What is Hell?

“Flee from the wrath to come.”—Matthew 3:7

In the New Testament Church, the doctrine of hell seems to have been one of the ABC’s for new converts. The writer to the Hebrews refers to “eternal judgment” as an elementary principle of Christ (Heb 6:1-2)—in other words, foundational teaching introduced at the beginning of the Christian life. In our day, however, it has been neglected; and we need to take time to clarify our understanding.
We can summarise the main aspects of the biblical doctrine of hell in five simple propositions…WHAT IS HELL?


A popular contemporary idea of hell is that it is no more than a metaphor for the unhappiness we experience in this life. In the memorable words of French existentialist philosopher Jean- Paul Sartre, “No need of brimstone or gridiron. Hell is other people.” For him, hell was the pain caused by the cruelty of our fellow human beings. People speak of devastating experiences as “hellish.” “I have been through hell,” they say. Hell is seen as the dark side of life, the sadness and suffering through which people pass.

None of this is true. Hell is a real place. It is not a metaphor or a symbol, not a description of our inner desolation or our present sufferings, no matter how agonising these may be. It is not a state of mind. It is a place with spatial dimensions. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man speaks of “this place of torment” (Luk 16:28), using the normal Greek word for “place” from which our word topography comes—the science of describing places. We are told that the doomed Judas Iscariot went “to his own place” (Act 1:25). We do not know where in the universe that place is, but it has a precise location somewhere. The Bible indicates its remoteness from God’s life and light by describing it as “out” (Mat 8:12), “without” (Rev 22:15), “outer darkness” (Mat 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).

The most characteristic name for hell in the New Testament is Gehenna, a word with an interesting history. It referred to the valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem, where the Israelites had burned their children in sacrifice to the Ammonite god Molech (2Ch 28:3; 33:6; 2Ki 23:10). It was a place of devilment and heart-wrenching grief. By the first century, this valley of Hinnom had become a rubbish dump where offal was burned day and night. The people of Jesus’ day associated it with smoke, stench, and worms—all that was hideous and foul. This is the horribly vivid term chosen by our Lord as an appropriate picture of the real hell. Because it is a place, it has been created by God…It was by His command that everlasting fire was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mat 25:41)…


Hell is a place of punishment. Is any idea more unpopular today? Not all kinds of punishment, of course. Remedial punishment, designed to make the offender a better person, is just about acceptable. The forces of political correctness have not yet managed to persuade governments to remove from parents the right to discipline children. The purpose of discipline is to teach them not to do wrong. Our hope is that our children will learn from this unpleasant experience and that we will not have to punish them again. The prison service follows the same philosophy, where the stated aim of imprisonment is the rehabilitation of the criminal. And some will admit a role for preventative pun-ishment, employing it as a deterrent to keep others from committing the same offence and thus suffering a similar penalty. Such action serves as a warning flag to the community, and the correction of the guilty few is meant to ensure the continued obedience of the law- abiding many.

But the punishment that today’s world will not tolerate is that which is retributive—punishment inflicted simply as recompense for evil done because it is just that wrongdoers should suffer; punishment that marks abhorrence of wrong and commitment to right. Such punishment is regarded as barbaric and immoral. This is not because people have become more humane or civilised, but because they are frightened by a dark specter. The shadow of hell haunts them. Disturbing whispers of judgment to come echo on the fringes of their consciousness. These intimations of God’s wrath so terrify them that they will do all in their power to airbrush any idea of retributive punishment from our society…For punishment in hell is retributive. It is not remedial. It does not make anyone better. Purgatory, the idea that humans will be cleansed and improved through their sufferings after death, is a myth. The pains of hell are of absolutely no benefit to those who are being punished. Nor is such punishment preventative, except insofar as hearing of it now may turn people from sin to Christ. When God opens the judgment books and proclaims the final destiny of all, the punishment pronounced will be what people hate and fear above all: retributive punishment, imposed because wrong is wrong and God is against it…

This punishment will be just because it is imposed by the holy Lord God, Whose judgments are altogether true and righteous. Scripture tells us that, although all the ungodly will be punished, they will not all be punished to the same degree. Some will suffer more than others will: the greater the guilt, the greater the penalty. God will deal with sins committed in ignorance less severely than with acts of conscious disobedience: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not…shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more” (Luk 12:47-48).

