The scenario is as follows:

  1. Believer, average life, many mistakes/sins. Asks forgiveness and tries everyday to be better. Goes to heaven.
  2. Non-believer, better life than the believer, fewer mistakes than the believer, tries everyday to be better, succeds more than the believer, knows he has done some bad things in life, regrets them, but doesn't believe in anything because he never witnessed anything supernatural in life so he has no reasons to. Goes to hell.

This scenario was put to debate by a co-worker and I tried to explain how you cannot be saved by your own deeds, but didn't succed to actually give a good argument, so I'm asking for help.

For all the non-believers this scenario is "not fair" as why would a better person go to hell just for not believing.

Can anyone give some biblical explanations / paragraphs to explain this. Or maybe the premises are wrong?

  • 1
    I've never found this lack of "fairness" argument to be terribly convincing. The book of Job in the old testament does a pretty good job of roundly defeating the idea that God owes anything to anybody for any reason.
    – Patrick87
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 20:52
  • To wit, 40:1 Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said, 40:2 Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it. The rest of the book consists basically of God showing how ridiculous the concept of questioning "fairness" is. "Fairness" isn't a problem with an omnipotent and omniscient God who authored all creation; something's "fair" if God says it is. Contradiction is not an option.
    – Patrick87
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 20:54
  • @Patrick87 "Contradiction is not an option". You cannot win with an argument like this to someone who doesn't believe in God, and therefor doesn't take his word as absolute truth. You can't just tell him he cannot question God's fairness.
    – Fofole
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 8:27
  • @Fofole You're missing the point. To admit the possibility of the biblical heaven is tantamount to admitting the existence of the God of the Bible. Once you do that, the argument is already won: if God does it, then it is right. This is a purely logical argument that depends only on the relevant definitions. If whomever you're arguing with takes issue with the idea that God's is the final say as to what's right and wrong, then either you're not talking about the same God, or you're really having a completely different argument.
    – Patrick87
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 15:54
  • Assume the Heaven of the Bible exists. Then the God of the Bible exists (it seems difficult to define the Heaven of the Bible without the God of the Bible; if you do, I'd argue you're talking about a different hypothetical heaven, so the argument is moot). But if the God of the Bible exists, He is infallible (by definition). So his choice to send non-believers to Hell is correct. QED
    – Patrick87
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 15:56

11 Answers 11


Romans 3:23 (NIV) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

No one is righteous. Better is not enough. God demands 100% holiness. No one can achieve that. Therefore, we need the Blood of Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus, can we have salvation.

Romans 5:12 (NIV) Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

We are all doomed to go to Hell whether we like it or not, whether we are better than others or not. Jesus died for us so that by believing in his death and resurrection, we may be saved.

For this reason Christians are given the command to preach the Gospel to the whole world.

Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV) 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

  • 1
    that gets right to the crux of the matter
    – warren
    Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 14:53
  • 2
    @warren Just to play devil's advocate - if I were an atheist, I don't think this would appeal to me at all. An atheist wouldn't understand why God would "demand perfection", or why God would require belief in order to save sinners.
    – Alypius
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 3:23
  • @Alypius You are right in your assessment by taking atheists in point of view. But since the question compares theist and atheist positions, this answer in a way tries to address the other view. Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 5:06
  • 5
    @Alypius - perhaps not, but it's still true whether it "appeals" or not :)
    – warren
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 15:42
  • 1
    @Alypius, the gospel doesn't appeal to anyone who is unregenerate, atheist or not. John 3:19-20
    – reformed
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 21:23

I'm going to give a slightly different understanding of this than you may have heard before, largely because I've faced up to the same thing and wondered the exact same thing. The question comes down to this: "Isn't believing in something simply the same as doing something? Isn't it a work in and of itself?" This question always bothered me.

Here's the viewpoint I tend to take:

It's not the fact that we believe or don't believe that saves us, it's the fact that we believe or don't believe that indicates that we are saved.

See the difference? In one, the belief causes salvation, and in the other, the salvation causes the belief.

