We can hardly imagine anything worse than eternal conscious torment.  And yet such a fate awaits all who reject Christ’s offers of mercy and salvation.  Those who reject God will be rejected by God on Judgment Day and consigned to a Lake of Fire to pay for their treason for all eternity (Revelation 20:15).  And when ten thousand years of agony have passed, they are no closer to completing their sentence than they were at the beginning.  No relief.  No parole.  No hope.  Forever.  And yet, there is good news about hell!  Yes, the reality of hell should cause us to praise God and appreciate His righteousness, mercy, and love.  But how can we reconcile the existence of hell with a loving God? 

Denying an Eternal Hell

The idea of an eternity in hell is so offensive to many people, that they refuse to believe it.  Instead they choose to believe in either universalism, or annihilationism.  Universalism is the belief that God saves everyone – that all people will go to heaven when they die.  The universalist claims that Jesus died for all sins of all people and will save all people regardless of whether they repent of sin and believe the Gospel.  Alternatively, annihilationism is the belief that those who reject God’s offers of mercy and salvation will not spend eternity in hell, but will simply cease to exist.  In some versions of annihilationism, the unbeliever ceases to exist upon death.  In other versions, the unbeliever is punished in hell, but only for a finite time.  After that time, his penalty is paid, and the unbeliever ceases to exist. 

We will find that both universalism and annihilationism are contrary to the Bible.  Yet, people desperately want to deny the reality of an eternal hell because it is so unpleasant.  It is our fallen, irrational nature to tend to believe things that are desirable and to disbelieve things that are unpleasant.  This is irrational of course.  It is an error in reasoning called the fallacy of the appeal to consequences.  Imagine someone saying, “I really don’t like paying taxes.  Therefore, taxes do not exist!” or, “I would really like to be a billionaire.  Therefore, I am!”  That would be ridiculous. 

And yet this is exactly the way that many people reason when it comes to the afterlife.  “Hell would be really horrible.  Therefore, it doesn’t exist.”  Or alternatively, “I don’t understand how a loving God could consign anyone to hell.  Therefore, He will not!”  Yet there are many things people do not understand that are nonetheless true.  Consider some of the more difficult topics in physics or mathematics.  They are hard to fathom, but they are real. 

Wishing for something does not make it so.  And many unpleasant things do exist even if we wish they did not.  Reality does not depend on our wishes or desires.  It depends on what God says.  When God speaks, the universe becomes exactly what God commands it to be (Genesis 1:3, 9, 11-12, 14-16, 20-21).  So, if we want to learn what actually happens after death, we must turn to God’s Word.  We will find that the Bible affirms the reality of hell.  And amazingly, this is a good thing!

The Reality of Hell

The Lord Jesus affirms that hell exists.  He refers to hell (γέεννα) eleven times in the Gospels,[1],[2] and in all these cases it refers to the eternal destination of unrepentant sinners.  Jesus affirms that hell is the final penalty, the judgment, the sentence for sin (Matthew 23:33; 5:22).  Hell is the opposite, the alternative, to life in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 18:9; Mark 9:47).  Christ affirms that hell is worse than being physically impaired (Matthew 5:29, 30, 18:9; Mark 9:45, 47), is even worse than physical death (Luke 12:4-5), and consists of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43).

In all these verses, “hell” is translated from the original Greek word γέεννα (geenna), or “Gehenna.”  Gehenna means the “Valley of Hinnom” which was a valley just outside of Jerusalem.  Of course, Jesus is not saying that unbelievers literally go to this valley when they die.  Rather, Jesus is using the imagery of this valley to give people an idea of what hell is like.  So, it helps to know something about the Valley of Hinnom. 

The Valley of Hinnom is mentioned (by name) six times in the Old Testament.[3]  It was a place where the Israelites sinfully offered human sacrifices to the pagan god Molech (Jeremiah 7:30-31; 2 Kings 23:10), a particularly detestable sin which the Lord specifically forbids (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5; Jeremiah 32:35).  By the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, Gehenna had become a dumping ground for the sewage and garbage of Jerusalem.  It was full of worms and maggots, and fires often burned to reduce the volume of the garbage.  You can just imagine the smell. 

So, those people who sin against God and refuse Christ’s offers of mercy and salvation will be dumped like garbage into a place much like the Valley of Hinnom.  However, Jesus points out that the final destination of the wicked is unlike the Valley of Hinnom in one important aspect: hell is eternal.  The fire of hell is never quenched (Mark 9:47-48; Matthew 3:12, 25:41; Isaiah 66:24).  It is an eternal fire prepared for the devil and the fallen angels (Matthew 25:41).  But it will also be the destination of all who transgress against God whose sins are not forgiven (Isaiah 66:24).  Jesus also refers to hell as a place of “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30).  Hell is clearly a place of agony and torment.

