Hell: What Sort of Place?
It’s become somewhat fashionable to say that hell is a state of mind rather than a physical location. Far more people in modern America will proclaim their belief in heaven than admit hell exists. Even so, they must both exist in relation to one another, and scripture assures us they both do. Hell is terrible beyond words precisely because it is not heaven.
So what kind of place is hell?
A very specific place
The Bible uses several different words to refer to the eternal destination of the wicked. The Old Testament refers most often to Sheol, the underworld or abode of the dead. It is a place of judgment for the wicked, but the righteous are saved from it. (Ezekiel 32:27, Psalm 30:3) This concept was alive and well in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, yet in his story of the rich man and Lazarus, he clearly differentiated between two different places: Abraham’s bosom and Hades. (Luke 16:19-21) Hades was the Greek term for the underworld that was adopted by the Jewish translators of the Septuagint.
The word “hell” is most closely associated with the Hebrew term Gehenna, which was subsequently brought into Greek. The name is derived from the Valley of Hinnom just outside Jerusalem, where refuse (including the dead bodies of those thought to be cursed) was continually burned. The word Gehenna therefore evokes images of death and continual destruction by fire, in addition to the symbolism of being cast outside the gates of the holy city.
The book of Revelation speaks of a “lake of fire” into which not only the souls of damned humans, but also the devil will be thrown at the end of the age. (Revelation 20:10, 14-15) My own personal sense is that this place of everlasting punishment is not one and the same with the place to which those who die separated from Christ are immediately sent in the here and now, but there is room for debate on this point. I rest my case partly on the fact that Hades itself is said to be thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14) I believe the word “Sheol” is also not the best description of hell proper, as it refers more to the state of being dead than a specific punishment for the wicked.
Both physical and spiritual
Contrary to the teachings of some Christians, the Bible gives us every reason to believe that hell is a physical place that affects our physical bodies, in addition to its mental and spiritual torments. Jesus said, “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.” (Matthew 10:28) He also taught, “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw 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) The frequent mention of fire in relation to hell suggests something very physical indeed.
Pronounced by legal sentence
The Bible consistently teaches that those who go to hell are sent there by the sentence or judgment of God. Thus, Jesus warned the ungodly Pharisees, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?” (Matthew 23:33) Elsewhere, he used courtroom imagery in relation to hell. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:22) The apostle John was also clear about this matter in Revelation.
“And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds…And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12, 15)
Defined by lack
We often think of hell in terms of what its inhabitants experience, but it is equally important to emphasize what they are denied. When we are introduced to the New Heavens and New Earth in Revelation 21, we see the people of God living forever in the presence of God, basking in the beatific vision of their Lord. The ungodly are said to be excluded from this.
“He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:7-8)
Even as the Valley of Hinnom was outside the bounds of Jerusalem, so hell is outside the bounds of the New Jerusalem. “…and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:27)
Defined by wrath
Scripture tells us that it is possible to be outside God’s presence even though He is omnipresent. This is because when scripture talks about someone being in God’s presence, it often means they are subject to His grace, love, goodness, and mercy. There is a common grace granted to all humans in the present age: they are not immediately subject to the full wrath of God. That will not be the case in the age to come. To be in hell is to know the full force of God’s wrath but none of His grace.
A part of the Apostle John’s vision described in Revelation first shows the angels harvesting the earth. It then describes a second reaping of those who are due a different fate.
“Then another angel, the one who has power over fire, came out from the altar; and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, ‘Put in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, because her grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.” (Revelation 14:18-19)
Consider also that the Old Testament also described God as present in Sheol and sovereign over all that occurs there (Job 26:6, Psalm 139:8, Proverbs 15:11, Amos 9:2), and you will begin to grasp that you can be separated from God in one sense without being separated from His wrath.
Eternal and irreversible
We have seen how the dead are subject to judgment, and those whose names are not in the book of life receive their final condemnation. Some have argued that it is possible for the damned to essentially pay off their debt and enter heaven, for God to simply write off their sins, or for their souls and bodies to be annihilated at a certain point. Scripture does not describe such things happening. It suggests to us that the eternal punishment of the wicked, in addition to the eternal glorification of the righteous, is glorifying to God. (Romans 9:22-24)
Furthermore, Revelation is clear that the torments of hell never cease. In one place it says, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” (14:11) Later it adds, “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (20:10)
I think it’s safe to say, having considered all of this, that the afterworld of the Bible is somewhat different from that of Dante. I’ll still read the Inferno though.
All scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright the Lockman Foundation.
Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.