Do Atheists Go to Heaven?

Do atheists go to heaven?

For most atheists, the obvious answer is, “No.”

Ironically, atheists agree with traditional Christians on this point. It’s just that atheists don’t think anyone else goes to heaven, either. And traditional Christians think that atheists go to hell—an idea that atheists reject.

Then again, Christians and atheists can’t even agree on how to define “atheism.”

  • Christians tend to define atheism as a belief that there is no God.
  • Atheists tend to define atheism as a lack of belief in gods.

What strikes me about both of these definitions is that they’re all about belief or lack thereof. And these days belief is seen as something we do with our head, meaning with our intellect.

But Psalm 14 and its variation in Psalm 53 start out:

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”

Not “in their heads,” but “in their hearts.” Saying in your head that there is no God, as your average present-day atheist does, is very different from saying in your heart that there is no God.

So before we get to whether atheists go to heaven, let’s look more closely at what the Bible means when it talks about believing or not believing in God.

Does the Bible contradict itself about who goes to heaven?

The problem with traditional Christian ideas about believing in Jesus, and believing in God, is that they cause the Bible to contradict itself about who goes to heaven.

Christians often point to John 3:18 to support their view that anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ goes to hell. Here it is:

Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

According to traditional Christian doctrine, God condemns anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. But if you read on, the Bible makes it clear that it is not God who condemns, but nonbelievers who condemn themselves by their actions:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. (John 3:19–20)

John 3:18 is not talking about those who merely don’t believe in Jesus with their heads. It’s talking about “people who love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.”

Those myriad Christian preachers who say that even though nonbelievers do good deeds, they will still go to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus are causing the Gospel of John to contradict itself.

They are also causing John 3:18 to contradict what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31–46 about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell:

  • Those who feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, invite in strangers, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, and visit those in prison will go to eternal life.
  • Those who do not feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, invite in strangers, clothe the naked, tend to the sick, and visit those in prison will go to eternal punishment.

This is precisely what traditional Christians deny—especially the evangelicals and fundamentalists in the Protestant wing of Christianity. They say that if you believe in Jesus you go to heaven, and if you don’t believe in Jesus you go to hell. They say that although you should do good deeds, this has nothing to do with your salvation. In other words, they reject Christ’s own teaching about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

What does the Bible mean by “belief”?

That’s because they don’t understand what the Bible means by “belief.”

The Biblical concept of belief is very different from our present-day concept of belief.

In this age of science, reason, and intellect, we think of belief as a mental or intellectual acceptance of some idea—as thinking in our head that something is true.

But in the Bible, belief is something we do with our whole self, including our heart and our hands. From a Biblical perspective, believing without living by that belief is not belief at all. Here’s how the Apostle James put it:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? . . . But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. (James 2:14, 18–19, emphasis added)

For James, what we do shows what our faith is.

When the Bible talks about faith and belief, it is not talking about something we do with our head. It is talking about the beliefs and principles that we live by.

What does it mean to believe in God?

What, then, does it mean to believe in God?

The Bible says that those who believe in Jesus are not condemned, but those who don’t believe are condemned already.

It also says that those who love their neighbor by doing good deeds for them will go to eternal life, while those who do not will go to eternal punishment.

Is the Bible contradicting itself?

No, it is not.

Instead, it is saying that believing in Jesus, and believing in God, means loving our neighbor and doing good things for our neighbor. That’s why Jesus says:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:20)

To put it in more abstract terms, when we believe in and live by what is good and true, we are believing in God, whether or not we call it God. And when we believe in and live by the things Jesus taught, we are believing in Jesus whether or not we say we believe in Jesus.

For more on belief from the Bible’s perspective, see the article, “Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?

When is an atheist not an atheist?

With that under our belt, let’s look again at the question of whether atheists go to heaven.

The question is, atheists by whose definition?

Today, atheists roundly reject the old definition of atheism as “godless, wicked, and sinful.” And yet, that is precisely what the Bible means when it talks about people who do not believe in God.

In Psalms 14 and 53, after saying “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God,’” it goes on to say:

They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.

These Psalms, and the Bible as a whole, are not talking about people who do not intellectually accept the concept of God. No, the Bible is talking about people who reject everything good and true that God stands for by living corrupt, evil, and destructive lives.

Does that really describe your average philosophical atheist in the world today?

Of course, there are some atheists who are terrible, evil, and destructive people. But there are also some religious folks who are terrible, evil, and destructive people. Both of these groups—the religious evildoers and the non-religious evildoers—are atheists as the Bible defines atheism. They both reject in their lives the good and true things that come from God.

But atheists who care about their fellow human beings and the good of humanity, and who honestly believe that a lack of belief in God leads to a better, more enlightened, and more just world, are not even atheists by the Biblical definition. That’s because even though they do not say “Lord, Lord,” they actually do the will of our Father in heaven by working to make the world a better place for everyone in it.

In short, to fully accept the Bible’s teachings about who goes to heaven, and specifically about whether atheists go to heaven, we must broaden our definition of God, and of belief in God.

Traditional definitions of “belief” require a person to believe in a specific being (or beings) that we call God.

