What Happens to Unbelievers?

Here’s the link to this article by Merle Hertzler.

Christian friend, you may be open to questions about errors in the Bible. You might be open to exploring concepts like evolution. But suppose we were to turn to questions about Jesus. Are you open to questioning him? Can you question his life, as recorded in the gospels? Can we question the resurrection?

Some of you may hesitate at this point. I understand. There was a time when I tried to avoid such questions. I feared what might happen if I allowed my faith in Jesus to be questioned.

And yet there is tremendous benefit in allowing our beliefs to be questioned. Albert Einstein once wrote, “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” I agree. When we entertain questions about our opinions, we sometimes find that our reasoning stands firm even under challenging questions, and our confidence increases. Other times we ask questions and find that our understanding could advance to a higher level. Either way, questioning has great value.

So maybe it would be okay to question even one’s belief in Jesus.

A Rule with Many Exceptions

But first, let us look at why some might be nervous about continuing. You are probably aware that the Bible has some stern warnings about unbelief. For instance, John 3:18 says, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” That’s a harsh warning. Should we be concerned?

I personally don’t believe John 3:18. Perhaps you do. Even if you do believe this verse, I suspect that you find ways to make exceptions to that rule, “He who does not believe has been judged already.”

For instance, are babies exempt from this rule? Most believers think so. They don’t think that God would condemn babies who had no ability to believe. So, they make an exception. Apparently, that verse doesn’t apply to everyone that doesn’t believe.

Are there other exceptions? How about those who do not ever reach the mental capacity to understand such things? Are they doomed? Again, many believers make an exception here.

How about folks in the Old Testament? Were they without hope because they were born too early? Again, many people make an exception here. There was hope for them, apparently, even though they never heard of Jesus.

So, we have already found three exceptions to the rule that dooms all who do not believe in Jesus. Many Christians acknowledge all three exceptions. They find other verses and various arguments to override this verse. It has exceptions, or so they say.

Then there is another possible exception: those that have never heard. What happens to them? There are many tribes that Christians did not even know about for the first 1500 years of Christianity. What happened to them? Were they doomed, no matter how sincerely they sought God? Many are uncomfortable saying that. And so, they find a way to add yet another exception.

It doesn’t matter if somebody tells us a few stories of spiritually hungry natives who somehow heard the story. What about the many that did not?

Christians differ on this issue. Some take the hard line and say that those who have not heard are lost forever. What kind of a God would do that? But others acknowledge that, if these uninformed people had sincerely sought God, God may forgive them, even if they had never heard about Jesus. So here we find many Christians make a fourth exception to the rule that without belief we are doomed. They will allow that the uninformed heathen have a chance of heaven without specific belief in Jesus.

The rule is leaking like a sieve. If there are so many exceptions, why wouldn’t there be an exception for the one that honestly thinks a particular story–the life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels–never happened? Why would God condemn the one who honestly thinks the gospels were works of fiction? If God can accept babies and savages, why not accept the one who differs on a question of history?

And if God makes exceptions for those who differ on questions of history, then it would be okay for you to questions the gospels and go wherever the facts lead.

How correct must we be?

But suppose you take the hard line and say I do not get an exception. Then I would ask another question. Exactly what do I need to believe?

We need to define what it means to believe in Jesus. How far can you be from the biblical Jesus and still be safe? Let’s suppose you think Jesus died in Bethlehem. The Bible, of course, says it was in Jerusalem. Are you forever condemned for making this mistake in geography? Can God forgive you for this error?

Similarly, what would happen if you thought it happened in Damascus? In Rome? In darkest Peru? Surely God would overlook that mistake, wouldn’t he? What if you thought it happened in heaven? Should a soul be tortured for countless ages because he misunderstood and thought the crucifixion happened in heaven?

It seems to me that the location has nothing to do with it.

Similarly, suppose somebody is mistaken about the time of Jesus’ death. Most scholars say the crucifixion happened around 30 AD. (Some, however, think it never happened.) Suppose somebody thinks it was 100 BC. Is this person in eternal danger for making this historical error? How about 1800 AD? How about 4004 BC? How close does one need to be to the actual date? Is there a cutoff date, beyond which you are forever cursed? It seems that it would be silly to even suggest it.

Next let’s ask about the nature of his death. If we think the instrument of death was something other than a cross, are we doomed? Is a man a filthy heretic if he thinks Jesus was killed with a stake, a noose, a sword, or a grenade? Surely that detail cannot condemn one for eternity.

How about the pronunciation of the name? If we pronounce the name Hay-sus or Jay-thus or X-thus are we lost? What if we spell it Jethus or Jithus or Mithus or Mithas or Mithras? Are we doomed if we commit the social error of misspelling the name? I don’t think so. How close do we need to be?

How about the story of his life? Must we believe that Jesus walked on water? Must we believe that he told the women condemned in adultery to “Go and sin no more?” Probably not. After all, many Evangelical scholars now believe that this last story was inserted into the Bible many years later and might not have ever happened.

If we need to know the exact details of his life, all are in peril. For we can never be sure exactly which stories, if any, were altered. If today’s gospel texts were altered, how could we be expected to know what was in the original so we could believe it?

