Hell in the Bible

In a time when the apostate church is in full swing, it is now more pressing than ever to defend obvious biblical teachings. At least, what ought to be obvious. You know, the sorts of things that even those with a basic commitment to Scripture should accept. However, the unbelief that now characterizes many churchgoers and “Christian” leaders is utterly astonishing. While paying homage to the Bible, they fiercely reject much of what it has to say.

Anyone familiar with my writings knows that I have a massive axe to grind with those who directly dismiss clear biblical teachings, choosing instead to fill their “itching ears” with the doctrines of men.

The topic at hand is definitively one of those instances.

With that said, let me cut to the chase and state that hell is real. It’s vividly described in the Bible, and not simply as a metaphor or a cute teaching tale. Furthermore, it’s certainly not something that “we create here on earth,” nor is it some kind of synonym for “evil” or “sin,” as scholar Tim Mackie—with the Bible Project—has recently (and heretically) taught.

I repeat: hell is a real existence. Or, I should say, it will be a real existence. But I’ll get to that.

The doctrine of hell is without question one that is founded upon the words of Jesus. Biblically speaking, Jesus introduced the full-blown view that the wicked and unrepentant will suffer in the afterlife. Certainly, the OT contains some references to this reality (like Dan 12:2) but they are scarce; God simply had not revealed much about the issue to that point. The same could be said about demonic activity, the nature of the resurrection, many of the end time events, and others.

It was Jesus’ entrance into the world that really shed light on what hell is and what it’s going to be about. The unavoidable truth is that Jesus spoke about hell far more often than most biblical “authorities” of the 21st century would ever care to admit.

When he discussed hell, Jesus’ term of choice was “Gehenna.” This term comes from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, meaning “valley of Hinnom.” It was originally located southwest of Jerusalem, and was utilized by the Ammonites as a place to sacrifice their own children to the god Moloch. It is likely that even the Israelites participated in this heinous practice over the centuries! It later became a garbage heap where refuse was seemingly always burning. Jesus referenced this location as an indicator of the kind of place that will await the ungodly after judgment. It is a place of evil, terror, suffering and fiery destruction.

In all, Gehenna (geenna) appears twelve times in the NT and Jesus is responsible for eleven of them (James 3:6 is the other). While many translations and believers of our time tend to equate Hades with hell, it is not accurate to do so. (I speak about Hades in this blog, when dealing with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.) Theologian Robert P. Lightner correctly points this out for us, saying: “Whereas Hades is the intermediate state, Gehenna is eternal hell. Wherever it is used in the NT, it always means the place of eternal damnation.”[1] Hades is the realm of the dead, and Gehenna is hell.

Of course, I disagree that there is any such thing as an “intermediate state,” where deceased people roam as disembodied spirits before the return of Christ. That belief forms the basis of The Death Myth.

But let’s press on . . .

For easy reference, this link will show you all the places where Jesus used the term Gehenna and how he did so.

Jesus—and other biblical characters—spoke about Gehenna in other ways as well. Gehenna is the “lake of fire,” the place of ultimate destruction, or the place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The Book of Revelation calls a sentence to Gehenna the “second death.” It’s the only avoidable type of death, and we should do so at all costs:

“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (21:8)

Jesus spoke about the same reality in Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Yes, “hell” here is—you guessed it—Gehenna (not Hades).

What is hell like?

As I already touched upon, the Bible describes hell as a place of fiery torment. It is seen as a “lake of fire and brimstone”:

“And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).

Jesus adds in Mark 9:47-48 that the fires of hell are never “quenched” or “extinguished” (sbennumi). Regardless of what happens to each individual, hell will stay lit endlessly. If nothing else, for Satan and his minions. (I discuss more about the duration of hell later on.)

On top of involving fiery destruction, the Bible also reveals that hell is a place of absolute darkness, where one remains permanently estranged from God.

Jude 1:13 and 2 Peter 2:1 describe this aspect of damnation by adding a different wrinkle to the concept. Take the Jude passage, which discusses the fate of the ungodly (some of whom were masquerading as believers):

“They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.”

Notice also that the “blackest darkness” is said to have been reserved for the wicked. The term for “reserve” is téreó, and it suggests that this darkness is being “guarded” or preserved for a later time. Sounds like when Jesus said “the place prepared” for Satan and the demons, right?

When discussing the issue of believers who continue in sin, the author of Hebrews makes a powerful contribution to this discussion:

“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:26-31, my emphasis).

This illustrates that some who claim to follow God, only in word but not in deed, will experience the same punishment as the unrepentant. In fact, perhaps a worse punishment (2 Pet. 2:20)! This of course means that nonbelievers will also be condemned.

In 2 Thessalonians, Paul echoed the teachings of Hebrews and adds an interesting detail about the nature of hell:

“He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (1:8-9).

Besides affirming that the unrepentant will be punished and “shut out from the presence of the Lord,” Paul specifically notes the duration of this existence: it is “everlasting.” Some translations render this term as “eternal” instead, being that the Greek word used here (aiónios) can be viewed that way, too.

This leads naturally to the question, how long does hell last? In all honesty, this opens up into a rather large and intricate discussion; one that I cannot cover in full detail here.

What I can say is that, in general, the term carries with it the idea of something happening in an “age-long” way. That is, a perpetual occurrence that may never cease OR will only cease when it has accomplished its task. “Everlasting” anything is largely a contextual idea. In the case of the many places where Scripture talks about inheriting eternal life or salvation (like Mk. 10:30 and Jn. 3:16), the context suggests a never-ending duration. We are saved for all time.

