Do You Have to Believe in God to Go to Heaven?

Last year, Pope Francis wrote a long, open letter to the founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, addressing a list of questions Scalfari posed about Christianity. News outlets highlighted one passage from Francis’ letter in particular because it raised the question of whether people who don’t believe in the Christian God can go to heaven. “You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith,” Francis wrote. heaven“I start by saying—and this is the fundamental thing—that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.” This ambiguous passage led to rampant speculation that the pope was denying the need for faith in God. But we shouldn’t be so quick to assume Francis was overturning traditional Christian doctrine—because both the Bible and historic Christian confessions are plain regarding this matter.

For 2,000 years Christians have taught that no one who refuses to believe in the God of the Bible can go to heaven. The fourth-century Athanasian Creed affirmed that “whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.” The Church of England’s 39 Articles state, “Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” According to the Westminster Confession Faith, “The wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments.” More recently, the Baptist Faith and Message put it this way: “There is no salvation without personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.”

The Bible is as clear as the confessions.1 It says God counts humans as worthy of heaven—even though we’re not worthy in ourselves—if we believe specific content about Jesus known as the gospel. In particular, we must believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, that He died to pay the penalty for humanity’s sin, was buried, rose from the grave, and ascended to heaven, where He reigns and saves. Peter outlined this message on the Day of Pentecost, and all who believed it and turned from their sins received forgiveness (Acts 2:38). Likewise, Paul said people are “saved” from eternal judgment if they “hold fast” to this message (1 Corinthians 15:2).

Many other Bible passages also teach that a person must believe in order to have eternal life in heaven. In every instance, the implied content to be believed is the gospel: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Of course, good deeds are required of every believer, but those good deeds are inevitable fruit of Christian faith, not a means of earning salvation (James 2:14-26).2

Can someone who doesn’t believe in the Christian God go to heaven? No. Some may consider this bad news. In reality though, it’s the best news imaginable because it opens heaven’s doors to even the worst sinners if they will only turn away from their sin and trust God’s Word.

 

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Endnotes:

1 Confusion can arise, at least in part, because some Scripture passages speak of people going to heaven or hell based on their deeds. For example, John 5:29 says that “those who have done good” will experience the “resurrection of life” and “those who have done evil” the “resurrection of judgment.” If such passages were the only teaching we had on eternal life, we might infer that a non-believer could go to heaven if he or she just did enough good deeds and abstained from enough bad deeds. But the Bible says more, warning that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) and describing all humankind as “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). In other words, it is theoretically possible to earn a spot in heaven by righteous deeds. But in practice, no one is good enough to do that. It would require moral perfection (Matthew 5:48).

2 The life of Paul illustrates the inability of good deeds alone to save. Before Paul came to personal faith in Jesus Christ, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.” But all those things were “rubbish” to Paul with regard to their ability to earn him eternal life (Philippians 3:2-11).


About David Roach

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press in Nashville, Tennessee, and a contributor to both BibleMesh and Kairos Journal. He holds a philosophy degree from Vanderbilt University and earned his PhD in church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His writings have appeared in academic journals and various Southern Baptist denominational publications.
  • lemonade

    Pope Francis if you read revelation 21:8 in the bile I think you’ll find he biblical truth.

    • Archie Caldwell

      Who wrote the book?

  • haribogirl

    Quite so. It is clear that you can only go to heaven if you believe in the christian god. So a Hindu charity worker who spends an entire life working for the good of others will go to not-heaven. A murderer of children who repents and sincerely believe in god at his last gasp of air will go to heaven and be with those he murdered. Providing, of course, that they also believed in the christian god. So, that seems fair.

    • Adorable Deplorable

      Your simplification of who goes to Heaven is extremely flawed at best, totally wrong at worst.
      It’s not that simple to just blv. This is a common Liberal belief but not true. It’s true, from the Pope, down to Bishops, to Cardinals, to Priests, all have been derelict in citing scripture as intended…for fear of pushing away the faithful with such frightful thoughts, and limiting the converted, for the same reason…it’s all about building the faith, drawing in more parishioners, and many believe this kind of tlk will do the opposite.
      One of the principles of a proper confession is to have full and complete contrition, in other words, to feel full remorse and sorry for such sin…to wait until just before death does not signify one is “Truly” sorry, in fact, it leads a human to believe his or her intentions are purely for advancement into heaven and not authentic, God knows what is in everyone’s heart.
      And this is only one piece to gain entrance, what about all the other sins, what about not taking the sacrament or living an unselfish life…living a sinful life and waiting for the last minute to confess one or a few of your Mortal sins, those of which you can remember is taking one big risk….

