No, we don’t actually think all atheists go to hell

Luke Muehlhauser of asks (well, asked, in 2011): “Do Christians REALLY Believe?” To put things in logical form, his point basically goes like this:

  • Christians believe that atheists go to hell
  • Hell is eternal torture
  • Any charitable spirit thinking someone might endure eternal torture will do what he can to prevent it
  • Christians don’t seem overly concerned with preventing atheists from going to hell
  • Therefore Christians don’t really believe atheists go to hell

Penn Jilette makes a similar point:

As someone who’s been Christian at least for most of his life, here’s what I would answer.

First, Luke is basically correct in his conclusion! Christians don’t really think atheists go to hell. Christian doctrine on salvation is based on our gospel sources for what Jesus said 2000 years ago. In particular Mark 16:15-16 chronicles that after his resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples:

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

What’s remarkable here is that Jesus said nothing regarding those to whom the gospel has not been proclaimed. And regardless how some sarcastic criticism pictures theology, theologians don’t just make stuff up. So the reality is that we don’t really know what happens to people who have not been preached the gospel; we can only hope (more on that later) that God doesn’t just send them all to hell.

The silence of Jesus on those unable to receive baptism has caused many centuries of debate on the existence of limbo, for example. The current theological consensus, recently emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI, asserts that limbo doesn’t exist and we should hope that unbaptized dead babies go to heaven instead. Not everything is dogma in theology; as in any other field of investigation there are degrees of certitude to various beliefs.

Back to the topic at hand, we don’t really know what happens to people who have not been preached the gospel, but we believe God is fair and merciful, so we reasonably hope that these people are not sent to eternal torture. What does that make of atheists then? What of atheists who vaguely heard of the gospel but didn’t really gave a damn? What of atheists who carefully studied the question and still think it’s all noodly appendages and tooth fairies? Well, in short, some of them will certainly go to hell but most of them probably don’t.

First, most atheists only have very vague and skewed notions of what the gospel actually proclaims, which shows nobody properly preached it to them. So they would fall in the category of people who have not been preached the gospel and of which their post-death future is unknown yet unlikely to be hell.

Indeed, most arguments I hear against Christianity are based on utter misconceptions of what it teaches, for instance all the arguments based on Old Testament Mosaic Law (“Do you guys really stone homosexuals?”), or on our ultimate destiny (“If our ultimate destiny is to live as disembodied souls why should we care about our body?”) and so forth. Anyone using such arguments clearly has terribly inaccurate conceptions of what the message of Christ is and therefore cannot be considered to have been preached the gospel.

The only category of people on which Jesus’ condemnation falls seems really to be those who have understood the message of the gospel yet refused to believe because, deep down they don’t want to accept that someone out there cares about them, for whatever personal reasons (the emotional impact of the argument from evil is the most common cause of apostasy after all), or that they don’t want to assume the changes to their lives that following Christ would entail.

Even though they might put up a facade of rationality for their unbelief, the crux of the issue is really reject of God for what he is and what faith would entail, and according to everything Jesus said, with such motives someone just doesn’t enter the Kingdom of God.

So that’s for what Christians believe.

Now many self-proclaimed “Christians” don’t actually believe in Jesus at all! In Canada, a large percentage of people who answer the question “are you Catholic” positively, answer the question “do you believe in God” negatively. In my own experience, most self-proclaimed Catholics don’t even believe in hell, or if they do, they don’t think God sends anyone there. These people should read the gospel a bit more, or stop proclaiming conformity to a doctrine they disagree with.

To summarize:

  1. A lot of self-proclaimed Christians don’t believe in God or Hell so their attitudes on the matter is irrelevant
  2. Real Christians (those who actually believe in Jesus) don’t think atheists go to hell for the most part, although some atheists might.

Now I think the fact that even some atheists might go to hell for their unbelief should be well enough motivation to proselytize and I think it’s regrettable that even convinced Christians are so timid. What do you want, we’re just humans after all; we suck at standing up for our beliefs just like everyone else. God help us.


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