What is the official stance of various Christian denominations on whether or not non-believers go to hell? How do denominations which preach that they do, reconcile the damnation of people who grow up in other religions with a just and loving God? To be clear, I'm not asking for individual opinion or biblical interpretation but for sources of the official doctrine.
The Apostles Creed was written at least 150 years after the apostles had all died. It is called the Apostles’ Creed because it is supposed to be a record of what the apostles taught. It makes this declaration about the resurrected Christ and future judgement:
He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
Although the Apostles Creed does not mention hell, it acknowledges a judgement to come.
The Athanasian Creed (known in Latin as Quicumque vult) is an early summary of Christian doctrine. It is traditionally believed to have been written by Athanasius, archbishop of Alexandria, who lived in the 4th century A.D. Section 39 to 44 says this about Christ after his resurrection:
“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. At his coming all people shall rise bodily to give an account of their own deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire. This is the catholic faith. One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” Source: https://www.gotquestions.org/Athanasian-creed.html
NOTE: The word 'catholic' (lower case letter c) means universal. The final point relates to accepting and believing all points in the Creed. In other words, if you don’t accept it all then you are not saved. Those who are saved enter eternal life. The unsaved enter eternal fire.
I don’t know if this is the earliest doctrinal statement on hell, but I believe it is accepted by the Catholic Church. However, a lot of Christians are now saying that hell is not real, but is a metaphor for eternal separation from God.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) represents the doctrinal views of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and Presbyterian churches throughout the world. Chapter 33 deals with the last judgment:
God hath appointed a day, wherein he will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.
The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.
As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: so will he have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly, Amen.
This article provides useful and interesting information on the history of this doctrinal statement of faith that still holds good for most mainstream Protestant denominations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westminster_Confession_of_Faith
The two partial quotes below come from an evangelical Protestant ministry – not a denomination. Although not “official doctrine” they may address your points on reconciling hell with a just and loving God. It’s the “just” part that a lot of people overlook.
John 3:18 explains in the simplest terms who will go to heaven and who will go to hell: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” So, those who go to hell are specifically those who do not believe in Jesus’ name. To “believe” goes beyond a mental recognition of the truth. To believe in Christ for salvation requires a transfer of allegiance. We stop worshiping ourselves, we forsake our sin, and we begin to worship God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:36–37; Mark 12:30). Source: https://www.gotquestions.org/who-will-go-to-hell.html
“How can a loving God send someone to hell?” The entire question is wrong. A better wording is “If God is love, then why do some people go to hell?” Romans 1:18–20 lays the foundation for the answer: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (emphasis added).
When answering the question “how can a loving God send someone to hell?” another facet of God’s nature comes into play. God is not only love, but He is perfect justice as well. Justice requires adequate payment for crimes committed. The only just punishment for high treason against our perfect Creator is eternal separation from Him. That separation means the absence of goodness, light, relationship, and joy, which are all facets of God’s nature. To excuse our sin would require God to be less than just, and to allow sin-tainted humans into His perfect heaven would render that place less than perfect. That’s why only the perfect Son of God could go to the cross in our place. Only His perfect blood was an acceptable payment for the debt we each owe God (Colossians 2:14). When we refuse Jesus as our substitute, we must pay the price ourselves (Romans 6:23).
God gave us the freedom to choose how we respond to Him. If He forced us to love Him, we would be robots. To give us no option but obedience would be a violation of our free will. Love is only love when it is voluntary. We cannot love God unless we have the option of not loving Him. Because God honors our autonomy, He will never force surrender or loyalty. However, there are consequences for either choice. C. S. Lewis summarizes this truth in his classic work, The Great Divorce: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” Source: https://www.gotquestions.org/loving-God-send-someone-hell.html
Many denominations reject the concept of a literal place of eternal punishment. Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) to mention just three. It would be difficult to find official doctrines on all Christian denomination.
The official Catholic position should be clear from paragraph 16 of the document Lumen Gentium issued by the Vatican II council. I found a good commentary on the document here, especially chapter 2.3.
The rest of this answer is a free paraphrase on the Catholic Church position as described in a Catholic.com article: Can Non-Christians Be Saved?
What is very clear is that there is no salvation apart from Christ. And knowledge about Christ is only available through the tradition preserved by the Church, of which the Apostles's Creed and the Bible is the primary authoritative source. Essentially, all mainstream Trinitarian denominations are unanimous on this.