      • Archie Caldwell

        I woldnt want to go to a place i’d neves seen It mite be pure hell

  • Peachy

    So Native Americans raised without any knowledge of God all went to hell? What about those secluded tribes in the jungles of South America? Are they all condemned to hell because they happened to be born somewhere that religion never reached? And if so then doesnt that mean that God intentionally created these people to burn eternally in hell?

    • Archie Caldwell

      Those savages eat the missionaries that i can understand.

      Eat the rich the poor are tough n stringy

  • ANNOYIMIOUS

    i dont believe in this stuff it makes no sense that heaven is there but not physically there its all a comfort for when u die, when u die you DIE u don’t go to a ‘wonderland’ as such just deal with it your wasting your time!

    • God is Love

      Im afraid this isnt the truth.
      There is life after death seeing ive had a real NDE. Ive always believed and as I matured I found God for myself and he is very real. You just have to believe ask him to prove himself to you. Trust that he will. Have faith. Walk with him and do your best for him by sharing with others the truth you found. Research christian nde on youtube amazing stories. What do you have to lose? You dont believe anyway right? Or even A CITIZEN IN HELL on you tube. Its not to spook but if good and evil exist then where does it come from. Where does everything come from it wasnt always here. Ask God to prove hes real. And so is satan who doesnt want you to believe. I beg you find jesus b4 its too late for yo
      u Anonymous. God bless you.

    • Archie Caldwell

      Im just as confused as u r hehe

  • Sir Bagel

    For an all powerful God ascending above any possible knowledge or conventions we may have, this seems like a very human requirement. Having faith in God seems to me like swearing fealty to a king. Stay loyal to the monarch, whether or not his intentions are good or evil, and you’ll live in peace. If God only cared about faith, why did he give us the commandments? Why did his son preach of loving your neighbor and treating others as you would want them to treat you if, in the end, you only needed to believe? It appears as though early Christians used this faith rhetoric as a means of just keeping people in their religion. They used the fear of Hell to confine them into believing in God. Everyone at that time was familiar with monarchical ruling systems, so they naturally felt God functioned in the same way. It was all they knew. Christians have a lot of confining loops regarding faith. You can’t question anything or else you’re sinning. We’ve far since moved on from the days of kings and queens, but the ideologies Christianity holds have remained the same because people are afraid to question what they believe in. I’m not saying there isn’t a God. If there is one, I’m sure He has bigger plans than to make sure everyone He’s created believes He exists. It’s a nearly 3000 year old book. The authors wrote of God in the only context they knew. Times have changed. If there is a God, He’s not a king, but a loving father, trying to raise us to be good people so He can bring us back home.

    • Archie Caldwell

      so called god is just someone scam theyve dreamed uip and it works

  • Truth

    you do not need religion to go to heaven,or need to give money to any religion to get into heaven,you can give 10% of your income to the poor,and you don’t need to confess your sins to anyone but G-d,only God can forgive your sins,only G-d can judge you,and Jesus was a Jew,not a Christian,Jesus never said to turn away from the Jewish religion,Jesus said turn away from sin,and follow all G-ds commandments,your faith in G-d,and keeping all the commandments and giving to the poor,and not repeating your sin is what will get you into heaven,having any kind of pictures or statues of Jesus,saints,angel’s is a sin,the roman’s created the Christian religion,and the dead sea scrolls was written hundred of years after Jesus died,not by Jesus or anyone who followed him at that time,the only true religion is the Jewish religion,that is the religion G-d blessed nothing else,but like I said before you don’t need to belong to a religion to get into heaven,and its better to have no religion,and follow G-ds laws,and get into heaven than belong to false religions and go to hell.

  • Aj

    I believe in god, I just want to know why bad things happen. And I’m afraid I can get in trouble for questioning why bad stuff happens

    • Archie Caldwell

      Well u must be a physic. Who is this God u belive in. Can u touch him talk to him meet him well the answer is U’ve been sold some swamp in florida

  • Archie Caldwell

    We r alone in this biggest scam ever perpetrated on the public