Hell is on everyone’s lips. It’s either ‘as hot as hell in here’ or ‘as cold as hell out there’! He’s a ‘hell of a nice fellow,’ and she has a ‘hell of a lot of jewellery’. If hell is real – seriously real – isn’t it typical of the devil to cheapen the word to numb our brains and deaden our conscience? Is hell just a myth to frighten us into being good – a deterrent? Do we experience it in this life only? Is it real torment between death and Judgement Day to reform us for heaven – a purging purgatory? Will it burn people up, or torment them forever?
Let’s look in God’s Book and see what it actually says – especially what Jesus himself taught. We daren’t take the risk of idle guesswork.
What is the nature of hell?
- It was symbolised by the Holy City’s rubbish dump. The word Jesus used repeatedly, Gehenna, means the Valley of Hinnom. This deep ravine outside the South West wall of Jerusalem was the city’s garbage tip, full of smouldering refuse, including the unburied remains of executed criminals being eaten by worms, all smelling of sulphur. The light of the sun never penetrated its deepest parts. When John on the island of Patmos was granted a vision of eternity he saw heaven as the Holy City with ‘the fiery lake of burning sulphur ’ – ‘the second death ‘ outside (Revelation 21:1-2, 8).In other words, hell is a place for wasted lives.
- It is prepared for Satan and his agents
But in his parable of the last judgement, the sheep and the goats, Jesus indicates that humans will join them: ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 24: 41)
- Humans will enter it bodily
The Lord Jesus expressed it thus: ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw if away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’ (Matthew 5:27-29)
- It will be a place of conscious torment
‘Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?’ demons shouted at our Lord. John foresaw Satan and his agents ‘the beast and the false prophet’ in the lake of fire ‘tormented day and night for ever and ever.’ (Revelation 20:10).
The Greek word for torment or torture (basanidzo) is used elsewhere for:
- scorpion stings (Revelation 9:5)
- labour pangs (Revelation 12:2)
- severely painful ailments (Matthew 41:4; 8:61)
- struggles to row a boat in a violent storm (Mark 6:48)
- mental distress (2 Peter 2:8)
- There will be varying degrees of punishment
Some will receive ‘few blows’ and others ‘many blows’ (Luke 12:47:48). ‘It will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgement’ than for cities which rejected Jesus preaching and miracles (see Matthew 11:24; 12:41-42).
- Its fire and smoke are eternal
‘ Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. ’ (Mark 9:47-48, quoting Isaiah 66:24)
‘The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. ’ (Revelation 14:1 1)
Although some have tried to reduce the meaning of the Greek word aionios from ‘eternal’ to a more literal ‘age-long’ (from aion, age), in fact the Greek language has no other word to express ‘for ever’, which is its basic meaning.
The strongest Greek phrase for eternity – ‘to the ages of the ages’ – occurs twelve times in the book of Revelation:
- God lives (Revelation 4:9-10; 10:6; 15:7) and reigns (Revelation 11:15; 22:5) for ever
- He should therefore be given honour for ever (Revelation 1:6; 5:13; 7:12)
- That’s how long the devil and his angels will be tormented (Revelation 20:10).
- and how long smoke will arise from ‘Babylon’ (Revelation 19:3) and from the torment of those who worship ‘the Beast’ (Revelation 14:9-11).
- Its fire destroys (2 Thessalonians 1:9; 2:8: 2 Peter 3:7)
Its human inmates will perish (John 3: 16) in this second death (Revelation 2128). ‘Destroy’, ‘perish’, and ‘death’ imply a termination of existence. However the term ‘destroy’ (Greek apollumi) is also used of a ruined wine skin (Matthew 9:17), wasted ointment (Mark 14:4) and a lost sheep
(Luke 15:4,6) which still exist even when ‘destroyed’. It’s obvious that human bodies are mortal and can die but does the Bible teach that we have immortal souls?
Perhaps the first and last references to the tree of life hold the answer.
After Adam disobeyed: ‘The Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ (Genesis 3:22) Only if he could partake of the tree of life could Adam continue his existence in his fallen state of wretchedness forever. Immortality was not a natural inbuilt feature of his humanity. In the book of Revelation only ‘overcomers ‘ who wash their robes have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city ’ (Revelation 2:7; 22:14 see also Luke 20:34-36).
Does eternal punishment mean endless punishing? Not necessarily. The Son of God endured ‘eternal judgement’ on the cross during three earthly hours. And the unquenchable fire kindled in the gates of Jerusalem in 586 BC no longer burns there, having consumed her fortress (Jeremiah 17:27). Also, ‘the punishment of eternal fire’ on ancient Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 1:7) soon burned itself out in the days of Abraham – but its results were permanent and eternal.
Is there a significant difference between the eternal torment of Satan and his angels (Revelation 20: 10) and the eternal smoke of the human internees (Revelation 14:11) – since angels ‘cannot die’ (Luke 20:36)? We cannot be finally sure, because the two ‘Beasts’ tormented with Satan for ever and ever (Revelation 20:10) could either be institutions (like ‘Babylon’), or they just could be two individual men. Either way, hell will be a horrendous experience. Any holocaust is terrifying, but this will be unbearable because upon every doomed soul before God’s awesome, dazzling Great White Throne at the final assize will dawn the understanding of their lost potential, glorious, eternal destiny available to them in Christ – a cause for gnashing teeth and bitter wailing.
Who then will be sent to Hell?
The Son of God himself had more to say about hell than any other person in Scripture – and most of his statements on the subject occur in Matthew. He made it clear that those who deliberately reject him will be sent there (Matthew 10: 14-15). But nearly all his warnings about gehenna are addressed not to unbelievers but either to the strictly religious Jews or to disciples of his who:
- speak with contempt of other disciples (Matthew 5:21-26);
- indulge adulterous imagination (Matthew 5:27-30);
- work miracles but show no fruit of the Spirit – that is, Christ-like character (Matthew 7:15-23)
- withhold their witness to Christ through fear of others (Matthew 10:26-32)
- grow in God’s field as weeds (Matthew 13:36-43). Darnel looks like wheat externally but has a hollow black husk in contrast to the soft white kernel of genuine wheat; and holds its proud head high in harvestime, whereas heads of wheat bow humbly on their stalks!
Compare the bad fish in God’s gospel trawlnet (Matthew 13:47-50) -ie they profess to be under the influence of his rule;
- who stumble the faith and trust of children (Matthew 18:1- 14) -those young in natural years, and those adults who are young in faith;
- accept the gospel invitation but fail to put off ‘the old man’ and ‘put on Christ’ in character, attitude and behavioural change (Matthew 22:1-14);
- abuse the Master’s servants (Matthew 24:45-51);
- don’t keep topping up their lamps with the oil of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 25:1-13); cf. Ephesians 5:18;
- who are members of the Good Shepherd’s flock but offer no care to people in need (Matthew 25:31-46).
How vital it is to take hold of the grace of God for oneself and display one’s faith by works of love, thus making certain that hell will never be one’s destiny.