who do not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God will go to hell, whereas those who do believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God will go to heaven. Jesus made it very clear that He was speaking specifically of the God of the Bible and of himself. This passage, then, sets the stage for the issue in question: Is it possible for a person to believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God without ever having heard of the God of the Bible and of His Son, Jesus Christ? Certainly, there is not even a hint in this passage to suggest such a thing; it’s about actually hearing and believing.
Next, let’s consider 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10: “It is a righteous matter with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They shall be punished with eternal destruction, isolated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be marveled at by all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed.” Here, the Apostle Paul identifies two conditions of people who go to hell: 1) they do not know the God of the Bible; and 2) they do not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Note that these same two conditions of those who go to hell were implied in John 3:16-18, as discussed above. And Paul adds that those who believed did so precisely because of their spoken testimony directly to them. This brings us closer to the “proof passages”, which I consider next.
First, let’s take a look at Romans 2:12-16: “As many as have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and as many as have sinned under the law will be judged by the law, for the hearers of the law are not justified before God, but the doers of the law will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, not having the law, are a law unto themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, while their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them, in the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ.” Here, Paul is explaining that Gentiles will have no excuse on judgment day for their sinful ways, because, even without the Judaic Law, they show the work of that Law written in their hearts and are a law unto themselves, which law they do not obey. Furthermore, such Gentiles are “…apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12).” They are “without hope” because they are “apart from Christ.” Therefore, it is only through faith in Jesus Christ that such men can be saved. Next, let’s consider how one may obtain this faith in Jesus Christ.
In Romans 10:13-15, Paul wrote: “For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” Now, to fully grasp the impact of what Paul is saying here, it is necessary to recognize that this passage is a series of rhetorical questions, designed to make a series of corresponding statements, as follows: They cannot call on Him in whom they have not believed; and they cannot believe in Him of whom they have not heard; and they cannot hear without a preacher; and they cannot preach unless they are sent. In other words, the only way that a person can believe in the God of the Bible and in His Son, Jesus Christ, is by hearing the Gospel preached to them. And so Paul concludes, in Romans 10:17, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Think about it for a moment. These are exclusionary conclusions, not leaving any “wiggle room” for any other means by which saving faith in Jesus Christ may be obtained. It comes only by actually and literally hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached.
Paul again addresses this issue directly and, here, in considerable detail. In Ephesians 1:13 with 2:11-13, Paul writes “In Him you also, after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and after believing in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called the “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” in the flesh by human hands, were at that time apart from Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were formerly far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” In other words, Gentiles (everyone except Jews) are without the God of the Bible, without Jesus Christ, and, when taken in context, without hope of any means of escaping hell unless and until someone tells them about God and His salvation through Jesus Christ, as Paul did for the (Gentile) Ephesians. Again, this leaves no “wiggle room” for any other means by which saving faith in Jesus Christ may be obtained. It comes only by actually and literally hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached. Thus, Ephesians 1:13 with 2:11-13 is the key passage proving, biblically, that the only way for anyone to be saved is to literally hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and believe it; all others are “without hope.” Now, we do “know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him”, and that God did not make any special “arrangements about the other people.”
And finally, in John 5:24, Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has eternal life and shall not come into condemnation, but has passed from death into life.” Jesus could have simply said “Whoever believes in Him who sent me…”, as in John 3:16. But here, Jesus adds more detail to the process by adding “…whoever hears my words and believes in Him who sent me…” Clearly, then, Jesus Himself taught that one must hear (or read) the Gospel in order to believe in Him and have eternal life; there is no other way for anyone to be saved, no special accommodation for the “others” who never hear of or believe in the God of the Bible and His Son, Jesus. How do we know for sure? Both Paul and Jesus said so.
To summarize, the Bible clearly teaches us that only those who actually and literally hear (or read) the Gospel of Jesus Christ and believe it, will spend their eternity in heaven with God. More specifically, the Bible teaches that there is no other way for Jesus to save anyone, including any and all – past, present and future – who never even hear of the God of the Bible and of His Son, Jesus Christ. And where will all of these “other people” spend their eternity? According to the Bible, they are “without hope” of salvation by any other means and “They shall be punished with eternal destruction, isolated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day…” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
But What about the Old Testament Saints?
The Old Testament saints (e.g., Adam, Noah, Job, Abraham and David) lived and died before Jesus was even born, so did they, too, go to hell because they didn’t have an opportunity to hear the Gospel preached and believe in Jesus? No, not at all! God made special provision for them to know about Jesus during their lifetime, to hear Him preach to them after their death, to accept Him as their Savior and to be resurrected from their graves. They were saved in the same manner as we are. Let’s take a look at the biblical witness:
1) Because of the Old Testament biblical witness (Messianic prophecies), these saints looked ahead to the time when the Messiah would be revealed in the flesh, and so they already believed in the Coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, when they died (Hebrews 11:24-25 & 39; Galatians 3:8,16 & 29; John 8:56);
2) Jesus, himself, preached the Gospel to these dead saints in Paradise (also referred to as “Abraham’s Bosom”), between His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead (1 Peter 1:10-12; 1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Peter 4:5-6; Ephesians 4: 8-10; Hebrews 11:39; Luke 16:22; and Luke 23:43);
3) These dead saints believed Jesus’ preaching and were saved (1 Peter 1:10-12, 1 Peter 3:18-20, 1 Peter 4:5-6);
4) Apparently, these Jewish saints will be resurrected between the end of the battle of Armageddon and the beginning of the One Thousand Year Reign (Daniel 12:1-3 with 11).
