This is the kind of topic that can generate some pretty ‘heated’ discussion! It’s also one that’s not helped by our habit of making it a subject of jokes (like that lame attempt in the prior sentence) even though it’s clearly not a joking matter. Then too, there’s the fact that our perception of Hell is colored by lots of imaginative speculation, ranging from the classic (e.g., Dante Alighieri‘s 14th century Inferno) to the cartoonish (the comics page of your daily paper). Probably no other ‘place’ is as widely depicted, but less well understood.
So, having read this far, you’re perhaps expecting that this Fish Hooks will present the Biblical answers that will sweep away all questions. Well, that’s not going to happen! The Bible, you see, doesn’t provide us with a definitive picture of Hell (or Heaven either, for that matter). Now make no mistake, the Bible does consistently state the ‘hellish’ consequences for those who defy God – but the exact nature is invariably couched in words and images that are more suggestive than literal.
Take one of our most familiar images: that of Hell as a fiery place. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously said: “whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). However, the word used in the original text (also Matthew 10:28 and Mark 9:43) is “Gehenna,” which is an allusion to a small valley in Jerusalem that was ‘accursed’ because ancient kings of Judah used to burn their children there as offerings to the heathen god Moloch (Jeremiah 7:30-33). Some have also said that at the time of Jesus this was the city dump where refuse was constantly being incinerated. In any case, this unsavory landmark is clearly being used as a metaphor for a desolate place of destruction. Jesus also speaks of “casting into darkness” (e.g., Matthew 18:11-12) which seems incompatible with literal fire. Rather, since being burnt alive is one of the most horrible experiences known to man, the extreme misery seems to be the point we are supposed to take away from these images.
Similarly, other Biblical passages speak of ‘Sheol’ and ‘Hades’ which are respectively traditional Hebrew and Greek names for where the dead reside. Again, when the Bible uses any of these terms, it is drawing on familiar contemporary images – not necessarily speaking of a literal ‘place.’
Though we are very limited in terms of what we can say with Biblical confidence about the nature of either Heaven or Hell, we can say with complete confidence that the Bible teaches drastically different outcomes for those who defy God and those who place their trust in Him – and that there is not a middle ground. Whether Hell is a ‘place’ in anything like the way we usually understand that word is perhaps open to debate, but it unquestionably exists as a condition. A way to think about this is to recognize that when man chose to rebel against God, we were removed from His immediate presence, resulting in the misery that describes so much of the current human condition (Genesis 3). God continues to lovingly interact with humankind in the hope that we will return to Him, and thus we all continue to experience His ongoing blessings in our daily lives (Matthew 5:45). But when Christ returns in His final judgement, the banishment will become complete: while those who chose God will dwell eternally in His intimate presence, those who chose rebellion will be utterly cut off from Him (2 Thessalonians 1:9) – and that’s the ultimate desolation and torment.
So we see that ‘pat answers’ about the nature of Hell aren’t provided by the Bible – and that’s just fine! First of all, we are talking about something that transcends any ordinary experience: no human in history has ever experienced total isolation from God’s grace*, and that would be truly indescribable anguish. Secondly, we needn’t focus our attention on a destiny from which God has committed Himself to delivering us. And that leads us back to the ‘asterisk’ in that earlier sentence: Jesus in His human incarnation DID experience the agony of complete separation from the Father in His death on the cross (Matthew 27:46). And because He paid the price on our behalf, we who trust in that sacrifice need never know Hell!
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)