I used to think Christians believed this: God will cast into Hell anyone who does not believe in Jesus.
Wait, you might say. That is what Christians believe.
Perhaps. But there is a distinction that I think is critical. It’s not so much God casts someone into Hell simply because he or she doesn’t believe in Jesus. God is not saying “Believe in my Son, or else.” I think that’s sometimes the way the Christian message comes across.
What Christians actually believe goes something more like this. We are already destined for Hell. From the moment Adam and Eve went against the command of God, we have been separated from God. There is nothing we can do to earn favor with God, to save ourselves, to make it into heaven. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Even the tiniest sin separates us from God. “I say to you,” Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 5:22). For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (James 2:10). Is it any wonder that at one point Jesus’ disciples cried, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26)
Christians believe that because God is holy, He cannot be in the presence of sin. Because we are sinful, we can never be in the presence of God. There will come a time of judgment and every one of us – on our own – will be found sinful and be cast away from God’s presence.
But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). God did for us what we could never do for ourselves. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life and then sacrifice Himself for us. God’s judgment and wrath were poured out on His Son when Jesus took our sins to the cross with Him. On the day of judgment, Christians will say “God, I have sinned, but my sins have already been punished. I gave my life to Jesus, and Jesus already paid for my sins.” God will look and see that, indeed, Jesus already paid their price. Their sins are forgiven. Their debt has been paid.
But those who don’t accept Jesus as their savior will stand before God alone. They will say, “God, here are my unpaid sins.” And God will have no choice but to cast them away.
Belief in Jesus, then, is less like the ultimatum “believe or else” and more like a lifeguard casting a lifesaver to a drowning person. The lifeguard is not saying “Take this lifesaver or I will drown you.” No. The person is already drowning, and the lifeguard is reaching out to save him. Likewise, we are already drowning. God is reaching out to us.
There is one problem with this analogy. The best way for us to help a drowning person is to toss him a lifeline. But God is omnipotent. He doesn’t need to toss out a lifeline to save someone. He could just snap His fingers and save them. Why, then, doesn’t He just snap His fingers and save us all? Why does He choose to send Jesus into the world instead?
The answer, I suspect, has much to do with free will and the presence of original sin. But those are thoughts to pursue another day. For now, the point remains, regardless of reason, that God did send Jesus into the world as our lifeline. Jesus Himself declared, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).
Yes, Christians do believe that those who do not believe in Jesus will be eternally separated from God. But it is our sins – not our lack of belief – that originally separated us from God. Sin is the punishable trait. The lack of belief, or the failure to accept God’s Lifeline, does not initially separate us from God; it keeps us separated from God.
God has cast us a lifeline. Grab hold.
God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).