Why does somebody need to believe in Jesus to be saved? Our stock answer is so that they will go to heaven, not hell. While true in itself, it obscures the real message of the Gospel because it doesn’t explain why Jesus is necessary, only what the consequences are. It makes God sound petty, and unbelievers are quick to point this out.
A common misconception among Christians and non-Christians alike is that people go to hell because they haven’t heard of Jesus. This is not true. People go to hell because they are guilty of sin. The only way to escape hell is to be innocent of sin, and the only way to be innocent of sin is to accept Christ’s atonement. Men are not even condemned because they don’t believe. They are condemned already. Belief is the only thing that can save them from their condemnation. Their failure to believe simply allows them to reach the destination they were already headed for. People do not die because they don’t visit the doctor, but because they have a disease. Our disease is sin. We will die of this cancer unless we acknowledge that we are incapable of doing anything about it, and seek help from a powerful Doctor.
Other Christians believe people can only go to hell if they have heard of Jesus, and then reject Him. Those who have not heard of Christ are innocent and should be saved because of their ignorance, providing they followed the revelation of God they did have. This view is often called the “light doctrine.” Such a perspective invalidates the Christian message. It turns redemption on its head, making knowledge of Christ the cause of one’s damnation rather than their only hope of escaping sure judgment. It presumes that humanity contracts a disease by visiting the doctor, rather than having the disease by nature. Rest assured that humanity will not escape judgment because of their ignorance. Even those who have not heard of Jesus have sufficient evidence to know of God’s existence/nature and seek after Him, but all fall short of this revelation and are deserving of judgment (Rom 1-3). Without Jesus all would be lost. Jesus is not the cause of anyone’s condemnation—they are condemned already.
God has offered us a solution for our grave condition, but has done so on His terms, not ours. That solution is the person of Christ. He is our pardon, taking the punishment for our sins in our behalf. No one else has done this. Now humanity has a choice. They can either accept the pardon, or refuse to accept it and pay for their own crimes. If we choose to reject Jesus what we are choosing to do is stand before God based on our own works. In light of such a choice we will surely face condemnation. Only by accepting Christ’s work on Calvary on our behalf can we escape the consequences of our sins. That’s the Gospel.
An analogy might be helpful for those you are witnessing to: sin as AIDS. You could say: “AIDS is a treatable, but incurable disease that will lead to inescapable death. What would you say if there was a doctor in Brazil who found a cure for AIDS? This doctor, hearing of your condition, traveled to your residence to offer you the cure free of charge. Rather than graciously accepting the cure you refuse it. What will the outcome be? The outcome will be your inevitable death. Should the doctor be blamed for this? Who is responsible? You could have been cured of your disease at no cost, and with no effort on your part, and yet you refused it. The doctor cannot be faulted for your death—only you can.” End the analogy by pointing out that the message of Christianity is like the message of this doctor: a message of grace. Our message is not a message of hate and condemnation, but a message of hope and healing.