But in a broader definition suggested by the Bible passages quoted above, and many others, believing in God means believing in a higher good than merely benefit for oneself, and believing that there is a truth we are meant to seek beyond our own particular knowledge and the ideas we gravitate toward because we think of them as benefiting ourselves in some way. In Christian terms, we must include in our definition believing by our actions in the Holy Spirit—which is God’s love, wisdom, and power flowing out into the whole universe, and into human society.

Conscientious atheists commonly strive for a higher truth and a greater good than themselves and their own benefit. And whenever they do so, they are believing in what comes from God even if they do not accept the concept of God. And as long as they believe in some higher good and some higher truth, and live by it, they find their place in heaven, not in hell, when their life on this earth is over. In this way, they are held to exactly the same standard as those who believe in God.

Why are atheists atheists?

Traditional Christians—especially fundamentalist and evangelical ones—can be very harsh in their condemnation of atheists and their insistence that atheists will go to hell.

And yet, their own faulty, non-Biblical doctrines have a lot to do with the growth of atheism in recent centuries. (For some examples of those non-Biblical doctrines, see “‘Christian Beliefs’ that the Bible Doesn’t Teach.”)

It is no accident that some of the most diehard atheists grew up in conservative Christian families and communities. They had harsh, irrational, unloving doctrines shoved down their throats—doctrines about God condemning to hell billions of good, honest, loving, conscientious people just because they didn’t believe in Jesus.

I’ll put it bluntly. These teachings about God are false. And when atheists reject these terrible, false beliefs about God, they are not rejecting God as God really is. They are rejecting false gods. Unfortunately, the false gods they were raised on so tainted the very idea of God in their mind that many will never be able to believe intellectually in God as long as they live.

And yet, the very fact that they have rejected a harsh, angry, arbitrary, unloving, and unjust God means that they value the qualities opposite to those falsely attributed to God. They value kindness, good will, reasonableness, justice, and yes, even love.

Do atheists go to heaven?

Will people who believe in these things, and live by them, really go to hell? Will people who live by the good qualities that God really is not find themselves in heaven?

Heaven is the eternal home of those who love what is good and true simply because it is good and true. And that is a very good description of many sincere atheists who only want the world to be a better, more rational, and more just place for everyone.

As Jesus says in Matthew 25:31–46, when we figuratively stand before the throne of God after we die, God will not ask us what we believed. Instead, God will ask us what we did. And all those who loved and served God’s brothers and sisters here on earth are loving and serving God, no matter what their intellect thought or their lips said about God.

Do atheists go to heaven?

If they love their neighbor as themselves, the answer is yes.

In doing so, they are loving God and showing by their actions their belief in the true character and reality of God.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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67 comments on “Do Atheists Go to Heaven?
  1. Richard Neer says:

    Excellent expansion and interpretation on this controversial topic, Lee!

    I hope it gives others the same benefit as it does me.

    Rich

  2. SeunAlaba says:

    This article as usual is an enlightening read. Thank you sir. As much as I absolutely understand & even see it the way you put it,i cannot help but point out the story of Cornelius in Acts 10 which has been shoved in my face so much by people who believe that only those who believe in Jesus Christ get saved. Truth is that point cannot be outrightly written off seeing as Cornelius was one who was recorded to be righteous,yet the angel of the Lord insisted that he sends for Peter who shall tell him what he ought to do. Please,i would very much like to hear your thoughts on that. Thanks

    • Lee says:

      Hi SeunAlaba,

      Thanks for your comment and question.

      The story of Cornelius in Acts 10 is the story of a non-Jewish, non-Christian man who accepted Christian baptism along with his household. There is nothing in the story saying that non-Christians can’t be saved. Rather, it is the story of a good and godly man accepting Christianity.

      • Caden Holts says:

        Thank you so much lee I am an atheist but every now and then I find myself asking if there’s a God then I realized the question above so now I have more to be greatful about in life and more to be wishful for after.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Caden,

          Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. You’re very welcome! I’m glad the article has given you some extra peace of mind.

  3. mzzhang says:

    Fascinating article! I recently wrote a blog post addressing John’s views on eternal life vs. the synoptics’ view:

    https://religioustexts.wordpress.com/2015/02/02/john_vs_synoptic_gospels/ (under “Eternal life”)

    I agree that the synoptics don’t portray belief in Jesus as necessary for eternal life, as evidenced by Matthew 25 and other passages (although see Luke 10:13-15). However, John closely associates the two. Your idea that belief in God means loving your neighbor, feeding the hungry, etc. is interesting, but what’s your opinion of John 20:30? It reads:

    “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

    20:30 is the first ending of John, where John tells us why he wrote his gospel–to convince us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. By believing–and here, belief seems to mean intellectual acceptance of an idea–we may have life in his name. Do you agree with this interpretation?

    By the way, I’m an atheist, and the last thing I want is to actually convince people that I deserve to be tortured for eternity in hell. It’s extremely disturbing when people think I deserve something much worse than the Holocaust for not sharing their beliefs. But I was very curious about your opinion, having just finished reading all the gospels.

    • Lee says:

      Hi mzzhang,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughtful comment. I enjoyed reading the linked article. I do have a few quibbles with some of the statements in it, but no need to get into that here.

