Sign up ×
Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Just finished the 5 part series on the History Channel: "The Bible".

They did a fantastic job with it.

However, what I noticed is that Jesus did not appear to condemn those who did not believe in Him and I never really thought about that before.

Did Jesus actually ever say, "if you don't believe in me you go to Hell"?

I understand when His disciples asked "what is the way", He said "no one comes to the father but through Me". However, there is context here. It does not really appear as a blanket statement.

For example, He obviously didn't mean it for some kid living in Ireland, at that same exact night of the Last Supper.

Jesus says blessed are those who Believe in me but He did not say you are damned in Hell if you don't.

So did the TV series leave something out or where did fallen man come up with this?

share|improve this question
Mark 16:16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned. – Seek forgiveness Apr 1 '13 at 8:03
@jayyeshu: is that from Jesus mouth or Mark's? or a Holy Spirit inspired phrase in general? – Greg McNulty Apr 3 '13 at 0:05
Oh! Do I need to say that? Jesus told this to His disciples when He appeared to them after His resurrection. – Seek forgiveness Apr 3 '13 at 5:02
@GregMcNulty you may also like to know that the ending of Mark was probably added a long time after the gospel was written and is not considered by scholars to be authentic, which would include Mark 16:16. – Dan Sep 15 '13 at 20:28
I wouldn't trust the History Channel too much. They're only good at telling us how evil the Nazis were and how aliens built the pyramids. – Juann Strauss Sep 16 '13 at 7:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I'll certainly unpack this for you. Although I would not trust that internet reading alone would give anybody a comprehensive understanding of the Jewish religion (or any other religion, for that matter), you can read about Jewish conceptions of the afterlife here, for example: There is no single doctrine to which Jews adhere regarding the afterlife (in fact, many Jews do not have any defined concept of an afterlife at all). What I would like to propose is that Jesus' words that do seem to reference a state of exile or suffering may not be doctrinal, but rather metaphorical in nature. Whether this state is an external, otherworldly one or an internal state of mind / soul in this life is a matter of debate. I should mention here that the "traditional" Christian doctrine of an otherworldly heaven and hell has been linked by scholars to Zoroastrianism--a religion which strongly influenced some types of early Christianity as well as Judaism. Therefore, a question: how do we know that orthodox Christian doctrines are not the outgrowth of historical misunderstandings / misinterpretations of Jesus' words? To further complicate things, you have the entirety of the Gnostic scriptures to deal with (which include some of the earliest known Christian writings), and if, after reading them, you do not find your traditional understanding of Christian doctrines disturbed, you probably aren't reading closely enough.

You can read about Gehenna, Zoroastrianism, and Gnosticism on Wikipedia or do some scholarly / historical research on your own, and thus come to your own conclusions. There is a gigantic body of research already done regarding these matters, and I would not consider any list of books that I could provide comprehensive enough to do this body of work justice. In addition, please do not simply accept my, or anybody's, answers to these questions without thinking for yourself and doing some investigation into them on your own.

I'm glad that Matthew 7: 17-23 was brought up. Here are the verses:

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?' Then I will declare to them solemnly, 'I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.'"

So, AffableGeek, is it possible to say that, for those Jesus is speaking about here, simple belief in Jesus/God does not suffice to allow entrance into the "kingdom of heaven"? They did all kinds of miracles in Jesus' name and called upon him as their "Lord," but still, they did not actively "do the will of [Jesus'] Father in heaven" and so they do not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

What might it mean to enter into the kingdom of heaven? Let's look at another passage. Here is Luke 17:20:

"Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he [Jesus] said in reply, 'The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, 'Look, here it is,' or 'There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is within you."

Jesus does not say that the kingdom of God is external to you or that it is a destination that one reaches only after physical death, but that it is within you--present in this very life at this very moment. Perhaps, then, it would be wise to consider that both "heaven" and "hell" as they are traditionally conceived (as eternal, external states of being) are, in actuality, inner states of mind or soul that are generated by actions in this life. In short, perhaps these notions are only metaphors, as I stated above.

