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Definition

Hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment for everyone who does not trust in Jesus Christ. Hell involves final separation from God’s mercy and from God’s people, unending experience of divine judgment, and just retribution for sin.

Summary

Jesus himself speaks more about hell than any other figure in scripture. Jesus’s teaching relies on Old Testament depictions of final judgment (Isa. 66:22–24; Jer. 7:32–8:3). The Bible describes hell as a place of eternal conscious torment. Eternal conscious torment has been the majority position of the Christian church throughout its 2,000-year history. In the modern era, other views have emerged among Protestants as rivals to the church’s traditional teaching. These alternatives include annihilationism and universalism. Nevertheless, the Bible teaches that Hell involves final separation from God’s mercy and from God’s people, unending experience of divine judgment, and just retribution for sin. By definition, these three characteristics of Hell rule out the annihilationist position (which denies that the torments of hell are everlasting), the universalist position (which holds that all people will eventually be saved), and the notion of purgatory (which views the flames of final judgment as a potential gateway to eternal life).

The person who talks most about hell in Scripture is none other than Jesus himself. Indeed, except for James 3:6, the only person even to use the word hell in scripture is Jesus.

  • “Whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22).
  • “It is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29, 30).
  • “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
  • “It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into the hell of fire” (Matt. 18:9).
  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).
  • “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?” (Matt. 23:33).
  • “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43).
  • “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell” (Mark 9:45).
  • “If your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47–48).
  • “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4–5).

The only other place where the term hell appears in the Bible is James 3:6, “and the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.”

Hell in Scripture

The term rendered as “hell” (sometimes transliterated as Gehenna) is the Greek term geenna, which derives from the Hebrew gê hinnōm, which means “Valley of Hinnom.” Contrary to a popular and long-running misunderstanding, there is no evidence that the Valley of Hinnom was ever used as a garbage dump. Among first century Jews, Hinnom was best known as the site of child sacrifices to the idol Molech during the era of the kings (2Kgs. 16:3; 21:6) and where God’s judgment would eventually fall on his enemies. Child sacrifice so provoked the Lord to anger that Jeremiah prophesied God would destroy these idolaters in the Valley of Hinnom and would leave their corpses to rot. There would be so many corpses that there would be no room to bury them all and that the valley would be renamed “Valley of Slaughter” (Jer. 7:31-34, NIV).

This valley’s association with fire and judgment is the background for the term’s appearance in the Gospels, where Jesus refers to Gehenna as the place of final judgment (Jeremias). Twice in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls it the “hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22, 18:9). In Mark’s Gospel also, Jesus describes hell as a place where the worm never dies (Mark 9:48a) and the fire is never quenched (Mark 9:43, 48b). When Jesus speaks of the undying worm and unquenchable fire, he alludes directly to the prophecy in the final chapter of Isaiah, which says:

“For just as the new heavens and the new earth

Which I make will endure before Me,” declares the Lord,

“So your offspring and your name will endure.

“And it shall be from new moon to new moon

And from sabbath to sabbath,

All mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the Lord.

“Then they will go forth and look

On the corpses of the men

Who have transgressed against Me.

For their worm will not die

And their fire will not be quenched;

And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.”

Verse 22 identifies the “new heavens and the new earth” as the context for the latter statement about judgment, indicating that Isaiah is looking far beyond the immediate events of his own day to the eschatological renewal of heaven and earth (see Block in Hell Under Fire). God promises to create a “new heavens and new earth” after the last judgment (Isa. 65:17). This new place will be a domain in which there is no more weeping (Isa. 65:19), no more untimely death (Isa. 65:20), no more want (Isa. 65:21–22), no more bloody conflict or evil (Isa. 65:25). It is a place of God’s presence and comfort for all of God’s people. “All nations and languages” will eventually see God’s glory and declare it (Isa. 66:18–19 NIV).

But the wicked will not share in the joy of this new creation. In fact, the worshipers inhabiting the new heavens and the new earth will be able to see that the lot of those who “rebelled” against God is very different from their own. As the worshipers leave the temple, they see the corpses of the Lord’s enemies strewn about what is most likely the Valley of Hinnom (cf. Jer. 7:32–8:3). Hinnom is the very place where Ahaz and Manasseh burned human sacrifices to the false god Molech (2Kgs. 16:3; 21:6), and it would explain why this place became associated with fire. These enemies will be separated from the joys of the “new heavens and the new earth” and will instead undergo the judgment of fire and worm (Isa. 66:24). The worm pictures the disgrace of decaying bodies left exposed after their defeat. Isaiah commentator Gary Smith suggests that the image may be growing out of the scene in Isaiah 37:36, where “the decomposing carcasses of the 185,000 Assyrian troops that were left to rot in the fields around Jerusalem when God defeated the army of Sennacherib.” Isaiah elsewhere invokes fire as an image of God’s holy presence (e.g., Isa. 33:14), and the fire may appear here as a just recompense for those who caused innocents to pass through the fire of Molech. In any case, both the worm and the fire are vivid images of the horror that is to come for the damned.