      I take it as a general principle that although the Bible may, and even does, contradict itself here and there in its plain, or literal, meaning, a deeper and more spiritual understanding of its message reconciles those contradictions and shows them to be two different perspectives on the same deeper reality.

      In the case of John vs. the Synoptics, you make an excellent point in your article that the Synoptics emphasize a life according to God’s commandments, while John emphasizes belief in Jesus. However, instead of seeing that as a contradiction, I see it as two different perspectives on the same underlying reality.

      The bridge between the two is what I said in this article about the Biblical meaning of “belief” and “faith.” It wasn’t until 1,500 years after Christ that Martin Luther came up with the idea of salvation by faith alone. Present-day Western Christians–especially Protestant Christians–seem especially adept at separating belief from life and from motives. This, I think, is rather bewildering to people of other cultures, who seem to assume that if you believe something you also live by it. And I think it would have been entirely bewildering to the people and cultures that existed in Biblical times.

      When John talks about belief in Jesus, such as in John 20:30, he’s not talking about some intellectual or conceptual acceptance of the idea that Jesus saves us from our sins. Rather, he’s talking about a life-transforming change of mind and direction in life that pulls us out of evil and destructive (“sinful,” in Bible language) ways of living, and transforms us into people who live from love for God and love for the neighbor.

      If we think of “belief” and “faith” in this way, then John and the Synoptics are giving the same message, only from a different perspective. John emphasizes our relationship with Jesus Christ, whereas the Synoptics emphasize the change brought about in our lives by that relationship.

      I would also point out that John 20:30 is not exclusive. It says that we can have life (meaning spiritual life) by believing in his name. That particular passage doesn’t say anything about others having no spiritual life. However, for more on this whole topic please see the article:
      Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?

      • Breanna J. says:

        I just wanted to say thank you for writing this article. I am a Seventh Day Adventist, and this answered a lot of questions and I think it will aid me in becoming closer to Christ. I really like how this was put simply. Thank you,again and God bless.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Breanna,

          Thanks for stopping by, and for your good words. You are very welcome! I’m glad the article was helpful to you.

  4. Rob says:

    As far as going to heaven and all that, I just accept myself the way I am now. I will never love my neighbor, he/she is likely deserving of scorn at best (just like me!). Its liberating to drop the facade of goodness and just let one’s hate run free. I do believe in God (to get back to the topic), but I don’t love him.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      It is good to honestly assess and recognize where we are now spiritually. Many people deceive themselves all their lives about their own goodness and rightness, and therefore never take even the first step toward real, spiritual goodness. It’s better to recognize that we are not good when that is, in fact, the reality of the situation.

      And yet, that is only a first step. If we stop there, we have frozen our own growth in its tracks. Now that we see clearly where we are, the question is, where do we want to be? Then the real work of spiritual growth begins. It won’t be easy. But it will lead to better things.

      If we recognize that we are stuck in a high-walled subterranean cavern with no obvious way out, that recognition is a good thing. Now we’re no longer hallucinating some pleasant and sunny existence when in fact we are trapped in the darkness deep underground. But if we stop there, we’ll always be a prisoner. The next step is to make a decision to get out of the cave. Acting on this decision will be much more work than resigning ourselves to living and dying in the darkness. But we can, through sustained effort and ingenuity, climb out of the cave if we are determined to free ourselves from it.

      Then our real life begins.

  5. “It is no accident that some of the most diehard atheists grew up in conservative Christian families and communities. They had harsh, irrational, unloving doctrines shoved down their throats—doctrines about God condemning to hell billions of good, honest, loving, conscientious people just because they didn’t believe in Jesus.

    I’ll put it bluntly. These teachings about God are false. And when atheists reject these terrible, false beliefs about God, they are not rejecting God as God really is. They are rejecting false gods. Unfortunately, the false gods they were raised on so tainted the very idea of God in their mind that many will never be able to believe intellectually in God as long as they live.

    And yet, the very fact that they have rejected a harsh, angry, arbitrary, unloving, and unjust God means that they value the qualities opposite to those falsely attributed to God. They value kindness, good will, reasonableness, justice, and yes, even love.”

    Correct. It is no accident! Any person who cares at all about people does not want the 99% who don’t believe certain doctrines to burn forever. I am in agreement with you that those teachings are false.

    As far as all the good things you mention: “kindness, good will, reasonableness, justice, and yes, even love”, I would say that none of them require a magic man in the sky(which is pretty much the concept the atheists I know have rejected). If there is another concept of God that is different, I would like to hear it. Why has there not been a promotion of something better than what christianity has traditionally offered?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Chandler,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Where do I start? This whole website is all about “a promotion of something better than what Christianity has traditionally offered.” The reason I have largely struck out on my own in this endeavor, with the full support of my wife, is that I do not think the church that I grew up in is doing enough to promote this better view of Christianity, and I no longer think that traditional church forms and formats work in today’s society.

      There are many articles here that offer a better view. The one I just published today is sort of a “lite” version:
      God is Love . . . And That Makes All the Difference in the World

      Here is one with a little more substance:
      Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

      And of course, there’s the post that is far and away the most popular on my blog:
      If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?