Note that God made special provision for the salvation of only these Old Testament saints and not for their contemporaries who did not know of the God of the Bible and of His Son, Jesus Christ. Note also that this special provision involved the actual preaching of the Gospel directly to them and their believing in Jesus the Messiah as a result of it. However, this provision is for only Jews who actually believed, or now believe, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and we know that most Jews since Jesus’ time have not believed and were/are not saved. We may conclude, therefore, that the biblical witness indicates clearly that God did not make any special provision for the “other people”, who were, therefore, without any hope of escaping hell, as Paul clearly taught (Ephesians 1:13 with 2:11-13).
Does this Mean that God is Unfair?
No, God is not being unfair (Romans 9:18-24)! If God were to treat everyone “fairly”, then all would go to hell, because all have sinned and are condemned already (Romans 3:23; John 3:18). This is the “law of sin and death” (Romans 6:23; Romans 8:2). Not having an opportunity to hear and believe the Gospel merely leaves people on the pathway to hell; it does not put them on the pathway to hell. Furthermore, God does not owe it to anybody to save them; it is only by the grace of God that any are saved. So, we don’t really want to be treated according to what we deserve (i.e., fairly), but according to the grace and mercy of God. In this regard, see also the discussion of Romans 2:12-16, above.
God’s Sovereign Right to Bless and Curse as He Sees Fit
Only God can determine whom He will save and whom he will not save; that’s His sovereign right, as revealed by the biblical witness:
Exodus 33:19. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Note that the converse is clearly implied: God will not be gracious to and show mercy on whom He will not.); and
In Romans 9:18-24, Paul writes, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.” “You will then say to me, “Why does He yet find fault? For who can resist His will?” Rather, O man, who are you to answer back to God? Shall the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does the potter not have power over the clay to make from the same lump one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, willing to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He previously prepared for glory, even us, whom He has called, not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles?” (Note that this passage concludes with another rhetorical question, which, when written as the implied statement, goes something like this: God created, and predestined for hell, some to show His wrath and make known His power, in order to make known to all the extent of the riches of His glory and mercy on those He created and predestined for heaven.)
God blesses whom He chooses to bless, and He curses whom He chooses to curse. Therefore, it’s not ours to judge God because He chooses to let some people die in their sins and go to hell, while choosing others to be forgiven and inherit eternal life. God alone has that prerogative: “Salvation belongs to our Lord” (Psalm 3:8 and Revelation 7:10). If this seems like a “hard saying” to us, then maybe we need to reassess our understanding of the full nature of the sovereignty of the God of the Bible. When we accuse God of being unfair in this matter, are we not setting ourselves up as God’s judges? That, my friends, is the height of arrogance (Job 40:2; Job 40:8; Romans 11:34), and God will not look kindly on it. God, and God alone, is responsible for how He deals with each individual; He has not delegated that responsibility to us. Ours is only to learn how God deals with sinners, believe it, accept it, and make sure that, insofar as it depends on us, we are not among those who reject the Gospel and die in our sins.
1. According to the Bible, anyone (past, present or future) who does not hear or read the Gospel of Jesus Christ and accept Him as their personal Lord and Savior (believe in Him in their heart and confess Him with their mouth) will spend their eternity in hell, without exception (including those who have never had an opportunity to hear, understand and believe the Gospel).
2. According to the Bible, anyone (past, present or future) who does hear or read the Gospel of Jesus Christ and accept Him as their personal Lord and Savior (believe in Him in their heart and confess Him with their mouth) will spend their eternity with God in heaven;
3. According to the Bible, the Old Testament saints looked ahead to the day of Jesus the Messiah, whom they believed was to come, and therefore believed in Him before He actually came to earth bodily. Jesus himself preached directly to them in Paradise, they believed Him, and for this reason, they are saved. The Bible does not record or imply that any such special provision was made for anyone who did not know the God of the Bible and His Son, Jesus; and
4. According to the Bible, God blesses whom He chooses to bless, and He curses whom He chooses to curse. Therefore, it’s not ours to judge God because He chooses to let some people die in their sins and go to hell, while choosing others to be forgiven and inherit eternal life. God alone has that prerogative: “Salvation belongs to our Lord” (Psalm 3:8 and Revelation 7:10). Ours is only to accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and continually give Him thanks and praise for His abundant grace and mercy toward us.
(To read more of my biblical teachings, click HERE)