The question of who goes to heaven and who to hell seems to result in very different answers depending on which tradition the Christian answering belongs to. Some traditions, especially evangelical Christians, seem to hold belief in God/Jesus to be the only important factor, while other christians seem to also put value on the actions one has done in life.

The most common answer I heard (from liberal Christians) is that we can't know for sure who goes to heaven and who to hell, and that hell hopefully is even empty.

What are the official positions of the major traditions on whether only faith can prevent one from going to hell, or if the deeds you perform in life might also get you into heaven, even if you don't believe in the Christian God?

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    A related question I think : What happens to people who have never heard about Jesus? but I'm not sure what the distinction is between someone who has heard of Jesus but doesn't believe versus someone who has never heard of Jesus.
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 20:52
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    David Mitchell thinks so.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 0:08
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    When he gets to heaven he almost certainly wouldn't be an atheist any more. Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 16:21
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    Wouldn't the atheist cease to be an atheist when he arrived in heaven and saw God?
    – Narnian
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 17:17
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    @KazDragon I believe God gives evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, but not beyond an unreasonable doubt. (spelling)
    – Narnian
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 15:57

8 Answers 8


This question is actually pretty cut and dry. At the core the main thing you ask is "Can I go to heaven even rejecting Christian belief by substituting some set of actions?"

No. No amount of works of any kind will get you into heaven. There is no substitute for faith.

Hebrews 11:6 (ESV)
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

In fact it is not even necessary to split this up by different traditions inside Christianity. All of us pretty much agree on this point. The disagreements about works only come in when you discuss whether you need some works IN ADDITION TO faith or whether it is possible to have faith but no works at all. Mainstream Christianity doesn't believe you can get into heaven if you reject faith.

In fact, still speaking for the majority of Christianity and not just my tradition, I can say that this faith also has to be in Jesus.

John 14:6 (ESV)
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

The question about works should be asked in another question. Whether some kind of works are a requirement in addition to faith is the source of much debate in Christian circles. Yes some traditions "put value on them" that others do not, but those views have no bearing on your question because at the core none of those different views allow you to substitute faith with anything, only perhaps supplement (or legitimize) it. Since they are not relevant to the main question I will refrain from inserting them here. Also, questions about exactly what faith in Jesus needs to look like will turn up many variations. Save those for other questions. Also not in scope here is what happens to people who haven't heard or have heard and believed miss-information.

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    So nobody from before of the time of Jesus, including Moses and Noah would be in Heaven? Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 11:39
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    @hippietrail: That's not at all what I am saying. The Bible says that Jesus Christ was slain before the foundation of the world, meaning God knew ahead of time that He was going to have to sacrifice His son to save men before he created men. The promise that that would one day happen was given in Genesis 3 and renewed through every age of the OT. Those who had faith in the coming Messiah were saved just exactly the same way we are today. See Who saved people before ~33AD?
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 13:54
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    This answer seems essentially correct, but one could argue that the main cause of atheism is that the atheist has not been properly informed. How does one know how much information is adequate, and whether humans even possess the capability to inform each other in a meaningful way? Thus, I think the "haven't heard" very well may be in scope (though one can defer to the other question for the answers!).
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 22:55
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    Byzantine Orthodoxy is not "mainstream Christianity"? Because Byzantine Orthodoxy certainly holds that it is possible for atheists to get into heaven.
    – Steely Dan
    Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 19:53
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    @SteelyDan: Where are you getting that notion from? To quote an Eastern Orthodox resource, "The Law of God", by Bishop Alexander Mileant, Book 3, Chapter 1, "The Purpose of Man": For each man, in order to fulfill his purpose on earth and to receive eternal salvation, it is necessary, in the first place, to know the true God and to rightly believe in Him, that is, to have the true faith.
    – Caleb
    Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 20:26

This is a question that is not really cut and dried. There is a huge amount of very accurate information in this article summarising different beliefs on it. Summarizing the summary: One viewpoint is the Restrictivist Position.

  • Most Fundamentalists and many other Evangelicals continue the Restrictivist beliefs taught by traditional Christianity. They believe that each verse in the Bible is without error (as originally written). They are compelled to follow the writings of Paul and the author of the Gospel of John. Those authors appear to have written consistently that only believers reach Heaven.

The viewpoint has much Biblical justification, which you can read in the article. There are however some serious issues with the viewpoint, not really from a Biblical point of view, but from a moral point of view. The main one is: If someone has never heard of Jesus or been given an opportunity to become a Christian, is it fair to condemn them to Hell? Whatever the Biblical justification for the position, it makes God sound like a capricious ogre.