What is also clear is when the Gospel of Christ has been fully presented AND comprehended fully by a person BUT the person rejects it, God will also reject the person, per John 3:18. This is also the fate of some of the people Jesus himself encountered who didn't accept that He was the Messiah although they saw all the miraculous signs of His divinity and His being sent by God the Father.
What of people who never hear the Gospel of Christ, or who due to extreme distortion of the gospel (which is common for people raised in a different religion), did not have a "fair chance" to make a free, conscious, and fully informed decision to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior? The article appeal to a) God's mercy, b) God's desire that all be saved, and c) God's unknown plan for them:
We don’t know what God will do for those outside the Church, so it’s best not to presume to judge. We can only hope and pray that God will have mercy on them. That’s why I said that the Catholic Church’s position on this matter is not contradictory. On the one hand, we know that the usual and expected means of salvation is being united with Christ (cf. Rom. 6:1–5), but we also know from the Bible that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). We hope that those who, through no fault of their own, never know the gospel in a conscious way may be united to Christ in a way known only to God. We believe that God is sovereign and loving. He will judge people according to their knowledge. If they live in a way that accords with their best knowledge of God, we trust that he will be merciful to them.
What should the Church do in regards to non Christians? All denominations do evangelization and missionary activities because we know that true happiness and true salvation can come only through Christ. Jesus gave us the mandate to share the Gospel (the Great Commission) that we joyfully obey because the Gospel brings true fulfillment of life on earth as well as in heaven. Who wouldn't share good news? At the same time we believe in God's providence and timing so we are not panicking nor complacent although every day many non Christians die without hearing the gospel. Every denomination has its own way to deal with this tension.
What should be the Christians' attitude to non Christians? As Jesus taught, this is the era of invitation where God showers blessings on the righteous and un-righteous alike hoping that the lost will embrace the shepherd like in the parable of the lost sheep or the parable of the prodigal son. It is not for Christians to condemn non Christians, even those who initially reject the Gospel. It is God's prerogative at the Day of Judgment. So our attitude should be servant-like sharing of the Good News while the door is not yet closed. We strive to present the Gospel to fit the specific profile of particular non-Christians (for maximum impact), mourn for those who reject it and pray that the Holy Spirit will move their hearts to accept it later, because the Gospel is the source of life.
Do people practicing religions other than Christianity go to Hell?
The first part of the answer begins by addressing whether God is fair. Abraham challenged God on this.
“Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25, NIV)
There are many people calling themselves Christians who will go to Hell:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23, NIV)
So the first thing to learn is that if a label can’t save you, a label will not necessarily condemn you. To understand what various churches teach about the ultimate fate of non-Christians, you need to know how they answer these questions:
Is there a Hell? Or will all be saved? Or None be saved (there is no eternal life)?
What is the initial state of every human heart?
What are the necessary means of divine grace?
What is the human contribution to salvation?
Are there people who have no access to the means of grace due to location, time or circumstance?
Does God concede alternative paths to heaven for people in difficult situations?
Hell. If there is no Hell, then no one is going there. This is a minority view. The earliest creeds (Apostle’s Creed), to which most denominations subscribe, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, assert the existence of Hell.
Sin. The position of all denominations of which I am aware is that all people (besides Jesus Christ) have sinned.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:21-24, NIV)
This sin means that all people - no matter their nationality or religious upbringing - start out their life headed for Hell, unless some force acts to alter their destiny. The extent of this sin is debated. “Original sin” is accepted by many denominations, including Anglican, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Assemblies of God. The Pelagian heresy denied this.
However, does this original sin prevent people from exercising their will and accepting God’s offer of salvation through free human will? Or is it required that God sovereignly elect people and divinely change their will via irresistible grace? Methodists believe in prevenient grace, by which God partially remedies man’s sinful state so that they have the human free will restored sufficiently to accept or reject the offer of salvation. Reformed (Calvinist) belief is that irresistible grace is required. There are many other formulations.
Grace. If all people are sinners, and the consequence of that sin is a ticket to Hell, how do you change trains? The different denominations agree on many means of grace, but differ on what those means accomplish. What benefits do each bestow? Among the most important means of grace are sovereign grace, faith, baptism, communion, works of charity, creeds, other sacraments besides baptism and communion such as confession.
