In high school, I asked my youth group leader a question that has plagued humanity for centuries: “Who gets to go to Heaven?”
He pointed me to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
“What about people who never hear about Jesus?” I asked.
He told me that this is why Jesus gave his followers the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
While I didn’t want to deny the word of God, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this didn’t sound like the merciful God I worshiped. Would He really condemn innocent people who had never heard of Christianity to an eternity in Hell?
For a while, I began to reconsider the notion of Hell altogether. Why should anyone suffer? Many Christians believe that one must be “saved,” or born again during this lifetime, in order to enter the Lord’s Kingdom, but didn’t Jesus save all of us when He died on the cross? I didn’t want Hell to exist, but I knew my theology should be rooted in faith, not wishful thinking.
Also, I hated how some Christians blatantly told non-believers that they were going to Hell. I found this neither moral nor effective; such an unloving sentiment certainly doesn’t entice anyone to coming to church. I despised the idea that those words stemmed from Biblical truth, but I didn’t see any other options in scripture.
My life changed when I read “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis, which chronicles a man named Jack on his journey from “Grey Town” to Heaven. The character George MacDonald says to Jack:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
Maybe Jesus doesn’t ‘send’ anyone to Hell. Maybe after we die, He asks us if we want to spend the rest of eternity with Him. Maybe we get to choose. The problem a lot of Christians see with this is, well, who wouldn’t choose Heaven over Hell?
Heaven is a choice, but it is by no means an easy choice one makes simply to avoid Hell. It is a labor of humility that requires one to take up his or her cross, regardless of what must be sacrificed. Take, for example, Pamela in “The Great Divorce,” the epitome of a loving mother. She dies, and therefore the gates of Heaven open to her. However, she grieves for the death of her son, Michael, and yearns to see him more than she desires to see God. Her refusal to die to self prevents her from entering paradise.
Those who choose Hell do so because they fail to value God or are too proud to accept His mercy. In “Mere Christianity”, Lewis refers to pride as the Great Sin of which all are guilty. God judges our sins and we must humbly confess in order to gain access to Heaven. He forgives rather than condemns (Romans 8:1), but we must repent in order to accept forgiveness (Acts 3:19). For those who leave and go to Heaven, “Grey Town” is purgatory; for those who choose to stay, it is Hell. The availability of this choice is a testament to God’s gift of free will. Hell, according to bishop Desmond Tutu, is “the greatest compliment God has paid us.”
Belief that Hell is a choice does not counter the Great Commission. Those who follow Christ in this life will certainly be more prepared to choose Him in the next. Evangelism helps others choose Heaven, as well as establishes God’s kingdom on Earth. However, there’s probably a more effective and loving way to spread the Gospel than telling all your non-Christian friends they’re going to Hell. Lewis said, “There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity they never gave a thought to Christ.” You don’t need to save anyone. Jesus already did that. Perhaps if we strive to be more like Jesus in the way we treat others, then they will know we are Christians by our love. No matter what Christians believe happens after death, we find common ground in our mutual effort to uphold the Great Commandment: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.