As a follower of Christ, I frequently get challenges that stop me dead straight. I know the answer to them, but somehow I become tongue tied in the moment trying to explain things. Perhaps its fear that the person asking won’t like the answer, or perhaps its because the answer is quite complicated and will take a while to explain. The thought “where to begin?” puts peanut butter in my mouth, so to speak.
The question “What about the person who is sincerely following his own religion and trying to be the best person he can be? Will he go to hell just because he doesn’t believe in Jesus?” is one of those challenges.
I know the answer: Romans 1-3, as well as many other places in Scripture, is quite clear on what our human problem is and how Jesus solves it. I know that getting things wrong on a supposed theological quiz isn’t what condemns us; our sin does, and since everyone sins, everyone is condemned, the sincere aboriginee included. Jesus is the solution to that predicament, not the problem. If anyone sincerely seeks after God (and the Scriptures are clear that no one does unless God moves first…everyone runs from Him.), God will see to it that he hears about Christ.
The thing is that it is hard to explain succinctly to a person. Even many who identify as Christian are confused on this subject! Greg Koukl, in his most recent book Tactics, shares a conversation in which he beautifully answers that challenge in a sensible way:
Shannon (who described herself as a Christian “with a strong relationship with the Lord.”): What about someone who believes in God? What about the person who is sincerely following his own religion and trying to be the best person he can be?
Koukl: Why should anyone become a Christian in the first place? You and I are Christians. What benefit does putting our trust in Jesus give us?
S: Jesus saves us
K: From what?
S: He saves us from our sins.
K: Right. You might say we have a spiritual disease called sin, and Jesus did something on the cross that healed the disease. Can simply believing in God heal that disease?
K: Can trying our best to be a good person heal it, or being really religious, or even being completely sincere? Can any of those things forgive our sin?
S: (shakes head)
K: None of these things in themselves can take away our guilt. We’d still be dying from our spiritual disease, wouldn’t we?
K: If religion, or sincerity, or ‘doing our best’ cannot save you and me, then how can any of those things save someone else? Either Jesus rescues us by taking the punishment for our sin on himself, or we are not save and we have to pay for our own crimes. It’s no more complicated than that.
Notice two things: For one, Koukl gave Shannon no new information. He merely recalled for her things she already knew, but she just hadn’t connected the dots, so to speak. Secondly, he accomplished that primarily by using questions.
I learned a lot about how to handle that question from this one exchange in his book. Hopefully you can glean something from it too.