Does the Bible teach that God will send us to hell if we don’t forgive others?

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MATTHEW 18:35
“His master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Here we find one of the most confusing and frightening statements that Jesus ever made. It’s confusing because it seems to contradict the message of grace, and it’s frightening because it seems to imply that God will send us to hell if we fail to forgive others.

Interestingly though, this is not the only time Jesus made a statement which seemed to imply that we can only be forgiven if we forgive others…

Matthew 6:9-12, 14-15
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors... For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Mark 11:25
“When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Luke 6:36-37
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

So what do we make of these statements? Here’s three possibilities…

VIEW #1 – IF WE DON’T FORGIVE OTHERS THEN WE WON’T BE SAVED

For many, this if our concern. What if Jesus is saying that God will send us to hell if we don’t forgive others? The good news is that there’s at least two reasons why Jesus can’t be teaching this…

> NONE OF US WILL BE SAVED

C.S. Lewis said: “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” Forgiving others might be something we can agree with in principle, but pulling it off on a consistent basis is virtually impossible. In his book, ‘Letters to Malcolm’, Lewis describes just how difficult this is…

Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered— or felt as if I did— that I had forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might. When the thing actually happened— sudden as the longed-for cessation of one’s neighbour’s radio— my feeling was “But it’s so easy. Why didn’t you do it ages ago?” So many things are done easily the moment you can do them at all. But till then, sheerly impossible, like learning to swim. There are months during which no efforts will keep you up; then comes the day and hour and minute after which, and ever after, it becomes almost impossible to sink. 

Can anyone one of us truly say that we’ve forgiven 100% of the wrongs that have been done to us? What if we haven’t had time to process what has happened to us? What if the person who hurt us isn’t sorry? What if they continue to hurt us over and over again? If Jesus really is saying that we need to forgive others in order to be saved, then its clear that none of us will be saved.

> THE REPEATED MESSAGE OF THE BIBLE IS THAT GOD FORGIVES SINNERS BASED SOLELY UPON THEIR FAITH IN JESUS

Luke 7:48-50
“Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'”

Acts 10:43
“All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Ephesians 1:7
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”

Colossians 1:13-14
“He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

VIEW #2 – IF WE’RE TRULY SAVED THEN IT’S UNTHINKABLE THAT WE WOULDN’T FORGIVE OTHERS

Matthew Henry said: “Those that do not forgive their brother’s trespasses, did never truly repent of their own, nor ever truly believe the gospel.” D.A. Carson agrees: “There is no forgiveness for the one who does not forgive. How could it be otherwise? His unforgiving spirit bears strong witness to the fact that He has never repented.” 

Henry and Carson aren’t arguing that God withdraws his forgiveness, but rather that His forgiveness was never granted in the first place. As Greg Herrick puts it, they see “the issue of forgiveness” asa litmus test for salvation” rather than a means of salvation.

The Bible contains passages which give support for this position. However it also contains other passages which raise concerns. Consider the following…

> SUPPORT

The Bible teaches that true faith will result in a changed life:

Matthew 7:17-20
“Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

James 2:14-19
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

Martin Luther explains it like this:

Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing…

Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace.

Certainly this aligns with the idea that someone who is truly forgiven will forgive others. However there also seems to be problems with this position…

> CONCERNS

Herrick explains: “It does not follow… that an unforgiving heart in the present has never repented and known forgiveness from God at any time. If this were the case, there would be no need for such a warning to believers in the first place. That is… if you are a believer and by extension forgiven, you will never struggle with forgiving others. I don’t think anyone is prepared to say that.” 

Herrick’s perspective seems to be confirmed by the Apostle Paul, who wrote to Christians on two occasions asking them to forgive others:

Ephesians 4:32 
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Colossians 3:13
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

These passages make it clear that there were Christians in the early church who had been forgiven of all their sins, yet had not forgiven others. The fact that these people exist means its possible for a Christian to be ‘saved’ and ‘unforgiving towards others’ at the same time.

> CONCLUSION

Certainly it’s reasonable to say that true faith will eventually lead to a changed life. And it’s even reasonable to say that once a person has experienced the power of God’s forgiveness, they will be more motivated to forgive others. But how this all plays out is going to be different in every situation.

Some areas of a Christian’s life might change quickly and dramatically, while other areas might take a lifetime. Some Christians might find it easy to forgive because they come from an emotionally healthy background where they grew up experiencing the power of forgiveness. Others might be extremely guarded because they’ve spent their entire lives dealing with abuse and people taking advantage of them.