      I could keep on giving more links to articles here promoting a better view of Christianity, but these are enough for now. If you’re interested, feel free to look around some more. And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

      • Alright. Thanks for the links. I very much want to see something out there that is better than the christianity I grew up in. I may never be a part of if myself but it will still be a benefit to others who are looking for something to help them heal from bad church experiences similar to what I had.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Chandler,

          You’re welcome. Though the denomination I grew up in is very small, its churches do often provide a home for “church-wounded” people who want a more loving and reasonable church than the one they grew up in. Annette and I plan to reach out to many more people who want to be Christian and spiritual but cannot accept the harsh and often irrational doctrines and attitudes of traditional Christianity.

        • Breanna J says:

          Hey Lee, I just wanted ask you about the “harsh and often irrational doctrines”, are you referring to the Bible as a whole, or certain denominations, such as Catholicism?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Breanna,

          I am referring to what many of the traditional Christian churches have done to the Bible, and the ways they have departed from the Bible—especially the spirit of the Bible—in their beliefs and teachings.

          In particular, the idea that only Christians can be saved, which is common in traditional Christianity, is a direct contradiction of many teachings in the Bible. And it is a smear on God’s name to say that God will condemn to eternal torture hell the bulk of the world’s population just because they were born into the “wrong” religion.

          For more specifics, please see this article, and the articles linked from it: “Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach

  6. David Gray says:

    Hi Lee,

    I have attended an evangelical church for the last 12 years or so. I like your comments above what it means to “believe in Jesus.” This is something I have worked through recently as well. I can see where your perception of our theology is basically, “Say the sinner’s prayer and then do whatever you want.” We do not believe (at least I don’t) anyone is saved purely by intellectual assent, but as you said, by a change in the core of their being. Our works do not MERIT our salvation, but they are the evidence of a changed heart that comes from salvation.

    My question is, what do Swedenborgians make of the various passages where Jesus declares to someone “Your sins are forgiven.”? His statement implies that prior to that point, the person’s sins were not forgiven (Note, also, that he did not say this to everyone present). To me this means that the the forgiveness of sins happens in an instant. From what I know of your theology, you seem to reject the idea of us being under God’s judgement for sin, so where does this “instant forgiveness” fit into your theology?

    Thank you!

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      About your first paragraph:

      I do understand that the theology of Protestant churches is more complex than, “Say the sinner’s prayer and then do whatever you want.” However, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone as formulated in the various Protestant churches contradicts itself.

      And as a practical matter, most “faith alone” Christians don’t even live by that doctrine. They actually live a life of faith together with good works, as James, the Gospels, and Paul himself taught. So despite their holding intellectually to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone–which does not save if actually practiced–they are saved because in reality they live a life of faith together with good works.

      As for the good works being the fruits of faith, that may be so. But it is purely a semantic distinction, made for the sake of adherence to doctrine. If you have faith in Jesus and as a result of that faith live according to the commandments of Jesus, then in fact you are both having faith and doing good works as Jesus commanded. And by virtue of that faith expressed in works, you are saved.

      Turn it around and ask yourself: If a person had faith, but lived an evil life–i.e., did not do good works–would that person be saved? No. Because if faith does not lead to good works, then it is not real faith.

      Given that real faith cannot exist without good works, it’s splitting hairs to say that we’re saved by the faith and not by the good works. It may make some theologians feel superior in their superior intellectual acumen. But it makes not a particle of difference in reality. In real life, faith must lead to, and be accompanied by, good works or it does not save, nor is it even faith.

      Further, although faith is the first visible sign of a changed person, it is not actually the first event in our salvation. God working in our heart is the first event of salvation. When our heart begins to respond to the presence of the Lord, then our mind follows by expressing faith in Jesus. We think of faith as being first, but in fact it is secondary to love, just as Paul says (1 Corinthians 13:13).

      So even though the first thing we see is faith, the real order of salvation is:

      love -> faith -> good works.

      Only when this cycle is complete are we saved.

      • David Gray says:

        Hi Lee!

        Thanks so much for all of your thoughtful responses to my questions. I think my thinking is mostly in agreement with you when it comes to works/faith. To say that we are saved by faith and not by works is like saying “Nobody is saved by wearing a red shirt but everyone who is saved wears a red shirt.” The part I can’t sort out in my head is what to make of our concept of sins being forgiven in an instant, which Jesus appears to do several times in the gospels. As you know, we evangelicals believe that our sins are forgiven the instant we “trust in Christ.” Granted, what “trusting in Christ” means is very ambiguous even for us, but is there some place for this thinking about forgiveness in your theology? Do we need to be forgiven by God? Does this take place in an instant or only at the end of our lives consisting of good works? I think you probably see what I’m getting at.

        Thanks again! Have a great day!

        David

        • Lee says:

          Hi David,

          Looks like we crossed messages. I think the comment below addresses your questions. If it doesn’t cover it, feel free to ask again!

        • David Gray says:

          Hi Lee,

          Thanks for the detailed explanation. Just to make sure I understand, the New Church position is that God has already forgiven every human for every sin — it is just a matter of recognizing that you are not going to be punished for your sins — there is nothing that one has to do to have this forgiveness applied to you (e..g say the sinners’ prayer)?

