Is Belief in the Existence of Hell Necessary for Salvation?

I never thought when I started my study of Heaven by Randy Alcorn about how it would most likely require me to study a little about hell, too. Not that I mind – I don’t particularly like to think about hell, but I also know that there are a lot of things that I don’t like to think about, yet they still exist, or occur, or whatever. I don’t like to think about the fact that millions of children are abused, molested, neglected, or sold into slavery every day, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen.

Something that is obvious any time you do a study over something like hell, where the author is being convincing about its very existence, is that there must be people who don’t believe in it. In fact, while I was writing my post on that day of study, I did a little research and found a statistic that said that 40% of American don’t believe in the existence of hell. That was a little shocking to me – I’ve thought of hell as a real place for as long as I can remember. I haven’t always had the same ideas about what hell is like or how you might end up there, but I haven’t ever really thought that it just didn’t exist.  But there are lots of people who don’t think it’s a real place, or that God would send people there if it were. I got a comment on my post that day from a guy who didn’t believe there was a such thing as hell, and he was passionate about his belief. This got me to thinking – does someone have to believe in hell in order to be saved?  That, my friends, is a toughie…

Biblical References to Hell

The Bible has plenty to say about the topic of hell, but some people interpret things differently.  In fact, one site I came across said that the King James Version of the Bible translates some Hebrew or Greek word into the English word “hell” a total of 54 times.  It said that the New International Version only translated anything to the English word “hell” 14 times.  Apparently, the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades are often translated into the English words grave, death, and pit. As interesting as it was to read about these translations, I still couldn’t see how they changed the fact that the Bible (and especially Jesus) clearly teach that the wicked are separated from God, and the righteous are allowed to live eternally with God.  Here are some examples and explanations.

  • Daniel 12:2 – “But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (emphasis added). This passage explains that in the end, our physical bodies will be resurrected from the grave. Some will rise to live forever with Christ, and the rest will rise to live forever in shame and everlasting contempt. This word contempt is translated from the Hebrew word dĕra’own, which means “aversion” or “that which is abhorred.” So this place where the unrighteous are separated off to is not a place they will like – it’s a place they will hate (abhor means to hate very greatly!).
  • Matthew 3:10 – “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Here, John the Baptist is warning people that Christ, who has been given authority to judge everyone, is coming and that they should repent. Those who do not repent and live accordingly “will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Does this mean that hell is a place of fire?  I don’t know – any wording could have been used, such as “cut down and thrown away” or “cut down and disposed of.” Instead, a burning fire is used as the illustration for what is done with the unrighteous.
  • Matthew 5:22 – “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:29-30 – “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” These words of Jesus speak directly to a place where things are thrown when they are being disposed of. The word hell here is translated from the Greek word geenna, which is a word that refers to a place called “Gehenna.” This place, also known as the Valley of Himmon, was a location “south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned.” Jesus is using something familiar – the place where garbage was burned from the city of Jerusalem – and comparing it to something the people were not as familiar with – hell.
  • Matthew 25:31-33, 41, 46 – “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Here, Jesus uses the idea of a shepherd separating sheep and goats to how it will be when he judges the world at the end of this age. He uses the term fire here (v. 41), which is translated from the Greek word pyr, which literally means a physical, burning fire. He also uses the term punishment, which is translated from the Greek word kolasis, which can be defined as corrective punishment. Interestingly, this Greek word kolasis focuses completely on the person who is being punished. Another Greek word, timōria, is used to describe punishment as well, but Strong’s differentiates the two by saying “[kolasis] differs from [timōria] as that which is disciplinary and has reference to the him who suffers, while the latter is penal and has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts it.”  In other words, God does NOT take satisfaction in the fact that the unrighteous are punished in hell.
  • Mark 9:47-48 (KJV) – “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” (emphasis added). Here, Christ is quoted as having said something similar as in Matthew 5 (mentioned above), but here he gives the picture of a worm (specifically, a worm that preys upon dead bodies) as well as an unquenchable fire. This adds to the idea that the punishment that is received in hell is just as eternal as the life that is received in heaven.
  • Luke 16:19-31 –

    There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

    Here, Jesus tells a story (not necessarily a parable, so it might very possibly be a true story – see here), of people in the afterlife. The man who was in hell describes it as a place of “agony.” Jesus uses the term Hades for the English word hell here. Hades is the Greek region where the dead dwell. Jesus uses it here to describe the place of punishment he spoke of earlier, where the unrighteous spend eternity.

