And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. – Rev. 20:15
It’s not easy to think about hell – let alone write about it. In today’s user-friendly Christianity, hell is often softened up and presented in ways that fall woefully short of the biblical imagery. For example, the Bible describes hell as:
- A place of entangling cords (2 Sam. 22:6)
- A place of devouring fire and everlasting burnings (Is. 33:14)
- Unquenchable fire (Mat. 3:12; Mark 9:44)
- Outer darkness (Mat. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30)
- A place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mat. 8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28)
- A place where both body and soul suffer (Mat. 10:28)
- A furnace of fire (Mat. 13:42, 50)
- A place of everlasting fire (Mat. 25:41)
- A place prepared for the devil and his angels (Mat. 25:41; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 1:6)
- A place of everlasting punishment (Mat. 25:46)
- A place of undying worms (Mark 9:48)
- A place of torment (Luke 16:23)
- Unquenched thirst (desire) (Luke 16:24)
- A place of everlasting destruction (2 Thess. 1:9)
- A prison (1 Pet. 3:19)
- A bottomless pit (Rev. 9:2)
- A place of fire and sulphur (“brimstone”) (Rev. 14:10; 21:8)
- A place of no rest (Rev. 14:11)
- A lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15)
Notice how many of the above terrifying descriptions come from the lips of Christ Himself; and if you think about it, even the visions of hell that John described in the book of Revelation were given to him by Christ (cf. Rev. 1:1). We talk about hell because He told us about it. It’s not a scare tactic to squeeze people into “believing”; it is a horrible reality that we are called to escape.
The immediate impact these descriptions have on us is that hell involves unimaginable suffering; torment that goes beyond anything we could experience in this world. But I think that the most frightening element of hell is that there is no end. You see, people can withstand any amount of pain, misery and suffering if they know that there is an end to it. Hope, the “light at the end of the tunnel”, is powerful in keeping a person strong in the face of torment. But in hell, torment is consistently described as “everlasting” (“eternal”).
Think about it for a moment. Under the pressure of constant, intolerable pain, a person might find consolation in either death or insanity. As far as he or she is concerned, death can relieve the body; insanity, the mind. But in hell there is no hope of death because that has already happened, and there is no hope of oblivious insanity because the Bible teaches that those who are punished in hell, like those who are glorified in heaven, have received a new body, a “resurrection” body (Dan. 12:2; John 5:29), implying that it is incapable of falling ill or being damaged beyond repair. Hell has no release; otherwise it wouldn’t be “eternal”. The same word (αἰώνιος) is used some 72 times in the New Testament and mostly describes the eternal, everlasting glory of heaven (e.g. Mat. 25:46). And we have no doubt that when we enter heaven, it will never end.
It’s also hard to know if we should take the biblical descriptions of hell literarily or as symbols. It seems that, as the centuries pass, we tend to become more and more “sophisticated” about religion. In the Middle Ages, hell was generally preached per se; literarily. Today, after centuries of mind filtering and sophisticated dislike of Bible-thumping, OTT, “fundamentalist” preaching, we are more quick to consider the biblical images of hell as symbols. And it may be that we are right to do so, but the problem often lies with our motivations. Does “symbolising” hell make it any easier to the soul? A symbol is used to point to something that transcends it; something that cannot be described by mere words. If the descriptions of fire, brimstone, unquenchable thirst, worms that eat you alive, unimaginable, constant and everlasting pain, torment and anguish that never ever end are just symbolic, then the reality of hell must be far worse, and those who are there would wish that it was just a real lake of fire.
Another popular idea used to ameliorate the notion of hell is that it is nothing more than separation from God. Of course, to those who want nothing to do with God this side of eternity, this doesn’t sound like a bad idea (cf. Ps. 2:3). Sadly (for them), that is not the teaching of Scripture:
…he also 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. – Rev. 14:10
Of course, someone could point out that 2 Thess. 1:9 says: They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. But that’s hardly any consolation to anyone. First, this passage speaks about being cut off from the blessing and delight of the Lord’s presence and from the providence and protection of His strength (think of Mat. 5:45b). Second, those who are put away from the Lord’s presence “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction”. Doesn’t exactly sound like a party.
By the way, here’s a culture shock: Hell is not the kingdom of Satan. It’s not the HQ where the Dark Ruler of the underworld plots to overthrow God with the help of his minions (“a fine balance that can only be tipped by a rugged yet flawed human protagonist”). That’s a fictional Hollywood notion that has really out-sold itself (think End of Days, Constantine and the like). As far as the Bible is concerned, hell is actually prepared by God as a place where Satan will be ultimately punished shoulder-to-shoulder with all those who followed him, humans and demons (Rev. 19:20; 20:10).
Finally, someone can object (as many do these days) that hell sounds cruel. Let’s think about that for a moment: cruel means unfair; unjust; disproportionate; not fitting the crime. Does that argument make any sense in light of God’s character, and in particularly the fact that He is thrice holy (Is. 6:3; Rev. 4:8) and perfectly just (Gen. 18:25; Is. 30:18)? Is God, Who is perfectly holy and eternal, unfair to cast those who have broken His eternal and perfectly holy law into eternal and perfectly unholy punishment?
Also, if hell is as awful as the Bible describes it and if it lasts forever, what does that say about the seriousness of sin before God? What does it say about how deeply it offends Him? If hell is eternal and horrifying beyond human comprehension, it is because God is holy and just beyond human comprehension. If we think of hell as disproportionate to peoples’ sins, it is because we haven’t even begun to grasp God’s holy character. If we think it is too cruel, it is because we have no understanding of how profoundly God abhors sin.
To quote R.C Sproul: “If… we can take any comfort in the concept of hell, we can take it in the full assurance that there will be no cruelty there. It is impossible for God to be cruel. Cruelty involves inflicting a punishment that is more severe or harsh than the crime.”
Finally, if we find ourselves wondering how hell fits in with a God Who is merciful and graceful, we could read from the prophet Nahum:
The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. – Nah. 1:2-3
Now, I didn’t want to get all “black Bible”; just “Bible”. And it is that same Bible on which our hope and joy is (or should be) based that describes to us the soul-wrenching eternal destiny of multitudes who will die with the burden of their sins never lifted by Christ.
The path of life leads upward for the prudent, that he may turn away from Sheol beneath. – Prov. 15:24
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Heb. 10:31
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”– Rom. 10:13