          Does the New Church believe that God ever actively punishes anyone? (By actively, I mean that he takes specific action to ensure that the person receives some kind of temporal punishment that he/she would not have received otherwise — more than just the natural consequences of sin). For example, let’s say Bob is good at robbing banks and he spends his whole life robbing them but never gets caught. If I understand your theology correctly, when Bob dies he will end up with other people like him, which in a way is punishment, but will God do anything else to him?

          David

        • Lee says:

          Hi David,

          Almost, but not exactly.

          Yes, God has already forgiven every human sin. Despite the outward appearance, and various statements in the Bible spoken to fallen humans, there is no condemnation in God. Only a desire to bring us out of hell (spiritually) and into heaven.

          However, as I mentioned in my comment below, there is something we have to do to have that forgiveness applied to us. That is to repent of our sins. As long as we continue sinning, we reject God’s forgiveness, so it cannot become active in our lives.

          At the same time, we must believe in God (or something that stands in for God, such as a goodness, truth, and love higher than ourselves). If we repent just for our own benefit, such as to get out of trouble and save our own skin, that is not real repentance. We must repent because we recognize that our wrong thoughts, desires, and actions are contrary to God’s will, and therefore wrong in themselves.

          So it’s not just a matter of recognizing that we’re not going to be punished for our sins. It’s a matter of not sinning anymore. Or at least, making a commitment not to sin anymore. As humans, we’re going to slip up and sin from time to time. But as often as we do, we must repent and commit ourselves to not engaging in such sins in the future. We’ll never be perfect at it. But God sees our intent and our follow-through, and accepts us, imperfect as we are, if we are making a real effort to cease to do evil and learn to do well. And God then helps and strengthens us from within.

        • Lee says:

          Hi David,

          Does God ever actively punish us? Despite the appearance, no. God doesn’t need to, because as Psalm 34:21 says, “Evil shall slay the wicked.” Our sins bring their own punishment upon themselves, in the form of death, disaster, retribution, prison, and so on. This doesn’t work perfectly in the material world, but in the spiritual world it is an immutable law.

          What actually happens is that when we commit evil in the spiritual world, we withdraw ourselves from God’s protection, and reject it. Then other evil spirits see our weakness and vulnerability, and swoop in to wreak vengeance on us–which they love to do. So the evil spirits punish one another.

          It is not God’s will that anyone should be punished. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 18:32), and “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). God shows us a stern face when we are engaged in evil. But like a good parent, behind that stern face is only love, and no desire to punish.

          So no, God doesn’t punish us when we do evil. Rather, we punish one another. Evil brings its own punishment upon itself. God would love to protect us even from that, but cannot because when we are engaged in evil we reject both God and God’s protection. And God will not violate our free will and force God’s own will on us if we are firmly opposed to it.

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Now about your question as expressed in your second paragraph:

      From a Swedenborgian perspective (which I think is simply a genuine Christian perspective), our sins are always forgiven by God. God is pure forgiveness, and has forgiven us before we ever sinned.

      The problem isn’t whether God forgives us. The problem is whether we accept God’s forgiveness. When Jesus said, “your sins are forgiven,” he was speaking to his listeners from their own human perspective, while still with divine meaning.

      He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” That is a simple statement of fact. God had already forgiven them for their sins, so that they are forgiven.

      However, it is also a statement of the real experience of the person receiving the forgiveness.

      At the moment that the person accepted God’s forgiveness, as pronounced by Jesus, who is “God with us,” that forgiveness becomes effective in the person’s life. Now not only has God forgiven, but the person has accepted God’s forgiveness. So from the human perspective of the one forgiven, his or her sins are now forgiven, even though before they seemed not to be, and in practical terms weren’t forgiven because the person had rejected God’s forgiveness.

      God will not force forgiveness on us. Even though God has forgiven, does forgive, and always will forgive every sin we humans ever have committed, are committing, or will commit, it is only when we accept God’s forgiveness that it becomes effective in our lives.

      And for us to accept God’s forgiveness, we must repent from our evil lives. For more on this, see my article, Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness

  7. Richard Neer says:

    Hi Lee,

    You reference, “It is not God’s will that anyone should be punished. “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 18:32), and “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11).”

    Does this refer to the death of the physical being as human form in this plane of existence, or the “death” of the spiritual being choosing hell over heaven in eternity?

    If one has free will, even as spirit in eternity, and there is no “purgatory” wherein punishment is doled out by God, and if the chosen spiritual path is hell-bent rather than heaven-bound, wouldn’t God care most for the happiness of the spirit regardless of it’s end destination, and therefore find pleasure and solace in that?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rich,

      Good questions!

      About the first, in their original context the verses from Ezekiel were talking about physical death, which was the penalty for most severe offenses against God.

      However, the Bible also has deeper meanings throughout. And you’ve put your finger on the deeper meaning of “death” in the Bible: the spiritual death of choosing hell over heaven.

      In other words, it means either or both. But for us today, it means especially spiritual death.

      About your second question, though the whole idea is repugnant to conservative Christians, one way to think of hell is that it is where God gives as much pleasure as possible to people who have chosen evil over good. There, at least they can engage in some of the evil and gross activities that give them pleasure, whereas in heaven they would not be able to engage in those activities at all–which would be torture to them.

