People will go to hell not because they merely had a theological point wrong, but because they had a real disease (sin) and never got the only effective cure.
Christians often say that anyone can get forgiven if they believe in Jesus, but if they don’t believe in Jesus they’re not forgiven at all. When this issue comes up, the question of forgiveness isn’t discussed too much. The notion of forgiveness is collapsed into another kind of statement that I think Christians are guilty of saying by itself, and it creates confusion as a result.
The more bleak way of saying it is, if a Hitler believes in Jesus, then he goes to heaven, and if a Mother Teresa doesn’t believe in Jesus, then she goes to hell. (Apparently she does and apparently he didn’t, so this is hypothetical. But according to Christian theology, that’s the way it would be.) It just seems absurd that someone like Hitler, as evil as he was, could be admitted into God’s holy heaven, and unconscionable that someone like Mother Teresa could be condemned to hell.
The reason people raise this question is because Christians have not been careful in how they’ve explained their faith. They’ve not been careful to communicate what’s going on here and why belief in Jesus is the pivotal factor. It’s because belief in Jesus solved a problem. The problem itself is what condemns people to hell, and if He doesn’t solve the problem then the problem doesn’t get solved. He’s the only one capable of dealing with it.
Think of it like sickness. People with cancer die unless they get a doctor. And if they get the right doctor, with the right medicine, they can be rescued. But only if they get the right medicine. So, it’s not just an incidental detail of theology: Well, if you just happen to believe in Jesus, you go to heaven. Lucky you. But if you just happen to think He’s not worth believing in for whatever reason—maybe you don’t like Him, maybe you like another religion better—you just happen to reject Him. In other words, you get one wrinkle of theology mistaken and God gets so mad at you that He sends you to hell forever. Put in those terms, it sounds rather ridiculous because Christians haven’t been careful to explain what exactly is going on here.
Here’s the way it works: Jesus is not a wrinkle in theology. Jesus is an antidote to a deadly disease. Some people have the symptoms of the disease more obviously or in a greater manner than others. But everybody is sick. The sickness, the Bible says, is sin. The manifestation (or the symptom) of the disease is evil behavior.
The offer of forgiveness goes out to everyone. The antidote to the deadly disease is available to each and every person. It’s up to us to accept it or not. If we don’t, we perish, not because of God but because of us. If we do accept it, we don’t perish, we live forever, not because of us but because of God and His mercy.