I don’t particularly like writing or thinking about hell. It’s been said if you preach on hell, you should do so with a tear in your eye. The topic of hell must be treated with biblical fidelity but also with compassion for neighbor. Nevertheless, we regularly need biblical resources on hell since there are constant attacks to undermine it.
According to Scripture, what is hell like? What follows is not a biblical theology on hell, but rather a description of hell from just two words from Jesus: “Unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43). From these two words alone, we can extract the following:
Hell is real.
Jesus spoke more about hell than he spoke about heaven, and he spoke more about hell than any other person in the Bible. Hell is a real, physical place. It’s not fictional. It’s not hyperbole. It’s not some mystical nightmare. It’s a real, conscientious place of eternal torment for those who reject God. Jesus speaks of hell as the “unquenchable fire,” and there is no falsehood in Jesus.
As many biblical resources will point out, the word for hell used in this passage is the word Gehenna. It points to Isaiah 66:24, which describes the eternal fate of those who reject God. The word Gehenna, translated as “hell,” comes from the word Hinnom, meaning the “valley of the [son of] Hinnom.” This was the valley on the southern side of the city of Jerusalem, which in the Old Testament was tragically used for human sacrifices. King Josiah, one of the good kings, ended it (2 Kings 23:10). But the place came to be used for dumping garbage, and consequently, fire burning the garbage. In the intertestamental time (between Malachi and Matthew), it became known as the place of divine judgment. So when Jesus uses the word “hell,” his listeners receive a culturally understandable graphic to understand what he means. He’s talking about a real place.
Hell is eternal.
“Unquenchable” removes the possibility of the torment of hell being alleviated. It is crucial to understand hell as eternal. Interestingly, some of the heretical views opposing hell don’t attack the reality of a painful afterlife for those who reject God, but they reject that this painful afterlife lasts forever. Purgatory is one such example. Broadly, purgatory is a belief that insists some people go to a place of suffering when they die for a while, but are eventually released. But the word “unquenchable” removes the possibility of purgatory.
John Calvin states, “We are bound, therefore, to raise our voice to its highest pitch, and cry aloud that purgatory is a deadly device of Satan; that it makes void the cross of Christ; that it offers intolerable insult to the divine mercy; that it undermines and overthrows our faith.”
Others believe in something called annihilationism which maintains the idea that a human body can be annihilated in hell, and no longer feel pain. The well-respected John Stott held this view. However, both purgatory and annihilationism do not have biblical warrant. Jesus dismantles the arguments for both with one word: “unquenchable.”
Hell is a place of unending torment.
In my denomination’s statement of faith, hell is described as “eternal conscious punishment.” The torment is a reflection of God’s majesty and glory which was not properly recognized by the unrepentant sinner on earth and is a demonstration of God’s justice. J. Warner Wallace says, “The loving nature of God requires justice if it is to be meaningful, and the justice of God requires punishment if it is to be fair.” Eternal conscious punishment magnifies the justice of God.
Yet another heretical view on hell is universalism, which maintains that everyone is going to heaven upon death. Once I remember talking with someone about the afterlife, and she referred to the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 2 where Paul talks about every knee bowing and every tongue confessing the Lordship of Christ (Phil. 2:9-11). If memory serves, this person’s translation of this verse teaches universalism. However, that’s not what Paul means. Instead, Paul is teaching that, in light of his finished work for God’s people, Christ has received status and authority that will be acknowledged one day by all people, not that all people are going to heaven.
Responding to the Doctrine of Hell
How do we respond? I encourage you to watch your choice of words and never speak flippantly about hell. Don’t use the word “hell” casually when talking about football, work, or school. When speaking on hell, do so in a mature, thoughtful, and compassionate manner.
Hell should make you lament those who are perishing apart from Christ. It should cause us to be zealous in evangelism and extremely compassionate to all people. God is never under obligation to be gracious or merciful. So if you have been the recipient of his grace, despite present difficulties, there should be a sense of inward joy and thankfulness in your life.
Paradoxically, the doctrine of hell can be comforting for God’s people. It’s a reminder that God’s justice will eventually be perfectly exercised, including unrepentant sinners who have caused us great personal harm. I recently had somewhat of a rough week which led to an MRI. But I studied Mark 9:42-50 deeply that week. The text encouraged me. Sure, it would be great to lose a few more pounds, have started saving earlier, and have better health. But hell is far worse than any undesired circumstance. Those in Christ have been rescued from hell forever, and that is a reason to express regular heartfelt thanks to God.
What about unsaved loved ones? Perhaps you have shared the gospel with unsaved family and friends and prayed for their conversion, but have seen no fruit. You want so badly for them to turn to Christ, but you know that only God can save them. Surely, this is something to lament. But the verse that has encouraged me most over the years is Genesis 18:25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Despite unanswered questions and the possibility of not seeing lost friends regenerated, we can find great comfort in God’s perfect justice and wisdom.