      Unfortunately, evil actions bring their own punishment and pain upon themselves. So although God does provide a place (hell) where evil people can have some pleasure, that pleasure is inevitably followed by pain.

      Much of that pain comes from revenge taken against them by the other evil spirits whom their actions have harmed. A band of thieves in hell may pull off a successful heist, experience a rush of pleasure from it, and glory in their loot. But soon their victims will band together against them, steal back all their ill-gotten gain, and rough them up in the process. This is very painful and humiliating to them. And so they experience the pain that inevitably follows their pleasure. This is just one simple example of how things work in hell. There is as much variety as there are varieties of evil actions that the people (evil spirits) there love to engage in.

      Another example: Swedenborg describes some hells as being like continual armed revolutions and coups as everyone seeks to rise up to absolute power over everyone else. Those who are in power now will later be reduced to abject slaves under the boot of those whom they had previously ground under their own boot.

      So while God does provide a venue for some happiness, or more accurately, pleasure, for people who choose evil over good, there is only so much God can do when our pleasure is to give one another pain. (For more on hell, see, “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?”)

      This is in stark contrast to heaven. There, our joy and pleasure comes from doing good things for one another. That results in greater joy and happiness for everyone involved. When everyone’s joy is to give joy to others, instead of taking away from one another’s joy, everyone adds to one another’s joy and happiness, which continues to grow to eternity.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rich,

      Perhaps bearing more directly on your final question, it is difficult to discern just how God feels about the lives of those in hell. After all, God’s mind and heart is infinite, while ours is finite.

      The clear teaching is that God loves and seeks to bless everyone, including the worst devils in hell.

      But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45)

      In other words, God loves and seeks to bless all people, even those who have made themselves enemies to him.

      And I do believe that God does what is possible to give pleasure even to the devils in hell. However, I can’t help but think that God also looks upon them with sorrow, knowing that if they had made a different choice, they could have had far greater happiness and joy than they will ever have.

      Yet God also fully respects our human sovereignty over our own lives. God will not negate the choices we make–including the choice to live evil lives eternally. Theoretically God would have the power to lift all the devils out of hell, and transport them into heaven. But doing so would destroy their very humanity, and destroy them as eternal beings in the process.

      So my best guess is that God looks upon the evil spirits in hell with a mixture of love and sorrow. Love for them as created beings, and sorrow at the pain they inflict upon themselves and one another compared to the joy that they could have had if they had chosen good instead of evil. And yes, some solace in that at least they can experience some pleasure in life, even if it is a sick pleasure.

  8. Donna Newby says:

    21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23).

    Atheists are NOT going to go to heaven if they don’t change that atheism before the day the Lord comes to take the Christians to heaven.

    They don’t acknowledge God, never mind has faith in the only one who we must be save through, Jesus.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Donna,

      Notice that in the passage you quote from Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus says that those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter the kingdom of heaven, but evildoers will not. If it were only faith in Jesus that mattered, he would not have said that.

      Please also read Matthew 25:31-46. There Jesus says who will go to eternal life, and who will go to eternal punishment. And he says nothing at all about faith in Jesus. Instead, he says those who love their neighbor by doing good for them will go to eternal life, but those who do not will go to eternal punishment.

      Jesus said that the most important commandments in the Bible are to love the Lord above all, and love our neighbor as ourselves. That is what determines whether we go to heaven or to hell. Faith does not just mean belief. It means doing God’s will. And God’s will is that we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

      If you claim that only those who believe in Jesus will go to heaven, you are very much mistaken because you are denying Jesus’ own clear teaching in the Gospels.

      For the real meaning of Jesus being the only way to heaven, please see this article: Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?

      • Mark says:

        Very good points there. Not to be rude, but Donna kind of got destroyed there. But any ways, I’m glad you feel the same way I do about this topic, Lee.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Mark,

          Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

          To be fair, my purpose is not to “destroy” Donna. I believe she is a good and sincere person who, unfortunately, has been deceived by false teachings invented by human beings such as Luther and Calvin. My purpose and hope is that she may see the Bible, and God, in a new light, and adopt a more thoughtful and loving approach to Christianity and to her fellow human beings.

          Having said that, I’m glad you (Mark) enjoyed the article. There’s too much narrow-mindedness masquerading as “Christianity” out there. This website aims to be an antidote to that narrow (and false) form of “Christianity.”

  9. Mark says:

    You’re 100% correct. Also, I apologize for sounding extremely rude.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks. All’s well that ends well. Unsolicited advice: If a sentence you’re thinking of saying starts with, “Not to be rude, but . . .” think carefully before saying it! 😛

      • David Gray says:

        Ha ha 🙂 That reminds me of a coworker I had on my first job. He started saying something to me with, “I’m trying to think how to say this tactfully…” Too late, buddy. Too late 🙂

  10. Ice Cube says:

    Quick question, what about Relevation 21? “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Thanks

    • Lee says:

      Hi Ice Cube,

      What is your question?

      • Ice Cube says:

        In that verse it says unbelievers go to hell, right? Or am I just reading it wrong?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Ice Cube,

          Did you read the article? It all hinges on your definition of “belief.” The idea that it is some intellectual affirmation of Jesus Christ as our Savior, as the Son of God, as dying for our sins, and so on, really has no Biblical basis at all. Belief is not about what we think in our head. It’s about the principles that we live by. If, after reading (or re-reading) the article, you still don’t get it, please feel free to ask again. Thanks.

