You can often hear even quite conservative Christians saying that they believe that only a minority of people will end up in hell.
Many seem to assume that the great love of God will find a way for most to gain eternal salvation. They think that the vast majority of people who say they are Christians will be saved. And they think too that large numbers who don’t even profess Christian faith will also finally be saved.
Before going any further, I need to make a point of clarification.
In this article we will be considering what proportion of morally accountable people will go to hell. We will not be thinking about the eternal destiny of people, including the unborn, who have died before they are old enough to be morally accountable. Nor will we be thinking about people who are never able to be morally accountable because of severe mental disability.
Personally, I prefer the view that everyone who is never morally accountable will end up saved.
I think Romans 5:13 supports this position. In this verse, in his discussion of sin, the apostle Paul says:
“. . . but sin is not counted where there is no law.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version except where otherwise stated.)
Paul is explicit here that in the absence of law, sin is not counted.
It is true that Paul’s focus in this verse is on some people who were morally accountable. Nevertheless, it makes sense to think that those who are not morally accountable are also not under any kind of law. And if this is right, any sins they commit would not be counted. And so they would presumably not go to hell.
Anyway, the eternal destiny of people who are never morally accountable will not be our focus of interest in what follows. Instead, we will be thinking about people who know right from wrong and are old enough to be held morally accountable. And in what follows, when I refer to “people,” I will be thinking only of morally accountable people.
A large majority of people will go to hell
There are strong reasons for believing that a large majority of people will go to hell.
The following are some key points.
The most important passage for our topic is Matt. 7:13-14, where Jesus states:
“13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
The “destruction” that Jesus refers to here is punishment after death, i.e., hell.
And because “destruction” is contrasted with “life,” the life he is talking about must be the eternal life involved in receiving final salvation.
So Jesus is teaching that many are on the road to hell and few are on the road to final salvation.
Although Jesus uses present tense verbs here – “are many,” “are few” – it would be a big mistake to limit what He says in this passage to the situation in His own day. There is no reason whatsoever to think that a time would come later on when there would be few on the road to destruction and many on the road to life.
Therefore, this passage strongly implies that most people will go to hell.
Another important passage, also in this chapter, is Matt. 7:21-23, where Jesus says:
“21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Here, Jesus must be referring to people who claim to be Christians but are not really saved.
And note how he says in v. 22 that there are “many” of them. This passage counts strongly against the idea that the vast majority of people who claim to be Christians will receive final salvation. There are many false believers in the world.
Those who have never heard the gospel
Next, we need to consider people who have never heard the gospel of salvation in Christ.
There are many Christians today who claim that large numbers of people who have never heard the gospel will nevertheless be saved for eternity. They say that there are many who are sincerely seeking God and who would believe the gospel if they just had an opportunity to hear it. And they think that God will surely take account of that by granting them eternal salvation.
In actual fact, the Bible strongly implies that in all or at least almost all cases, anyone living in the Christian era who does not have a specific faith in Christ will not be saved.
In Romans 10:13-15 Paul writes:
“13 For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’”
Paul’s words in this passage strongly imply that we can typically expect people who have not heard the gospel to remain unsaved. Other passages that point in the same direction are Acts 10:1-11:18; Acts 4:12 and John 14:6.
For a much fuller discussion of this issue, see my article: Can Anyone Who Has Not Heard the Gospel Be Saved?
Hated by everyone
In Mark 13:13 and Luke 21:17 Jesus warns His followers:
“You will be hated by everyone because of My name.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
Although what Jesus says in these verses was intended in the first place for Christians living in the first century, there is no reason at all to think that things should be any different for Christians of later centuries. These words imply that Christians of every century will be hated by everyone because of Jesus’ name.
In these verses, Jesus must be using hyperbole, i.e., deliberate exaggeration for effect that involves no attempt to deceive. He is not suggesting that every single non-Christian will hate Christians.
Nevertheless, the fact that the word “everyone” is used to refer to those who are hostile to believers quite strongly suggests that a high percentage of the world’s population will be against us. And if they are against us, they are against God and surely on track for hell.
Those who live on the earth
In the book of Revelation, there are several passages where people who are hostile to God are described as “those who live on the earth.”
For example, in Rev. 6:10 the martyrs cry out to God:
“Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” (HCSB)
And in Rev. 8:13 an eagle cries out:
“Woe! Woe! Woe to those who live on the earth . . .” (HCSB)
Those who live on the earth in these, and other, verses are clearly people who are primed for God’s judgment and on track for hell.
If we didn’t know the context, we might at first sight think that the words “those who live on the earth” were being used literally and that they refer to every single human being who lives on earth.
Obviously, however, the words shouldn’t be understood literally, since Christians are not included in the group of people that is being referred to.
Nevertheless, it makes sense to think that the meaning that the words are conveying is closer to rather than further away from the literal sense.
To put it another way, if “those who live on the earth” is being used to refer to a large majority of people in the world, then the most natural sense of these words is quite close to their actual meaning. But if this clause is being used to refer only to a minority or even a smallish majority of people in the world, the most natural sense of these words is a long way from their actual meaning.
To put it yet another way, if “those who live on the earth” does not refer to a large majority of the world’s population, these words seem quite misleading. But instead of thinking that they are misleading, it is much easier simply to think that they do refer to a large majority of the world’s population.
It makes sense to believe, then, that the clause “those who live on the earth” in the book of Revelation refers to a large majority of people in the world. And, as I have noted, these people are on track for hell.
Of course, some of those in this category will turn to Christ and so come out of the category. But nothing in Revelation leads us to believe that a high percentage of people will do this. So the fact that this book uses this clause to refer to non-believers helps to suggest that a large majority of people will go to hell.
There are a number of good reasons, then, for concluding that a large majority of the world’s population will end up in hell.
Downplaying God’s justness
I am sure that one of the main reasons why so many Christians think that most people will avoid hell is because they have a faulty understanding of God’s nature.
Biblical revelation contains many tensions and paradoxes, and one of the greatest tensions is between how God justly punishes people on the one hand, and how He forgives people on the other. The Bible is full of examples of where God does punish people for their sins, and also full of examples of where He doesn’t punish people for their sins.
It is essential that we don’t downplay either side of this tension. God is not just a loving God of mercy, but also an angry God who justly punishes. His mercy towards people will reach fullest expression when He admits those who are saved to final salvation. And His punishing of people will reach fullest expression when He sends those who are unsaved to hell.
Many Christians in Western society today underemphasise God’s will to punish, and so conclude that He wouldn’t send many people to hell. But this stems from a skewed picture of who He really is.
How to avoid hell
Although a large majority of people will end up in hell, the way to avoid going there is quite simple. We just need to accept by faith Jesus Christ and the salvation that is in Him. When He died on the cross, He paid the price for our sins, and we need to believe this and take hold of it for ourselves.
When we turn to Christ, we will receive the Holy Spirit and our lives will change. Then we will be ready to live out the rest of our time on earth for God.