In this light, let’s consider the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas:

“Jesus said, If your leaders say to you, ‘Behold, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds in the sky will get there before you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will get there before you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and embody poverty” (Saying 3).

Jesus is never clear about the existential ontology of a physical “heaven” or “hell,” but he is clear about other more important issues. He is clear about the fact that love is that which is most central to his message, not judgment. In answer to a scholar of the law who asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The scholar (not Jesus himself) answers,

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live” (Luke 10: 25-28).

To answer to AffableGeek's question regarding John 3:18--please note that these are not Jesus' words, but the words of whomever it was who wrote the Gospel of John (and whoever that person was, it was certainly not the apostle John himself. Contemporary scholars know that none of the four traditional Gospels were written by those whose name they bear.)

The initial question was whether or not Jesus actually ever said "If you don't believe in me you go to hell." Did he say these words exactly, ever? If I am missing something, please let me know. Yes, the author of the Gospel of John says something approximate to this (depending on how you interpret his words), and yet Jesus never did himself. And yes, Jesus is said to have spoken the following words after the resurrection, according to Mark 16:16:

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

However, as I have already shown above, Matthew 7:17-21 refutes the notion that mere faith suffices for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Another question: how do we know that the passage from Mark’s Gospel (or any other passages in the bible, Gnostic scriptures, etc. for that matter) quotes Jesus directly? Like most other accounts of episodes in Jesus’ life, resurrection accounts greatly contradict one another.

If the Official Doctrine of Hell was so important to Jesus himself (like it is to so many fundamentalists), why didn't Jesus explicitly say that one must believe in him and accept him as one’s “personal savior” to get to “heaven” while he was alive over and over again? Also, if we are to take everything written in the bible as absolute truth, we should also, for example, wholeheartedly support slavery, since Paul tells us that slavery is a natural state of being (Ephesians 6:5). There are a great number of other horrible, violent, and/or nonsensical “dogmas” that the writers of the books of the bible advance as well. Must we accept all of them unquestioningly, and return to a medieval state of existence in which—for example—our “women” are considered untouchable during their menstrual cycles, as Leviticus 15: 19-30 dictates?

There is much more to say about all these matters, and much more evidence to be considered that I cannot speak of here due to space and time issues. Please do reading on your own, and don't expect the internet or other people to answer such important questions. If you're serious about an intellectual foray into questions of this nature, sign up for some university courses about religion or do reading on your own, as I said. It may be that you'll be surprised at what you can discover.

Peace to all of you.

share|improve this answer
Um, I had forgotten all about this :) From looking at my own comments, I think I was actually staying as clear of this question as I could. Jesus may not have said, "If you don't believe in me, you're going to Hell," but I also am 100% behind Jesus' statement that he is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man cometh to Father, but by me." Check out other things I've written - you'll see I can be pretty academic and entertain all sorts of heresy. Doesn't mean I accept it. – Affable Geek Sep 16 '13 at 0:58
That said, I don't consider Gnostic Scripture (or Zorastrianism) compatible with modern Christianity. – Affable Geek Sep 16 '13 at 1:00
@AffableGeek: I realized I'd left a few issues hanging that you brought up. 1) You mention that you don't accept "heresy" (and I'm assuming you mean to call the Gospel of Thomas heretical).Of course, you know that the Gnostics constituted one of the earliest sects of Christians, and their writings do exist and must be dealt with, regardless of what label has been slapped on them by church authorities. "Heretical" is a designation that the early Roman Church (not Jesus himself) used, often to accuse and then put to death those who did not agree with orthodox dogma. – orpheus_sings Sep 17 '13 at 3:31
Contemporary bibles (like those used by Protestants) do not and cannot include Gnostic scriptures because, well, the Council of Trent (a Catholic council in the middle of the 1500s) decided what was and was not orthodox as far as biblical books go. (You can read about the Council of Trent here: Orthodox or not, the Gnostic scriptures are authentic and must be dealt with if we are to consider what the historical words of Jesus might have been. – orpheus_sings Sep 17 '13 at 3:35
2) Re Zoroastrianism: I was arguing the fact that scholars believe Zoroastrianism influenced what has become contemporary orthodox Christianity, not whether or not it is compatible with modern Christianity. People might not like that, but that does not mean that this is not factual. Likewise, the apostle Paul himself was heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy. – orpheus_sings Sep 17 '13 at 3:37

Did Jesus actually ever say if you don't believe in me you go to Hell?