Privileges neglected will increase the penalty received, for Christ gives a solemn warning to cities in Galilee where He had preached and performed miracles: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida!…It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon…[and] for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Mat 11:21- 24). This must have been a staggering statement to those who first heard it! Respectable Galilean fishing villages more guilty in God’s eyes than heathen Tyre or perverted Sodom! But such is the enormity of hearing and rejecting the Son of God. Scribes, who had unrivalled exposure to the Scriptures but who often proved hypocritical, greedy, or dishonest, “shall receive greater damnation” (Mar 12:38-40). Here is a sobering consideration for anyone brought up in a Christian home but still uncommitted to the Saviour. The deepest pits of hell may well be reserved not for the notoriously wicked, but for those who from childhood were familiar with the message of salvation, yet never embraced it for themselves.

And it is everlasting. In spite of specious modern “difficulties,” the teaching of Scripture is crystal clear. We are told of “everlasting destruction” (2Th 1:9), “everlasting fire…everlasting punishment” (Mat 25:41, 46), and in each case the same Greek word is used as that applied to “everlasting” life. Just as the joys of heaven are eternal, so are the pains of hell. Jude speaks of “the vengeance of eternal fire” (v. 7) and of “the blackness of darkness forever” (v. 13).

We are not told how the punishment will be graded. Perhaps God will inflict greater pain on some. Perhaps there will be a keener awareness of opportunities neglected, a deeper remorse. The worm of memory—a father’s teaching or a mother’s prayers—may be part of the torture of the damned in hell. The Bible does not tell us…But we do know that the punishment will be unchallengeably just. No one will ever be able to complain that it is not fair or that they have not deserved it. Hell is just. It is also terrible, for it is a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat 8:12), where “their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mar 9:44). Those in hell will “drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation.” And they “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone… And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night” (Rev 14:10-11). This is…fearsome.


How appalling this punishment will be—just, terrible, and everlasting! John Calvin says, “By such expressions the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread.”

“All the interesting people will be in hell,” wrote the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, in a piece of flippant blasphemy. But that is not what the Bible tells us.

The devil will be in hell, “cast into the lake of fire and brimstone” (Rev 20:10). Accompanying him will be “his angels” (Mat 25:41), at present “reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day” (Jude 1:6). These demons, already aware of their ultimate destiny when Jesus was on earth, cowered before the Saviour’s power: “What have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us?…And they besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep” (Mar 1:24; Luk 8:31).

Hell is also for the notoriously wicked. “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (Rev 21:8). What a repellent rogues’ gallery! These are George Bernard Shaw’sinteresting people.” But it is not only the blatantly evil who will find themselves in hell. The Apostle Paul identifies for us those on whom God will take vengeance “in flaming fire.” Who are they? What monsters of depravity can they be? The Hitlers? The Stalins? Yes. But also all “them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2Th 1:8). Outwardly upright, decent people, many of them. Good citizens, caring parents, reliable employees, friendly neighbours—but they never trusted Christ as Saviour. They refused to “obey the gospel.”

Are you in that position? You may think of yourself as a reasonably good person. You may [think] that you are not guilty of any great crime, that you have never done anything of which you are really ashamed. But the Gospel says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and you have not obeyed that command. Even if you were never to commit another sin, God will take vengeance in flaming fire upon you if you do not obey His Gospel. Only those will escape hell who have trusted in Christ. “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (Joh 3:36). But “he that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (Joh 5:24).


On the Day of Judgment, the bodies of unbelievers who have died will be raised from the grave, reunited with their souls, and cast into hell. But we need to remember that their souls are in hell already. There is no no-man’s-land in the universe, no waiting room between heaven and hell, no soul sleep or period of unconsciousness until the second coming of Christ. Souls that do not still inhabit their bodies are either in heaven or in hell.

When believers die, their souls go immediately to be with Christ. Paul wanted “to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phi 1:23). The Savior Himself said to the dying thief, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luk 23:43); and that is precisely what happens to every Christian at death. Conversely, when an unbeliever dies, he goes to be with Satan, which is far worse. As he passes from this earth, the devil whispers gloatingly, “Today you will be with me in hell.No other possibilities exist. Our souls will be with Christ or with Satan.

