(Note: This post is a slightly edited version of an answer I originally wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
The question is:
Did Jesus ever actually say, “If you don’t believe in me you will go to hell”?
Short answer: No, Jesus never actually said that.
He did say some things that seem to imply it, and that are often interpreted that way. But in those instances, the context shows it is never mere lack of belief in Jesus (as that is usually understood today) that he said would cause a person to go to hell.
Let’s look at:
- What Jesus said in the Gospels specifically about hell.
- Two of the passages most commonly interpreted to mean that Jesus says that those who don’t believe in him will go to hell.
- Jesus’ clearest and most direct teaching about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
1. What does Jesus say explicitly about hell?
For the purposes of this answer, we’ll accept the common interpretation of the Greek words hades and gehenna as meaning hell. We could debate the point, but for the sake of argument let’s just assume that these were the best words available to talk about what we today call “hell.”
The Greek word hades occurs four times in the Gospels. Two of them occur in Jesus’ upbraiding of unrepentant cities. Here is the version found in Matthew:
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.”Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matthew 11:20–24, italics added)
The parallel passage in Luke 10:13–16 is similar.
Here, Jesus does not say that these cities would be brought down to Hades because they didn’t believe in him. Instead, he says that this would happen because they didn’t repent.
A third mention of hades comes in Luke 16:23, in the context of the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19–31. Here, too, there is no mention of the rich man being in Hades because he hadn’t believed in Jesus. Instead, the implication of the story is that the rich man was in Hades because “was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day,” and had no compassion on Lazarus, who “was laid at his gate covered with sores, [and] who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.”
The fourth mention of hades in the Gospels (in order of relevance to the question) is in Matthew 16:18, in the context of the story of Peter’s confession of Jesus in Matthew 16:13–20. Here Jesus says nothing about who will go to hell, but rather says that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church.
So in none of the occurences of hades in the Gospels does Jesus say that those who do not believe in him will go there. Rather, he says that those who do not repent will go there, and implies that those who show no compassion will go there.
The other Greek word in the Gospels that is traditionally translated “hell” is gehenna. This word occurs eleven times in the Gospels, three of them accompanied by the word for “fire.”
Six of these occurrences are in the context of Jesus’ saying about gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand or foot if they cause you to sin. Two of them are in the version found in Matthew:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27–30, italics added)
One more occurrence comes in Matthew 18:7–9, where Jesus uses a similar example to say that those who tempt others to sin are in danger of the hell of fire.
The other three are in Mark 9:42–48, which parallels Matthew 18:7–9.
In these six uses of gehenna, or hell, Jesus says nothing about going to hell for not believing in him. Instead, he speaks about the danger of going to hell due to sin—and not some theoretical, theological concept of sin, but specific sins such as adultery, lust, and tempting believers to sin.
Two more occurrences of gehenna occur in Matthew 23:15, 33, in the context of Jesus’ pronouncement of seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. In that speech, once again, Jesus says nothing about the scribes and Pharisees going to hell because the didn’t believe in him, but rather because of their hypocrisy and their evil actions.
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
There is no mention here of not believing in Jesus.
And the final occurrence of gehenna in the Gospels (in quasi-relevance order—this is actually its first occurrence in the Gospels) is found in Matthew 5:21–22:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Once again, there is no mention of going to hell for not believing in Jesus. Rather, Jesus says that those who in anger say harsh things against their brothers are in danger of the hell of fire.
Conclusion: Jesus’ specific uses of the word “hell”
These are all of the passages in the Gospel where Jesus specifically uses the word “hell”—either hades or gehenna.
As you can see, in none of them does he say that people will go to hell if they don’t believe in him.
This should be sufficient to demonstrate that Jesus never actually, directly said, “If you don’t believe in me you will go to hell.”
2. Two passages commonly read as Jesus saying that those who don’t believe in him will go to hell
Now let’s look at two of the most common passages traditionally interpreted to mean that Jesus says that those who do not believe in him will go to hell.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16–18)
When Jesus says, “Whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God,” that seems clear enough, doesn’t it?