Yes, He did say this directly, without mincing words. Bolded in the passage below.

John, Chapter 3 (KJV)

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

Note that it doesn't say "the punishment for not believing in me is an eternity in Hell.". It says that everyone is condemned already, and that only through faith in Him can we escape. It's a subtle, but doctrinally important difference.

share|improve this answer
In the KJV, it's possible to misunderstand this passage based on verse 19 and assume that having the Light shone on one's deeds is the punishment. "This is the condemnation" in verse 19 should really be "This is the verdict", or more so "This is the reason/evidence for the verdict". – Eclipse Apr 1 '13 at 16:33
@DavidStratton: are these John's words inspired by the Holy Spirit or Jesus'? – Greg McNulty Apr 3 '13 at 0:09
That's all good and well. You can choose to believe what you wish, but the question I thought I was posting was "did He say it"? not "Is it possible that He meant something other than what He said." Many people don't believe that Jesus is the only way to Heaven, and as this isn't a site that is about Truth, I'm not going to argue it. All I'm saying is that I thought I answered the question that was asked. Whether this passage means what established Doctrine says it means might make fair game for another question. – David Apr 3 '13 at 1:16
I'm not using a "Red Letter Bible", but Bible Gateway clearly shows these as not the words of Jesus in NIV, while showing they are the words of Jesus for NKJV. – Flimzy Jun 30 '13 at 2:23
I have asked about this on Biblical Hermeneutics. – Flimzy Jun 30 '13 at 2:29

I cannot comment on that particular series, but I can assuredly say the following:

It seems quite clear to me that you need to intimately know Jesus to be accepted by Him.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matt. 7:21

We are left with this picture: The last day is upon us, and some are allowed into the Kingdom and some are not. You must know Jesus to be allowed into the Kingdom. Not being in the Kingdom is hell (whatever that may be) to the very large majority of Christian denominations.

Concerning your context for the heathen who never had the chance to hear the Good News, well, that is a very big and different topic.

share|improve this answer
I also believe that this passage is a warning for those that follow their own will and call it God's will. It is true that to know his will you need to know him. – dcreight Apr 1 '13 at 16:24
That is the very same passage I was about to quote. Very good +1 – Neil Meyer Apr 1 '13 at 16:31
@fredsbend: "but only the one who does the will of my Father" geez, that seems like it excludes most Christians.... – Greg McNulty Apr 3 '13 at 0:12

Short Answer

The Bible talks about people who reject/don't believe in Jesus as condemned, judged by the Spirit (in John 16) and by God at the end of this age (Revelation). In terms of "Hell", that's a word we made up later, but in Revelation there is a lake of fire, where Satan is cast. I think those who follow Satan are also cast there.

Hell as a noun has many meanings all mashed up together. To make things clearer, it is designed to be a place of suffering for Satan, who rebelled against God. All thoughts of Satan or demons ruling the place or torturing people is completely wrong.

Longer Answer

John 16

8 And when He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and concerning righteousness and concerning judgment:

9 Concerning sin, because they do not believe into Me;

10 And concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you no longer behold Me;

11 And concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.

"He" in verse 8 is the Spirit. So from this, the "ruler of this world" (Satan) has been judged, and because he has been judged, his kingdom has been judged, which sadly is the earth, especially the people on the earth.

However, these verses don't refer to "hell" explicitly.

Revelation 20

10 And the devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where also the beast and the false prophet were; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened; and another scroll was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by the things which were written in the scrolls, according to their works.

