The big question: will my non-Christian friends go to hell?
By Aimee Moiso | Reprinted from the June/July 2017 issue of Presbyterians Today
In this life, there are some questions that simply cannot be answered in a way that will satisfy everyone. The questions range from the seemingly inconsequential to the strongly significant. For instance, should toilet paper unroll from above or below? What’s the best way to cook potatoes? How can we make sure everyone has access to quality health care?
“Are my non-Christian friends going to hell?” is one of those questions. Some of us are looking for definitive answers about salvation for others and for ourselves. Some of us prefer to remain in the gray, urging caution and humility about the limits of our understanding. For all of our biblical exegesis, doctrinal statements and confessions of faith, we can’t possibly know everything about the next life while on this side of eternity. Our Presbyterian tradition does offer us guidance, however.
Our 1983 confession, A Brief Statement of Faith, begins, “In life and in death we belong to God.” These confident words confirm that all are enveloped in God’s loving embrace. Amid the fear and hope we bring to questions of the afterlife, we take comfort that no one is excluded from God’s desire that “every race and people … live together as one community.”
In Scripture, we’re told that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27), and that God’s people are called into relationship with strangers and neighbors alike. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Interreligious Stance of 2014 tells us that all people “have access to God through God’s covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:8–17), strangers are to be treated with hospitality (Lev. 19:33–34), and God has province over all the nations (which the Psalms tell us repeatedly).”
Though sin separates us from God and one another, God desires the salvation of the world, as Jesus says in John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Salvation is God’s gracious act toward us, one that we neither earn nor achieve through our own actions. God’s redemptive power is not confined to what happens to us when we die; it includes reconciliation with God and our neighbors in this life and eventually the restoration of the whole creation.
Of course, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we affirm that Jesus is a unique revelation of God, and we point to Christ as the source of our salvation. The PC(USA)’s 2002 statement “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” says, “No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of ‘God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ [1 Tim. 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.”
For many of us, it is comforting to state honestly our belief in Jesus’ saving power while humbly acknowledging our imperfect understanding of redemption.
In the end, part of what makes this question difficult is that we ask it for many reasons. Some of us are specifically concerned about the eternal well-being of our friends and neighbors. We may see them living their beliefs in faithful and service-oriented ways, and wonder whether God rejects their practice.
Others of us may be looking for personal consolation because we ourselves have anxiety about what to expect when we die. Still others may be wondering about the nature of God: Is our God the kind of God who would condemn people to unending torment and suffering?
Each of these questions reflects our deep longing for a God who seeks to gather all of us under God’s wings, so to speak, as a hen does her chicks. We can take heart that when the disciples themselves wondered, “Who can be saved?” Jesus spoke words of reassurance: With God, that which seems impossible becomes possible.
Aimee Moiso is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and has degrees from San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Geneva, Switzerland.