Can non-Christians go to Heaven?

Michael A. Covington Ė Beech Haven Baptist Church Ė November 28, 1999 (minor update 2010)

1. Some preliminaries

a. No matter what provision God has made for people who never hear the Gospel, you are not one of them. (If youíre looking for an excuse, look somewhere else!)

b. Jesus clearly tells us to spread the Gospel. If we adopt beliefs that imply that evangelism is unnecessary, weíve made a mistake somewhere.

c. Hell is not the punishment for failing to accept Christ as Saviour. It is the punishment for sins you committed long before you heard of Christ.

d. God does not owe anyone salvation. It is an undeserved gift that he can give, or refrain from giving, as He wishes.

e. Do we want to say something that "sounds nice" about non-Christians, or do we actually have some facts about how a person can be reconciled to God? If the latter, then we need to follow those facts, whether or not other people like them.

2. How does anybody go to Heaven?

a. Because of our sins, we are separated from God and doomed to spend eternity separated from Him. This is the condition of all human beings, not just some of them.

b. To get to Heaven (i.e., to enjoy eternity with God), we need our sins forgiven.

c. Itís not enough for God just to want to forgive us; something objective had to be done to cancel our sins.

d. We must accept salvation; it is not applied to us automatically. We return to God voluntarily.

e. We get to Heaven by the merits of Jesus Christ, not by our own good works.

3. Which non-Christians go to Heaven, if any? Situations to consider:

a. Universalism: God loves everybody and saves everybody, whether they cooperate with Him or not.

Objection 1: Then why evangelize?

Objection 2: If God gave people the freedom to reject Him, why would he take it away again? If He planned to take it away, it isnít really freedom.

b. People who cannot hear or respond to the Gospel.

0. Those who knew God but died in Old Testament times.

1. Those who die as infants or are severely mentally deficient.

2. Those to whom the Gospel is never preached, or who, due to prior prejudice or misinformation, are unable to understand it when they hear it.

3. Those who live a life of good works while practicing some other religion (or none).

Remember that good works do not save you. Enough said. But see the next case:

4. Those who seek Godís mercy while practicing some other religion (or none).

This is the interesting case.

Two clear Biblical teachings:

1. Salvation is made possible by the death of Christ on the cross. Apart from Christ and what he did, there is no salvation. (Acts 4:12, John 14:6; Lk 10:22)

2. Non-Christians can, at least in principle, perceive Godís righteousness and their need for His mercy. (Romans 1:18-20, 2:14-16; Acts 17:28)

Whatever we conclude will need to be faithful to both of these teachings.

My opinion is the following (and you are welcome to disagree):

a. It is possible for a non-Christian to realize his need for Godís mercy and seek it.

(Note: Although I think this is possible, I do not think it happens routinely. Missionaries report finding occasional cases of it.)

b. In my opinion, God will not turn away people who seek His mercy, even if their understanding of Him is vague and they lack historical knowledge of Christ. (Some of Godís people in the Old Testament knew little about Him and His works; one example appears to be Melchisedek.)

— Such a person is talking to God (Christ), whether he realizes it or not, because there is nobody else up there to listen! Let us take seriously the fact that only one God actually exists.

— If and when this happens, it is at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the same as anyone else turning to Christ.

c. We should never rely on Christ to save people who have not heard the Gospel. We have our marching orders.

d. The Bible gives no statistics on how many people go to Hell. It does, however, clearly teach that it is possible to do so, and that evangelism is urgently needed.

Bottom line: Non-Christians don't get to Heaven, but some people may become Christians in unusual ways, without the usual kind of help from the Church.