14 And death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

15 And if anyone was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire.

What qualifies us to be written in the book of life, I don't know.

Matthew 25 41 Then He will say also to those on the left, Go away from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

So this confirms that the lake of fire, a.k.a hell, is specifically prepared for "the devil and his angels", but people who are rejected by God will also go into this "eternal fire".

share|improve this answer
I'm betting if you did have time, you could edit this into a better/more complete answer... Please do come back and fill it out when you get a chance, and see What makes a good supported answer? – David Sep 16 '13 at 0:15
Noted and updated! – Mirror318 Sep 17 '13 at 1:40

There are obviously more ways to salvation than through specifically knowing the person of Jesus Christ through His 1st century incarnation, and the books written about His incarnation. There are many people in the Old Testament that the bible indicates were considered righteous - Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizidech, Abraham, and so on.

For example, Genesis 15:5-6 talks about Abraham's faith:

And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

These people had faith in God, without the benefit of the incarnate Jesus as an intermediary, and the bible suggests that was sufficient. Whether this route became closed to all after Christ, or whether it becomes closed to someone after they have the chance to hear the Gospel, or whether it always remains open, it's clear that at the very least it was once possible to have your faith reckoned as righteousness without knowing the name of "Jesus". I personally would hold that your Irish child would have a chance at salvation, but that's never really covered in the Bible.

I'm not at all trying to say that they weren't saved through Christ's later atonement, but rather that they were covered by Christ's atonement without believing in His human incarnation, and without access to the Bible.

You are also right in that Jesus doesn't ever mention hell as a punishment for not believing. Condemnation is always mentioned as a punishment for being wicked, or for doing evil. Salvation is based on belief, but condemnation is based on deed. But the Bible also asserts that everyone is guilty enough for condemnation.

share|improve this answer
What recognized denomination claims "there are obviously more way to salvation than through specifically knowing the person of Jesus Christ?" Answers need to attributed to specific denominations or else need to be representative of all Nicene Christianity. Grant you, Unitarians do believe what you write - but they are hardly representative of all Nicene Christianity. – Affable Geek Apr 2 '13 at 11:26
@Affable: There are at least a helf dozen references to Abraham's faith being "counted to him as righhteousness". I can't think of any denomination that doesn't claim that Abraham is (or will be) in heaven. Yes, it was his faith in God that saved him, but it wasn't his belief in the incarnated Jesus. I'm NOT saying that you can be saved without Christ - I'm saying that people were saved before Jesus was born as a human and died and rose. The atonement was applied to some who had never heard the name Jesus. – Eclipse Apr 2 '13 at 14:35
I realize the Irish kid example is not a commonly held view, and there isn't any way to back it up. John Piper would say no. C.S. Lewis surprisingly suggests yes in the Chronicles of Narnia. – Eclipse Apr 2 '13 at 14:49
John 3:18 says he the unbeliever "condemned already". David also mentioned this - the sin that leads to condemnation isn't "not believing", the sin is "their deeds were evil". – Eclipse Apr 2 '13 at 14:54
@caseyr547 There are a number of people on this site that hold Lewis and his creations in very high regard. – fredsbend Nov 2 '13 at 15:44

The question is:

Did Jesus actually ever say "if you don't believe in me you go to Hell"?

Short answer: No, Jesus never actually said that.

He did say some things that seem to imply it, and that are often interpreted that way. But in those instances, the context shows it is never mere lack of belief in Jesus (as that is usually understood today) that he said would cause a person to go to hell.

Let's look at:

  1. What Jesus said in the Gospels specifically about hell.
  2. Two of the passages most commonly interpreted to mean that Jesus says that those who don't believe in him will go to hell.
  3. Jesus' clearest and most direct teaching about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

1. What does Jesus say explicitly about hell?

For the purposes of this answer, we'll accept the common interpretation of the Greek words hades and gehenna as meaning hell. We could debate the point, but for the sake of argument let's just assume that these were the best words available to talk about what we today call "hell."


