From time to time we hope to address theological questions that we run across and offer the clearest possible answers we can. In fact, if you have questions you would like us to wrestle with, we’d be happy to hear from you. Contact us here with any question or topic you might be wrestling with!
Though hell isn’t a very popular topic in our culture, it’s a biblical topic that deserves careful attention. In thinking about the doctrine of hell some have asked if unbelievers are sent to hell because of their sins, or because they’ve failed to believe in Jesus. We need to think carefully about all things, especially things concerning the eternal destiny of those who have rejected Jesus.
How would you answer the questions: Are believers sent to hell because of their sins? Or, are they sent to hell because they do not believe in Jesus? Thankfully, the Bible speaks to the issue.
Let’s begin by affirming that the Bible clearly teaches we are held accountable for our sinful choices. J. I. Packer writes, “God made us responsible moral agents, and he will not treat us as anything less.” The Bible does not allow us to think or believe that God will sweep sin under the proverbial rug. The Great Judge will hold us accountable for our sinful lives and he will uphold justice.
Thankfully, our God is also full of grace. The Great Judge who serves up justice also dishes out stunning amounts of mercy. The Bible gives us a picture of a God who exercises both loving-kindness and justice, taking great delight in both (Jer. 9:24).
So we begin by reminding ourselves of the justice of God and the mercy of God. There is no contradiction between these two character traits of our great God. The question is why a God sends sinners to hell. Is it because they reject Jesus, or because of their sin?
In a sense, both ideas are true. That is, unbelievers are consigned to hell because of their sin and their rejection of Jesus. There is no need to create a false dichotomy between the two points.
In Hell Because of Sin—Yes
The Apostle Paul wrote of a day when “every knee shall bow to [Jesus], and every tongue shall confess to God. So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:11-12). Jude says, “”Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds…(Jude 14-15). The Apostle John knew this to be the case and would tell of a day when everyone will be judged for what they’ve had done during their life.
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:12-15)
Scripture references could go on, but these few should suffice to show that men and women are held accountable for their sins. There is a day of reckoning coming where every person will give an account to God.
The person in hell has given an account to God for their sins. The Great Judge has found them guilty and hell is the place where divine wrath (i.e. justice) is meted out (cf. Rev. 14:9–10). Those who find themselves in hell do so because they are forever bearing the wrath of God against their sins.
It is a point of theology that shouldn’t sit well with anyone. It’s a tough reality, but reality nonetheless.
In Hell Because of Unbelief—Yes
This is where belief in Jesus becomes critical and wonderful. What did Jesus do on the cross? On the cross he drank the wrath of God in the place of sinners (cf. Is. 53:5). Jesus is the one who satisfied (propitiated) the justice of God when he died on the cross (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). That is glorious gospel news!
Yet, how does that fit with what I just stated above? How can a person be in hell bearing the wrath of God if Jesus already bore God’s wrath in their place? Isn’t that double jeopardy? Perhaps. But the Bible also teaches another biblical concept: justification.
The work of Christ must be appropriated. That is, it must be applied to individuals. There must be a point in time when I repent of my sins and trust in Christ for my salvation. When I repent of sin and trust in Jesus then it results in justification (e.g. Rom. 5:1). And justification is massively important. It means that God declares me not guilty. Not because I’m free from sin, but because he sees me “in Christ.” The righteousness of Christ is charged to my account (Phil. 3:9; cf. Gen. 15:6). In short, Jesus takes my sin and pays the debt. I take the righteousness of Christ, by faith, and get the reward.
You see, when I believe in Jesus I find that God has exercised justice for my sin by crushing his Son on the cross. And if I fail to believe in Jesus, then I am the one who must bear the weight of God’s judgment for my sin in a place called hell. Either wrath falls on me, or I turn from sin and believe in Jesus finding that wrath has fallen on Christ in my place (John 3:36; 5:24; 1 John 5:12).
To state things a bit more succinctly: 1) Christ bore the wrath for sin; 2) His atoning work is not automatically and universally applied to every person, but needs to be specifically applied to the individual; 3) The way His work is appropriated to me is when I personally turn from sin and towards Jesus in faith; 4) If I fail to turn from sin and towards Jesus in faith, his justice-satisfying death on the cross is not applied to my account; (5) Therefore, I bear God’s wrath against my sin in a place called hell.
Both/And Versus Either/Or
According to the Bible, a person is consigned to hell because in failing to turn to Jesus they must bear the penalty for their own sins. Rejection of Jesus results in bearing God’s wrath because the record of debt still stands. Trusting in Jesus for salvation means banking my hope on the fact that Jesus has bore the wrath of God in my place. The record of debt has been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). In other words, the only hope for escaping God’s justice-satisfying wrath is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
How wonderful the gospel! The wrath of God falls on the Son of God in the place of all who turn to Jesus. This is the message we have for the world. And how beautiful are the feet of those who share the good news.
 Though we could appeal to the idea of particular redemption (traditionally, limited atonement), those on the outside of reformed theology can generally agree with the following attempt to answer the question. That is, Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike can answer the question by speaking in terms of the appropriation of Christ’s atoning work.