  11. Ice Cube says:

    Yes, sorry. I apologize.

  12. Jeff Davies says:

    Thanks for this. I lost a long time friend to cancer last year. He was an atheist but throughout our friendship I saw him constantly demonstrate kindness and concern for others. Indeed he knew his cancer was terminal but hoped that he could undergo some of the new types of treatment so that the results would provide information that could help others.
    I am a follower of Christ but I found the attitude of some of my fellow Christians decidedly unbending when I discussed my friend’s likely prospects in eternity.
    Your interpretation of the relevant Biblical verses certainly demonstrates the real love of God for all his children and not for a select few who would seem to practice Christianity one day in seven.
    I have saved your article and do intend to discuss further both with friends and family.
    In any case it certainly has renewed my faith and given me some peace.
    Thanks

    • Lee says:

      Hi Jeff,

      So sorry to hear about your friend’s death. I think he is now learning some unexpected things about the afterlife—one of which is that it’s real, and another of which is that the religious beliefs he had rejected were wrong about it. 😉

      I’m glad this article has been helpful to you. I do hope it will make an impact on your friends and family as well. Unfortunately, some people are very stuck on their beliefs, and with them it will fall on deaf ears. But maybe others will be a little more open.

      At any rate, I assure you that your friend is not headed to hell!

  13. Emma says:

    Hello! Lovely article as usual, I thank you for taking the time to write it as it gave me some peace of mind. I come from a Catholic family, and am so incredibly grateful I am. Unfortunately though, my grandmother does not believe in a God. She is Unitarian and goes to her church often, but has openly stated she doesn’t believe in one, but focuses on mindfulness instead. This gives my mother much anxiety, and though we’ve tried to reach out to her it seems she won’t budge. Can you think of any way to gently nudge her in the right direction?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Emma,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. I’m glad the article gave you some peace and comfort, especially about your grandmother.

      My suggestion is to let her follow her own beliefs, and don’t try to convince her of something she’s not open to. Presumably, since she’s your grandmother, she’s lived long enough to have had time to consider her own beliefs, and come to an understanding of life and the universe that makes sense to her and gives meaning to her life. If she’s active in a Unitarian church, she’s likely a thoughtful and caring person. And as I said in the article, I believe God will accept her into heaven on that basis. The best thing you can do for her is to give her your love and affection, without pressuring her to believe something that may not ring true for her. Trying to change her beliefs would only create tension and distance in your relationship with her.

      Christ commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Giving her your love will speak far more eloquently about your faith that trying to convince her of your beliefs about God.

      For another angle on the same idea, please see the article, If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?

  14. Neil says:

    Thanks so much for writing this.
    After years of searching my heart I realized that I could not honestly say that I believed in a god. Despite this, I do believe in and strive to practice love, forgiveness, justice, compassion, integrity and generosity. What you have written here gives me new hope in people of faith like you. Please keep it up – you’re doing good 🙂

    • Lee says:

      Hi Neil,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. I’m glad this article was helpful to you!

      I hope you’ll stick around and read some of the other articles here. Perhaps you’ll pick up a new concept of God that may make more sense to you than ideas of God that you’ve encountered in the past.

      Regardless of that, though, as I said in the article, if you believe in and practice those god-like qualities, I believe you’ll be in heaven, not hell, when your time on this earth is over.

  15. Emma says:

    Hi! Wonderful article as usual. I was born into a Christian family and am so grateful I was, but I have relatives who were not as lucky. Is there any way to nudge them in the way of Christianity? Also, how would you respond if somebody said that God wasn’t real because there was no proof? Even Albert Einstein said it wasn’t plausible.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Emma,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. I would say that the best way to nudge people in the way of Christianity is to treat them with true Christian love, respect, and kindness. Proselytizing is just as likely to chase them away as attract them. But as Jesus said:

      I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

      Many people are turned off from Christianity because they see Christians acting in harsh and hypocritical ways. If Christians were known for their love, kindness, and selfless service to others, that would be the greatest possible “advertisement” for Christianity.

      About proof for the existence of God, please see my article, “Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?

  16. etienne says:

    Not a question, but more a general comment. I’ve only come across this tonight, but I’ve been obsessing over it for the past hour and studying every claim you make. This is an extremely revolutionary view, and, it seems, a very researched one. I honestly am amazed and mindblown by this perspective and this whole analysis of what our language defines as ‘belief’ v.s what the Bible defines as belief. Thank you so much for putting this out there.

    • Lee says:

      Hi etienne,

      You’re very welcome. Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. I am glad this article is opening up your mind to new and deeper spiritual possibilities.

      For more on “faith” as commonly defined in our language today and faith as understood in the Biblical languages, see the article: Faith Alone Is Not Faith. And of course, if you have any questions as you read, please don’t hesitate to ask.

  17. Valdi says:

    Hi Lee.
    Just googling around about sola fide and found your blog. I’m from Indonesia and raised protestant, but have much question about the solas, especially sola fide. Getting through the articles on your blog gives me invaluable perspective about the term of belief.