Jesus’s statements about hell are directly drawing on Isaiah’s eschatological vision of the final judgment. Jesus has named the place of final punishment “Hell” (i.e., Gehenna/Valley of Hinnom) after the imagery in Isaiah 66:22–24 and Jeremiah 7:31–34. Like the Valley of Hinnom, hell is to be a place of torment, fire, worm, and death. John the Baptist also accesses the language of Isaiah 66:24 to describe the final judgment of the damned as “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17). In the Old Testament, God’s fiery presence has a binary effect. It sanctifies and guides his chosen people (e.g., Exod. 3:2, 13:21, 24:16-17; Deut. 4:12; Isa. 6:6-7), but it punishes and destroys unrepentant sinners (e.g., Lev. 10:2; Num. 11:1, 16:35). Just the Old Testament depicts God’s presence and wrath as fire (Isaiah 33:14), so also the New Testament uses fire to describe God’s hot wrath at the final judgment in a place called hell.

The Nature of Hell as Final Judgment

For most church history across every branch of Christianity, Christians have understood the Bible’s teaching about final judgment and Jesus’s teaching about hell to describe a place of endless conscious torment. This teaching, however, has become the subject of a great deal of controversy in the modern era in the West. John Stott has perhaps summed up for all time the visceral reaction many people have to the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment. He writes, “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain” (see Evangelical Essentials). This line of thinking has led many people to question how eternal conscious torment can be reconciled with the ways of a just and loving God.

Some oppose the traditional view on exegetical grounds. Others express objections that are more theological in nature than exegetical. Herman Bavinck says, “The grounds on which people argue against the eternity of hellish punishment always remain the same.” Of the five reasons he lists, the first three are based less on specific Scripture than they are on human estimations of the way God ought to behave: (1) Eternal punishment contradicts the goodness, love, and compassion of God and makes him a tyrant; (2) Eternal punishment contradicts the justice of God because it is in no way proportionate to the sin in question; and (3) Eternal punishment that is purely punitive and not remedial has no apparent value. Indeed, it is such questions that Augustine dealt with extensively in his defense of eternal conscious punishment over 1,500 years ago (see Book XXI in City of God). Such objections persist today. What kind of a God would preside over a place of eternal conscious torment? Can the loving God of the Bible possibly be responsible for punishing the unrepentant in this way?

A range of alternative explanations has emerged in light of these considerations.

  • Annihilationism (sometimes called “conditional immortality”) holds that hell is a place of punishment for the impenitent. The damned must atone for their own sins by suffering in hell, but eventually hell destroys them such that they cease to exist. An eternal hell would be disproportionate with God’s justice, therefore those in hell will eventually depart from existence.
  • Universalism holds that eventually all people will be saved from punishment. Christian universalists hold that while there may be punishment after death for the impenitent, there will be chances to believe and be saved after death. In the end, God will reconcile all things with himself, and an eternal hell is irreconcilable with a loving God. Thus, eventually everyone will be saved, and hell itself will be no more.
  • Purgatory has traditionally been understood as a Roman Catholic doctrine, but the doctrine has recently found support among some Protestant theologians (e.g., Jerry Walls). Purgatory is not technically a doctrine of hell but of post-mortem sanctification. Those who hold to purgatory still believe in a heaven and a hell. Nevertheless, some sinners who are on their way to heaven who must pass through sanctifying “flames” before entering heaven. All those in purgatory eventually make it to heaven.

Eternal Conscious Torment

The traditional Christian account of hell says that it is a place of eternal conscious torment for the unrepentant. The Bible teaches that this final state of the damned has at least three characteristics: final separation, unending experience, and just retribution.

Final separation occurs at the last judgment and consists in the irrevocable separation of the wicked from the righteous and from the presence of God’s mercy. Jesus himself teaches that the final judgment will involve an irrevocable separation between the “sheep” and the “goats” (Matt. 25:31–46). The apostle Paul says that those who experience “eternal destruction” will do so “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2Thess. 1:9). There will be no post-mortem opportunities to be reconciled to God in order to bridge this separation (Heb. 9:27).

