This spring, evangelical megachurch pastor Rob Bell caused a firestorm of controversy when he released his new book — Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book, which questions much of the traditional Christian teaching on hell, sparked extensive debates about the doctrine of hell and landed the topic on the cover of Time magazine with the cover headline: “What If There’s No Hell?” 

Biola Magazine recently sat down with Ashish Naidu, assistant professor of theology at Talbot School of Theology, to discuss the biblical case for hell and how Christians can respond to some of the current challenges to the doctrine.

How central is the doctrine of hell for Christianity? Is it “essential” or “nonessential”?

I would think it’s an essential doctrine. Look at what the Bible has to say about hell, and look at Jesus. Jesus was perhaps the most prolific teacher on the doctrine of hell. Historic Christian orthodoxy has always maintained the doctrine of hell. If you go back to the earliest creeds — the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed — they all talk about Christ returning to judge the living and the dead. If I remember correctly, the word “hell” occurs 12 times in the Gospels, 11 of which are from the lips of our Lord. So definitely, the doctrine of hell is central to the Christian faith, and always has been.

What is the standard view of hell within orthodox Christianity?

The orthodox position affirms an eternal, conscious torment for all those who reject Christ and reject the gospel message. That has been the wide swath of orthodoxy right from the get go. The historic Christian faith has always affirmed the eternality of life for those who believe in Christ and the eternality of death for those who disbelieve or reject him.

“Annihilationism” seems to be increasingly accepted as a view of hell within evangelicalism. Is this a biblical position?

There have been individuals within the broad evangelical community who have subscribed to this view of annihilationism, which basically is the idea that the unbeliever will be tormented for a particular amount of time in hell but will eventually be terminated or annihilated. It’s the idea that fire destroys and brings things to an end — to ashes. It’s the idea of conscious, but not eternal torment. I’m not quite sure if there’s any biblical basis for this. From what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, the problem seems to be more existential, more emotional than scriptural and textual. Annihiliationism is held by some theologians in the church — Clark Pinnock, Edward Fudge — but to be honest, textually speaking I’m not quite sure how they can affirm this.

What is the biblical evidence for the eternality of hell?

In Matthew 25:31-46, you’ll notice that Jesus uses the same adjective to talk about eternal life and eternal punishment. So if life in Christ is going to be eternal, then life without Christ is also going to be eternal. Look how Matthew 25:46 puts it: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." The Bible is replete with mention of everlasting punishment for those who would reject Christ. In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus responds to Peter by saying: "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” So when Jesus talks about eternal life he’s talking about everlasting life—something that will go on forever. I’ve noticed that, very famously, Rob Bell has argued that the word “eternal” does not necessarily mean eternal life. There’s plenty of evidence in scripture that argues to the contrary. That’s a very selective reading of scripture and selective way of exegeting scripture.

Has evangelicalism emphasized hell too much?

I think in a regular church we subscribe to an expository method of preaching, and so when the doctrine of hell comes up, you’re supposed to preach it. Preaching about hell can be a very loving thing to do, because love warns. Jesus warned about the impending judgment that is to come. When you and I speak or preach about hell, we don’t do it with dry eyes. We do it with urgency in our hearts, so that others would hear the good news of the gospel. You don’t have to go to hell. Love warns. Warning people of an impending act of judgment is a loving thing to do.

But I do understand the other aspect of the question — that we have preachers who are constantly preaching hellfire and brimstone messages from the pulpit, with no emphasis on the idea of the love of God. So there are instances where that can be a problem.

One of Bell’s claims in Love Wins is that after death, unbelievers will have another chance to accept Christ — that our life on earth isn’t the only chance to be saved. Are there any grounds for this belief in the Bible?

Bell has selective exegesis here. He likes to use Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1—where God talks about reconciling all things. But if you look at the writings of Paul, both in Colossians and Ephesians, he also talks about the wrath of God coming upon the disobedient. Paul is very clear about his teaching on hell. When the Bible talks about reconciliation in those contexts it is talking about all of creation submitting itself to the lordship of Christ, the obedient for his blessing and the disobedient for his curse. He came as a savior. He came to offer salvation the first time around. When he returns he is going to come back as a king and judge. That is the context of Ephesians 1. It’s not that God is going to give second chances to people after they die. The Bible is very clear on this. The writer of Hebrews 9 says it is appointed once for man to die, and after that, judgment.

In the chapter “Does God Get What God Wants,” Bell claims: “Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t.” How does an eternal hell bring God glory?

