“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.”—Daniel 12:2
As a child I had a dream that I was in hell. I didn’t have nightmares often, but this one was very realistic (the testament being that I remember it so many years later). I thought of hell often, the terror and tragedy of it all. This fear eventually moved me to accept Jesus and his offer of salvation. As I’ve matured in the faith, I don’t think of hell as frequently. This seems to be a necessary and inevitable outgrowth of maturing love for God (1 John 4:18; Rom. 8:1). Yet I wonder if I’ve taken this to the other extreme; maybe the church has as well. Growing up I often heard sermons on hell and the proper response of faith to the gospel. Maybe the abundancy of these sermons, and the lack of lessons on the grace, mercy, and love of the Lord led us to swing to the other direction. Regardless, a lack of teaching on the reality and eternality of hell is a dangerous trend—one which seems to be increasingly popular.
So, what is the church’s teaching on hell?
Hell is an eternal reality
The word “hell” is a translation of the Greek word often pronounced “Gehenna.” This term was used to describe a place of fire and destruction, similar to Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 7). Historically, it was a condemned place where the kings of old offered their children in sacrifice to pagan gods (Jer. 7:31). In using this word, scripture places a tangible anchor for an intangible reality. When Jesus used this term he didn’t mean that individuals would be thrown into the literal valley, but it implied there is an unseen realm as real as the location in Jerusalem.
In fact, of the 12 times that the word is used in the Greek, 11 of the occurrences originate with Jesus (Matt. 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; Matt. 18:9). Jesus taught on hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. Of particular interest are his comments in Matthew 10:28:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Notice that there is a continued existence after death in which God “destroys” the body and soul in hell. This realm is described a place of infinite corruption (Mar 9:48), impenetrable darkness (Jude 13), and eternal isolation from the fountain of beauty and goodness (2 Thess. 1:9). Some like to teach that hell is temporary, an eventual annihilation of the soul occurring after temporary suffering, but scripture doesn’t allow this. Hell’s pain is described as a perpetual state of torment where the “fire isn’t quenched” and the “worm never dies.” Jesus used the same word to describe heaven (eternal) to describe hell, showing that both realms are equally enduring (Matt. 25:46).
This is not only the scriptural view of hell, but the historical one as well. The early Church Fathers viewed hell as a place of eternal torment (Justin: I Apol 12; 17; 28; 52; 57; Athenagoras: Plea for the Christians, 31). While history isn’t as authoritative as scripture, it can help critique our modern assumptions by filtering it through traditional orthodoxy. This isn’t a question of what is palatable, but what is true. The sad truth is that scripture, and historical interpretations of scripture, attest to the reality of hell.
Hell is a chosen reality
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “the gates of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 127). In The Great Divorce he writes, ““There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’” From Lewis’ standpoint, hell isn’t so much a place we are condemned but a reality we chose. Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God that “Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity” (80).
This truth is attested to in scripture as well. When humanity is determined to rebel against God, rejecting his love and grace, then he gives them exactly what they ask for:
“Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”—Romans 1:24-25
“They refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore, God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”—2 Thessalonians 2:10-12
Your eternal existence is simply an infinite echo of the life you previously chose.
Some reading this article who may be confused due to teachings they heard from other Christians. I want to make this point very clear: God wants you to be saved, but he will not force himself upon you (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). As Lewis wrote, “He cannot ravish, he can only woo.” In opposition to what our Calvinist friends teach, God gives you the ability to accept or reject his mercy (John 12:48; Heb. 5:8-9). Your acceptance of God’s salvation through faith-filled, penitent baptism is the “working of God” (Col. 2:12). You can choose to “save yourself” from the condemnation of eternal death through accepting the gospel (Acts 2:40). But, if you chose to reject Jesus, then your eternal existence will be a hell of your own choosing.
Hell is a sentenced reality
While ultimately, we chose our own eternal destination, this doesn’t negate the fact that Jesus has the final say in our judgment (John 12:48; Acts 17:30-31). It is God, not Satan, who condemns individuals to hell through his righteous decree (Matt. 10:28). When describing the return of Jesus, Paul writes that he “in flaming fire” will “inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8). One of the final pictures of Jesus in Revelation is the image of a king who “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15).
This is a picture of Jesus that many Christians, either through ignorant or negligent Bible study, aren’t familiar with. Some of this is due to the failure of their preachers to teach the truth concerning the wrath of God and the final condemnation of the wicked. While I understand the hesitancy in discussing such a deplorable subject, we also must recognize the importance and necessity of teaching difficult, unpalatable truths of scripture for the sake of the lost and the elect (Jude 3). If people don’t understand the terrible nature of the bad news, how can they understand their need for the good news?
I remember reading about a philosopher who was studying the subject of hell in the Berkley University Library, only to discover that most of the books were dated and dusty. After studying the subject, he commented that he found the very idea of hell as “both incredible and repulsive”, that the very idea of hell is the “maximum of evil.” No doubt, God would agree. It is because of this, in his infinite love, that he died to save us from His eternal contempt. Don’t live an eternal nightmare when you could enjoy infinite joy.
I plead with you, repent and believe the gospel. Otherwise, the darkness of eternal torment awaits.