The Lake of Fire – the Second Death

For this reason, hell is also referred to as the “Lake of Fire” in the book of Revelation.  It is the final destination of the Devil and everyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life – that is, all unbelievers (Revelation 20:10,15).  Jesus compares unbelievers to trees that fail to produce fruit.  These will be cut down and cast into the fire (Matthew 3:10).  The Lake of Fire is also called “the second death” (Revelation 20:14).  The name is fitting, for hell is the opposite of the eternal life enjoyed by God’s people. 

The Bible uses the terms life and death in two different but related ways.  They can refer to physical life and physical death, or to spiritual life and spiritual death.  Physical life and death we readily understand.  We are alive when our body functions in the way it was designed.  When we die our body ceases to function, though it still exists.  Likewise, human beings have a spirit.  Before salvation, our spirit is dead due to our sin and does not function as designed – to love and worship God.  The Lord can resurrect our dead spirit, and cause it to live and function as it should.  This is affirmed in Ephesians 2:1-9 and John 5:24-25. 

Hence, Jesus can say of those who are saved, they will die but will live again (physically), and will never die (spiritually) – see John 11:25-26.  Both believers and unbelievers physically die (Hebrews 9:27).  And both believers and unbelievers will be physically resurrected by God; “all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth” (John 5:28-29).  But only believers are spiritually resurrected to enjoy eternal life with God (John 5:24-25, 6:40, 47, 3:15-16, 36, 10:28; Matthew 25:46).  Unbelievers will be physically resurrected, but will be cast into the Lake of Fire for eternity – “This is the second death, the Lake of Fire” (Revelation 20:14).

Are All Saved?

The agony of hell prompts many people to deny the truth of hell.  The universalist claims that God saves everyone, even people who stubbornly refuse to repent.  A universalist might even pull verses out of context to support the claim. “After all, 1 Timothy 4:10 states that God is the ‘Savior of all men’.”   However, the Greek word translated “Savior” here is σωτὴρ (soter).  And while σωτὴρ can (and often does) mean “savior” in the spiritual sense of eternal life, it can also mean provider in a physical sense.  In the culture of the time, a person who provides food and clothing for someone else is a σωτὴρ without implying anything about eternal salvation.  It is in this sense that God is the Savior of all men, in that He provides physical life, food, blessings, and upholds their existence.  

Note that 1 Timothy 4:10 cannot mean “Savior” in the spiritual sense of eternal life because the passage states that God is “the Savior of all men, especially of believers.”  The last phrase would make no sense if spiritual salvation were in view, because it doesn’t make sense for some people to be “more saved” than others.  Either your sins are forgiven or they are not.  God is your spiritual Savior or He is not.  The word “especially” would make no sense.  Rather, God is the Savior in the sense of Provider for all men, in that He blesses them with life and provisions.  And He is especially the Savior/Provider for believers, in that He also provides eternal life for them, in contrast to unbelievers.  So, this verse actually proves the opposite of what the universalists desire; believers enjoy the special provision of eternal life which unbelievers are not granted.

In fact, Jesus is very clear that not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven.  In Matthew 7:21 He says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”  To those who reject Christ’s offers of mercy and salvation, Christ will say to them on Judgment Day, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).  In fact, Jesus indicated that the path to eternal destruction in hell is a broad one, and many follow it (Matthew 7:13). 

On the day of judgment, God will eternally separate unbelievers (“goats”) from believers (“sheep”).  In Matthew 25:33-34, Jesus said, “All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”  And what of the unbelievers?  Jesus said, “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41).  He again says, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). 

Jesus explains that on Judgment Day, His angels will gather the unrighteous like weeds and “will throw them into the furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42).  He continues with His often-used description of the agony of hell: that “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  And Jesus contrasts this fate with the glorious destiny of believers who “will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

So, Jesus was very clear that all those who reject Him will be cast into hell.  Therefore, Christ refutes universalism.  Though it is sad, some people will reject Christ’s offers of salvation and will be consigned to hell.  To deny the reality of hell is to deny the Scriptures and to call Jesus a liar.  And, hypothetically, if Jesus were a liar, then He would be a sinner and not the spotless lamb needed for our salvation (1 Peter 1:19).  Therefore, if you do not believe in hell, you have no hope of heaven. 

Infinite or Finite?

But what of those people who admit that hell does exist, but deny that it is eternal?  Recall some versions of annihilationism accept that hell is real, but claim that people in hell cease to exist after a finite amount of time.  They are supposedly destroyed after serving their finite sentence.  But what does the Bible say about the duration of punishment in hell?  Is it finite, or eternal?

Note that Jesus says that the fire of hell is eternal (Matthew 18:8, 25:41), that the fire of hell is never quenched (Mark 9:48).  Jude 13 states that the darkness has been reserved for the wicked forever.  Some annihilationists would admit that hell is eternal, but that the people within it are not.  After all, didn’t Jesus say that the way of unbelief leads to destruction in Matthew 7:13?  And other verses point to the “destruction” of unbelievers (Romans 9:22; Philippians 3:19).  And if they are destroyed, they won’t continue to exist, right?