Unending experience indicates that the punishments of hell will be consciously experienced forever and will not abate with the annihilation or eventual salvation of the damned. In Isaiah 66:24, the devouring worm “will not die” and the consuming fire “will not be quenched.” The bodily degradation of the wicked never ends but partakes of the same longevity as the new heavens and the new earth (cf. Isa. 66:22).

Jesus himself says that the “goats” are “cursed” and are forced into “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:41, 46). When God “curses” someone, it means that he has called down harm or misfortune upon them. The nature of the misfortune is summed up in the phrases “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” The term translated as “eternal” is the Greek word aiōnios, which is an adjective that means “pertaining to an age.” In this context, the age in view is the age to come, and that age is without end. Thus the fire refers to the painful experience that must be endured for time “without end.”

Likewise, the “punishment” is unending (aiōnios) as well. Annihilationists argue that the punishment is eternal only in the sense of an ongoing fire of judgment. The fire keeps burning, but the ones tossed into it are ultimately destroyed. It only keeps going as more people are put into it. But this misses the point of the double resurrection alluded to earlier in Matthew 18:8–9. The bodies that are cast into the fire have properties that make them fit for an eternal destiny. Thus the punishment is in fact everlasting for every individual that enters the fire.

Regarding 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Annihilationists deny that conscious torment is unending and argue that “destruction” means that the damned will at some point cease to exist. Thus “eternal destruction” means only that their annihilation will be permanent. Their suffering will eventually come to an end. But this is a misunderstanding of Paul’s language. “Destruction” (oletheros) does not mean “cease to exist.” If I were to say that “My car was destroyed in a crash last week,” no one understands that to mean that the car ceases to exist. They understand it to mean that the car was completely ruined and lost to me as a result of the accident. That is the sense in which the Greek term oletheros is used here. Indeed, Paul is the only New Testament author to use this term, and in none of its other uses does it mean “cease to exist” (cf. 1Cor. 5:5; 1Thess. 5:3; 1Tim. 6:9). Its primary sense is something more along the lines of ruin or loss, not annihilation. It refers to what Gordon Fee calls “the ultimate desolation” and the “absolute loss of . . . glory.” So “eternal destruction” refers to everlasting ruin or loss, not annihilation.

Just retribution indicates that the terrors of the damned are a recompense for evil, not a means of redemption or renewal. It is a punitive judgment intended to magnify the justice of God. Consider, for example, Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:46, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The word translated as “punishment” (kolasis) appears only twice in the New Testament (Matt. 25:46; 1Jn. 4:18).

Some have questioned the traditional gloss “punishment” in favor of “correction.” In this way, Jesus’ words could be fit into a universalist’s paradigm where hell becomes a temporary place of correction until the sinner becomes rehabilitated and fit for heaven. This argument is completely undermined by the fact that kolasis never means “correction” or “pruning” anywhere else in the New Testament or related literature. The term is used one other time in the New Testament, in 1 John 4:18 where it clearly means punishment. Also, the verb form kolazō appears twice in the New Testament (Acts 4:21 and 2Pet. 2:9). Both of these uses refer to punishment as well. The standard lexicon of New Testament Greek does not list “correction” or “pruning” as possible meanings (BDAG). Rather, the semantic range is limited to either divine or human punishment. It defines kolasis in Matthew 25:46 as “transcendent retribution.” This meaning is in line with its use in intertestamental literature, where it often refers to the penalty imposed for wrongdoing (2Macc. 4:38; 3Macc. 1:3; 7:10; 4Macc. 8:9), but never to “correction.”

Another reason we know that it does not mean “correction” is that “eternal punishment” in verse 46 is the same place as “eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” in verse 41. Interpreters tend to agree that hell is a permanent place of punishment for demonic creatures. Indeed Revelation 20:10 confirms that the devil and his minions will be cast into the lake of fire and “tormented day and night forever and ever.” It is not a place of correction for them. If unbelievers are cast into the same place as the demons, that suggests that the duration is the same for both groups. There are no grounds in this text for saying that hell is “corrective” for the one and not for the other. If it is retributive for demonic creatures, then it is also for those unbelievers who share their fate in the judgment. For these reasons, we can be confident that kolasis is a punishment for sin that is unending. It is retributive in nature with no notion of rehabilitation or restoration in view.

These three characteristics of hell and of the final state emerge from Scripture. By definition, these three characteristics rule out the annihilationist position (which denies that the torments of hell are everlasting), the universalist position (which holds that all people will eventually be saved), and the notion of purgatory (which views the flames of final judgment as a potential gateway to eternal life).

Further Reading


This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.