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To Hell with Hell?
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.
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."
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.
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:
- exclusion from God’s presence
- second death
- 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.
What are some of the major objections to the Doctrine of hell?
A loving God would not send billions of people to a horrible hell
In a very important sense God doesn’t send anyone to hell. The only ones there are those who have rejected his revelation, choosing to suppress the truth he made plain to them. God made people in his image, after his likeness, with the power to say no and to reject the universal revelation of himself. Subsequently, sinners have no one to blame but themselves if they are damned.
To get to hell someone must reject the God who shows them his goodness and out of love for all “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything”; reject the Spirit who “convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment”; and reject the crucified Son who said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Obviously, God has been exceedingly gracious to sinners.
People who reject Jesus in this life will not rejoice in him after this life. Hell is only for those who persistently reject the real God in favor of false gods. So in the end, people get to be with the god they love. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, either people will say to God, “Thy will be done,” or God will say to them, “Thy will be done.” Not only is God loving, but he is also just. Heaven and hell are the result of his love and justice.
A loving God would be more tolerant
People who judge God need to really consider if they would be more pleased if God were tolerant of everyone, including rapists, pimps, pedophiles, and even those who have sinned against them most heinously. The idea is completely absurd and unjust. Not everyone in hell is a rapist, of course, but everyone there chose sin over God throughout his or her entire life. . . .
A loving God protects his children from sin and evil by separating them. In this way, God is a father who is tolerant of all who obey him and are safe for his children. But he is intolerant of those who sin against him and do evil to his children. Subsequently, God is intolerant in a way that is like our own cultural intolerances of those who drink and drive, steal, rape, and murder; we, too, demonstrate our intolerance by separating such people from society. To call such actions on God’s part intolerant is shameful, because tolerance would denote both approval and support of evil.
Hell is mean
To understand what love is, look at what Jesus did at the cross. He suffered and died for the ungodly, for sinners, for his enemies. Or, to say it another way, Jesus suffered and died for mean people. A God who will suffer and die for mean people is not mean. In fact, such a God alone is altogether loving; to be condemned by a God of perfect love shows how damnable our sin truly is.
Eternal torment in hell is an unjust punishment for people who sin for a few decades
Some argue that the punishment of sinners is annihilation. This means that after someone dies apart from faith, they suffer for a fitting period of time and then simply cease to exist so that hell is not eternal in duration. In question is the nature and length of the punishment.
Annihilationism is simply not what the Bible teaches. Daniel 12:2 says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Jesus teaches the same thing and speaks of those who “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Grammatically, there is no difference here between the length of time mentioned for life and that for punishment; rather, there is simply eternal life and eternal death.
Satan will not reign there. Hell is a place of punishment that God prepared for the Devil and his angels.
The Bible tells us that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image” and “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” The word forever (Greek aion) means unending.
This is why the Bible speaks of hell as conscious, eternal punishment. One summary of the Bible’s teaching on the pain of hell says:
- Those in hell suffer intense and excruciating pain. This pain is likely both emotional/spiritual and physical (John 5:28–29).
- Hell is a fate worse than being drowned in the sea (Mark 9:42).
- It is worse than any earthly suffering—even being maimed (Matthew 5:29–30; Mark 9:43).
- The suffering never ends (Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:48).
- The wicked will be “burned with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
- Those in hell will be thrown into the fiery furnace and will experience unimaginable sorrow, regret, remorse, and pain. The fire produces the pain described as “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).
- The intensity of the suffering seems to be according to the wickedness of the person’s behavior (Romans 2:5–8).
- Hell is utterly fearful and dreadful (Hebrews 10:27–31).
- This punishment is depicted as “coming misery,” “eating flesh with fire,” and the “day of slaughter” (James 5:1–5).
- Those in hell will feel the full force of God’s fury and wrath (Revelations 14:10).
- They will be “tormented” with fire (14:10–11).
- This suffering is best understood as endless since the “smoke of their torment rises forever and ever” (14:11).
- This suffering is constant because it is said that those in hell “will have no rest day or night” (14:11) and
- “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).
In summary, annihilationism is not biblical. For this reason, it was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople (AD 553) and the Fifth Lateran Council (1513).
Today, though, it is becoming popular to hope that sinners will eventually repent and everyone will end up in heaven. This is universal reconciliation, the ancient view of Origen. However, there is not a shred of evidence for post-mortem repentance. The continual teaching of the Bible is that we die once and are then judged, without any second chance at salvation. As one clear example, Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
Do people who have never heard about Jesus go to hell?
Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Peter preached, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The conclusion is simple: there is only one way to the Father and that is through Jesus Christ. All other religious roads lead to false gods and a real hell.
But there are many ways to Jesus. While the norm is responding to the preached Word of God, there are biblical examples as well as life experiences where God gives special revelation of the Messiah to unsaved people in other forms, including direct speech, dreams, and visions. God called Abraham directly. He gave Pharaoh dreams. He spoke to the treacherous prophet Balaam in a vision so that he prophesied about the Messiah. He appeared to Cornelius in a vision, which resulted in him being saved.
Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
There are many such stories. The reality is that anyone who is searching and willing to respond to the goodness of God as Cornelius did will receive special revelation. God is perfectly able to bypass the “normal” channels to accomplish his purposes.
No one who comes to the Lord will be cast out. As Paul says:
For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Therefore, while there is no salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ, there is also no reason to overlook the creativity of God to get the gospel out. His creativity includes using us to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth as pioneering missionaries to unreached people groups and generous givers to ministries that translate the Bible into new languages.
Am I going to hell?
The closing verses of the Bible say, “Come!” as an invitation for all who desire to receive God’s saving grace as a gift. Jesus died and rose and is exalted in heaven. If you repent of sin, change your mind about who or what is Lord of your life, and believe, trusting that you can stake your life and eternity on the truth of what God says, then you will receive full forgiveness of all sin, new life in and by the Holy Spirit, membership in the church of Jesus Christ, a meaningful part in his rescue mission in the world, and citizenship in his kingdom. You will be with Jesus and his people now and forever.
I want this for you.
Have you confessed your sins to Jesus Christ, seeking forgiveness and salvation through his sinless life that is your righteousness, death that is your payment, and resurrection that is your salvation?
Parts of this post are adapted from Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, © 2010, pp. 407–436. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.
We also did a chronology of the current debate that is going on about hell. Check it out here.