It’s rare, but sometimes people ask the right question. Recently, a few people have asked, “if Christ died for our sins, why do some people have to pay for their own sins by going to hell?” The answer to this question is something that even most Christian Universalists get wrong.
I’ll begin by saying, this is one of the few things Calvinists actually get right. They understand that everyone for whose sins Christ died will be saved (and that they will not have to pay for their own sins in any way whatsoever, since salvation is 100% based on what Christ did and 0% based on what we do). Where they go wrong, however, is where the Arminians are actually correct, in that “Christ died for our sins” means Christ died for everyone’s sins.
Where Arminians go wrong, on the other hand, is in thinking that salvation is a transaction, assuming that they have to do something to complete the salvation Christ gave them. Even if it’s something as simple as having to choose to believe the right thing, that would still be a transaction (and a work one has to accomplish in order to save themselves, or at least accomplish to participate in saving themselves). Calvinists tend to rightly understand that salvation is 100% based on what Christ did, and not a transaction at all; they also know that faith, in fact, has to be given to someone by God (and that it’s impossible to reject the faith when God gives it to someone).
The reason both sides get confused (and the reason even some Universalists get confused, leading them to believe there’s actually a place where people will consciously suffer because of their sins, even if just as a form of temporary purgatory) is because they’re looking at passages which do seem to make salvation a transaction of sorts, and which seem to talk about a place called “hell,” and assume they’re connected in some way with the salvation that Paul talks about. What none of them realize (even many Universalists seem to miss this) is that the salvation in these passages is not talking about humanity in general, but is instead referring to Jews and other Israelites getting to live in the kingdom of heaven when it arrives on earth — specifically in Israel — vs other Jews who don’t accept that Jesus is their Messiah and the Son of God weeping and gnashing their teeth over being forced to live in the “outer darkness” of the rest of the world that isn’t Israel after He returns to the earth (this is what the parabolic “furnace of fire” refers to as well), or even missing out on being buried if they die as lawbreakers at that time, and instead having their corpse tossed into the valley of the son Hinnom to be consumed by worms and/or burned up, which was a grave threat to Jesus’ Jewish audience who believed that everyone, even lawbreakers, should be buried rather than cremated or left exposed to the elements and animals, and none of His audience would have wanted that fate for themselves.
Because most Christians were never taught that these passages don’t even apply to them as Gentiles in the first place (unless they’re members of the Israel of God rather than the body of Christ, which most of them are not), and aren’t aware that they’re talking about very specific rewards and punishments that only apply to Jews and other Israelites (aside, perhaps, from the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats, but even that one isn’t talking about anything close to what most people think it is, and also takes place entirely on earth among the living), they’ve overlaid these passages that have nothing to do with the sort of salvation they’re thinking of onto Paul’s discussions of salvation, creating a hybrid mess that has nothing to do with what either Jesus or Paul were talking about.
Now, at this point you’re probably “what-abouting,” thinking “what about this passage or that passage,” and “what about the lake of fire,” and such. While I don’t have the space to get into all those questions here (this was meant to be a relatively short post), I have written about them elsewhere on this site, so if you’re curious to learn more about what Jesus was talking about exactly, and what the threatening sounding passages actually mean, as well as what Paul was talking about instead, and what the salvation that applies primarily to us Gentiles is actually all about (although Jews can experience this salvation as well, if God has elected to reveal it to them), I wrote about it in detail here.