The Old Testament Sheol and the New Testament Hades have been taken by some to refer to a neutral, intermediate state, occupied by all humans before the return of Christ. But this is due to a misunder-standing, for these words are used in Scripture in at least two senses. They refer sometimes to the grave to which we all go and sometimes to the place of punishment to which believers do not go. The King James Version correctly varies its translation of Sheol according to the context, from “grave” or “pit” to “hell.” While Scripture has more to say about the destiny of believers than about that of the lost, its teaching is nonetheless quite plain regarding those who die without Christ. Our Lord’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus clearly refers to the period before the general resurrection: the rich man has died and been buried, and his five brothers are still alive on the earth. The end of the world has not come. But, though dead, he is conscious because “in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments.” His body is decaying in the ground, but his soul is experiencing agony in hell. “I am tormented,” he cries, “in this flame” (Luk 16:23-24).

All who have died in unbelief are suffering at this moment. “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished” (2Pe 2:9). There is no second chance, no future hope, no point in praying for the dead. They are beyond our prayers, which can no longer help them. Even Almighty God Himself will not help them. That is why the Gospel is so urgent. That is why God calls on us to believe today; for once we die, it is too late. The soul is, at that moment, irrevocably lost, awaiting only its reunion with the doomed body at the Last Day.


We need to emphasise that hell is ruled by God, for there is a popular idea that it is somehow outside His presence and reach. People think of hell as a kind of nuclear waste repository in which God will enclose the wicked. It will then be sealed, buried, and forgotten about; and the souls in that dreadful place of torment will be left to their own devices. Perhaps John Milton, great Puritan though he was, is partly responsible for this misconception. In Paradise Lost, he devotes a great deal of attention to Satan, the chief angel. As the devil is about to enter hell, Milton makes him say, “Here at least we shall be free…Here we may reign secure, and in my choice to reign is worth ambition, though in hell: Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” The poet is giving him a ghastly kind of hope. “Here we shall be free…we may reign secure.” Perhaps that is indeed what Satan thought and hoped for. “I may be wretched, but I’ll be my own master. This may be a place of misery, but at least I will be able to get away from God.” Many agree with him and see hell as the place where Satan reigns.

But it is not true. Hell is where God alone reigns. It is not an independent, self-contained demonic kingdom. God, who “hath power to cast into hell” (Luk 12:5), rules it and has prepared its fires (Mat 25:41). He is present in hell, for the damned are tormented “in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev 14:10). What an awful and mysterious statement!…

No, the devil does not reign in hell. We must not represent him as a James Dean-type figure, a tragic, heroic rebel, who stands alone and shakes his fist at God. Milton makes that mistake when he puts the following words into Satan’s mouth: “What though the field be lost? All is not lost; the unconquerable will…and courage never to submit or yield: That glory never shall his wrath or might extort from me. To bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee, and deify his power…That were an ignominy and shame beneath this downfall.”

It strikes a chord deep inside us, does it not? Terrible though it may be, there is something magnificent about an indomitable will, the head that is bloody but unbowed, the spirit that cannot be broken. Such defiance appeals to our arrogant, fallen nature. But it is bogus. “At the name of Jesus every knee [shall] bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth…every tongue [shall] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phi 2:10). Satan will not be “free,” his will is not “unconquerable,” his “courage” will be non- existent, his “ignominy and shame” total. “All is” already “lost.” He will not be a dark prince, awesome in his wicked dignity, but a contemptible being, cowering before the mighty King and Lord of all. God rules in hell as He rules in heaven.

We must remember also that hell exists for God’s glory...In hell, and we can say this only in trembling reverence, God’s glory will be unveiled in new and amazing ways. His kingly authority will be seen more clearly than has ever been possible before. Fresh aspects of His holiness and justice will be revealed to His wondering people. We can dare to believe this because Scripture teaches it. The last book of the Bible shows us the sinless inhabitants of heaven praising and thanking God for hell. The twenty-four elders fall on their faces before Him, saying, “We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty… because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned. And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged” (Rev 11:17-18). The angel of the waters praises the Lord for His judgments: “Thou art righteous, O Lord…because thou hast judged thus…and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy” (Rev 16:5-6). Like all else in creation, hell exists for God’s glory.


From Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell, published by The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, pp. 16-24 – Edward Donnelly: minister of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church, Newtown-abbey; Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological College, Belfast.

Categories: Theology

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