My understanding of this is guided by Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

What is the "this" that Paul is referring to? I would argue that the "this" is referring to the faith more than it is referring to the "saved" or the "grace".

Our faith, in and of itself, is also a gift of God. He's the one who enables us to hold the faith.

Of course, there are people who would say that this viewpoint is equally offensive, because it removes much of our personal autonomy in deciding our eternal fate. When you take this viewpoint to it's ultimate end, it's offensive because it's GOD who decides who is and isn't his, not us, and this is a terrifying thing. It puts us at the mercy of God, and not God at our mercy.

This is expected. Paul even addresses this in Romans 9:19-21:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

People will say this is offensive, and they'd have to reject the whole concept based on this. Again, expected (1 Corinthians 1:18):

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

But Paul maintains that it is God who chooses, and not us: (Romans 9:15-16)

For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

Jesus himself doesn't even pray for everyone in the world when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemene. He prayed for those who are God's specifically, making a clear distinction between those who are, and those who are not, part of the Kingdom of God (John 17:9)

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.

These are just a few examples in scripture of where you can see this kind of thing. Once you start seeing a few, however, it's hard to not find more.

On a personal note, I haven't always held to this viewpoint. There was a time when I thought that if I believed, then God would save me. I took the belief-first viewpoint, and ultimately, it began to frighten me. I would question my salvation, and it would often come in the form of these questions: "Do I believe enough?", "Is my faith strong enough?", "Is my faith truly faith, or is it works?" I could never say that my faith was strong enough, because I found that faith wasn't simply something I could "grow". It was either there, or it wasn't there, and it seemed to grow on it's own regardless of my efforts to make it grow.

When somebody had shared the viewpoint that the faith comes from our salvation, and not the other way around. It started to make sense, but ultimately it simply raised another question: "Am I really chosen?" Doubts come in all flavors.

Ultimately, I found that this question is different in that it puts the burden of assuring me of my salvation on God, and not on myself. This makes sense, because I am not the agent of my salvation, God is. So it would only make sense that he who saves is the same one who assures of the salvation.

Technically, this viewpoint is called Calvinism, but personally, I call it life-changing. I did, however, have to come to the understanding that God is not a machinated, feelingless automaton, but rather a personal God who, out of his grace, has chosen to save me, and has given me assurance thereof.

Hopefully, this post will not only be good "debate-fodder", but also be something to ponder personally. I know many Christians that I love who would disagree with this viewpoint, and I believe that God still loves them, and I plan on seeing them in heaven with me, but I also see this viewpoint as being much, much easier to swallow, and much more consistent with the nature of salvation, than the "faith causes salvation" viewpoint.

Good Person

Also, as an addendum: I want to address the "Good person" fallacy. According to Christianity, regardless of your viewpoint on Calvinism, the "good person" doesn't exist. Paul himself says, in Romans 3:10: "There is no one righteous, no not one."

In other words, we're all on the same level before God: bankruptcy. Therefore, we all need his salvation.

So we need to clarify. In Luke 18:19 and Mark 10:18, Jesus says, "Why do you call me good? Nobody is good except for one--God". If we're talking about a good person, are we talking about God? Because scripturally, that's the only one we could be talking about. Our goodness is not the issue here, because "all our righteous acts are like filthy (lit. menstrual) rags". (Isaiah 64:6)

To understand any of the Gospel at all, we have to start with the fact that we are primarily fallen and sinful, not primarily good. For many people, this is ultimately what they find offensive, because we want so badly to be able to say that we're good people, but the Bible simply does not give us that luxury. In fact, it does everything it can to remove that luxury as far away from us as possible.

As Steve Brown would say, the two points are this:

  1. Cheer up...you're a lot worse than you think you are, and
  2. cheer up...God's grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.
  • 1
    Nice answer. I know it is already big but would have been more helpful if this statement "Isn't believing in something simply the same as doing something?" was explained in more depth. Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 4:45

You could give your coworker the following counterexample, which I sort-of got from listening to Tim Keller:

Person who grows up bouncing from one foster home to another, ends up being abused and takes to drugs/alcoholism and crime, but finally asks for forgiveness and comes to faith.