So while in general we could argue that our willingness to forgive others is one of many ‘litmus tests’ that could be used to determine if we’re truly saved, it would be foolish to conclude that everyone who is truly saved will always forgive others.

VIEW #3 – JESUS ISN’T REFERRING TO SALVATION, BUT RATHER OUR INTIMACY WITH GOD

When reading an English translation of the Bible, it’s important to note that some words have multiple meanings, depending on when and how they are used.

For example, the term ‘word’ is used in at least four different ways…

1. Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
2. Gospel: “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17).   
3. Scriptures: “You nullify the word of God by your tradition” (Mark 7:13).
4. Revelation: “This is the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah” (Jeremiah 47:1).

In the same way, the term ‘forgiveness’ can be used in at least two different ways…

1. When a person becomes a Christian they have all their past, present and future sin paid for by the blood of Jesus: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7).

2. When a person is already a Christian and they confess their sin because they know if affects their intimacy with their Heavenly Father: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me… Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity… And you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:3-5). 

According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jesus is using this second definition of forgiveness: “Though God’s forgiveness of sin is not based on one’s forgiving others, a Christian’s forgiveness is based on realizing he has been forgiven (cf. Eph. 4:32). Personal fellowship with God is in view in these verses (not salvation from sin). One cannot walk in fellowship with God if he refuses to forgive others.”

Consider the following…

> IN ALL FOUR PASSAGES, JESUS REFERS TO GOD AS THEIR ‘FATHER’, IMPLYING THAT THE PEOPLE JESUS WAS TALKING TO WERE ALREADY CHRISTIANS

We see this clearly in Matthew 6, Mark 11 and Luke 6.

Matthew 6:9-12, 14-15
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors... For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Mark 11:25
“When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Luke 6:36-37
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18, we see Jesus refer to God as ‘my Father in Heaven’ several times. But in the dialogue that Matthew places before the parable in the same chapter, Jesus refers to ‘Your Father in Heaven’…

Matthew 18:14 
Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish”.

> IN THE LORD’S PRAYER, JESUS MAKES IT CLEAR THAT THIS IS A DAILY PRAYER FOR CHRISTIANS TO PRAY

Jesus instructs God’s children to ask for their ‘daily bread’, implying that this is a prayer that should be prayed at least daily, again indicating that this is not about becoming a Christian.

> THE PARABLE OF THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT WAS TOLD IN RESPONSE TO A QUESTION ASKED BY A BELIEVER

Matthew 18:21-22
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?’ Up to seven times? Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. ‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.'”

> THE PRISON THAT JESUS MENTIONS IN THE PARABLE OF THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT DOESN’T NECESSARILY MEAN HELL

Warren Wiersbe explains:

The world’s worst prison is the prison of an unforgiving heart. If we refuse to forgive others, then we are only imprisoning ourselves and causing our own torment. Some of the most miserable people I have met in my ministry have been people who would not forgive others. They lived only to imagine ways to punish these people who had wronged them. But they were really only punishing themselves.

What was wrong with this man? The same thing that is wrong with many professing Christians: They have received forgiveness, but they have not really experienced forgiveness deep in their hearts. Therefore, they are unable to share forgiveness with those who have wronged them. If we live only according to justice, always seeking to get what is ours, we will put ourselves into prison. But if we live according to forgiveness, sharing with others what God has shared with us, then we will enjoy freedom and joy… Our Lord… did not say that God saves only those who forgive others. The theme of this parable is forgiveness between brothers, not salvation for lost sinners.

> THE BIBLE TEACHES THAT ANY UNRESOLVED SIN CAUSES A BREAKDOWN IN INTIMACY WITH OUR HEAVENLY FATHER

Consider the relationship between a father and his child. When the child disobeys his father, he doesn’t get kicked out of the family. The relationship stays intact. The child still belongs to the father. But the quality of their intimacy will be affected. Until the child apologizes to the father for his wrongdoing, there will be tension in their relationship.

In the same way, the Bible teaches that when we disobey our Father in Heaven, we don’t get kicked out of the God’s family. The eternal relationship stays intact. We still belong to our Heavenly Father. But the quality of our intimacy will be affected. Until we deal with the unresolved sin, there will be tension in our relationship.

If this is true for all sin, it would certainly be true when there is unresolved conflict with others…

Matthew 5:23-24
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

SUMMARY

In summary we can say the following…
1. Jesus is not saying that He will send us to hell if we don’t forgive.
2. Jesus is not saying that truly saved people will always forgive.
3. Jesus is most likely talking to those who are already saved about how a breakdown in intimacy with others causes a breakdown in intimacy with our Heavenly Father.

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