I have written this article because I was asked such a question by an atheist. If an atheist's been good all their lives but they can't get to heaven because they didn't believe in God, does the Bible say they'll go to hell? They may have been as good as a Christian is supposed to be, so for God to send them to hell wouldn't be fair. But if they don't go to heaven or hell, where does the Bible say they go? What does the Bible say about atheists?
This isn't an authoritative lesson on the subject. It's merely an attempt to discuss a common question, based on limited knowledge.
This article is not meant to condemn atheists. It's merely meant to discuss the biblical point of view, for educational purposes. The answer to the question, "According to the Bible, will good atheists go to hell", is not as simple as some might lead you to believe. Hence, there is uncertainty in this article.
For anyone who doesn't see the point of discussing this matter because they think God doesn't exist or the Bible has been proven to be unreliable so it doesn't matter what it says, visit: Links to Answers to Atheists, Theological Liberals and Other Bible Critics. Either that, or please note that this is only for the purposes of interest, meant so people can find out more about the biblical perspective for the purposes of education.
Firstly, it's important to define hell. Hell has traditionally been thought of as a place of eternal torment. But some think the Bible teaches neither that it is eternal, nor that any torment there is will be that terrible. It has been argued that the word translated in many Bible versions as eternal actually more commonly means age-long. There are several Bible versions around nowadays that do translate it as such. There are verses that suggest that everyone will eventually be "saved", and so it is argued that hell is a place where people will go for a time in order that they are induced to repent sincerely of their former ways, after which they can enter heaven. The argument is put in the article: Is It All Greek to You?
However, there are Bible verses that suggest that some souls will be annihilated. A notable passage says the wicked will be burned up like straw and become dust and ashes under the feet of the righteous, (See the beginning of Malachi ch 4).
The ancient Jews had conflicting opinions about the details of the length of time people would spend in hell, and whether average people would be annihilated or punished for a while and then brought to heaven, based on their interpretation of Old Testament Bible verses, where the issue wasn't spoken of extensively enough for anyone to come to a definitive conclusion.
However, they considered that the very wicked would be punished for much, much longer than average people who weren't that bad, some perhaps forever.
It's also argued by some that hell will not be a place of pain, as traditionally thought, but a place of eternal shame at being separated from God because of sin, the degree of shame and separation corresponding to the amount of sin committed on earth. See: Honor and Pain - A Refocus on the Atonement and Eternal Punishment.
As for the biblical view of atheists, the Bible doesn't say much at all about atheists as such, because it seems that most people in biblical times were idol worshippers who thought there were lots of different gods. Before the age of modern science, they probably thought that that was the best explanation for such things as why the sun shone and other such marvels.
However, the Bible does say that people ought to believe in an all-powerful creator God, because there is evidence that he exists all around us in the things that he has made; so it says they have no excuse for not believing in him.
As for people in general who've done good but aren't Christians:
Firstly, the Bible says that doing good isn't the criterion for getting to heaven. Perhaps anyone who desires and strives for absolute purity could make it. But the biblical criterion is recognising that, perhaps despite the fact that we may think we've lived good lives, we're still sinners in need of a saviour, and so we should accept that Jesus Christ allowed himself to be killed on a cross so he could take the punishment for our sins, and we should turn away from everything we know to be wrongdoing.
Some will find it very encouraging that the Bible teaches that getting to heaven doesn't just depend on how good we've been. If the criterion for getting to heaven was being good, then people who made a sincere commitment to Christ and to live as ethically as possible in obedience to him, which is part of the deal, and died soon afterwards, after having lived immoral lives, would find themselves going to hell despite their latter commitment to follow him and turn away from their sins, because the number of years they had spent sinning would far exceed the amount of time they later spent doing good. Or if they'd done one thing that was very bad but then spent years regretting it, it might still outweigh all the good they'd done and be enough to get them sent to hell, particularly since no one can be entirely good and everyone does things that aren't good throughout their lives. But the Bible says the love of Jesus extends to people who've spent years doing evil things, if they'll only sincerely accept him and turn away from them.
However, the Bible does say that there will be a time when it will be too late. In several places it says that on Judgment Day, people will be judged according to their actions, and those who have done good deeds will go to heaven, while people who have rejected Christ and done evil will go to hell.
