“If I give away all I have, and deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:3
The question is sometimes asked, how could God let a non-Christian, who showed so much love in this world and did so much good, go to hell?
This question is comes from a heart that sees so much good in a person, yet according to Scripture, not good enough to get a person to heaven. This can be confusing and even frustrating to people when they hear Christians try to explain why without genuine saving faith in Christ, no matter how “good” a person is, they cannot have eternal life. So, I hope to help us think through this dilemma for at least two reasons. First, if there is a non-Christian who happened to stumble upon this article, maybe it could help them in understanding the biblical worldview when it comes to this question. Second, I hope to help Christians think through this question in order to better communicate the answer to others as well as better know how to biblically think about their own “good works” as they seek to honor the Lord with their lives.
Answer: Good people go to hell simply because their “goodness” did not come from God.
Explanation: The verse above comes from the famous love chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13. In that chapter, the apostle Paul explains what is real love while at the same time exposes what is not love. In verse 3 Paul states that a person can give away all their possessions (a sacrificial act), but if they do not have love, their good deed of giving gains them “nothing.” In the good deed of giving, though the gift be all a person has, gains them nothing in God’s sight because it was not based upon love. Paul goes on and states that even if a person gives their body to be burned (in other words, dying for a great cause or for another person) but has not love, that act also gains them nothing. So the key is love. “Well”, you might say, “if the good person is loving, then why does it not count for eternal life?” Think about this honestly for just a moment.
Scripture states that God is good (Psalm 107:1 plus many other references). It also says that He is love (1 John 4:8,16). Therefore, the reason that such sacrificial acts like those in 1 Corinthians 13 gains a person nothing is because those acts are founded on a goodness and love that does not come from God, who is love and good. He is the expression and definition of good and love. To seek to be good and loving without God in the equation is an attempt to hijack who God is for oneself. Though one’s acts may seem good to the world and accomplish many good things for people here on the earth (like giving all one has to the poor), to claim to be good or loving without a trust in God or a desire to give Him glory for the acts one does, is evil and sin. The acts are not done in faith in God, but in rebellion to Him.
“For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” – Romans 14:23
Jesus says in Matthew 5:20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The scribes and Pharisees were the most religious people during the time of Jesus, yet He says that the way to eternal life requires one to have a greater righteousness than them. What is He saying? What Jesus wants us to understand is not that we need to accomplish more righteous acts than the Pharisees and scribes, but that we need a different kind of righteousness altogether. We need a righteousness that comes from God, not man. This is what Jesus offers to every person who places the trust of their life in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
No matter the magnitude of good works one does, the non-Christian cannot please God, for their life is not lived by faith in Him, but in rejection of Him. This is the darkest of evils.
“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek Him.” – Hebrews 11:6
Heaven is a place where God is. So why would God reward a non-Christian by giving them access to His eternal presence when they have no desire to draw near to Him by faith in Christ now?
So the issue at hand is a question of worship. Who does a person worship with their life?
One last thought. Why was Jesus’ act of giving His life on the cross accepted by God, yet the righteous acts of non-Christians rejected by God? The answer is simple, yet convicting at the same time. Jesus gave His life on the cross for the sin of the world out of love for His Heavenly Father. His motivation for obedience was seeking to glorify His Father with His life. He found His joy in submitting to God the Father’s will. He lived for real goodness and love – God.
There is my answer. I finish with two questions targeted for the believer in Christ. What is your motivation for your obedience to God? What goodness and love are you pursuing as your joy, you own works (1 Corinthians 13:3) or God (Hebrews 11:6)?