    Thanks & keep up the good work, man.

    Regards from Indonesia

    • Lee says:

      Hi Valdi,

      Welcome! Thanks for your kind words. It’s always good to hear from far-flung readers. I’m glad the articles here are helping you gain perspective on the real meaning of faith and belief. Godspeed on your spiritual journey.

  18. George says:

    Lee, I absolutely loved this article. I tend to not call myself Atheist anymore due to the fact of how it makes me look in public. I call myself a non-theist with an open philosophy. Believing that humanity still needs a faith in a God in order for there to be good. Even though I may not believe in it myself. I support faith and religion. For years, growing up, I struggled to understand why my friends believed I was going to hell. I was disheartened by the fact that they believed that. It didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t going to heaven or hell because I didn’t believe in it. But what mattered to me is what my friends thought of me. This hurt the most. After all these years, I just now ran into this article helping me understand the subject better. I just wanted to contact you because this article has made me feel so much better. Knowing that there are people who believe in God that do not necessarily believe I will be eternally punished. This article is life changing for me. I always felt bad that people of the Christian faith would judge me harshly. This gives me hope that faith can be positive and not negative. Thank you so much for this. If I may ask what is your denomination? I know that this may not matter but I now find it interesting to study different religions/faiths.

    • Lee says:

      Hi George,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I’m glad this article means so much to you! I believe that if more Christians and other religious people thought the way I do as expressed in this article, there would be far less conflict in this world. Along the same lines, you might enjoy the article, “If there’s One God, Why All the Different Religions?

      In answer to your question, I am an ordained minister of the Swedenborgian Church of North America. I should add that this is one of the more liberal Swedenborgian denominations. Though all Swedenborgians believe that people of all religions can go to heaven, some of the more conservative ones might not agree with me about atheists going to heaven. But I believe that what I have written in this article is sound based on the Bible as understood in the theology with which I grew up. (I am a cradle Swedenborgian, from a family of Swedenborgian ministers.)

      If you want to know more about Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who wrote the theology that our church looks to in understanding Christianity and the Bible, please see: “Who was Swedenborg? What Should I Read?” For more about the basics of what we believe, please see: “Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach,” and the articles linked from it.

      And of course, if you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

  19. Mia says:

    Hi Lee, just wanted to let you know that I love reading your articles and I am a muslim. Thank you and God bless you.

  20. stjrlewis says:

    John 14:6New International Version (NIV)

    “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
    The only way to heaven is by believing Jesus Christ is the son of God

    • Lee says:

      Hi stjrlewis,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      However, you’ve mis-read the passage you quoted. It doesn’t say, “No one comes to the Father except through believing in me.” It says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” For more on the difference, please see: “Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?

      • stjrlewis says:

        You can’t go through Jesus if you don’t believe in him.
        Romans 10:9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved

        • Lee says:

          Hi stjrlewis,

          Once again, you are misreading the passage you are quoting. Romans 20:9 makes a positive statement about something that will happen if you profess your belief in Jesus Christ and believe in your heart in his resurrection. It says nothing about what will happen if you don’t do these things.

        • stjrlewis says:

          I’m not misreading the Bible verses. Good works alone will not get you into heaven. Salvation has everything to do with believing in the one true God, Jesus Christ. Only Jesus Christ can save you. That is the truth. God gives us a choice to make. People who do not believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord and Savior will go to hell. It may not be what you like or what you think is fair, but you didn’t create the world, God did. I pray for the eyes of the hearts of the unbelievers to be enlightened to the truth in Christ Jesus.

        • Lee says:

          Hi stjrlewis,

          I understand that that’s your opinion. It’s the opinion of many traditional Christians—especially evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. However, this is mere human tradition and formulation, not anything the Bible itself actually says.

          While I agree that good works alone will not get you into heaven, the Bible doesn’t actually say that. Neither does it say that faith alone will get you to heaven. But it does say:

          You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

          And while it is true that only Jesus Christ can save you, the Bible tells us how Jesus Christ how saves people who don’t believe in him (as “belief” is commonly understood today), such as Jews, “Greeks” (pagan polytheists), and Gentiles:

          But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

          All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:5–16, itaics added)

          And Jesus says that he will judge all the nations (not just Christian nations) according to whether they have or haven’t done good deeds for their fellow human beings in need:

          “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

          “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

          “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

          “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

          “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

          “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

          “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

          “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 24:31–46)

          The plain fact of the matter is that Jesus never says that people who do not believe in him will go to hell. See: “Did Jesus ever actually say, ‘If you don’t believe in me you will go to hell’?

          I know that you are sincere in your beliefs. But your beliefs are based on human formulations and traditions, not on anything the Bible actually says. See also: “‘Christian’ Beliefs that the Bible Doesn’t Teach,” and the various articles linked from it.

          And once again, please see: “Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?

          You are believing in and spreading falsities because you have been misled by human theologians and teachers who have based their doctrine on things that the Bible never says.

  21. I think you are the first minister I’ve come across that I actually have time for. 🙏

    • Lee says:

      Hi Suzanne,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. That sounds like a compliment! 😛 Thank you. I’m glad you’re enjoying the site. Godspeed on your spiritual journey!

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