It also says that people who have relied on their own efforts to get to heaven and yet have rejected and scorned Christ, as the Pharisees did, will not get there. And it warns people who think they can rely on their own goodness to get to heaven while not admitting how sinful they really are, as many Pharisees of Jesus' time did, that in fact they are not pleasing God.
Jesus said that when he returns and people are judged, people will be divided into those who have done good and those who haven't. The good will go to be with him and the rest will go off into punishment. He said: (Matthew Ch 25)
"When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the righteous people at his right and the others at his left.
"Then the King will say to the people on his right, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.'
The righteous will then answer him, "When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?'
"The King will reply, "I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!'"
So it seems that the Bible is suggesting that anyone who has been caring and compassionate and hasn't explicitly rejected Christ will go to heaven.
However, the Bible does indicate that the majority of people in the world will not go to heaven, at least not before they have been chastised for a while. When people become Christians they receive the Holy Spirit, who is God's spirit living in people to turn them into better people, changing attitudes and behaviour. Some nasty people can become completely different after they become Christians. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit is God's "mark of ownership" on his people.
However, Jesus said to his disciples that the world at large couldn't receive the Holy Spirit.
Later in the New Testament, in one of the apostle Paul's letters, Paul was explaining that one of the reasons Christians would sometimes suffer was so they would be purified; (although that certainly wasn't his or the Bible's only explanation for suffering!) and he said: "We are judged and punished by the Lord, so that we shall not be condemned together with the world." (1 Corinthians Ch 11)
There is a possibility that people who haven't heard about Jesus on earth will have an opportunity to accept him before Judgment Day. Jesus said that the dead will hear his voice, and those who listen will live. He didn't say whether he meant all the dead or specific ones, however. But he said:
(John chapter 5, NLT)
24 "I assure you, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life."
25 "And I assure you that the time is coming, in fact it is here, when the dead will hear my voice - the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live."
The idea that people will be reincarnated so they can have another chance at living a good life isn't biblical. The Bible says in the Letter to the Hebrews that people are destined to die "once, and after that comes judgment".
If being good was the criterion for getting to heaven, the Bible wouldn't have the story of Jesus dying for our sins, because people could get to heaven by themselves; or the Bible would say he only died for particularly wicked people.
Jesus did say on a few occasions that there are severer punishments awaiting some people than others.
In Matthew's gospel, it says: (Matthew Ch 11)
20 Jesus began to denounce the cities where he had done most of his miracles, because they hadn't turned from their sins and turned to God.
21 "What horrors await you, Korazin and Bethsaida! For if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have sat in deep repentance long ago, clothed in sackcloth and throwing ashes on their heads to show their remorse. 22 I assure you, Tyre and Sidon will be better off on the judgment day than you!
23 And you people of Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to the place of the dead. For if the miracles I did for you had been done in Sodom, it would still be here today. 24 I assure you, Sodom will be better off on the judgment day than you."
On one occasion, the Bible says that Jesus was talking about his return and how people needed to be ready for it, doing what he wanted them to do, because if they did evil they would be thrown into a terrible place. He was using the illustration of a servant in charge of a household, either doing his job or being cruel and irresponsible. After that he said,
"The servant who knows what his master wants him to do, but does not get himself ready and do it, will be punished with a heavy whipping. But the servant who does not know what his master wants, and yet does something for which he deserves a whipping, will be punished with a light whipping. Much is required from the person to whom much is given; much more is required from the person to whom much more is given." (Luke Ch 12)
Obviously Jesus was talking metaphorically about whipping there.
The Bible says that on another occasion, Jesus was criticizing some people who liked to be treated with respect - people who cheated widows and orphans out of their homes and after that made a show of saying long prayers. He said that for this, their punishment would be "all the worse". (Luke Ch 20)
The Bible says that on the Judgment Day, books will be opened containing a record of everything people have done, good and bad. It says that we will be:
If this is so, it may be that when we are confronted with all the impure things we have ever done and said, we will all feel like shameful sinners deserving of hell!