The Greek word hades occurs four times in the Gospels. Two of them occur in Jesus' upbraiding of unrepentant cities. Here is the version found in Matthew:

Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent."Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you." (Matthew 11:20-24, italics added)

The parallel passage in Luke 10:13-16 is similar.

Here, Jesus does not say that these cities would be brought down to Hades because they didn't believe in him. Instead, he says that this would happen because they didn't repent.

A third mention of hades comes in Luke 16:23, in the context of the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Here, too, there is no mention of the rich man being in Hades because he hadn't believed in Jesus. Instead, the implication of the story is that the rich man was in Hades because "was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day," and had no compassion on Lazarus, who "was laid at his gate covered with sores, [and] who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table."

The fourth mention of hades in the Gospels (in order of relevance to the question) is in Matthew 16:18, in the context of the story of Peter's confession of Jesus in Matthew 16:13-20. Here Jesus says nothing about who will go to hell, but rather says that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church.

So in none of the occurences of hades in the Gospels does Jesus say that those who do not believe in him will go there. Rather, he says that those who do not repent will go there, and implies that those who show no compassion will go there.


The other Greek word in the Gospels that is traditionally translated "hell" is gehenna. This word occurs eleven times in the Gospels, three of them accompanied by the word for "fire."

Six of these occurrences are in the context of Jesus' saying about gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand or foot if they cause you to sin. Two of them are in the version found in Matthew:

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." (Matthew 5:27-30, italics added)

One more occurrence comes in Matthew 18:7-9, where Jesus uses a similar example to say that those who tempt others to sin are in danger of the hell of fire.

The other three are in Mark 9:42-48, which parallels Matthew 18:7-9.

In these six usages of gehenna, or hell, Jesus says nothing about going to hell for not believing in him. Instead, he speaks about the danger of going to hell due to sin--and not some theoretical, theological concept of sin, but specific sins such as adultery, lust, and tempting believers to sin.

Two more occurrences of gehenna occur in Matthew 23:15, 33, in the context of Jesus' pronouncement of seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. In that speech, once again, Jesus says nothing about the scribes and Pharisees going to hell because the didn't believe in him, but rather because of their hypocrisy and their evil actions.

Two more occurrences of gehenna occur in Jesus' teaching in Matthew 10:26-33 and Luke 12:4-7 about what to fear and what not to fear. Here is the relevant verse as it appears in Matthew 10:28:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

There is no mention here of not believing in Jesus.

And the final occurrence of gehenna in the Gospels (in quasi-relevance order--this is actually its first occurrence in the Gospels) is found in Matthew 5:21-22:

"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire."

Once again, there is no mention of going to hell for not believing in Jesus. Rather, Jesus says that those who in anger say harsh things against their brothers are in danger of the hell of fire.

Conclusion: Jesus' specific uses of the word "hell"

These are all of the passages in the Gospel where Jesus specifically uses the word "hell"--either hades or gehenna.

As you can see, in none of them does he say that people will go to hell if they don't believe in him.

This should be sufficient to demonstrate that Jesus never actually, directly said, "If you don't believe in me you will go to hell."

2. Two passages commonly read as Jesus saying that those who don't believe in him will go to hell

Now let's look at two of the most common passages traditionally interpreted to mean that Jesus says that those who do not believe in him will go to hell.

John 3:16-21

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. (John 3:16-18)

When Jesus says, "Whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God," that seems clear enough, doesn't it?

First of all, Jesus does not say, "Whoever does not believe will go to hell." He says, "Whoever does not believe is condemned already." And then he goes on to explain why that person is condemned:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:19-21, italics added)

Notice that Jesus is not talking merely about people who don't believe him, but about people who "hate the light and do not come to the light" "because their works were evil."

Merely believing, or not believing, in Jesus is not sufficient to save or damn a person, as many other passages show, such as:

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21)

In John 3:16-21, perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible, Jesus does not pronounce condemnation merely on those who don't believe in him, but rather, on those who hate the light (meaning the light of Jesus' life and teachings) because their works are evil.

