One of the core elements of biblical evangelical theology is that people die and go to hell. While that doctrine is distasteful to many, and should be hard for anyone to preach gladly, it is what the Bible teaches and what the church has historically believed. It is hard to imagine that one will long be an evangelical after denying the reality of eternal conscious torment. However, my point here is not to address the reality of hell, but to think for a moment about why people go there.
It is common to hear people say something like, “People do not go to hell for their sins because Jesus died for all sin. They go to only only for their unbelief.”
Let’s consider this along two lines. First, the Bible plainly declares that people go to hell for their sins. For instance, Revelation 21:8 says, “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” It is hard to imagine that the list of sins is somehow not a part of the reason that they are there.
Second, unbelief is a sin (cf. Revelation 21:8 for starters). If Jesus died for all sin, then he must also have died for the sin of unbelief. Therefore, their unbelief, like all their other sins, would have been paid for. So why would they be in hell for a sin that was paid for?
If the sin of unbelief was not paid for, then unbelief is a sin that is atoned for by doing something, namely, by believing. That is to say that Jesus atoned for all sins but unbelief, and we atone for unbelief by belief. It becomes, in effect, a self-salvation, or salvation by replacement of one thing for another. One might as well deny the reality of hell as affirm the possibility of self-atonement.
“Well,” one might object, “unbelief is not a sin.”
Then we must ask why would one be punished in hell for eternity for something that was not even wrong to begin with? And why is it listed along with other sins in places like Revelation 21:8, Titus 1:15, and 2 Thessalonians 2:12.
People who usually make this argument do so, at least in part, as an argument about fairness, that it would be unfair for God to pay only for the sins of some and not the sins of others. The idea of fairness is crying out for a post, and perhaps shall have its own soon. But to entertain the argument, how is it fair for God to send someone to eternal conscious torment for something that was not wrong? It makes no sense.
Yes, this is, in some sense an argument for a limited atonement of some sort. Before you cry foul, remember that everyone (except universalists) limits the atonement in some way, either in its provision or its application or both.
But I think there are some who need to think a bit more rigorously about the idea that people do not go to hell for sin; they go for unbelief.
Hopefully, this might jumpstart a thought or two.