Many Protestants believe that by grace alone, through faith alone, is a person saved. Thus good works flow from a person’s salvation and prove the validity of their faith, they do not contribute to causing that salvation. Roman Catholics and Orthodox would argue that it is a cooperative venture, including grace, faith and good works.
Some groups believe in baptismal regeneration, adding baptism to grace and faith as a requirement. This would include Mormons, some Disciples of Christ, some Churches of Christ, some Roman Catholic, United Pentecostal, some American Episcopal and Anglican, etc. Others cite the thief on the cross as an example of one who was not baptized yet entered heaven.
Some churches require knowledge of and assent to the principal creeds as necessary. This is part of defining what you have faith in. Not everything that people call God is God. Right knowledge of God is essential for establishing that you worship the true God, not an idol. For example, in the Athanasian Creed, it says, “which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”
Our actions. I have already spoken of the divide about whether salvation requires good works or not. In addition, there is the question of whether we’d can lose salvation once after we obtain it. Calvinists would say no. Arminians (such as Methodists) as well as Roman Catholics and many other denominations would say yes. If it is possible for a Christian to lose their salvation, then surely it is possible for a person of another religion to do so.
Access. Here is where fairness comes in. Has God provided all people in all times access to sufficient knowledge and means of grace for them to seek Him, find Him, be saved and enter heaven?
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:18-23, NIV)
The Apostle Paul asserts that people are without excuse, but where is the evidence? Exhibit one is found in the Book of Job.
Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8, NIV)
By these words, and in addition His commendation of Job in chapter 42, God has laid upon Job the title of the most righteous man on earth. No one before or since has surpassed him in righteousness, save Jesus Christ. Yet what did this most righteous man admit?
Then Job replied to the LORD: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6, NIV)
Job admitted he was a sinner who needed forgiveness. If this is true of Job, it is true of all people of all religions. If you read Job closely, you will find that this man, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian, made up a list of the requirements he needed in a savior, to rescue his body from disease and death, his emotions from despair, and his soul from Hell. He relied upon God alone to provide that savior. Job’s list was an accurate description of what Jesus would do. In fact, Job insisted that his savior have the power of God (can walk on water) and the compassion and empathy of a man who knows human frailty. In fact, Job called that mediator “son of man”, the very title Jesus would one day adopt. One of Job’s friends, Bildad, mocked him for trusting in a “son of man”. One of the world’s largest religions explicitly denies in its holiest of books that God has or ever will have a son.
In the Book of Job, I identified thirteen means of communication employed by God to teach Job about Himself. This includes prayer, fasting, observing nature, learning from elders, dreams, visions, angels, suffering, sacrifice and theophany (direct speech). And as a consequence of Job’s response, the beginnings of God’s written word. All this was available to a man from a different culture who lived 3,700 years ago. Job sympathized with the plight of slaves and made sure to pay his workers fairly. The poor he recognized were made by the same creator; he was no better than they in God’s eyes. He respected women, giving his three daughters an equal share in the inheritance with his sons. He refused to indulge in sexual immorality.
Yes, all people in all times have access to God, and God shows himself to them so they can know Him better.
God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Romans 2:6-7, NIV)
Any who do good draw closer to God and he explains his ways to them. They have access to the means of grace. I once read of a tribal leader in Burma. He had a dream that a donkey would lead his people to a man with a book who would instruct them in the ways of God. The next morning he told his village of his dream. They laid their hands on a donkey and prayed. Then two men followed the donkey. Instead of aimless wandering, looking for grass and water, the donkey led them two hundred miles through the jungle to a well in Eastern India. They called down into the well. At the bottom was a man with a shovel, digging. He came up, they told them of their mission and he got his book. He was a Christian missionary, the first ever in those parts.
God can reach all people, anytime, anywhere.
But someone might object: look at City X in Country Y in Century Z. There were no Christians then, nor anyone remotely close to following the Ten Commandments. Did God really make himself available? Can a whole city or country be completely wicked from the first to the last? To answer this question, the Bible offers a second exhibit, the flood of Noah. Eight people were saved and hundreds of millions of people, perhaps as many as a billion, all perished. How many cities? How many countries? How many religions? Yet in that time, all were swept away. It is possible for a situation to arise in the world where every last person from some distinct group is marked for destruction, even Hell.
Another way. It is frowned upon to express belief in the exclusivity of any one religion. Some denominations have capitulated on this. How then are we to understand the Apostle Peter?
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, NIV)