Another question was recently posed to me that goes something like this: "All of us know wonderful, loving, giving people who are not Christian. Can you tell us that all of them are going to hell?" If this question were an Oreo, it would be double-stuffed. It's loaded! I want to do my best to honor the heart behind the question and answer it as faithfully as I can. But I suppose I should start with the number 1 rule we learn in preacher school: "There is a God, and I am not Him."
I have a lot of respect for God's Word, and I do not want to ever usurp God's authority. I know I am accountable to God for what I teach and how I conduct myself, and I hold a deep personal conviction that matters of eternal judgment are left only to God! So I will not make the judgment call whether or not someone is going to hell. All I can do is faithfully explain what the scriptures teach on the subject.
First, though, I want to commend a few things about this person's question: 1] They are asking the question from a heart of compassion. They don't want people to perish (and neither does Jesus, by the way -- 2 Peter 3:9). So 'bravo' on the side of compassion. 2] Their question acknowledges the reality of hell. In our pluralistic society, people try to diminish hell as taught by Jesus to nothing more than mere metaphor.
I could write one doozy of a post about what hell looks like, but for the sake of this conversation, let me say this: I believe hell is a place of such weighty significance that the only one qualified to assign someone there is God alone. We would send people to hell all the time for minor offenses, so I'm relieved actually that such weighty judgment is God's alone.
And about God's judgment, we should remember this: it is perfect! [Read Job 12:22 & Deuteronomy 32:4] God is the only one who can judge perfectly, because he is the only one whose standards and insight are perfect. Mine are certainly not. Speaking for myself, I know my standards are ALWAYS better than my behavior. God sees things differently.
So here's what scripture has to say on the matter:
1] Salvation comes by trusting in what God has done for us (faith in God's work -- in Jesus). [Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:9]. We get hung up on this idea that it is possible to get to God on our own and through our own goodness. It's a lie as old as humanity. If our own ascent to God were possible, the cross of Jesus would not have been necessary. Salvation is about God's goodness, not ours!
2] People are not condemned on the basis of ignorance. Let's not confuse ignorance (not knowing any better) from innocence (guiltless). We're all guilty. [Romans 3:10 & 23]. Just because someone is ignorant, we assume they are innocent. We also assume that because someone is nice (according to our standards of nice-ness) they are somehow innocent. Again, that's the misplaced belief that we think it's possible to get to God on our own. No one is guiltless, and that's why we come to Jesus squirming.
3] People are condemned for rejecting God. When we choose to live our life apart from God -- having nothing to do with him -- then he simply honors our choice after death. [Romans 1:18; John 12:48]. In Revelation 20, we are given insight into the Great Throne Room of Jesus and get a glimpse of what happens to those who lived opposed to God.
4] Those who haven't heard the Gospel are judged according to the information they possess. And God judges perfectly [Romans 1:20; 2:15]. Scripture talks about how the order of the universe testifies to a Creator and Sustainer and Law-giver and that within us is something we cannot fully understand that is calling us to God. We call this the 'general revelation' (Jesus is God's 'specific revelation'). Since God judges perfectly, he does not falsely accuse anyone. He judges according to the light they have received. I cannot measure this; only God can!
5] Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13)! This is a consistent Old Testament and New Testament truth, and it is also the teaching of Jesus (Mark 16:16).
Thanks for that amazing question!
Let me end with this: I believe there is a God, and I believe he is good (and perfect and able). And I believe I am not God, so I will trust in him -- even with all my questions -- for he is good and his love endures forever in the lives of those who trust him!