And if God just wants us to believe whatever is in the Bible today, what about those Christians who lived before John 8: 3-11 was inserted? Did they need to believe that story?

What about Jesus’ characteristics? Must we believe that his body was made of molecules? That he was of Jewish descent? Must we believe that he was physically male? Must we have the correct understanding of the nature of the incarnation? Surely, the answer is no. Surely these things do not condemn a person.

Now let’s put it all together. What if somebody believes that the Son of God was named Pedro and was killed with a sword in Peru in 1950? Can he be saved by trusting in Pedro? Or is he condemned forever because he got so many details wrong?

How many details can somebody have wrong without receiving condemnation? And why would it matter to God if a sincere person was mistaken on certain trivia? Would God cast a person out forever because he was mistaken on a question of history?

However, if you think that God could accept such a person, then it seems that your Christianity is not so exclusive after all. And it would seem that you agree that one need not believe the gospel stories to have salvation.

What if somebody mistakenly thinks that the Son of God was named Mithras or Horus and died in the spirit world? Is that close enough? If not, then exactly where was the line crossed? On the other hand, if these beliefs are close enough, then understand that, in ancient Egypt, many believed in Horus, a savior-god who supposedly died and rose again to bring salvation. So, did ancient Egyptians who trusted in the salvation provided by Horus truly receive salvation through Horus?

Some Christians will tell me, “No, Jesus saves but Horus doesn’t.”

In that case, what if those Egyptians had used the name Jesus instead of Horus? Would they then have received salvation by accepting that Jesus? Many will tell me that this would not be sufficient, that this would be a different Jesus.

But why is their Jesus not considered to be the same? Some will say he is different, for the details of the life of Horus differ with the gospels. And yet the story of Horus is surprisingly close to the story of Jesus in the gospels. Both are said to have had twelve disciples; both preached a Sermon on the Mount; both died of crucifixion; and both arose, according to the stories. So, if the ancient Egyptians had changed the name of the dying savior from Horus to Jesus, would that have resulted in eternal salvation?

Mithras by David Ulansey. The story of Mithras
The Virgin Birth by James Still
Were events in Jesus’ life copied from earlier saviors/god-men/heroes?by B. A. Robinson.
Were the stories of Jesus’ life copied from the Egyptian God Horus’ life?
by B. A. Robinson.

Mithras and Horus links

Many will tell me, “No, the real Jesus is the one from Nazareth. This Horus is from somewhere else.”

But is one to be condemned forever for getting the mailing address of the Christ wrong?

The story of salvation is losing all of its plausibility. It is starting to sound like believers are saying that whoever is close to their opinions of the savior will have eternal happiness, and those who have other views will be condemned. Why would God condemn people based on trivia?

On the other hand, if you allow that one could differ on the location of the savior’s life; differ on the name; differ on the date; differ on certain other details, and still have salvation, you have conceded salvation to the ancient Egyptian believers in Horus. Belief in the gospels would lose its importance.

It seems to me that a loving God, if he exists, could not condemn a man who differed on what happened in history provided he really wanted to be forgiven for his hurtful actions. How could God judge a man simply because he disagrees about whether a particular event is historical?

Was the crucifixion necessary?

Perhaps you will reply by saying that we do not need to believe all the details, that we only need to believe that God’s son died for our sins.

Think about what the requirement for a dying savior means. Surely this is one of the most unusual demands that anybody could make before he will forgive.

Let me illustrate. Suppose you do something that upsets a good friend of yours. You find out that he is angry. You do not want to lose his friendship. You go and apologize. Now suppose that this friend tells you that he would like to forgive you, but since what you did made him very upset, somebody will need to suffer. You watch as he pulls a whip out of his closet and asks his son to lean over a chair. Then he hands the whip to another man who begins to whip the boy. You beg for the man to stop. Blood is everywhere. You are horrified as the lifeless body of your friend’s son falls to the floor.

Then your friend retrieves the whip, puts it away, turns to you with a smile, and announces that you are now forgiven. He says that his son has died for you and has paid the price in full. Your friend tells you that his wrath is satisfied, and that you are now reconciled to him.

What do you do? Would you embrace this man? No, I don’t think so. You would not want to be friends with that man. He must be a lunatic.

And yet how does the gospel story really differ from this? Are we to believe that God needed to do something very similar to what this lunatic did? We are told that God could not forgive until he had left his innocent Son suffer and die. I thought God was supposed to be able to do anything. If I can forgive people without resorting to such an act, why can’t he?

How do you know that Calvary was necessary? Yes, I know it is in the Bible, but as I have discussed earlier, that book may be mistaken. Is there any other reason to believe this is necessary? I cannot think of any.

So, suppose somebody wants God’s forgiveness, but is not sure that the story of a bloody death was necessary. After all, demanding that one’s own innocent son be killed before forgiving somebody else is a demand that no normal human would make. Does God make this demand? Perhaps the divine world is so different from ours that this makes sense to him. Yet somehow, I doubt it. Why would God demand that we believe this story to be forgiven? Personally, I do not think he would make such a demand.

I conclude that you do not need to believe all the details of Jesus’s life to escape doom. You do not need to believe in a sacrificial death. You will not be doomed for sincerely asking questions. It is safe to get out of the bunker. It is safe to question–even the gospels. You can read Matthew and ask if it really happened this way.

And as you question, it is safe to go wherever the facts lead.

What about Hell?

There is a little word that is seldom heard in church anymore–hell. The concept of eternal torment in an inescapable fire does not fit well with the culture of self-esteem, unconditional acceptance, and a personal relationship with a compassionate God. Can you relate to a God who would treat his creatures thus?

Could you, for instance, hold a dog’s paw on a hot frying pan for hours, ignoring its yelps?

Could you torture a person with fire for hours? No? You are too compassionate to do that? So how could God keep a man forever in unimaginable fire?

If you were God, would you condemn your decent, moral atheist neighbor to eternal hell without chance of parole? Are you that kind of person? Or would you show mercy?

If you would show mercy, and you have a close personal relationship with a God who would condemn people forever, shouldn’t you tell him that you disagree with hell the next time you two have a chat? Do you have that kind of intimate, open relationship with God?

And if you tell God you disagree, shouldn’t you also tell your pastor you want your church doctrinal statement corrected? If, instead of objecting, you sign a document that says you will support a doctrinal statement that includes hell, then people will need to assume that you are the kind of person who approves of tormenting people forever without mercy. If you sign it, people will assume you mean it.

I hope you understand why I am confused when someone says belief in eternal torment without mercy is compatible with the teaching of unconditional acceptance that is so popular in the church today. To me, those are completely incompatible.

Just in Case?

You may have another question: What if I am wrong? Should I follow anyway, just in case it might be true? But if I were to do that, which way should I follow? Should I follow Catholicism, just in case? Should I follow the Eastern Orthodox practice, just in case? Should I also follow Islam, Mormonism, Satanism, Hinduism, Bahai, Judaism, and the long-bearded robed hippie at the airport, just in case they are right? I would never be able to follow all of these religions, for they conflict with each other.

Oh, do you want me to follow just yours? So, your way is better? How could I know that your way is better if I do not ask questions? So, I ask questions. And the answers I get do not validate dogmatic beliefs.

Some suggest that I should believe anyway. They will tell me I have too much to lose if I am wrong. The payoff for Christianity is infinite, or so I have been told. Should I follow it on the outside chance that it might be true?

This argument is known as Pascal’s wager. It is faulty.

Suppose I elect to believe just in case, and select your religious views–ignoring for the moment that many religions conflict with yours–and somehow, I manage to “believe,” even though I am not convinced it is true. What does it even mean to believe something you are not convinced is true? Would God honor this kind of belief? Would God honor me for going through the motions of belief and acting as though I believe, even though I doubt? Wouldn’t that be dishonest?

Does God honor dishonesty? If your God promotes such dishonesty about our opinions, then how do you know you can trust him? For a God who wants me to pretend to believe might himself be pretending when he makes a promise. A God who blesses lying might himself be lying. A God who loves intellectual dishonesty might himself be dishonest. If such a God exists, we are all in peril. Nobody could know what a dishonest God would do.

There is another possibility. Perhaps God, if he exists, desires intellectual honesty. Perhaps he wants us to examine things openly and truthfully, and then to be honest about what we find. If this describes God, then I am doing the right thing by being open with my views.

I would not want to face an honest God after living a lifetime of pretending to believe something I don’t. So, if I must step up to the table and place my bets, I will bet that, if God exists, he wants me to be honest. I will call it as I see it. I see no value in doing it any other way.

Pascal’s Wager by Alan Hájek
Pascal’s Wager by B. A. Robinson
Pascal’s Wager by Richard Carrier

Pascal’s Wager links

Can we choose to believe?

Let’s assume for a minute that it really is true that we have to believe certain historical statements to escape doom. Let’s assume that we need to believe these assertions, even if we think there is no evidence. What is the poor unbeliever to do? Can he force himself to believe something that he thinks is not supported by evidence?

By illustration, suppose I told you that you must believe that John F. Kennedy was the first president of the United States. Suppose I told you that, if you thought it was George Washington, you would be tortured. Can you believe it was Kennedy? Try very hard. Do you believe that John F. Kennedy was the first U.S. president? You can pretend to believe it. That’s not the challenge. Can you believe it?

If you have any knowledge of American history, you will not be able to believe it. It is like telling a leopard to stop having spots.

Even if an informed unbeliever wanted to believe Christianity, he could not truly do it. He would not believe it in his heart. The best he could do is pretend to believe it. And pretending to believe is hypocrisy and is not good enough according to most Christians.

So, the informed unbeliever does not even have the option. He could not believe it just in case.

Why would God demand that we believe something that we do not think is true? Wouldn’t he want us to believe the evidence, wherever that takes us? We have a mind. Why not use it?

As Robert Ingersoll put it, “If God did not intend I should think, why did he give me a thinker?”

So let us boldly question.

Some would tell us that there is indeed good evidence for Christ. Very well, let us look at the evidence. But let us do it with an open mind. Let us not worry that we will be lost if we misunderstand. Let us honestly search for the truth.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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