A friend recently asked me, “If there are seven billion people on the planet, and one billion are Christians, why are so many going to hell? That means six out of every seven people are lost. Doesn’t the Bible teach that God wants all men to come to repentance?”
Good question. And it came from a sincere heart of compassion and concern for people.
My response was to share seven Biblical truths that have helped guide me as I have considered this question:
1. God is righteous and loving, and we can trust him to judge all men fairly. Abraham said, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” God knows the hearts of all human beings and he alone can judge them - and he will judge them lovingly and truthfully. We can trust God to judge righteously and this trust in God is the heart of our relationship with God.
2. God judges people based on what they know to be true and what they do with that knowledge of the truth he has revealed to them, not on what they don’t know. To say it another way, God will not judge people based on what they don’t know about Jesus, but what they do know and if they have lived up to the truth they have. The Bible says of Jesus in John 1, “The true light coming into the world enlightens every man”. This does not mean Jesus is in every person, it means he pursues and seeks to reveal himself to every person to the point that they turn to him for forgiveness of their sins. In Romans 2 Paul says the laws of God are written on the hearts of every human being, and it is that knowledge of truth that forms the basis of how God judges people.
3. Scripture, not our emotions, guide us in how we think about heaven and hell and God’s judgement. Most arguments I have heard against hell have been based on emotion, not Scripture. I have heard many people argue from their feelings, not revealed truth, when they consider this topic. Naturally, it is right to feel deeply about the big questions of life. We should not be cold or indifferent to matters of life and death, of justice and mercy. But arguments and statements that begin with subtle accusations against the character of God will not lead us to the truth. Questions about God’s trustworthiness, or doubts about the rightness of eternal separation from God, though understandable, are not sufficient in themselves to form our beliefs. If God exists, and if he has created us, and we have all sinned against him, he has the right to judge us.
4. Everything outside hell and eternal separation from God is the grace of God to us. We have all sinned and the just result of our sin is God’s judgement. Everything we receive outside hell is the grace of God. That is not just a handy formula to cover the problem of evil and suffering in the universe. It is true truth. It is true even if we traveled on a spaceship to another planet. Romans 1 says we have all done three things with the truth of God: a) we have suppressed the truth 2) we have exchanged the truth about God for lies c) God has given us what we demand and that is to leave us alone, to withdraw from us and turn us over to our evil devices. To receive anything but judgement from a loving God is his gift to us, not something we deserve.
5. It is the will and intense longing of God for every human being to consciously experience forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. God’s purpose is to reveal his mercy in Christ through the cross, and for each of us to consciously enjoy forgiveness through trusting Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. God uses many “means” (circumstances, people, supernatural interventions, dreams, miracles, hardships) to bring people to salvation, but the Bible makes it clear that God wants us to know who and how we are saved. He will work through the cultures and religions of people to save them, but he also wants people to know what is true and not true about their cultures and religions.
6. God will not override our free will in seeking to lead us to salvation and forgiveness of our sins. God respects us enough to allow us to choose to be with him for eternity, or to reject him. To force us to be in his presence forever could be a greater cruelty that hell itself.
7. If we obey the truth we know, it will lead us to more truth, and eventually to the truth that God offers forgiveness of our sins through Jesus and his death on the cross. One way to see this, is to recognize that there are redemptive analogies in every culture, i.e., pictures of God’s forgiveness in Christ, that when pursued, these redemptive analogies lead to the person of Jesus himself. Jesus casts a “shadow” (a limited revelation of who he is) on all cultures and peoples; if people follow those shadows, they will lead to the historical God-man Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Bible.