In 2015 Pew Research released a fascinating poll. Some 72 percent of all Americans believed in a literal heaven as a reward in the afterlife. What is interesting is that 85 percent of professing Christians said they believed in a literal heaven. (Shouldn’t it be 100 percent of Christians believing in heaven since the Bible talks about it quite a bit?) But what startles me is that the same poll shows that only 58 percent of Americans believed in a literal hell as a place of conscious torment in the afterlife.
Only 82 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 80 percent of Mainline Protestants, 60 percent of Roman Catholics, and 59 percent of Orthodox Christians believed in hell as an actual place where the damned will endure eternal punishment. Again, shouldn’t 100 percent of professing Christians believe in this teaching since it is taught so clearly in the Bible?
As a Christian, I believe in the existence of a real place of conscious eternal punishment commonly called “hell” because Jesus and the Apostles taught it. In the Old Testament God did not reveal much about the conscious state of humans after death, but what we do know is that everyone went to a place called in Hebrew “Sheol.” (For more information please see my previous article on where Jesus went when He died.)
However, God revealed much more information in the earthly life of Jesus and in the ministry of the Apostles. In fact, Jesus Himself spoke more about hell and the eternal condition of the lost than anyone else in the entire Bible.
Hell is described as a place of darkness and fire (Mark 9:43; Matthew 25:30; Jude 6-7,13). What kind of fire is dark? Fire in this world gives off light as well as warmth. But the punishment described as “fire” gives no light. It torments the lost in complete pitch darkness; it is some kind of “fire” that is not known in this world.
The word that Jesus uses in particular to describe hell is “Gehenna,” an Aramaic word taken from the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem where garbage and unclaimed bodies of beggars were burned. The stench was awful. The fires never went out. Jesus used the imagery of fire and maggots (“where their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched”) to describe an eternal writhing.
Of course Jesus and the Apostles used symbolic language, but symbols convey literal truth. What is the truth? The truth is that the reality of hell will be painful and more horrible than the symbolic language.
Hell is a place of intense sorrow and regret. There will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). Those who exist in hell will have eternity to play back their lives in their memories and remember why they are there.
Hell will be a place of destruction. The Greek word “olethros” is translated as “destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9 to describe the eternal punishment of the lost. But this Greek word does not mean “annihilation” or “disintegration.” Olethros does not mean the destruction of being, but rather the destruction of wellbeing! It is the complete ruination of all that is worthwhile in this life.
Hell is eternal. Just as God is eternal, and those who dwell with Him will live eternally, so the punishment meted out to those who live apart from Him is eternal. In Matthew 25:46 Jesus tells us that at the final judgment, there will be those who will “go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.” The Greek words used here for everlasting are “eis aionion.” Literally it says “unto the ages.” (The same word aionion is used in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 to describe the eternality of the punishment.)
This is the Greek way of expressing timelessness, and Jesus uses the same expression for both damnation and salvation. Just as those who live with God will have a forever conscious existence with Him, those who reject Him will consciously exist apart from Him forever.
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:22-31, Jesus tells us that the rich man went to Hades. As I explained in my previous article, this place for the dead was essentially two compartments: one place for the damned and one place for the saved with a great gulf fixed between the two. After Jesus’ resurrection he “evacuated” all the saved from Hades and took them to heaven where all believers dwell now (and where all believers immediately go upon dying).
However, the damned in Hades are still there, awaiting the final Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20: 11-15). The lost who are currently in Hades certainly are conscious. They know who they are, where they have been, they are concerned for their families, and yet they exhibit no repentance (Luke 16:22-31). And there is no hope or second chance for them in all of scripture.
At the Great White Throne they will be brought “to trial” where the books will be opened and all their deeds will be made known. And there they will receive the verdict. Hades will be emptied into the lake of fire (which Jesus calls “Gehenna” throughout the Gospels). In Gehenna there will be degrees of punishment (Matthew 11:20-24; 12:41-42; John 19:11; Luke 12:47-48; Hebrews 10:29).
OK, so the Bible teaches it. But why? Why is all this eternal punishment necessary? For the following reasons:
Without the final judgment and punishment of evil, then there is no justice. Think about it: Without hell the greatest criminals of history (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and all their henchmen) got away with it. Hitler never faced a trial. Stalin and Mao died peacefully in their own beds. They were never held accountable for the multiplied tens of millions of human beings they slaughtered. And all the murderers, rapists, kidnappers, slave traders, and the whole host of all the evil people you can imagine … got away with it.
Not everyone gets caught in this life. But if there is a hell (and there is), then they are being held accountable. They will face the judge of the universe, and they will pay for their crimes. Eternally.
Also, true love punishes evil. If God is truly loving, how could He just let evil keep going on and on? God is a God of justice, and hell is where His just sentence is carried out.
There are consequences to the free choices we free moral agents make. Love cannot be forced. Humans have the freedom to respond to God who is the only source of love and life — or to reject Him. Those who don’t want to be with God will have their desires granted. You get to spend eternity with the God you love. If you respond in faith to the God of the Bible (who is the only true God), then you will dwell with Him eternally. Those who don’t want Him will experience the consequence of being separated from the only source of love and life.
Finally (for this article at least) I ask my unbelieving friends, “How could you NOT believe in hell?” If there is an absolute truth of right and wrong (and there is), how can there NOT be a final reckoning and a final punishment? Just as God is eternal, so is His just wrath on His eternal creatures who have scorned Him.
Evil will be conquered, and those who reject Christ will be banished from His presence forever.
“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life, and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” John 3:36.