First of all, Jesus does not say, “Whoever does not believe will go to hell.” He says, “Whoever does not believe is condemned already.” And then he goes on to explain why that person is condemned:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:19–21, italics added)
Notice that Jesus is not talking merely about people who don’t believe him, but about people who “hate the light and do not come to the light” “because their works were evil.”
Merely believing, or not believing, in Jesus is not sufficient to save or damn a person, as many other passages show, such as:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
In John 3:16–21, perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible, Jesus does not pronounce condemnation merely on those who don’t believe in him, but rather, on those who hate the light (meaning the light of Jesus’ life and teachings) because their works are evil.
In other words, to interpret John 3:16–21 as meaning that those who merely believe in Jesus are saved, whereas those who merely don’t believe in Jesus are damned, is to read only two of the verses, and not the rest of the verses where Jesus explains what he means by “not believing in him.”
To spell it out clearly: Those who do not hate the light, and whose works are not evil, are not condemned, even if their theological belief does not include a belief that Jesus is God. Rather, people bring condemnation on themselves when they do evil works and therefore hate the light.
In short, when Jesus speaks in John 3:18 of those “who have not believed in the name of the only Son of God,” he is not speaking of some intellectual lack of belief, but of lack of belief as demonstrated by an evil and wicked life that hates the light.
It is a complete misuse of this passage to claim it means that those who do not believe in Jesus intellectually and theologically are condemned to hell.
For more on what “faith” and “belief” mean in the Bible, please see the article, “Faith Alone Is Not Faith.”
A second passage commonly interpreted as Jesus saying that those who do not believe in him will go to hell is found in John 14:1–14. Here are the verses where the key statement appears:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6–7, italics added)
Once again, at first glance this looks like a cut-and-dried case. Jesus said plainly, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
But let’s read this passage more carefully, and not read into it things Jesus didn’t actually say.
Jesus did not say, “No one comes to the Father unless they believe in me.” Rather, he said “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Those two are not the same statement.
Though Jesus’ explanation of his meaning in the verses that follow does mention belief, it focuses mostly on Jesus’ oneness with the Father:
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:8–14)
Notice that Jesus does not say anything here about those who do not believe in him, but only about what will happen for those who do believe in him. Clearly, belief in him brings great benefits of light and power and access to the Father, meaning God.
But Jesus simply does not say here that those who do not believe in him will go to hell.
Rather, he says that he is the only way to the Father. It is an assumption and an interpretation that this means that the pathway he provides to the Father is available only to those who believe in him.
To use a rather prosaic example, if I drive on a road that goes to Denver, it is not necessary for me to believe in the governmental entity that built and maintains that road, or even to have any idea at all about who built the road. It is sufficient for me to drive on the road, and I’ll get to Denver.
Similarly, if the Son has provided a pathway to the Father, that doesn’t necessarily require that we intellectually believe in the Son; only that we travel the path that the Son has provided.
Yes, I’m aware that many Christians believe that path is available exclusively to those who believe in Jesus Christ. But that is an interpretation of the Gospels, not a direct statement that the Gospels themselves make.
For more on this please see the article, “Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?”
3. Jesus’ clearest teaching about who will go to heaven and who will go to hell
When Jesus himself speaks directly about who will go to eternal life and who will go to eternal punishment, here is what he says:
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 25:31–46)
There is nothing at all here about belief. Only about whether or not we serve our fellow human beings who are in need. And that is the sole criteria Jesus gives in this story about who will go to heaven (eternal life) and who will go to hell (eternal punishment).
Matthew 25:31–46 contains the most direct teaching of Jesus about who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. Therefore his other statements about heaven and hell, condemnation and justification, must be read in light of it. Any interpretation that does not square with Jesus’ most direct teaching on the subject must be mistaken.
To state it plainly, those who interpret various statements of Jesus as meaning, “If you don’t believe in me you will go to hell” are ignoring Jesus’ most direct teachings about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, and relying instead on human interpretations of other passages that do not actually such a thing in any clear and direct way, if they say it at all.
So once again:
No, Jesus did not actually say, “If you don’t believe in me you will go to hell.”
For further reading: