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12. Hell

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What is hell? In Scripture, the term hell refers to a place of eternal punishment for the wicked. Jesus talked about hell more than he did heaven. In Matthew 5:22 and 10:28, Christ said:

But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

John MacArthur said this about the Greek term translated as hell in the New Testament:

The Greek term translated “hell” … is gehenna, which occurs twelve times in the New Testament and relates to the Valley of Hinnom on the south and east sides of Jerusalem. In this place children were sacrificed in fire to the god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31–32). Some hold that the Valley of Hinnom was also the place where dead bodies of criminals and animals were burned. This awful place of fiery doom was used by Jesus and New Testament writers to symbolize the future place of punishment for the wicked. These references show that hell is real. People should strive to avoid this dreadful place. Other passages, while not using the term “hell,” further describe the eternal fire awaiting the wicked:1

Other terms in Scripture which refer to hell are ones like “outer darkness” (Matt 25:30), “eternal fire” (Matt 25:41), “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46), or even the “lake of fire,” which is the name for the final form of hell (Rev 20:13-15).

Characteristics

What are some characteristics of hell?

1. Hell was originally created as a place of punishment for the devil and his angels.

In Matthew 25:41, Christ described how he will say this to the wicked at his return, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels!” Apparently, hell was created after Satan led one-third of the angels in rebellion against God (Rev 12:4-5)—sometime after God created the heavens and the earth (cf. Ex 20:11, Job 38:4-7). It was not originally made for humans, but humans who rebel against God will share the same fate as the angels who rebelled.

2. Hell is a place of separation from God’s mercy, blessings, and other people.

In Revelation 20:14, the lake of fire is called the “second death.” The first death is separation of the body from the spirit, as the body goes into the grave and the spirit goes into heaven or hell. But the second death is separation from God’s mercy and blessings and the presence of other people. Second Thessalonians 1:9 describes the punishment of unbelievers this way, “They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength.” When Paul says, “being away from the presence of the Lord,” he does not mean that God is not present in hell, since Scripture teaches that God is omnipresent (cf. Ps 139:8). Therefore, he must mean being separated from God’s manifest presence and his blessings. In hell, God is present in the sense of being there to judge and not bless. Also, though other people will be in hell, they will most likely be isolated from one another. The fact that hell is described as “darkness” (Matt 25:30) probably implies the separation and loneliness experienced there. Hell is the opposite of heaven; in heaven, there will be increased intimacy with God and others, but in hell, there will be increased separation and loneliness.

3. Hell is a place of conscious torment.

This conscious torment is clearly seen in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Luke 16:19-31 says,

There was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. But at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus whose body was covered with sores, who longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. In addition, the dogs came and licked his sores. “Now the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. And in hell, as he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side. So he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus likewise bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish. Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us, so that those who want to cross over from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ So the rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, father—send Lazarus to my father’s house (for I have five brothers) to warn them so that they don’t come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they must respond to them.’ Then the rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He replied to him, ‘If they do not respond to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

In it, the rich man asked for him to allow Lazarus to at least cool his tongue with water since he was in anguish because of the flame (v. 24). However, Abraham reminded the rich man that while he was alive, he received many good things, but that Lazarus did not, and that it was impossible for Lazarus to come over to him because of the great gulf between them (v. 25-26). Then the rich man begged Abraham to allow Lazarus to return from the dead to tell his family, so they would not come to the place of torment (v.27-31). This text tells us much about the torment in hell.

  • The torment in hell is caused in part by the unquenchable fire which does not consume the person and renders them constantly thirsty. The rich man was suffering the pains of the fire, including being thirsty, yet not being consumed (v. 24). Other passages clarify this (cf. Matt 5:22, Jude 1:13). In Mark 9:48, Christ described hell as a place “where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”
  • The torment in hell is caused in part because of the continual memories and regrets of one’s wrongdoings, including rejecting God and mistreating others. The rich man remembered his wealth and how he enjoyed it but neglected God and others (v. 25). Other passages describe a continual weeping—probably because of the pain and memories. In Matthew 8:12, Christ said, “but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
  • As mentioned previously, the torment in hell is caused in part by being separated from others. Abraham and Lazarus were together while the rich man was alone.

4. Hell is a place of God’s just wrath over people’s sins.

Because people will receive God’s wrath over their sins, there will be varying punishments based on what they had done and the knowledge they had. Various verses teach this: In Luke 12:47-48, Christ said this about the unfaithful servant:

That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or do what his master asked will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know his master’s will and did things worthy of punishment will receive a light beating. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.

In Luke 20:45-47, Christ said this about the scribes:

As all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. They will receive a more severe punishment.”