I think when we talk about the love of God, we also talk about God loving his character, his nature, his infinite perfections. And of course, his character is reflected in the law of God. The law reflects his infinite goodness, love and mercy. So when people break the law of God, they’re breaking the very moral code that God gave us, which is a reflection of his infinite goodness. Scripture very clearly says that when the law is broken, the penalty must be paid. The soul that sins must surely die.

God is doing the most loving thing when he sent his son Jesus and offers us salvation. He’s saying, “Here’s my son: Receive him, so that you might have life and so that you may not enter hell.” Hell brings glory to God because it basically is a reflection of the fact that he takes sin seriously. He can’t overlook sin or brush it under the carpet. It brings glory to his name because God upholds the infinite justice of his character. And to do that is the most loving thing to do. Hell points to the fact that God means what he says and will do what he promised.

In a recent Time cover story on hell, Jon Meachem wrote that “the dominant view of the righteous in heaven and the damned in hell owes more to the artistic legacy of the West, from Michelangelo to Dante to Blake, than it does to history or to unambiguous biblical teaching.” Is this true? How much of our concepts of heaven and hell are cultural rather than biblical?

Long before Dante and Michelangelo depicted what they thought about hell, the Bible taught it, going back all the way to Genesis. Fire has long been associated with God’s judgment. We think of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how God reigned down sulfur and brimstone on the city for its wickedness. The idea of fire is always associated with the judgment of God in the Bible, and that’s how the Renaissance artists get the picture. It’s not something they’re making up out of thin air. Fire and judgment is a biblical picture. 

If we believe that hell is a place reserved for any non-Christian to eternally suffer, then we would have to say that both Gandhi, and Hitler, and the millions of Jews that Hitler murdered, are all in hell, right?

There’s definitely an existential edge to that question. At the end of the day, we know that we’re dealing with a just God, a loving God, a God who is our heavenly Father. That’s why we don’t view his sovereignty as tyrannical. We also see clearly the way that people are saved. There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus is the only way. There have been many people who have considered Christ a great moral teacher, but haven’t confessed him as Lord. And I think as believers we have to be faithful to Scriptures that say that anyone who has not confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will not get to spend eternity with him.

Do you think it’s ever wise for Christians to make statements about who is or isn’t in hell?

I think we should be very careful if we are going to speak in those terms, because at the end of the day, you and I do not have infinite knowledge. Could it be possible that some of the Jews in the Holocaust turned to Christ before they were executed? It could have happened. We just don’t know.

What if I’m a good Muslim who, because I was born into an Islamic culture and context, simply followed that religion as earnestly and faithfully as possible, because it’s what my family taught and I didn’t know any different?

God is sovereign. We know that the story of our salvation does not begin on this earth, but in eternity with Christ. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. So God knows how to communicate the message of the gospel to people out there. Look at my own story. Born into a Hindu family. Several generations ago, my great-grandparents came from the Hindu priesthood, idolaters. Then in the late 1800s, British missionaries came to India and converted them. I see God’s sovereignty there. He sent the messengers with the gospel, and in the gospel proclamation my ancestors received the message and were converted. Likewise, I see and hear stories of individuals in the deepest and remotest Muslim nations where the gospel message is proclaimed and people receive it.

One of the things we say in this is that the seeker finds out that he is sought. InThe Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer really captures this. There is a longing for God that we all have. Before I became a believer, I thought I was the one seeking after God, only to realize after reading Scripture that it was God seeking me — the “Hound of Heaven.” At the same time, I do understand that not everyone hears the gospel. That’s why it’s our task as Christians to obey the Great Commission and to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. It’s a serious calling. We cannot afford to neglect it.

What happens to unsaved children when they die? Or an individual lacking the mental capacity to understand the gospel?

There have been two views historically on this topic. One view basically says, only the children of the elect, of believers, will go to heaven, because of the covenantal structure they hold to. But I hold to the second view, which states that all children and infants who die are actually elect. All children will go to heaven. The Bible is very clear about the loving heart of God and Jesus’ relationship with children. Jesus himself takes a child and puts him in his lap and says “Forbid not the little children come to me, for such is the kingdom of heaven.” We can also look at David, who, after his little son died, said, “I will see him again.” I’m of the opinion that infants who die are elect and will have life eternal with God. Same thing for people who are mentally challenged — adults who are operating on a child’s mental level. In these cases I think there is good biblical support for the idea of the grace of God and the age of accountability. Though this phrase doesn’t occur, I think we can extrapolate this teaching from Scripture.

Ashish Naidu is an assistant professor of theology at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, specializing in historical and systematic theology. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen.