Many Christians believe that when a person dies, they go to either heaven or hell. Catholics believe in purgatory, but most Protestants seem to not believe in this doctrine. Furthermore, the vast majority of Protestant Christians claim that salvation comes about through having the right belief in Jesus - who he was and a theological understanding of what he did.


This doctrine of eternal consequences without the ability to get purified in purgatory never really made logical sense to me for a number of reasons, including the contradiction between Old Testament righteous people seeming to have a good afterlife without knowing about Jesus, and slippery-slope questions about children, mentally handicapped and others who simply never heard the gospel but were more or less good people. I have encountered at least some answers to these objections, although they seemed logically incoherent to me. However, I have not heard any answers at all to the following:

Let's suppose that the Christian dogma of heaven and hell is correct. That would mean that the ultimate moral consequences are determined by God. If a person cannot bring themselves to believe in "Mere Christianity" -- because, for example, every time they try to examine the evidence for/against Christianity it leads them to the conclusion that this is a man made legend and nothing really supernatural occurred -- what incentive or reason does this person have to behave morally at all? According to Protestant Christianity, no matter how good an unbeliever behaves, even the kindest old lady gets the same exact fate as Hitler and Pol Pot. Isn't this a reductio ad absurdum, showing that the heaven/hell doctrine provides for no moral incentives for unbelievers to act good without Christian belief?

  • the vast majority of Protestant Christians claim that salvation comes about through having the right belief in Jesus this is not an accurate representation of what the majority of Protestant Christians believe.
    – Flimzy
    May 6 '14 at 0:35
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    even the kindest old lady gets the same exact fate as Hitler and Pol Pot this also isn't strictly true.
    – Flimzy
    May 6 '14 at 0:54
  • @Flimzy, care to elaborate? May 6 '14 at 1:46
  • @Gregory Magarshak What, specifically are your questions?
    – V. Rollins
    May 6 '14 at 2:41
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    This question appears to be off-topic because we're not here to convince you. May 6 '14 at 3:08

In some ways you properly describe the despair associated with hearing the gospel but not believing it. The problem encountered is that unbelief makes the gospel seem foolish.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (NIV, 1 Corinthians 1:18)

One of the main reasons why unbelief finds the gospel intolerable is that it seems unfair to judge humanity based upon the works of one man. Why should little old ladies die because Adam sinned? In the same token it seems unjust that immoral killers, rapists, thieving drug addicts, etc. should inherent eternal life based on the work of one man, Christ. However this is the gospel.

The primary objection that unbelief poses is self-righteousness. Unbelief says 'Eternal judgment for all humanity for one sin, is too much!' Not knowing how evil evil is. It also barks, 'if Adolf hitler cried out to Christ in faith on his death bed, he would not deserve to live in blessed glory! That's too much grace!'.

The only real answer is not a philosophical one, but a theological one. God is wise and strong, we are dumb and weak. The apparent foolishness of the gospel is stronger then all our wisdom. Our conscience knows this, that is why we are bothered, so it is best in the interest of ourselves to cling to Christ and deny human goodness as a means of eternal well being.

There is one element though that does not seem to be understand in the despairing sentiments posted. Why 'faith' as the only way? Upon inspection, we can see God's wisdom in this means because only by faith can a person receive something without doing anything morally right. It is a method that a man without any good morals, can receive something good, while being only a sinner. Any other requirement might include some kind of moral effort, but faith in Christ does not require any moral effort. This is why Christ is often called a gift. This concept might at least begin to brighten up the dismal sentiment described. Especially when one considers this free, eternal unfathomable blessing to be absolutely a simple gift from a loving, omnipotent God. Then the extremity of punishment for sin is brought into harmony with the extremity of his glorious willingness to declare sinners holy and free.

These are eternal matters that can't be comprehended with human reasoning but are revealed to us through the scripture alone.