In any other worldview where your good deeds are weighed against your bad deeds, this person would never have any hope. Which is easier: to follow a straight and narrow path amidst life's storms (and rely on your deeds), or to simply bend the knee and invite God into your life? Seen from this perspective, Christianity is indeed more inclusive than other worldviews. Everyone, regardless of their state of sinfulness gets to go to heaven, simply by being humble. In a works-oriented worldview, only the "morally privileged" (i.e. those who grow up in good environments) can ever have that hope, and even then, when pressed, they will likely say "it is contingent on God's grace". In Christianity, God's grace is already evident through the cross.

For what it's worth, I'd like to add that it is very hard for a non-Christian to come to faith through argument. I know this because I was once an atheist. Love and kindness is the best (and most Christian) answer to any objections. Ultimately, we have to let God be the judge.

Hope this helps.

  • Gentleness and kindness is the best part of ones religion.(seen on a wall poster)
    – Martin
    Commented Sep 3, 2013 at 7:19
  • Does this mean that Christianity sees no value in doing good except as affirmation of faith? Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 19:54

You need a way to show that things we do can have greater "moral value" by virtue of a belief in God. The idea of "by faith alone" is probably not going to appeal to a non-believer, and it is very difficult to explain in even the best circumstances. I just don't think that that's the way to go in this scenario.

You can say this, which even a non-believer should easily accept:

  1. A believer has a conception of God. John 20:29
    God is really, really Good. Infinitely Good. Not good in a stuffy abstract way, but genuinely nice and caring. He's someone who would step in front of a bus for you. In fact, He actually did something so good that we can never hope to repay Him. If you don't believe it, that's ok. Just understand that the believer believes this. By the way, not seeing any miracles is not an excuse for atheism.
  2. So believers can do things for God. 1 Corinthians 10, John 14:12-14
    By doing this they honor all that is good, and attempt to repay a debt that cannot be repaid. The believer is able to dedicate even tiny, insignificant actions to God. These actions really count, because of why they are done. It's like the difference between "just visiting" a sick relative, and visiting for that relative. The believer doesn't always do this, but sometimes. The non-believer doesn't have this option at all. You can't do something for someone you don't believe exists.
  3. Our intentions matter. Matthew 5:27-28
    Imagine you want to murder someone, so you shoot them. Doctors are amazed! The bullet cleanly blew out an inoperable brain tumor, and the victim recovers in three days. You get no credit for doing something good. You did a terrible thing! You decided to kill a human being. Or imagine that you dive in front of a stranger who's about to be shot. Bang! But nothing happens. You've stumbled onto the set of a movie. But you did something exceptional, even if you didn't actually die to save anyone.

If you don't believe in God, it's much harder to do things for God, and God does seem to be interested not only in what we do, but in our reasons or intentions for doing what we do.

It's much harder for an atheist to sincerely proclaim "I devote this action and myself to the source of all that is good, and I can't even take any credit for doing this because I'm in such insurmountable debt" or "by doing this I am attempting to help and obey an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly loving being" or "I regret what I did because I have offended Justice and have contributed to the misery of the world". Intentions of this sort aren't impossible for an atheist, just a lot harder to come by.

Ultimately, the point here is that if God sees these secret intentions and chooses to reward the believer for having them, we shouldn't be very surprised.


Theologically, the reason is that both parties are equally deserving of the same penalty. The repentance of the Christian does not make their sins less bad, but rather their acknowledgement of their fallen nature, need of a savior, and acceptance of that savior is the key to their salvation. Their attempts to live better as a result of that belief have no baring on the base critical understanding of their fallen nature and need for a savior.

The situation you describe is a very common trap for both Christian's and particularly non-Christians to fall in to by comparing sins instead of realizing that personal effort is meaningless as it never measures up.

Similarly, Romans 1:20 indicates that God is revealed to all through creation. Some also argue that Acts 10:34 seems to indicate that those who have not heard specific revelation of Jesus, but realize the general revelation and follow it (and would have accepted Jesus by name if they were consciously aware of the specific name) would be saved.

