What is Hell?
Hell means a lot of things, ranging from artistic colors to personal circumstances to a curse word. Our interest is to promote what the Bible says. This article will break up the discussion into four components:
Where did Hell come from?
The Bible attributes all existent things to God. God is the designer of Hell, and Jesus holds the keys to it.
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels!Matthew 25:41
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!Luke 12:4
Do not be afraid! I am the first and the last, and the one who lives! I was dead, but look, now I am alive—forever and ever—and I hold the keys of death and of Hades!Revelation 1:17-18
What is the Purpose of Hell?
Hell appears to be first prepared for the disobedient spirits (like the Satan) ref Matthew 25:41 above. This is a place of justice and judgement, where the most wicked of all beings will find final sentence. Hell, of course, stands as a direct contrast to Heaven – the place of peace and righteousness. Jesus often speaks of a dichotomy of eternal options: eternal life or eternal death (John 5:29). When we refuse to listen to our Creator we reject the life and purpose He gives. This spoils our expectation of receiving life or anything good. Our evil has set us on the path towards justice, and that justice does not look pretty. Our devotion to the wickedness of this world makes us “children destined for wrath.”
The purpose of Hell is not to torture or be a gleeful poking grounds. It is the final fulfillment of those who have spent their lives seeking to distance themselves from God by promoting themselves. It is fair and fitting, because God alone provides life and goodness, and those must be received in gratitude and obedience. Yes, the Satan and his worst of followers are there. But also the ones who subtlety undermine the goodness and holiness of God in private ways.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’Matthew 7:21-23
For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. With flaming fire he will mete outpunishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength,2 Thessalonians 1:6-9
So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death—the lake of fire. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.Revelation 20:12-15
Hell distinguishes the Holiness and Goodness of God from the selfish ambition of the Satan and those who follow his footsteps. It is an ugly but necessary part of Justice. Without it, there would be no true vindication of righteous suffering or ultimate punishment for evil.
Is Hell Literal or Figurative?
Both! First, we start with the literal location which the scriptures call “Ben Hinnom” or “Gehenna”. It was a region on the south side of Jerusalem which was used as the region refuse pile. It was a place where the worshippers of Molech would sacrifice their babies, the smell was atrocious, and the burning of compost was continual. Joshua 15:8, 2 Chronicles 28:3, Jeremiah 7:20, 31, 32, 2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 19:1-6, Nehemiah 3:13-14, Isaiah 66:24.
In Jesus’ day the trash pile at Gehenna was widely known as both a literal garbage heap, but also a symbol of all putrid unholiness. Jesus uses this place as a figure for where God haters and disobedient will be sent. Matthew 5:22, 29, 30, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 23:15, 33, Luke 12:5, James 3:6.
The hours of hell are visualized for us through the physical place and physical fire. But the real horror of hell is what it stands for: Undesirable waste, dealing with our own sickening bloodshed, distancing from God’s goodness, weeping and fits of anger. While God is the creator of the ‘place’ (non-geographical), the despair and despondency is a product of our own making. the Bible describes hell as a “lake of fire”. The extent of the substance is unknown, but the extent of the suffering is very real.
Is Hell Eternal?
One of the questions that often arises is “Is Hell really eternal?” How can God let people burn forever, especially for “small” offenses? How is eternity proportional to temporary crimes? To assuage this apparent discrepancy, some have suggested Hell is on a momentary. Other’s have introduced the idea of “purgatory” or a transition stage by which someone can graduate out of Hell. Others deny that anything like Hell will even exist. None of these have scripture to support them. They are arguments based on our emotions. We will likely not ever be able to fully make sense of Hell, but there are some fundamental suggestions we can lean on.
First, if eternal hell is not fair, so is eternal Heaven. If we want to grant an eternity of bliss with our creator, we must grant an eternity outside that realm. Second, our minds are so limited by time that our version of justice becomes limited. Even in modern justice systems we wrestle with assigning appropriate times and values as punishment against crime. If our understanding of sin is stilted, then so will our understanding of it’s fitting punishment. We can never be in a position to be the Judge, since we ourselves are guilty. God alone knows the fair punishment. God alone can mete it out. Arguing that Hell is not real or is not eternal because we don’t agree with it, shows that we don’t trust God to be Just and Fair.
After we have granted that God knows what He is doing, then we have to accept the unsettling and mournful reality that our sin is egregious and deserves eternal punishment. God’s holiness cannot be tampered with.
But in highlighting the severity of Hell we cannot miss one of the beauties of the Good news: Jesus has undergone a punishment fitting for all sin so that you can be saved from it! God is not calloused to the pain and suffering of Hell. He loved you so much He ‘went through hell’ so that you can avoid it. Isn’t this a message worth receiving? If you are unfamiliar with the Good News, find it here.