  • Since you yourself admit how foolish or irrational such a message seems to an unbeliever, isn't it possible that the protestant interpretation is wrong? Why can't it be that the Catholics are right and that purgatory exists to purify people for a finite amount of time? How do you reconcile the wisdom of God with people clearly being created in places and times where the gospel didn't show up yet (eg China in 40AD)? You believe that they were created with no chance to be saved? If you read Acts 4:12 literally it seems that knowing the name Yeshua is necessary for salvation. May 6 '14 at 5:06
  • @GregoryMagarshak - 'Why can't it be that Catholics are right?' is a personal question. My answer is that according to how I understand the Bible, they can't be right, because they argue against its primary message, i.e. salvation apart form any moral work of the sinner. Regarding your sense of justice for those who have not heard, this is a subject that is resolved for me by knowing that everyone who God has predestined for salvation will be saved.
    – Mike
    May 6 '14 at 6:48
  • @GregoryMagarshak - Strictly speaking no man knows the exact requirement of what faith in Christ is, especially before Christ came and for those who have never heard him. I do not know if a person can cry out to God for salvation based on the symbolism of Christ in 'sleeping and waking', or in 'eating the life of others' for our own sustenance or any other symbol of Christ in nature. I do not know if He foresaw all who would believe in Him and granted the hearing of the gospel only to the elect. Whatever the case,I only know God is perfectly good, perfectly just and desires salvation for all.
    – Mike
    May 6 '14 at 6:50
  • Mike, I understand what you're saying but aren't those statements logically contradictory? You say God desires salvation for all. But in the previous comment you say that everyone who God predestined to be saved will be saved. Are you implying that God created at least some people with no chance of hearing the gospel and therefore coming to faith? If so, that contradicts the "all". If God desired those people to be saved then He would have given them a chance to hear the gospel. Doesnt this mean something in the doctrine is wrong? May 6 '14 at 7:17
  • @GregoryMagarshak - I have to make this my last comment because we are chatting and the mods will stop it. However as you ask, this is a classic question. My own faith is resolved with apparent contradictions, because I know my inability to comprehend the incomprehensible.'Can a mosquito fully understand how an atomic bomb works?' How then can we expect to understand the interface of an infinite being with a finite creature (a difference of mental ability, much more extreme)? Maybe the mosquito should just make sure it drinks and lives, rather then trying to understand those superior to it.
    – Mike
    May 6 '14 at 7:34

The answer to your question "Isn't this a reductio ad absurdum, showing that the heaven/hell doctrine provides for no moral incentives for unbelievers to act good without Christian belief?" is (essentially) yes.

Christianity is more than doing good to others. That is the second commandment of the law. The first and greatest is to love God. (Matthew 22:36-40).

Hosea 6:6

For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

This may run contrary to your notion of "good", but be that as it may, Christianity holds faith in God as necessary to true goodness, or righteousness.

Hebrews 11:4

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain...

It wasn't because of his wisdom, charity, wit, etc. that Abel's offering was more excellent; it was because of his faith (in God).

That said, this statement is a bit leading to a Christian: "No matter how good an unbeliever behaves [he gets] the same exact fate."

The fallacy here, is the possibility people can be very "good" but choose to reject Jesus (and by extension, God himself).

All good comes from God. And therefore, good things acknowledge and worship God.

James 1:17

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

Likewise, those who truly love and worship God are good.

John 4:19

If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

Now, it is important to remember than spoken belief (e.g. "I murder and have no remose, yet I believe in God") is not equivalent to true faith.

Matthew 7:22-23

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Thus, true faith in God and true goodness, according to Christian belief are not separable. Of course, not all are taught Jesus, or at least not fully. There are several questions about the fate of the ignorant. (1) (2)

  • What about for example Orthodox Jews who for sure desire to know God, study His word to them (the Torah) every day, strive to have a relationship with Him by doing His will as they understand it (the commandments)? Are you saying that despite all this, if they reject Jesus then it is as if they have zero relationship with God and you think their fate is the same as the worst atheist murderers? May 6 '14 at 5:00
  • @GregoryMagarshak, (1) I have said nothing about my beliefs, (2) there is nothing in your comment that is not already in your question, (3) I'm not sure you read my answer well (see the "fallacy" part), and (4) "He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me" (Matthew 10:40) "...and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me." (John 12:48). You asked about the beliefs of Protestant Christianity on this subject. Do you believe my answer to be in error? May 6 '14 at 5:32
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    I was addressing your fallacy part. You make the assumption that by rejecting Jesus they therefore "reject" their Creator to such an extent as to make all their relationship with God powerless to save them. So I asked specifically about orthodox Jews who spend their whole life connecting to and worshipping God and following His commandments. They reject Jesus after having considered the evidence, based on logical reasoning. Their conclusion disagrees with Christian conclusoons but their devotion to God is evident. So that's why I need elaboration. May 6 '14 at 6:07

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