Yet another school of thought is that death is not the end point, but rather judgement. Generally the argument against this is that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, thus how would anyone not be saved, but since the Bible also declares that even the demon's believe such things, one theological argument is that after Jesus is specifically revealed, people will have a chance to accept Jesus as salvation or reject it.

All in all, it's a rather complicated topic which even Christian theology does not have a solid cohesive grasp on.


The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) demonstrates that God is generous but not fair (by some definitions of fair).

With respect to a better person being condemned simply for not believing, perhaps the following analogy might help: Is it fair that a good swimmer drowns simply because he refuses to take hold of the offered lifesaver while a miserable swimmer does not drown simply because he takes hold of the lifesaver?


I don't think you can understand the concept of heaven, hell and the cross without understanding God's attributes of holiness, love and mercy, and justice. We're all condemned as unbelievers since we're not perfectly holy. Yet, God has made a provision through the cross. The cross is our escape from the judgement of God.

I doubt your coworker would claim to be absolutely holy. Your point will have then been made.

(In other words, your coworker is thinking of a loving God, who doesn't have the attributes of justice and holiness. He or she is worshiping a man-made "god".)

  • Recently, I have begun thinking that basic knowledge of the God of the Bible should be made human knowledge, just like knowledge of science, since I feel it is the bedrock of civilization itself.
    – Joebevo
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 12:24

The one who doesn't understand why his good works are not enough misses the concept of salvation: God wants a loving and obedient relationship with us. If we do not believe Him, if we continue from the position of distrust, then that relationship can't even get started.

It's like a man who is looking for a woman for a wife. Which woman would he choose, the one who ignores him and tries to be good, or one who takes the time to learn about him?

Going to heaven or hell are not the main issues regarding salvation; the issues involved are greater than that. Those who continue in faith will learn to love and obey the Lord more; they start to take on themselves the values of the Lord and become those who could be trusted to reign in His coming kingdom. That is more than merely going to heaven when you die.

But those who continue in unbelief do not even begin this process. They will not learn the ways of God's kingdom and will be found unfit to reign there. We had a lady at work who spurned the company's way of doing her job and insisted on doing things her way. She was at odds with the other workers. This is the self-righteous atheist who can't participate with the worship and Bible study of the Christian. He is at odds with the community, and God is building up a community.

One reason the relationship starts with faith is that we have fallen short of God's standards, and we enter into a right relationship with Him by acknowledging our sins against God. It is only from that perspective will we read the Bible and follow through to become a better person who is made in God's image. If we don't start in faith, that God forgives the fallen and redeems them, then we'll continue in life with our own ideas of goodness, and that goodness won't be compatible with a God who is looking for an obedient bride for His Son.


I know Christians find comfort in believing they will go to heaven, and belief in hell may provide an incentive to follow their consciences. As an atheist and hopefully a good person, I have no expectation of going to hell. I can even cite a recent, non-biblical Christian source that claims that I could even go to heaven:

Cardinal Pell, one of the most senior figures in the Catholic Church, recently expressed the view that even atheists will go to heaven if they have led good lives.

  • Found the quote: "[Cardinal Pell] explained that, in his view, atheism can be an honest attempt to seek the truth, and that God’s judgment on a person will have to do with that person’s relation to truth, goodness, and beauty." - note that e.g. "Truth" is just another way of saying "God". Pell certainly did not say that they "will" go to heaven "if they have led good lives". Only that people, even atheists, should have Hope.
    – Alypius
    Commented Mar 7, 2013 at 6:16
  • Cardinal Pell DID saythat even atheists will go to heaven if they have led good lives. This was in a live interview on television, which I watched and which was subsequently discussed in the national newspapers. The "should have hope" citation is a separate issue. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 5:59
  • 1
    @Alypius unfortunately, "good enough," in God's view, means loving God as Jesus did. No one does that, so we must come through the door of faith.
    – Steve
    Commented Oct 6, 2013 at 15:37

I've recently come to consider the possibility that maybe a person who truly loves others as Jesus urged them to, will go to heaven. Now I know how heretical that sounds, but here me out. I don't think that what Jesus said in versus like john 3:16-18 was wrong, I just think we've misunderstood due to inadequate translation and over simplified popular teaching.