When Jesus said that people couldn't get to heaven except through him, he probably meant that anyone who will never accept that they are a sinner and that he died for them on the cross will not get to heaven, as well as anyone who won't accept his death for them because they don't care that they're sinners. People who don't accept that they are sinners won't want to be made perfect if they think they're already good enough. And the Bible says that only people who are willing to be made spotlessly pure can be in heaven.
Imagine a Christian who works for a charity every weekday, helping people in need. Imagine she's achieved a lot over the time she's been there. She doesn't take home much pay, and she could be working somewhere else earning much more, but she believes that Christians ought to work to help people less fortunate, not to simply live for themselves. She truly believes in what she's doing, and has been described by her boss as having high working standards. Even in her spare time, she works to try to highlight the needs of people less fortunate than her. And when people have come to her in need at weekends, she has sometimes sacrificed her desire to do something with her family to help them. You might think, "Isn't she a good person! Surely if heaven exists, she deserves to go there. At least she would, if it wasn't for that evil belief she has in hell. How can she possibly believe that people who haven't even had the opportunity to hear about Jesus might go there!"
But what would she think? Would she agree she's a good person, but that her belief in hell is evil? What if her opinion was completely the reverse of that which the world might have of her, and she thought:
"I don't think I'm a good person at all. I'll go through a typical day to illustrate:
"When I wake up in the morning, before I get out of bed, my thoughts wander onto degenerate things like conversations I've recently had on an Internet forum with people who've put forward arguments on various issues that've been so boorish and wilfully ignorant that they've made me feel contemptuous of the people putting them forward. Do I immediately take my thoughts away from those things and focus my attention on more holy things, like praying for people in need, or planning the details of my latest work projects? No. Not usually. Instead, I can magnify my feeling of contempt by dwelling on it. I know it's a bad thing to do, but time and time again, I find myself doing it. My thoughts can wander back to it all through the day.
When I get up in the morning, I have an enjoyable breakfast. My house is warm and comfortable. I have food and modern conveniences like an electric kettle and a fridge at my fingertips. I feel secure, because the possibility of my house being burgled is quite low, since I live in an area where the crime rate's fairly low. So I can sleep in peace, and wake up with the expectation of enjoying my breakfast. But am I thankful? Not nearly as much as I ought to be. I often take these things for granted, as if I'm just not grateful. Instead of living in a spirit of gratitude, I often just don't give my privileged position in having all these things a second's thought. I know I should thank God more for allowing me to be in a position where I can enjoy all these things. After all, he surely deserves it. But I often don't. And this carries on throughout the day, with me taking good thing after good thing for granted, instead of stopping to think how privileged I am to have these things. When I compare my fortunes with those of people who don't have nearly so much, I realise how I'm getting things all out of perspective. I know feeling grateful can make people feel better. Recognising what good things we have can help us feel more positive and optimistic about our lives. So being thankful to God would be helping us really.
"When I do feel grateful, it's a very good feeling. I realise I should be more thankful to God. Every now and then, I do stop and think, and become thankful to God for a while, but not as often as I should. No, I can't consider myself to be a good person.
"When I'm at work, I don't get nearly as much done as I should sometimes, because I involve myself in selfish preoccupations far too much of the time. I spend longer drinking tea and talking to people than I should really. I sometimes fancy a break and go on the Internet, especially when I'm doing something I don't find that interesting, and I go to that Internet forum I know I should stay away from really because although it can be fun, it fuels my unholy feelings of contempt. I know it's a bad habit. I shouldn't do it. I know I'm putting off doing something for someone in need for a while when I do it. It's as if I get my priorities all wrong for a while. It's as if my desire to be on the forum becomes more important to me than people's needs. So for a while, I get things all out of perspective. I enjoy being there, often because of the arguments people have, where they insult each other or ridicule each other's opinions. I find that highly amusing sometimes. But it just shows my degenerate nature, because obviously it isn't pleasant for the people on the receiving end of the insults or the ridicule. I'm not considering their feelings, but instead finding amusement in their petty misfortunes, although having said that, I don't know how it's affecting them, because they don't usually say, and I don't suppose they find it too upsetting or they wouldn't be there. Nevertheless, enjoying witnessing others being put down isn't nice. I ought to stay away from the forum really, but it's kind of addictive because of the amusement. I do stay away from it sometimes for quite some time, but every now and then, I want to go back, and the same thing happens.