Some other positions include:

  • Agnostic: We have conflicting and/or inadequate information in the Bible and cannot reach a definitive belief about salvation.
  • Inclusivism: Non-Christian believers will avoid Hell if they worship a deity of some sort, because God works through all of the world's religious faiths. Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, etc. who do not believe in a God will go to Hell.
  • Middle Knowledge: God, having infinite wisdom, knows who would have rejected the gospel if it had been presented to them. As a result, they never have had the opportunity to accept the Gospel. Those people will be transported to Hell when they die.
  • Post Mortem Evangelism: those who have never heard the gospel will be exposed to it after death and thus given the opportunity to get to Heaven. This is sometimes called Divine Perseverance.
  • Unitive Pluralism: All of the world's great religions offer salvation to their members in different ways. A knowledge and acceptance of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Jesus are not needed for a person to be saved.
  • Universalism: All will eventually be accepted into Heaven by some process after death.

It is however common to all of these that good works is not in anyway going to compensate for a knowing refusal to accept Jesus. That in itself the sin of pride - the belief that you can somehow reject the path provided by the creator of the universe and make your own path instead.

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    Please consider the scope of the question again. The OP is an Atheist hanging out on a site full of professing Christians asking questions about how he has asked other Christians about this. I don't think we're dealing with the issue of "never been given an opportunity" here, that's a different question.
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 2, 2011 at 22:24
  • +1 for the list of beliefs on the subject. As a variant of inclusivism not quite like what you've described, consider Karl Rahner's Anonymous Christianity. Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 19:30

(Disclaimer: I'm Catholic, speaking for me, but I think that this agrees with the main official/majoritarian catholic belief)

Even if we could read into the mind of person, to know his most sincere and precise beliefs, we could never deduce from that he will be saved or not. In principle, it's perfectly possible - as long as the atheism of the atheist consists in non-believing in a "wrong" God (which, I'd say, is quite frequent).

But we just don't know. All we (speaking for christians) know in this respect, is "practical knowledge", not "theoric knowledge": it is directed to our acting (in the broad sense of the word, see below) and not to our speculating. I know that my belief in Christ is necessary for my salvation, and that's all.

I think that your dychotomy is flawed: "if the deeds you perform in life might also get you into heaven, even if you don't believe in the Christian God" You seem to assume that faith is just one intelectual act (like an opinion), and your other human acts can be put apart. The "belief" of what Jesus speaks is surely something more deep that an intelectual assertion (which is out of reach of lot of people who haven't heard a word of Jesus, or that have heard inept words; not to speak of dements, babies, etc), it's rather more akin to some cosmic attitude, a sense of reverence at the Goodness/Truth/Beauty, and the sense of sacrifice, the active will of "working" for them. This "belief" is "doing the will of the Father", and it's not some bunch of intelectual assumptions that a person has in his mind, while his acts can go their own ways: it's inseparable from acts (in the broad sense: external and internal; including perhaps religious acts; and including above all loving your neighbours -charity), it's almost immanent to them. Of course, believing in Christ, and in general the religous faith (more precisely, in catholic terms, the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love), is both the higher "act" and also can well be a necessary act... depending on the circumstances of each person.

  • I don't get your conclusion from this. Are you saying that an atheist can get into heaven so long as he/she has been (unwittingly?) doing the will of the Father?
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 8:20
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    Roughly, yes (Mt 25:32-46), but that's not a 'conclusion'.
    – leonbloy
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 10:57
  • Ok, I see. Thanks. Interesting perspective.
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 12:38

As you have said, different Christian denominations have different teachings. Lately, I've been conducting a study of Matthew 25:31-46, in which Christ himself describes the final judgement, and makes no mention of faith or belief in his decision making.

Truth be told, the bible is a rich and complex library of texts, and each denomination if not each reader weighs and evaluates them differently, reaching different conclusions. What a given Christian denomination teaches is a valid question. Asking which of them is the "real" teaching is not.

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    +1. This seems to be pretty clear cut. Those who show mercy to those who are in need are the one going to heaven irrelevant of faith. However, there is a point where if you do it for the least of my brothers and sisters. So it seems faith does play. Still, if going to heaven is based on believing Jesus is God or not, then this he would have said that in some way that's more plain. Things like, "Believe I am God or get tortured in hell forever".
    – user4951
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 14:53

This is quite a clear question. Let me define both sides of this question first:

An atheist, is a person who doesn't believe in God, Heaven, or Hell. He doesn't believe in Jesus, the Holy Ghost, or the need for salvation.

Now, the Bible, states in I John 5 : 11-12:

11And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.

12 He that hath the Son hath life; [and] he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.

Now, this means that we have to believe on the Son of God, in order to have salvation:

I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye BELIEVE not that I am [he], ye shall die in your sins.(John 8:24)

An atheist, does not believe in Jesus Christ! Therefore, it is impossible for an atheist to go to heaven.

