The Bible teaches that our ultimate destiny is either heaven or hell. In the previous article in this series, we saw that heaven is God’s home and the home of all who trust in Him. It’s a place of great beauty where they will be no sin and we will be worshipping, serving and reigning with the Lord Jesus. This article looks at what the Bible says about hell.
The Greek word “Gehenna” (Strongs #1067) meant “the Valley of Hinnom”, which was near Jerusalem. This place was known for its burning fires (Is. 30:33); it was where children were sacrificed by fire to the heathen gods of Baal and Molech (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6; Jer. 7:31, 19:2-6; 32:35). After the practice of child sacrifice was outlawed by King Josiah (2 Ki. 23:10), it was the city waste dump (Jer. 19:2) and anything deemed unclean (including the bodies of executed criminals) was incinerated and a fire was constantly burning there. It also became their cemetery when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem (Jer. 7:32-33; 19:6-13). By the time of Jesus Christ, the deep, constantly-burning Valley of Gehenna, was thought of as the place “down there” where the wicked would eventually be cast into the flames for destruction. So in Scripture, the word “Gehenna” became a metaphor and synonym for hell, the place of eternal punishment.
God’s final judgement
The book of Revelation was the last to be written in the Bible and the one that says the most about the future. After the church has been raptured to heaven, Revelation describes a period of great judgement on earth called the tribulation, which is followed by Jesus returning to establish His kingdom on earth for 1,000 years, and then Satan will lead a final rebellion against God, which will be judged by fire from heaven.
Then we read, And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever (Rev. 20:10NIV). The fate of the trinity of evil (Satan, the beast, and the false prophet) is called the “lake of burning sulphur” where they will be tormented forever. So, hell is a place of eternal torment.
The next scene is a court with the accused before the judge, who is on a throne. Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from His presence, and there was no place for them (Rev. 20:11). Here we see Jesus Christ on a great white throne about to judge mankind. This is after the end of the world as we know it (2 Pt. 3:10). Jesus is the judge because “the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (Jn. 5:22). It’s a great throne because of the issues involved and white because of His perfection holiness and purity. God’s greatest attribute is His holiness – the word is repeated “holy, holy holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Is. 6:3; Rev. 4:8).
Then John saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done (Rev. 20:12-13). Here we see two kinds of records: the book of life and records of people’s lives. The book of life lists all those who have received Christ as their personal Saviour and who will inherit eternal life. They are raised to life in what the Bible calls the first resurrection (Rev. 20:5). Jesus told His followers not to rejoice in what they had done, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20). The most important thing in life is: “Is my name written in the book of life?”.
Others will be raised in the second resurrection (Rev. 20:5) and judged according to what they had done in life (Rom. 2:6). It is all preserved in God’s great library, like the YouTube website. Books are used as symbols here; we would probably use videos. Just as there will be degrees of reward in heaven (1 Cor. 3:12-15), so there will be degrees of punishment in hell (Mt. 11:22; Lk. 12:47-48). The depth of suffering in hell is conditional on the opportunities rejected and the sins indulged.
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14-15). The judgement is to be thrown into the lake of fire, which is also called “the second death”. As death involves the separation of the body from the spirit and soul, and Hades is where the spirit and soul are after death, hell involves the body, spirit and soul.
So hell is the judgement for sinners who refuse or ignore God’s free gift of eternal life. The Bible is full of references of the punishment of the wicked (Rom. 2:5-12; Gal. 6:7-8; Heb. 10:29-31; Rev. 20:11-15). In fact it has more references to hell than it does to heaven.
We will now look at what else the Bible tells us about hell. As we are looking at eternity which we haven’t experienced, the Bible uses metaphors to express what it is like. A metaphor is figurative language which says that one thing is like another thing in certain ways.
Characteristics of hell
In at least 9 verses, hell is described as being “eternal” or “everlasting” or “for ever” or “for ever and ever”, which means that it is endless (Mt. 18:8; 25:41, 46; Mk. 3:29; 2 Th. 1:9; Heb. 6:2; Jude 7, Rev. 14:11; 20:10). After all we are looking at eternity. For example, it is referred to as “eternal judgement” (Heb. 6:2). This is the only characteristic of hell that is like heaven; they are both eternal.
Made for Satan and demons
God made hell for Satan and his angels (demons), but unfortunately many people have chosen to go there as well: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). In contrast, heaven is the home of God and His angels and all true Christians. The sin that sends people to hell is the refusal to submit to Jesus Christ: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (Jn. 3:36).
