Every once in a while, someone of note questions or denies the classic Christian belief of a literal hell with eternal, conscious suffering. Then a debate rages and becomes personal between representatives of various perspectives on the issue.
Meanwhile, the average person’s questions about hell can remain unanswered. So rather than attacking any individual, I thought it might be helpful to address the issues by answering some of the most common questions about hell. Ministry leaders, including myself, are often asked these questions, and I asked these questions myself as a non-Christian and then as a new Christian in college. Rather than selling you, I will seek to simply be honest and say what the Bible says and allow you to make up your mind for yourself. I will be pulling from a few sections of a book I wrote with a friend who is the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society.
1. What happens when we die?
God created humans as thinking, feeling, moral persons made up of spirit and body tightly joined together. Death is not normal or natural, but an enemy, the consequence of sin. Death is the tearing apart of these two intertwined parts, the end of relationship with loved ones, and the cessation of life on this earth. The body goes to the grave, and the spirit goes into an afterlife to face judgment. The Bible is clear that there will one day be a bodily resurrection for everyone to either eternal life with God or eternal condemnation apart from him in hell.
Christianity differs from all religions in that Christians believe our eternal status depends on our relationship with Jesus. We really believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It may not be politically correct, but our lives are shaped by the reality that “whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
“Jesus talks about hell more than does anyone else in all of Scripture.”
Upon death, a believer’s spirit immediately goes to heaven to be with Jesus. Jesus gives us a picture in Luke 16:19-31 of existence after death. Lazarus, the godly beggar, goes to be with Abraham, while the self-indulgent rich man is in a place of torment.
Jesus, who has come back from death and is thus the expert on what awaits us on the other side, was emphatically clear that a day of judgment is coming when everyone will rise from their graves and stand before him for eternal sentencing to either worship in his kingdom or suffer in his hell. At the final judgment, all—even you—will stand before Jesus. Jesus’ followers whose names are written in the Book of Life will be with him forever. The Bible could not be clearer: “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
2. What judgment awaits non-Christians at the end of this life?
A day is coming when God will judge the living and the dead through the Son. When the Son of Man comes to sit on his throne, all will stand before him for judgment. From the beginning of creation to the end, the Bible makes it clear that the basis of God’s judgment is our deeds.
Jesus made this very clear, saying in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Jesus’ death propitiated God’s wrath against sin. Those who refuse this gift have the double penalty of wrath for their sins and for rejecting God’s Son. Jesus himself taught this in John 3:18, saying, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Unlike Jesus’ words to the sheep, to the goats on his left he will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
However, this does not mean that the relatively nice sinner suffers equally with Satan or his most committed human servants. There are degrees of punishment in hell like there are degrees of reward in heaven. Both in life and in hell some sins receive more severe punishment, because that is just.
3. What does Scripture teach about hell?
Jesus talks about hell more than does anyone else in all of Scripture. Jesus’ words come in the context of the rest of Scripture, which says that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Furthermore, he “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
Despite God’s love for and patience with sinners, it is a horrid mistake to dismiss the Bible’s clear teachings on hell. Richard Niebuhr characterized the ongoing attempt of liberal Christians to deny hell as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Jesus said more about hell than about any other topic. Amazingly, 13 percent of his sayings are about hell and judgment; more than half of his parables relate to the eternal judgment of sinners.
“Christianity differs from all religions in that Christians believe our eternal status depends on our relationship with Jesus.”
The Bible does not give us a detailed exposition of hell, but there are many descriptions of the fate of its inhabitants in that place of eternal punishment. They include:
4. exclusion from God’s presence
6. second death
7. weeping and gnashing of teeth
Satan will not reign there. Hell is a place of punishment that God prepared for the Devil and his angels. It is where the beast and the false prophet and those who worship them will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.
At the end of the age, the Devil will be “thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Hell will be ruled by Jesus, and human and demon alike, including Satan, will be tormented there continually.
“People who reject Jesus in this life will not rejoice in him after this life.”
Hell is real and terrible. It is eternal. There is no possibility of amnesty or reprieve. Daniel says that some of the dead will be resurrected “to shame and everlasting contempt.” Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…And these will go away into eternal punishment.” Paul tells us:
God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
Perhaps the clearest and most gripping depiction of hell in all of Scripture is the frequent mention of hell as “Gehenna.” The name refers to an area outside of the city of Jerusalem where idolatry and horrendous sin, including child sacrifice, were practiced. Gehenna was a place so despised and cursed by God’s people that they turned it into the city dump where feces, refuse, and the dead bodies of criminals were stacked. Jesus spoke of Gehenna as the hellish final home of the wicked. Since Gehenna is described as a fiery abyss, clearly it is also the lake of fire to which all the godless will ultimately be eternally sentenced, together with Satan, demons, and unrepentant sinners. So when the Bible speaks of hell as a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die, the original hearers would easily have remembered Gehenna, where this reality was ever present outside of their city.