  • -1 "Hath the Son" and "Hath not the Son" are being equated to "being a Christian" and "not being a Christian" here. That's not necessarily the case. And your second quote has a "therefore" and is thus missing the context that yields this conclusion. I would be happy to retract the -1 if you rationalised more fully.
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 8:16
  • @KazDragon: I believe your objections are unfounded. Whatever you believe about what defines a Christian, this question asks specifically about going to heaven and those verses are clear statement about the issue. Your second objection about the language of the verse is completly irrelevant. The verse quoted here is King James English and "therefore" is not being used in the way you are trying to read into it. No context is really needed, and the word isn't even used in modern english translations.
    – Caleb
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 10:28
  • Caleb, respectfully, I disagree. There are several points of contention I have, no the least of which is that these verses are plucked out of thin air and the exercise is left to the author to (in the first case, for example), equate "having the Son" with belief in the son (given the context, this is actually easy to do: it's right there in verse 10), and that "having life" is equivalent to being able to enter heaven (less easy to do).
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 12:35
  • Then there is the issue of context: the first quote is part of an essay on the nature of such things and thus can be interpreted as the author's ideas about such things. That's ok. The second quote, however, is from a scene where a particular group of people is being addressed. It's not a lecture aimed at the reader, thus is should not be taken as such. I think these issues get in the way of this otherwise being a good answer.
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 12:37

No. To think an atheist can get into heaven via works is an upside down perspective. It's not "act right, etc." It's grace. It's not the love of self or the actions of a believer that deliver them from separation from their creator. It's the lack of selflessness and pride. The inability to let go and think or love anything above itself. To think that it (the creation) is the end all be all. What biblical Christianity calls for is a release of self. The service and love of God completely.

Ephesians 2:8-9 -

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Philippians 2:3 -

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,

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    How is this Biblically supported - any references? Commented Sep 3, 2011 at 11:30
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    There you go, kind sir.
    – user107
    Commented Sep 3, 2011 at 17:59
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    As I explained in response to Cryst's answer, this is a primarily Western Protestant perspective that does not represent the view held by the majority of Christians worldwide. It's not necessarily wrong or illegitimate, but it should in no way be presented as the definited, universal, singular "Christian" answer.
    – Steely Dan
    Commented Jan 2, 2012 at 19:55
  • "... you have been saved" implies that the speaker is speaking to a particular person or set of persons rather than stating a general rule. The Philippians quote seems to be a general statement that has nothing to do with going to heaven, and is thus irrelevant to the question.
    – Kaz Dragon
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 8:18

What makes you think that it's an either/or answer? I believe that BOTH faith and works are required. James 2:17 is pretty clear on the subject, however anyone who has spent some time in the Bible will realize that God requires faith and the actions that back up that faith to enter into His kingdom after judgements.

James uses the example in verse 16 that if there is a hungry and cold man, all the faith in the world will not profit, the true disciple of Christ would HELP that person instead of just believing. However, if he were to help that person out of anything other than faith in Christ, it would profit him nothing.


I strongly disagree with most of the answers given here: The answer to your question is an absolute Yes!

I will cite Metthew (5:43-48):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

It is clearly written here that perfection encompasses total forgivingness. Otherwise God would not be perfect which he is - he would be like a "tax collector". So he will forgive every sin and that is the incomprehensibly great story about our Saviour Jesus Christ.

It clearly encompasses "those who persecute you" which translates even to people that hate God and Jesus or don't believe in him - they will be saved too, this is the overwhelmingly good message of Jesus! He also gives this example: And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? There is obviously no room for interpretation here because "pagans" are explicitly addressed.

It could justly be said that people who believe that God doesn't forgive everything accuse God of not being perfect because he would only reward those that love him (= "tax collector"). They don't understand the fantastic message Jesus is giving us here!

I think Jesus had a point and it is no coincidence that he is so direct here and gives so many clear examples.

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    The question isn't "can an atheist become a Christian" its "can an atheist, while still being an atheist go to Heaven"
    – wax eagle
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 14:14
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    My answer is: "Yes, he will" because God is no "tax-collector", he is perfect and therefore he forgives all fallible human beings - not only the ones that love him like many fallible human beings would do. Jesus, our Savior, makes it very clear here.
    – vonjd
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 14:22
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    A perfect God who compromises and let unregenerate rebellious men into his holy presence would no longer be holy and no God I would love like the Just one. Something has to change about us. There is a way to undergo that change but we also know from scripture that not all will. Also your argument for what God tells us to do vs what he does himself doesn't hold weight because we are not equivalent in our natures. The good news is valid for Atheists but they have to come through the same door as everybody else, through Faith.
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 17:08
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    Also a little less bold would make your arguments, right or wrong, easier to read :)
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 17:09
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    This seems to make an enormous logical jump by turning the idea of treating your enemies with respect and Christian compassion into the idea of their being saved. This is not reflected in scripture at all. Salvation is through faith in Christ alone; His sacrifice was sufficient for all, but not effective for all. Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 14:12

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