The nature of hell

Hell is as an existence as real as this one. Jesus doesn’t do small print. He is honest. He doesn’t hide away the difficult truths. And as the Son of God he warned people about hell on numerous occasions. Yet the language he and the Bible uses, is metaphorical. And this has led to some debate.

You see on one hand certain passages stress that hell is a place of complete and permanent destruction. When referring to people, the "destroy" word group usually (though not exclusively) refers to a cessation of life. Moreover, much New Testament language on hell is taken from the Old Testament images of God’s judgement as like the burning of unwanted chaff at harvest or the consuming power of unquenchable and eternal fires.[1] And an actual consideration of the passages concerned really does show that these images were not intended to suggest that such fire and what it burns would literally exist forever (though they may). Rather, they were portrayals of the irrepressible (and so unquenchable) burning anger of God at sin - an anger that irreversibly (and so eternally) destroys its object. So in 2 Kings 22v17 God declares about Judah: "Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched." (Do look up the passages in the footnotes) [2].

The paradigm the Bible itself gives for this is the destruction of OT cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah by "eternal fire" (Jude 1v7). The metaphor doesn’t mean the fires are still burning, but stresses that those places were reduced to rubble, never to rise again. And in this, the fires were unquenchable in that they could not be stopped from doing their work, and so these places could not be saved from their destruction. This is similar to saying that the great fires that recently swept Australia were unquenchable. The firemen could not put them out, and so they utterly destroyed the land, buildings and people in their path.

When Jesus speaks of eternal or unquenchable fire then, his focus may not therefore be on the length or experience of hell's destructive work per se, but the fact that no matter how long it takes, it is irrepressible, irreversible and so terrible.

Having noted all this, there are passages that suggest hell is actually a place of conscious torment that will last forever. Torment without hope of an end is the rich man’s experience as he tastes hell in awaiting the judgement (Luke 16v23ff). And it is certainly hard to deny that this is the plain sense of Revelation 14v11: “The smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beasts and his image…” We should note here that Jesus himself equates hell with the lake of fire where the devil "will be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Matt 25v41-46 and Rev 20v10).

Especially significant is the fact that in Matthew 25v46 he equates the eternality of "punishment" with that of eternal life. And he does so having described that punishment, throughout that particular gospel and in the immediate context in particular, not as a cessation of being but as an experience of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" in a place of darkness and fire (Matt 8v12, 13v42, 50, 22v13, ,24v51, 25v30). Indeed, in just one parable, Jesus seems to equate the idea of "destruction" with this concious experience (Matt 22v7, 13).

With all this in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that we find some stressing the difficulty in interpreting such passages in order to assert the more palatable idea of absolute annihilation after some period of torment. They explain the phrase “eternal punishment” to simply mean that this annihilation will last forever - that those in hell will never rise again. By contrast, others stress the sense of eternal conscious torment, and interpret the ideas of destruction as referring to the ruined state of humanity in which this will be experienced. One might ponder the ruins and stubble that the OT unquenchable fires would have reduced the places they consumed to. Something was left, though marred, blackened, distorted and void of goodness.

To my mind, those in the first camp too quickly side-step the allusions to eternal torment by Jesus and John, whilst those in the second camp read this idea into the terms "unquenchable fire" and "eternal fire" in a way that the Old Testament just doesn’t allow.

Having said this, the New Testament passages implying everlasting torment can be read in a way that is consistent with eventual annihilation. The rich man’s experience is in Hades before the return of Christ and so not necessarily eternal, and the fact that angelic beings suffer forever doesn’t necessarily mean that human beings will. As for Revelation 14v10-11: The context is the destruction of ungodly society (Babylon) that precedes the final judgement. The verse may therefore refer to this particular period of torment. Certainly, the language is taken from Isaiah 34v10, which seems a figurative way of describing completeness of destruction. Edom doesn’t burn to this day.

Nevertheless, hard as it is, I really think we cannot move from tentatively holding that hell will entail eternal conscious torment for the following reasons:

(1) The passages suggesting everlasting torment seem clearer in their intent than those describing "destruction."
(2) The predominant view in Jesus' day was that of eternal concious torment, especially with respect to Isaiah 66v24. We would therefore expect him to go out of his way to correct this if it was incorrect. But instead, he only reaffirms the language and its seriousness.
(3) There has been pretty much a concensus within the history of the church that this is the correct view. In the light of the above, humility should mean that though we may feel the case is less certain than has been made out, we should side with the concensus.

Whatever the case, there is a danger for the debate to be rather like Nero and another fiddler arguing over how to play the violin, whilst ignoring the fact that either way, Rome was burning. You see, what is clear is that those who die without faith in Christ will experience (for some period at least) the most horrific of realities.

Put most simply, the New Testament portrays hell as an experience of God’s curse in the removal of his blessing. It is therefore entirely just, for it is to finally give those who ignore God an existence without his benefits and excluded from his kingdom. It would therefore seem to entail an absence of the many goods God currently gives: whether the restraint of evil, the emotions of joy or love, or the provision of health, warmth, shelter, peace, friendship, food, technology, family or whatever. The metaphor of darkness (or absence of light) probably stresses this, whilst that of fire denotes that this is to experience God's burning anger at sin.

Paul confirms this by writing of God’s wrath currently being revealed in his handing humanity over to their evil desires, and in their experience of physical death with all the suffering from disease or disaster that leads to it (Rom 1v18-32). So hell will be the most heightened experience of this world’s sufferings and of the dehumanising consequences of sinning and being sinned against.[3] This may well be what Jesus means when he says we should “fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10v28)? The sense as elsewhere is that it is a fate far worse than death (Luke 17v2) more akin to the phrase "my life has been utterly destroyed."

Yet Jesus stresses that what will bring the most “wailing and gnashing of teeth” by hell's occupants may actually be their ongoing awareness of what they have missed out on (Luke 13v28-30, 16v23). We cannot grasp this because we cannot grasp the wonders of God’s kingdom. But when they are grasped, the despair of those shut out from it will be desperate indeed. Perhaps the only meagre paradigms we have for this is the torment of the disobedient child who has to miss out on the party their friends are enjoying, the employee who misses out on the ideal job, or the lottery winner who realises they have missed their millions by throwing away their ticket.

When we ponder these things, we realise that no matter what our view of hell, we cannot sit back on our laurels. It is so horrific that Revelation pictures people crying for mountains to fall on them and hide them from God’s judgement. It is so horrific that facing its equivalence caused the Lord Jesus to sweat drops of blood in his anguish. It is therefore something to do our utmost to persuade people to escape from by turning to Christ.

[1] Matthew 18v8-9; 25v41-46; Jude 1v7; Matthew 3v12; Mark 9v43-49; Luke 3v17.

[2] Chaff: Ex 15v7; Is 33v11-12; Mal 4v1; Unquenchable fire: 2 Kings 22v17; 2 Chr 34v25; Is 34v8-10; Jer 4v4, 7v20; 21v12; Ezek 20v47-48; Amos 5v6. It is these many clearer passages that should govern our interpretation of the less clear Isaiah 66v24. Moreover, the parallelism there suggests that “worm does not die” has the same sense.

[3] Babylon in Revelation 18v8-10 is intended to portray a foretaste of this. And we should note that the theme of being handed over to evil and suffering is a dominant idea of God's judgement in the Bible. Adam and Eve are handed over to life outside Eden. Cain is handed over to the wider world. Israel are handed over to the hostile nations. And Jesus himself is handed over to the Romans.