  • Revelation 20:13-15 – “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”  Here, the word Hades is not translated, but instead written directly from what was in the Greek. The King James Version does translate it into the English word hell. In my mind, this is referring to the present hell, where people’s spirits go when they die, yet they are not in Christ.  This present hell would correspond to the present Heaven (click on those words to see my post on that), and therefore would not be around forever. The present Heaven (and therefore the present hell) will pass away, and a new Heaven and Earth will be created (but not a new hell, it will have been thrown into the lake of fire).

These passages are just a few examples of Biblical teachings on hell. Because there is some interpretation involved, I would have to say that this whole idea of the existence of hell falls under the realm of theology – an area which I will readily admit I am NOT an expert.  But because the existence of hell falls under the theology umbrella, and because Christians argue so much over different interpretations and different theologies, I had to ask whether believing in the existence of hell was even all that important.  What I am really asking is…

Does Our Theology Save Us?

Do you have to believe in all the major facets of Christian theology in order to be saved? Some people don’t think so.  Don Miller, a respected Christian author, wrote on his blog a post titled Having Right Theology Does Not Mean You Know God.  Here Miller quotes from a recent update to one of his books:

Can a person have bad theology and be a Christian? Has your theology ever been corrected, and were you really a Christian before? Is your theology all worked out now so you have no more reason to study, and if not, are you a Christian? If you believe a person’s theology has to be right to be qualified for Christian conversion, then you are saying a person comes to know God, in part, because he has right ideas, and I respectfully disagree. Do I think right theology is important? Absolutely, but I do not believe it has any agency to convert anymore than directions to the doctor’s office has the power to heal.

Miller even wonders if perhaps a person can believe in multiple gods and still be a Christian, which goes a little too far for me. But the original idea is still sound in my mind – that it is not our theology that saves us, but our relationship with Christ. Miller is right when he says that Christian conversion is more like a wedding – the binding of a relationship between you and Christ – than it is a set of ideas and beliefs.

My Conclusion

So although I firmly believe in the existence of a physical place that God originally prepared for Satan and his angels, and that this place will also be the eternal destination of those who do not accept Christ’s sacrificial gift, I also respect those who do not necessarily believe this. Because in the end, it’s not this belief that saves them or me. Rather, it’s the belief that Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again, and it’s trusting in Him and living for Him that really counts. It’s our relationship with Him, not our ideas about Him, that reconciles us to God.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Is Belief in the Existence of Hell Necessary for Salvation?

  1. I’m glad you do not believe one must believe in Hell in order not to go there.

    However, there’s a much bigger problem with this doctrine–to believe in Hell, you have to reject everything Jesus originally taught!

    In other words, Jesus did not believe in Hell, and what he did teach makes it impossible, assuming he was correct!

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at http://www.thereisnohell.com), but if I may, let me share just one of the many points I make in it to explain why.

    If one is willing to look, there’s substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: “You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!” Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn billions of people for an eternity!

    • Jeremy

      I think you make an interesting point. I will definitely give your free chapter a read in the next couple of days, and I’ll let you know what I think afterward. I will say, though, that the point I was trying to make in my post is that it doesn’t matter whether hell is real. If we will focus on serving others, especially the widows, orphans, and “least of these,” and we will tell people that faith in Christ will save them, then we will have obeyed our Master and those people will go to Heaven, and that is all that really matters. If there is a hell, you’re safe. If there’s not, you’re safe. It’s a win-win.

      Let me ask you a few questions – and you may answer these in your book, I don’t know yet – but if there is no hell, what is Jesus saving us from? What is the purpose of the Old Testament Law? Do you think that God judges people? Why is God’s wrath talked about so much in the Bible? These are the first things I would want answered before I let go of a teaching that I see as both Scripturally-accurate and logically sound. The entire theme of the Bible is redemption – we were created to fellowship with God, but failed to meet His standard. He gave us what His standard was in the Law to prove to us that it’s impossible to meet, then He gave us Jesus as a way to circumvent the effects of breaking the Law, which is in my mind, eternity separated from God. That is hell. Jesus is God’s message AND means of redemption.

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