An explanation of the ins an outs of why i think that, would take to many words for one comment, but this page covers most of the points for it. Its really worth a read and gives really logical evidence that is based in scripture.

I dont agree with all of it, for example it tries to suggest that deeds are what bring salvation, where i would argue that love and God's forgiveness through Jesus does. However, it does makes some good points that are relevant to your situation.

Here is a excerpt:

Most of the references connecting the punishment of hell to the failure to accept the Christian faith come from the Gospel of John.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)

This seems pretty clear. But the impression most people have of these verses is based on a mistranslation. One must go back to the original Greek. The Greek word translated “condemned” really means “judged.” In addition, the word translated “believe” really means “to have faith,” which is a much richer idea than the narrow English word “believe.” This is how the passage should be translated:

God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who have faith in him may not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world that he might judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Those who have faith in him are not judged; but those who do not have faith are already judged, because they did not have faith in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

We do not have to speculate about what this “judgment” means, or to read into it damnation to an everlasting hell. The Bible itself tells us what it means, and in the very next verse:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:19-21)

In this passage the word “judgment” is from exactly the same Greek root as the word in the previous passage usually translated as “condemned.” We are told what the judgment (“condemnation”) is, and it has nothing to do with an everlasting fiery hell. It has to do with loving darkness rather than light, trying to hide from the light, and doing evil deeds. Yes, there is a judgment and there is an accounting, but it is not connected to a hell that never ends and that leaves no possibility for forgiveness.


The problem is that the Bible teaches something contrary to what you are positing. How are the unrighteous dead judged at the Great White Throne Judgment in Revelation 20? They are not condemned to the Lake of Fire because they did not believe! What is taught in that passage is that everyone has the choice of how to be judged. We can either be judged on the basis of our faith in Christ (as evidenced by our names being written in the Lamb's Book of Life), or we can be judged out of the "books," according to what we have done. Simple. God does not judge anyone because they do not believe in Him and His Son.

But what standard does God use to judge such people? What is the measuring stick against which their behavior is judged? Surprisingly, it does not seem to be God's Law against which they are measured, but rather their judgment is according to their own moral judgments of others. What could be more fair?! The scriptural basis for this assertion is the following: Romans 2:1-6 Therefore you are without excuse, O man, whoever you are who judge. For in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself. For you who judge practice the same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. 3 Do you think this, O man who judges those who practice such things, and do the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; 6 who "will pay back to everyone according to their works."

Also, Matt 7:1-5 "Don't judge, so that you won't be judged. 2 For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but don't consider the beam that is in your own eye? 4 Or how will you tell your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye;' and behold, the beam is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother's eye.

So God, who would certainly be justified to do whatever He wants, since He is God, graciously does NOT judge us for not believing, does NOT judge us according to His own moral standards, but rather does so on the basis of our own standards, as evidenced by our moral condemnation of others. He then keeps track (in "the books" of Rev 20:12) of what we have done, and whether our works measure up to our own moral judgments of others.

The bad news for such folks is the success rate is zero. Nobody passes their own test. 100% of everybody who is judged out of the books (since their name was not written in the Book of Life) fails their own standard of judgment, and 100% of such people are thrown into the Lake of Fire that was not prepared for them, but for the Devil and his angels.

So i would very strongly encourage any non-Christians out there to seriously consider giving their lives to Jesus, and asking Him to be their Savior. Until you do, notice all the times you judge others over things you yourself do. Try to be honest with yourself, and you will realize you failed your own test, your own standards, long ago, and that you have so failed countless times. Get off that path you are on, before it is too late.

  • This reads like your own personal understanding of Scripture, which isn't allowed with this site's guidelines. Answers need to explain some existing teaching or doctrine, and should cite references. This could be edited to fit if you can cite official doctrines of groups teaching what yoy're saying. See What makes a good supported answer? and How we are different than other sites? Commented Oct 6, 2013 at 22:21

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