In other words, to interpret John 3:16-21 as meaning merely that those who believe in Jesus are saved, whereas those who don't believe in Jesus are damned, is to read only two of the verses, and not the rest of the verses where Jesus explains what he means by "not believing in him."

To spell it out clearly: Those who do not hate the light, and whose works are not evil, are not condemned, even if their theological belief does not include a believe that Jesus is God. Rather, people bring condemnation on themselves when they do evil works and therefore hate the light.

In short, when Jesus speaks in John 3:18 of those "who have not believed in the name of the only Son of God," he is speaking not of some intellectual lack of belief, but of lack of belief as demonstrated by an evil and wicked life that hates the light.

It is a complete misuse of this passage to claim it means that those who do not believe in Jesus intellectually and theologically are condemned to hell.

For more on the Biblical meaning of "faith" and "belief," please see my article, Faith Alone Is Not Faith.

John 14:1-14

A second passage commonly interpreted as Jesus saying that those who do not believe in him will go to hell is found in John 14:1-14. Here are the verses where the key statement appears:

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." (John 14:6-7, italics added)

Once again, at first glance this looks like a cut-and-dried case. Jesus said plainly, "No one comes to the Father except through me."

But let's read this passage more carefully, and not read into it things Jesus didn't actually say.

Jesus did not say, "No one comes to the Father unless they believe in me." Rather, he said "No one comes to the Father except through me." Those two are not the same statement.

Though Jesus' explanation of his meaning does mention belief, it focuses mostly on Jesus' oneness with the Father:

Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us."

Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father?' Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it." (John 14:8-14)

Notice that Jesus does not say anything here about those who do not believe in him, but only about what will happen for those who do believe in him. Clearly, belief in him brings great benefits of light and power and access to the Father, meaning God.

But Jesus simply does not say here that those who do not believe in him will go to hell.

Rather, he says that he is the only way to the Father. It is an assumption and an interpretation that this means that the pathway he provides to the Father is available only to those who believe in him.

To use a rather prosaic example, if I drive on a road that goes to Denver, it is not necessary for me to believe in the governmental entity that built and maintains that road, or even to have any idea at all about who built the road. It is sufficient for me to drive on the road, and I'll get to Denver.

Similarly, if the Son has provided a pathway to the Father, that doesn't necessarily require that we intellectually believe in the Son; only that we travel the path that the Son has provided.

Yes, I'm aware that many Christians believe that path is available exclusively to those who believe in Jesus. But that is an interpretation of the Gospels, not the direct statement of the Gospels themselves.

3. Jesus' clearest teaching about who will go to heaven and who will go to hell

When Jesus himself speaks directly about who will go to eternal life and who will go to eternal punishment, here is what he says:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:31-46)

There is nothing at all here about belief. Only about whether or not we serve our fellow human beings who are in need. And that is the sole criteria Jesus gives in this story about who will go to heaven (eternal life) and who will go to hell (eternal punishment).

Matthew 25:31-46 contains the most direct teaching of Jesus about who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. Therefore his other statements about heaven and hell, condemnation and justification, must be read in light of it. Any interpretation that does not square with Jesus' most direct teaching on the subject must be mistaken.

To state it plainly, those who interpret various statements of Jesus as meaning, "If you don't believe in me you go to hell" are ignoring Jesus' most direct teachings about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, and relying instead on human interpretations of other passages that do not actually such a thing in any clear and direct way, if at all.

Of course, this is a huge subject. There's no way to do it justice even in this fairly long answer. For more on Jesus' statement that he is the only way to the Father, please see my article, Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?

And though I believe this answer can stand on its own based on the Bible itself, for those who want to know the theological and denominational basis that it represents, it is informed by the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and represents the beliefs of the Christian denominations that follow his teachings.

share|improve this answer

protected by Community Oct 21 '13 at 14:43

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.