Like a fire
In at least 18 verses, hell is described as involving “fire” or “being burned” or a “blazing furnace” or a “lake of fire” or a “fiery lake of burning sulphur” (Mt. 3:12; 5:22; 13:30,40,42,50; 18:8, 9; 25:41; Mk. 9:44,48; Lk.3:17; Jude 7; Rev. 19:20; 20:10,14,15; 21:8). The fire symbolises God’s judgement: the process of judgement is likened to the action of fire. Fire is said to test the believer’s work or service at the Judgement Seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:10). In heaven the judgement is for rewards, while in hell it is an eternal reminder of one’s sin.
Like a second death
In at least 3 verses hell is described as being a “second death” (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). Death involves separation and a change of state. In hell people are separated from God and all that is good. This is the opposite of heaven, where instead of eternal death there will be eternal life with God and all that is good.
In at least 6 verses hell is described as being “destroyed” or suffering “destruction” or to “destroy both body and soul” or to “perish” (Mt. 7:13; 10:28; Jn. 3:16; Phil. 3:19; 1 Th. 1:9; Heb. 10:39). “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might on the day He comes to be glorified in His holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed” (2 Th. 1:9-10). It means separation from the Lord, never to see the glory of His power, and “everlasting destruction”, which means loss of well-being, or ruin as far as the purpose of existence is concerned (Lk. 5:37), not the end of existence. Although some people believe that unbelievers cease to exist before God sets up the new heaven and the new earth, the Bible calls hell “eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46).
In at least 2 verses hell is described as involving “torment” or being “tormented” (Rev. 14:11; 20:10). For example the rich man was in torment and agony when he was in Hades, which is a precursor to hell (Lk. 16:23). This is the result of being eternally reminded of one’s sin, and contrasted by the joy of heaven.
There is no relief
In at least 5 verses the suffering in hell is described as being “unquenchable” or the “fire never goes out” or it continues “day and night” or there is “no rest day or night” or “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mt. 3:12; Mk. 9:44, 48; Lk.3:17; Rev. 14:11; 20:10). For example, Abraham told the rich man in Hades “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Lk. 16:26). Like water in a lake, there is no way out or means of escape. There is no relief. This means that the torment is continual, whereas there is always joy in heaven .
Weeping and gnashing of teeth
In at least 6 verses hell is described as involving “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). Here we have weeping and strong emotions where one’s teeth are clenched and grinding together (either due to anger or pain). This is opposite to heaven, where there will be no more sorrow or crying or pain.
In at least 4 verses hell is described as involving “darkness” or “blackest darkness” (Mt. 8:12; 22:13; 2 Pt. 2:17; Jude 13). This means it is away from God who is the source of light. This is opposite to heaven, where people are with God.
Like being outside
In at least 4 verses hell is described as being “outside” (Mt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Rev. 22:15). This means it is outside heaven and away from God, which is the opposite of heaven.
What will people be doing?
From the above we can see that people in hell will be being reminded of their sins, separated from God and all that is good, which will lead to being continually tormented, without relief, crying, and angry. This is opposite to those in heaven who will be worshipping, serving and reigning with the Lord.
Before the eternal state begins, Jesus promised to return for His people at the rapture and then to return in power and glory to judge the sinful world and usher in His millennial reign over the earth. Although believers look forward to this time, we don’t know when it will occur, but it could be soon. Although John wrote Revelation about 1,900 years ago and the Lord hasn’t come yet, our eternal destiny is set the moment we die, which could be very soon. In this sense, heaven and hell could be a breath away.
Lessons for us
The Bible has given us a glimpse into what hell is like. In the Bible, future events are always foretold in order to bring about changes in our present actions. What does this mean to us today?
First, don’t use the word “hell” as a swear word. It’s a place of eternal suffering, not a word to use when you are frustrated. The Bible warns about using “unwholesome talk” (Eph. 4:29).
Second, let’s fear God, because hell is a real place. Jesus told His disciples, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him” (Lk 12:4-5).
Third, you don’t want to be there. The only way to avoid hell is to have your name written in the book of life. There are two possible destinies. If your name is written in the book of life, you enter into eternal life. If you refuse God’s offer, then your ultimate fate is the lake of fire.
The Bible says, that God loved the people of the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him will not perish in hell but have eternal life in heaven (Jn. 3:16). Also, the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). That’s why we should reach out to people with the gospel message. Like Paul and Apollos, we can plant and water the seed of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can make it grow (1 Cor. 3:6).
Written, July 2010
See the other article in this series: What is heaven like?
Also see: Would a loving God send people to hell?