Earlier this week, a good friend of mine was challenged by a co-worker who claimed to be an atheist. The challenge — “What would you think if you died and ended up in hell?” This is an interesting challenge, especially from an atheist, and is normally a pointed way of asking, “What if you’re wrong?” However, when we consider the challenge with careful thinking, we’ll find that the atheist has actually gained little ground here. In fact, he may have actually lost ground.
First, I believe in Jesus Christ — so if I died and woke up in Hell, I’d know that I was wrong. But what was I wrong about? Specifically, I was wrong in what I thought was necessary for salvation. I believe all that is required is a belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ…if I’m wrong about that, then I’ll likely wake up in Hell. That is, belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ is NOT all that is required for salvation. But that’s about it. I think somehow the challenger thinks that if we concede this point, then they’ve “won.” However, if I die and wake up in Hell, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. It doesn’t even mean that Jesus is not God. It just means that I — and many other evangelical Christians — got salvation wrong. Going further, if Hell exists, then the Hindus are wrong too. And so are the Buddhists, as neither Hinduism nor Buddhism believe in the existence of Hell. In fact, the atheists are wrong too — they also deny the existence of Hell. And so do Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are annihilationists. And the Mormons are also wrong, as their lowest level of Heaven (Terrestrial) is just a perfect Earth, and the “outer darkness” where evil people go is just ethereal existence, it is not the eternal conscious punishment of Hell. Naturalists are also wrong, as Hell is clearly a supernatural place (unless he suggests it’s purely natural, just on another planet or in another universe we haven’t discovered yet). Unitarians are wrong (all religions lead to God), universalists are wrong (everyone gets saved)…when it comes down to it, if I die and go to Hell, nearly everyone (including me) is wrong.
Second, when faced with this challenge, if the challenger thinks he’s somehow “got you” or made points with this question, he’s mistaken. Even if I grant the conditions of the question (me going to Hell), he still hasn’t made much progress in his argument. He has provided no positive argument for atheism, or any evidence or argument against theism. At best, all it means is that a central doctrine of Christianity is wrong. If I die and go to Hell, it means I was wrong about what it takes to be saved. That’s all. It doesn’t mean naturalism is true. It doesn’t affirm atheism. In hindsight, a fun way to respond would have been, “Well, if I die and wake up in Hell, I’ll know with a high degree of certainty that atheism and naturalism are false.” Stated simply, if Christianity’s salvation doctrine is false but Hell exists, then nearly every other religious view — including Hinduism, Buddhism, Universalism, Unitarianism, atheism, and naturalism — is also false.
Fortunately, Christians can rest comfortably in the doctrine of eternal salvation. Few things are stated more clearly in Scripture. Unfortunately, the doctrine of Hell is equally clear — so the real task at hand is how to take this question and turn it into an opportunity to minister or witness to the atheist. Now, THAT’s a challenge!