5. Hell, and its punishment, will be eternal.

In Matthew 25:46, Christ said this about the wicked and righteous, “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” In the same way, the righteous will experience eternal life, the wicked will experience eternal punishment. Likewise, in describing the punishment of those who accept the mark of the antichrist during the tribulation period, Revelation 14:11 says: “And the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever, and those who worship the beast and his image will have no rest day or night, along with anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

Errant Views

Some diverge from the traditional view of hell being a place of eternal, conscious punishment by taking less disturbing views. Two of these views are annihilationism and universalism.

Annihilationism

Annihilationism is the belief that people will not suffer eternally in hell. Either at physical death, the coming judgment, or a period in hell, they will simply cease to exist. This has been a common view of Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; however, even some prominent evangelical theologians have embraced the view. One of the more popular theologians to take this view was John Stott.2 Annihilationists take Scriptures that describe people being punished in hell “forever” or “eternally” as referring to how their being eliminated lasts forever (cf. Matt 25:46, Rev 14:11). To support this, they point to Scriptures that seemingly describe the wicked being destroyed. For instance,

For many live, about whom I have often told you, and now, with tears, I tell you that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things.

Philippians 3:18-19

They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength.

2 Thessalonians 1:9

The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28

In this perspective, humans do not have inherent immortality—only God does. Eternal life is something given by God to humans who put their faith in Christ (John 3:16, 17:2).3 However, many verses clearly describe how the punishment in hell will be eternal. For instance, in Matthew 25:46, Christ said this about the goats who are not saved and the sheep who are: “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Since eternal punishment is contrasted with eternal life, it seems clear that they both are eternal. Also, vivid verses describe this eternal conscious punishment. Revelation 14:9-11 says this in describing the eternal suffering of those who worship the antichrist and accept his mark during the tribulation period:

A third angel followed the first two, declaring in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and takes the mark on his forehead or his hand, that person will also drink of the wine of God’s anger that has been mixed undiluted in the cup of his wrath, and he will be tortured with fire and sulfur in front of the holy angels and in front of the Lamb. And the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever, and those who worship the beast and his image will have no rest day or night, along with anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

Wayne Grudem, therefore, says this about the passages describing the destruction of the wicked:

In response, it must be said that the passages which speak of destruction (such as Phil. 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9; and 2 Peter 3:7) do not necessarily imply the cessation of existence, for in these passages the terms used for “destruction” do not necessarily imply a ceasing to exist or some kind of annihilation, but can simply be ways of referring to the harmful and destructive effects of final judgment on unbelievers.4

Some declare that God giving eternal suffering for sins committed in time would be an unjust punishment. However, this actually shows how holy and righteous God is. To him, one sin is an infinite offense deserving an infinite consequence. Romans 6:23 says, “For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Universalism

Another errant view about hell is that every person will eventually be saved. This takes at least three forms. (1) Some believe Christ’s atoning work will be applied to everyone—whether they believe or not. (2) Some believe that after unbelievers die, they will be offered a second chance to respond to Christ and all will respond positively. (3) Some believe that unbelievers will be punished in hell temporarily and eventually let into heaven.5

Certainly, many believe in universalism simply out of a heartfelt pain for those who will suffer eternally, while others misinterpret certain Scriptures. For instance, they point to verses like Philippians 2:10-11, which says, “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” However, these verses simply mean that all people will eventually submit to Christ as Lord, even those in hell. Also, 2 Corinthians 5:19 says, “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation.” But this simply refers to universal atonement, not universal salvation. Christ paid for the sins of all, but the payment is only applied to those who repent (John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, etc.).

Scripture simply does not teach universalism. If it did, there would be no reason for Christians to obey the great commission—making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19-20). There is no pressing reason to share the gospel if all will eventually be saved.

Conclusion

Scripture warns of a real hell where the wicked will go and suffer conscious punishment throughout eternity. It is a difficult doctrine to think about, but when we do, it should cause deep sorrow. In Romans 9:1-4, Paul said this when thinking about the lostness of his fellow Jews:

I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed—cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites…

Also, in Ezekiel 33:11, God described his sorrow for the death of the wicked.

Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’

Likewise, we should be sorrowful when considering people who have rejected Christ and their impending punishment, and this sorrow should motivate us to share the gospel with them. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “…we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God!’” Let this also be our constant plea to a dying world around us, “Be reconciled to God!”

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What are some terms used for hell in the New Testament?
  3. What are some characteristics of hell?
  4. What is annihilationism and how does Scripture deny this teaching?
  5. What is universalism and how does Scripture deny this teaching?
  6. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

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1 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 844–845). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

2 Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology (p. 400). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

3 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 847). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

4 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 1150). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

5 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 846–847). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)

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