"And I know that when I'm taking a diversion onto the Internet to entertain myself for longer than I should, or spending too long in the kitchen having a break, I'm really stealing the employer's time, and I'm well aware that Christians aren't supposed to steal. It may not be a big thing, but it adds up, and it still isn't honourable.
"I spend more time on that forum in the evening. I could be going to prayer sites, where I'd be praying for people in need. But instead, all too often, I focus on my own selfish amusement. I know I need to relax and entertain myself after my day's work, but I often don't spend any time at all at those prayer sites, but instead spend my time on the computer on the forum looking at things that often make other people look bad. That isn't necessary for relaxation and recreation. I also find myself being a bit abusive to people on the forum sometimes, because I get angry with them because of what they say. I even get irritated with people just because they're saying boring things to me sometimes, which I know isn't fair.
"So am I a good person? No way! Certainly not compared to perfection. I could pride myself on my goodness. I could say, 'I'm a good person! I work for a charity every weekday! Let me tell you about all the things I've achieved while I've been there! I could be earning far more money working in another field of employment, but I've given up the opportunity because I want to help others. And I even help people at weekends. Besides that, I never intentionally do anything to harm other people.' But I would consider that to be mere misleading boasting, because I know that compared to the standards of purity that God wants, and that I'd be achieving if I was a really good person, I come way short. I'm failing miserably when it comes to standards of perfection.
"So thank God for Jesus! Thank God for his mercy. Thank God that he knows people have faults, which is why Jesus came to the world to pay for our sins, and why God gives us the Holy Spirit to help us! Thank God that he doesn't treat us all as we deserve! I know that if in the after-life, he abandoned me to a wilderness land of shame or even annihilated me, I'd thoroughly deserve it. I'd consider the punishment a just one. I wouldn't feel able to complain. But thank God that he's willing to save me from what I deserve!
"Thank God that he's patient with me, and I have the opportunity to dedicate myself to him anew, renounce my involvement in things that breed attitudes in me that run contrary to Christian teaching like that forum, and seek to be purified again, starting afresh with him. Now I've thought about what a bad effect it has on me, I'll make a commitment to stay away from the forum for good. But that still won't make me a good person, because of other little faults I have. Perfection is the ideal, but no one will achieve it on earth. So thank God for Jesus, who took my punishment, and everyone else's!
"The way I see it, salvation is such a tremendous gift! Some people speak as if they think everyone has a right to it. But it's a gift. Saying it's unfair that some people won't receive it is like complaining that someone only invited their friends to a garden party instead of the entire neighbourhood. What right do the whole neighbourhood have to go, as if they're somehow automatically entitled to? It's fair enough to argue that if God created humanity, he should have created us in such a way that we'd all get to heaven; but we do have responsibility for our actions. It's not as if anyone has to do wrong. At least, not most of the time. Some people seem to think that the Christian message is, 'We're going to heaven; you're going to hell. Ha ha!' but that would be a perversion of the message. Everybody deserves hell. I'm sure I do, for one. I don't believe it's eternal torment; I don't believe people will be in agony there; but I still don't believe it will be good. So thankfully, some of us will be saved from what we deserve. That's the Christian message.
"If people think of hell as a place of torture that everyone will have to endure for eternity whether they're Hitler or someone who just didn't quite please God enough even though they were quite good, they're right to think of it as unjust punishment. But I don't think hell's like that at all.
"As for people who haven't had the opportunity to accept the gift of salvation because they've never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus, well, perhaps they'll each individually have to take what they rightfully deserve for their sins, whatever that turns out to be, just like I should really. Or maybe they'll get an opportunity to hear about Jesus in the after-life, before Judgment Day. I'm not sure what'll happen to them. But the reason we're told to evangelise in the Bible is so that as many people as possible will hear about the gift and have the opportunity to accept it. That might also be so people living lives that are genuinely harming others will hopefully find inspiration in the message and turn their lives around, stopping their harmful behaviour, benefiting those around them."
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