“Hell” is now more of a curse word to most people than a fearful potential future reality. A robust number of people still believe that there is a hell; they seem equally confident that they will not go there. We generally do not like to think or talk about hell; we are quite concerned about and skeptical of those people who do. Hell has become more of a stumbling block to Christians than any point of concern: so many wonder how a loving God could send anyone to hell, and what the Bible says about hell is generally an embarrassment to many. And yet, of all people, Jesus of Nazareth spoke more about hell than anyone else in the pages of Scripture. If Jesus discussed hell, then those of us who would seek to follow after Him do well to explore what He had to say about it.
Most instances of “hell” in the New Testament translate the Greek term Gehenna (so Matthew 5:22, 29, 30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33, Mark 9:43, 45, 47, Luke 12:5, James 3:5-6). “Gehenna” itself translates Hebrew for the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom,” a valley outside of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:8). Unfaithful kings of Judah built altars to Molech and offered their children as sacrifices to that god there (2 Chronicles 28:3, 2 Chronicles 33:6, Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:6; 32:35). Later Jewish people considered the place cursed; they deposited and burned their trash there. The sight and stench must have been particularly awful; the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom therefore provided an extremely powerful and visceral image to describe a place of suffering and torment. Just as one would go to great lengths to avoid falling into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, so Jesus encouraged those who heard Him to do whatever it took to avoid being cast into Gehenna, or hell.
At other times Jesus spoke of “the outer darkness,” often noting how it is a place of “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:10-12, 22:1-13, 25:14-30). In each of these passages Jesus indicated that disobedient members among the people of God would be cast there. The imagery fits the audience: “outer darkness” would be a place well beyond any light; God is the light, and in Him is no darkness (John 1:4, 1 John 1:5); therefore, the “outer darkness” involves complete and thorough separation from God. How awful it would be for those who presumed to be near to God to learn they are to be cast as far from Him as possible! This darkness is not a “neutral” place; it is a place of trauma, vividly illustrated by “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth.”
In a similar vein Jesus envisioned a day when those who performed iniquity would be cast into a furnace of fire, in which would be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:36-43). Jesus showed John a vision of the day of judgment in this way: all those whose names were not found in the book of life were cast into the lake of fire along with Satan and his minions (Revelation 20:10-15). The lake of fire also features brimstone, as a place of constant torment; the second death, final separation from God and all that is light and life.
All of these images point to a similar place; it is a place where fire is not quenched, where people suffer and gnash their teeth, a place of darkness, separated from God. Each of these images tells us something about the nature of hell; above all things, it should dissuade us from taking any chances lest we get sent there!
The Scriptures also testify regarding who will be cast into hell: those who do not know God and who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). They are those who have committed sin and iniquity and did not repent (Matthew 13:36-43, Romans 2:8-9, Revelation 21:8). Believers cannot become complacent, confident their belief alone will rescue them; not a few warnings about hell are directed specifically to believers who do not actually do what the Father says (Matthew 7:21-23), and who prove to be unproductive servants (Matthew 25:14-30). God will judge impartially (Romans 2:5-11).
While Jesus spoke many times regarding hell, and has provided richly evocative imagery, much has been left unrevealed. Much of what people today imagine regarding hell derives more from later flights of imagination and Dante’s Inferno than anything recorded in Scripture. Hell is not controlled by Satan and a host of demons; as seen in Revelation 20:10, Satan and his demons themselves are cast into hell in God’s judgment. We are not told exactly how those who are in hell experience their suffering and torment. Dante vividly described how he imagined the tortures of hell were meted out; a contrasting view would be C.S. Lewis’ portrayal of people ever resisting the good inherent in God as seen in The Great Divorce. Therefore, what most people reject about hell are matters of belief not found in Scripture. We do well to remember how we imagine hell is just that, our imagination, and the reality might be quite different from what we might expect. Yet, above all things, we hope and pray that none of us find out what hell is like!
While the concept of hell may seem unpleasant to Westerners, a spiritual world without at least the potential for the existence of hell would be much worse. People might declare how they cannot believe a loving God could send anyone to hell. Would they really want to serve a God who had no hell to which to send people like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, or other heinous sinners? How could God be serious about justice if there is no actual penalty to be paid for transgression? The existence of hell is a reminder of God’s justice, a witness to the importance of doing the right and forsaking the wrong, and confidence for all who suffer oppression and degradation that God will call their oppressors into account and justice will be satisfied. In truth the argument is a matter of degree: most people can not only imagine but even expect God to cast the “truly wicked” into hell; they just imagine that God will not send people like them to hell. Such people too quickly absolve themselves of their evil and iniquity, having been deceived into doing so (Hebrews 3:13); we all deserve condemnation, for we have all transgressed the will of God, but thanks be to God that a way of rescue from condemnation has been offered through Jesus Christ (Romans 3:20-28, 6:15-23).
Furthermore, how can God be “loving” while forcing those who wanted little to nothing to do with Him as manifest in their thoughts, words, and deeds to spend eternity with Him (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, Revelation 21:1-22:6)? C.S. Lewis rightly noted that there will be two types of people on the day of Judgment: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” God will not compel or coerce; if people wish to live in ways contrary to God’s purposes, then they will spend eternity with the consequences.
Hell is a most unpleasant place; we should not wish it upon our worst enemy. God does not want anyone to go to hell but for all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); those who would follow God do well to maintain the same posture toward their fellow man. Jesus’ warnings about hell were not designed to extend further condemnation for those already aware of their sinfulness; instead, Jesus condemned the very religious people who were the quickest to condemn others (e.g. Matthew 23:33)! Nevertheless, we ought not trifle with the concept of hell. We should want to avoid hell and exhort all with whom we come into contact to avoid it as well. Those who suffer torment would want those whom they love to avoid that torment above all things (cf. Luke 16:27-28)! May we seek to serve God in Christ, see to ourselves, and encourage all to live so as to avoid the hell of fire!
Ethan R. Longhenry