Likewise, the addition of the phrase day and night “forever and ever”—literally, “to the ages of the ages”—in Revelation 20:10 certainly suggests that hell will never cease to burn for the unholy trinity of Revelation. That is, for the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.

Personally, my view is that the “everlasting” nature of hell involves a punishment that 1) Always fits the crime/s (and so varies from being to being) and 2) Lasts as long as necessary (to complete its course). This view eliminates the possibility of strict annihilationism, whereby “hell” is reduced to the person simply ceasing to exist or being “burned up in a flash.” At the same time, it allows for a more moderate form of annihilationism, which would be the idea that punishment varies between entities and that it may not always last—as salvation does—“forever and ever” or endlessly.

Both the duration and the severity of the punishment each (unsaved) person will endure in hell is dependent upon their individual deeds and rebelliousness.

I think this is also consistent with the clear biblical teaching that all human beings will be judged according to their deeds (Rom. 2:6, Mt. 16:27, Rev. 22:12). We can be sure of this much: At the Day of Judgment, God will render to all people a totally just verdict of either punishment or reward.

When will hell be experienced?

The Bible unequivocally describes hell as a future existence. That’s right: no one—not Hitler, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Epstein (if he’s dead?), or any demon—is currently living in hell. Here are a few reasons why we can be sure of that.

First, Jesus encountered demons who flatly confessed that their destruction lay ahead of them, at an “appointed time” in the future: “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. ‘Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Mt. 8:28).

Second, Jesus specifically told us that hell is a place “prepared”—that is, not currently in use—for Satan and the demons: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). Earlier in the passage, Jesus makes it clear when this will occur: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory” (Mt. 25:31a).

Unless the “secret Rapture” already occurred and took far fewer people than its advocates advertise (note the sarcasm), Jesus has not returned. Hence, Satan and the demons are not presently living in hell.

Third, Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds (or Tares) explicitly tells us that no one is going to be sentenced to hell (or anywhere) prior to the Great Judgment:

“Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13:40-42).

This is also explained in Revelation 20, where the unrepentant are thrown into the “lake of fire” after  Satan, the beast, and the false prophet are sent there. (For more on the beasts of Revelation 13, see this blog.)

Other examples could even be examined, like the aforementioned Jude 1:13 and 2 Peter 2:17. Again, the “blackest darkness” is reserved for the ungodly.

What do we need to know about hell?

As I have mentioned several times already, one thing we need to know about hell is that it’s going to be a real location for the wicked and unrepentant. Hell is not a metaphor, a symbol, or a parallel expression for some other term (like evil or sin). It’s also not simply mortal death. Rather, it is the inexpressible fate of the evil spiritual forces and the ungodly people who followed them in life.

With this said, it is also important to note that neither Jesus nor the biblical authors were “hell obsessed,” or anything of the sort. They took absolutely no pleasure in talking about the issue, because Jesus came—at least in part—to ensure that hell does not need to be our end.  

That leads to the second critical thing to know: hell is completely avoidable.

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross enabled those who believe to be pardoned and spared—yes, I said spared—of the wrath that would otherwise be set upon us. Romans 3:25 reveals that Jesus was “displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (NASB). By “propitiation,” it means “a sin offering, by which the wrath of the deity shall be appeased.” Jesus’ atonement enables the faithful to avoid the wrath that is coming upon the rest of the world. This is not about escaping the world before the great Day of Tribulation, as “secret Rapture” proponents assert. Instead, it is about ensuring that we do not “perish” through the “second death.” That is the end-result of rejecting Christ.

Natural death must come to all who die before Christ’s return, but spiritual death will come only to those who reject God and refuse to follow Him.

Unfortunately, the plain truth is that many people have, are, and will always choose not to follow Jesus. In doing so, they will be unable to avoid this most grievous penalty for their sins.

In closing, there is another point I would like to note, and it’s something I fear a lot of people have almost no grasp of. Because of that, they do not understand why the Bible speaks about hell or why it will be necessary. There are evil people in this world, and some almost incomprehensively so. Our world is filled with pedophiles, murderers, rapists, sex traffickers, those who sacrifice children (yes, do some digging and you’ll see), and every other vile thing imaginable (and unimaginable).

Many are unable to see the horrific nature of such things because they are not directly affected by them.

But I ask you: should there be no recourse for these heinous acts? Does mortal death sufficiently account for the “repayment” that God has promised for those who have killed and persecuted His people? I have heard many say that they “can’t believe in a God who would send someone to hell.” My reply is always the same: I can’t believe in a God who wouldn’t.

Hell is a biblical certainty that, while terribly unfortunate, is utterly necessary. To believe otherwise is to reject what is abundantly clear in Scripture.

Looking for a new book to read? Check out my books below:

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

Missing Verses: 15 Beliefs the Bible Doesn’t Teach

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

References and notes:

[1] Lightner, R.P. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theolog y. Ed. Walter A. Elwell.2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996. See pg. 548.

Author: Brian M. Rossiter

I am a Christian teacher, author, and lecturer. Most importantly, I am a truth-seeker. My research has led me to both believe in and defend the veracity of the Bible, evaluating my own personal views in light of its teachings along the way. In addition to my blogs, I have written several books: "The Death Myth," "God Made the Aliens," "Spiritual Things," and most recently, "Missing Verses: 15 Beliefs the Bible Doesn't Teach." My hope in these endeavors is to give skeptics reasons to believe, to strengthen the faith of those who already do, and to challenge each of us to truly evaluate our own worldviews.

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