Maybe you’ve heard the old rule of thumb: “Never talk about politics or religion.” Well, that goes double for the sensitive subject of hell. Of all the topics related to religion, perhaps none is more uncomfortable than hell.
Sure, some revel in it. Seven hundred years ago, Dante waxed eloquently about hell in his epic poem The Divine Comedy. Today, passionate fanatics slam their fists, speak of fire and brimstone, and wave their street signs at all who might heed their warnings.
Others joke about hell. When playing their cross-town rivals, Duke University students chant, “Go to hell, Carolina! Go to hell!” And of course, hell has become the grand superlative: “the date from hell,” “the apartment from hell,” “the job from hell,” “the vacation from hell.”
A Sobering Concept
But hell is truly a solemn topic. For Christians, the Bible portrays God as gracious, merciful, and persistent. Christians believe that God sent his son Jesus to earth to offer us salvation from our wrongdoings, provide an example to follow, and pave the way for a meaningful relationship with God.
But what about those who reject Jesus and choose not to follow him? What about those who believe they have not done enough good deeds to balance out their bad deeds? Is there is a terrible destiny awaiting them? Is there a hell?
There are many reasons people reject the cruel, medieval notion that God would torment people in hell for eternity because they were not good enough for him. But let’s take a look at what the Bible actually says about hell.
A Place Called Gehenna
There is a broad ravine just south and west of the old city of Jerusalem. It was known in biblical times as the Valley of Hinnom (in Hebrew, gē-hinnom); the Greeks called it Gehenna. This ravine had once been a center of idol worship and human sacrifice. In the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah described what took and will take place there:
The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away.1
Jeremiah did not paint a pretty picture: burning flesh, rotting carcasses—a breeding ground for worms and maggots. As such, the Valley of Hinnom—Gehenna—became a vivid reminder to the Hebrew people of the kind of self-destruction that takes place when people turn away from God.
A Place of Suffering
Hundreds of years later, as Jesus traveled throughout Galilee and Judea teaching about the kingdom of God, he often used imagery of Gehenna when he spoke about judgment. For Jesus and his followers, Gehenna and all it stood for—which is translated in English as “hell”—came to symbolize the horrible, destructive consequences of living a self-absorbed, sinful life.2
That is, those who persist in their own prideful ways and reject God are destined for destruction. They will be “thrown into hell [Gehenna], where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”3 These are strong words, to say the least.
From our modern, finite viewpoint, this hardly seems fair. We all agree that justice is good, and people should face the consequences of their decisions. But aren’t the eternal burning fires of hell a bit much? Why would God allow people he created to experience such terrible suffering?
Some Christians take the viewpoint that hell is indeed a literal place of conscious torment. It is the deserved punishment for those who have rebelled against a holy God. But many believe this is problematic morally and emotionally. To them, it just doesn’t seem right.
As a result, some people of faith believe that hell will eventually be empty, though some may experience it for a time. In his infinite love, God will give so many chances for people to turn back to him that all will eventually choose to accept his grace and spend eternal life with him.4
Others believe that eternal life with God is a gift; those who reject it will simply cease to exist. Hell is not a place where one is eternally punished but a state of nonexistence or annihilation. It is like an eternal time-out that one has chosen over God’s presence and love.5
These two views—that hell will eventually be emptied or is a state of nonexistence—are minority viewpoints that seek to reconcile what the Bible says about hell with what Christians believe about God’s love.
Finally, some scholars take a mediating position. They argue that the term “Gehenna” and many of the images of hell in the New Testament are meant as metaphors.
For example, Jesus used a variety of terms and phrases in addition to Gehenna to refer to eternal judgment or self-destruction. While he talked about the “danger of the fire of hell,”6 he also referred to judgment as a “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”7
Fire and darkness do not seem to make much sense if these images are taken together literally. Rather, some scholars say, they are metaphorical descriptions of a destitute existence.
“Those who persistently refuse to follow Jesus, the true Image of God,” theologian N. T. Wright suggests, “will by their own choice become less and less like him, that is, less and less truly human. . . . Some, perhaps many, of God’s human creatures do choose, and will choose to dehumanize themselves completely.”8
No matter which viewpoint, if any, is an accurate description of hell, we should be uncomfortable (to say the least) with the idea of anyone facing such a future—separated from the love, purposes, and true humanity that God intended them to experience.
But God has given us a choice.
In order to honor our freedom, God does not require that we receive the forgiveness he lovingly extends to us. He respects our ability to make our own decisions. If we refuse a relationship with him, he grants our desire. But for those who love him and long to be connected to him, he gives life everlasting.
Maybe this is why C. S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no hell.”9
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Jeremiah 7:30–33.
- There are two related terms that also appear in the Bible: the Hebrew word sheol and the Greek word hades. Some have thought that these words also convey the concept of the English word “hell.” But in their ancient contexts, they more likely referred to “the grave” or “place of death.” In other words, sheol and hades were often understood as an intermediate place where one’s soul awaited judgment, not the eternal destiny itself. For more background, see Gary A. Lee, “Hades,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, 591–592 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), and D. K. Stuart, “Sheol,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, 472 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979).
- The Holy Bible, Mark 9:47b–48 (Jesus quoting Isaiah 66:24).
- See Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2011) for a recent articulation of a viewpoint similar to this.
- For example, see Clark H. Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” Four Views on Hell, ed. William Crockett, 135–166 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), or Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2001).
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 5:22.
- Ibid., Matthew 25:30.
- N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 95.
- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Collier Books, 1946), 72–73.
- Photo Credit: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com.