First, the biblical word translated “destruction” in Matthew 7:13 is ἀπώλειαν (apoleian), which does not mean non-existence, but rather destruction in the sense of ruin.   In fact, the same word is used to describe the destruction of the beast in Revelation 17:8, 11; and yet Revelation 20:10 states that this beast will suffer forever in the Lake of Fire.  Second, note that 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says that unbelievers will “pay the penalty of eternal destruction.”  So, the kind of destruction that unbelievers experience in hell lasts forever.  They do not cease to exist after a finite amount of time.

Jesus claimed that the punishment in hell is of eternal duration.  In Matthew 25:46 Jesus said that unbelievers “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  Just as believers experience eternal life, so unbelievers experience eternal punishment; the same Greek word translated “eternal” is used for both.  So, if the punishment of unbelievers in hell is not eternal, then believers have no hope of eternal life. 

Daniel 12:2 confirms that just as believers experience eternal life, so unbelievers experience eternal contempt.  Hebrews 6:2 likewise teaches that the judgment of unbelievers is eternal.  Jude 7 indicates that the sinful inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah will experience “the punishment of eternal fire.”  Those in the Lake of Fire experience eternal agony: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night” (Revelation 14:11).  The same eternal fate awaits the devil according to Revelation 20:10, “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.” 

It makes logical sense that the punishment for our treason against the infinite God would have to be infinite, since the punishment must fit the crime.  If you kill a house fly merely because it is annoying, there is no punishment because a fly is not made in God’s image and has no inherent value when compared to man.  But, if you kill a man merely for annoying you, then the punishment is death; for his life was as intrinsically valuable as your own.  If you sin against God, then the punishment is necessarily infinite; for His holiness is infinite.  The only way a finite being can pay an infinite penalty is to pay it forever.  Those who believe that a finite duration in hell is sufficient to pay for sin have a very low view of God.

On the other hand, Jesus is both God and man.  As man, He can take our place on the cross.  As God, His life is infinitely valuable.  As such, His one death can pay the infinite penalty for all our sins.  And He grants us this salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).  So, we see how salvation is only logically possible in the biblical worldview.

The Intermediate State

Although hell is the final destination for those who reject Christ, it is not their immediate destination upon death.  This confuses some people.  But Revelation chapter 20 makes clear that the judgment and sentencing of unbelievers takes place after the resurrection – after physical death is undone by Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 15:26).  Theologians refer to the period of time between death and the Resurrection as the intermediate state.  To understand the intermediate state, some terminology is helpful.

There are distinctions between the three terms: hell, Hades, and Sheol.  In the New American Standard Bible translation, the term “hell” is always translated from the Greek word γέεννα (Gehenna) and always refers to the final destination of unbelievers: the Lake of Fire.  But you might also see the terms “Hades” and “Sheol” in an English translation like the NASB. 

Sheol is a Hebrew word that basically means “the grave,” “death,” or the “realm of the dead.”  This is demonstrated in passages like Proverbs 5:5, 7:27, 9:18; Psalm 6:5, 49:14, 89:48; Song of Solomon 8:6; Isaiah 28:15, 18, 38:18; Hosea 13:14 where synonymous parallelism shows that Sheol is a synonym for death. [4]  Also, passages such as Proverbs 15:24 demonstrate by antithetical parallelism that Sheol is the opposite of life.  Since both the righteous and unrighteous eventually die and go to the grave, Sheol contains both believers and unbelievers.  It is the place people go during the intermediate state.  Sheol is temporary because God will resurrect all who ever died (Psalm 49:15; John 5:28-29; 1 Corinthians 15:26).

However, you can think of Sheol as having two “chambers” with an impassible gulf between them.  When believers die, they are immediately in paradise, enjoying the comforting presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians 2:8; Philippians 1:21-23; Luke 16:20-25, 23:43).  This “chamber” of Sheol Jesus calls “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22).  The other chamber He calls by the Greek word “Hades.”  We can think of Hades as a jail in which the unrepentant are held before their trial and sentencing.  No one can cross from Hades to Abraham’s bosom, or vice versa (Luke 16:26).

The Hades chamber of Sheol is a place of torment, but is not eternal (Luke 16:24-25).  Rather, on Judgment Day, the people within Hades will be physically resurrected and judged (Revelation 20:13).  Those who are not in Christ will be thrown into the Lake of Fire along with Hades itself, to serve their eternal sentence.  (See Revelation 20:11-15).  The fact that Hades is thrown into the Lake of Fire demonstrates that the two are different. 

There are two important caveats regarding the differences between hell, Hades, and Sheol.  First, we note that the Greek word ‘Hades’ can, in some contexts, refer to both chambers of Sheol.  Hence, “Hades” can either refer to Sheol in its entirety (the grave, the realm of the dead), or it can refer to the chamber of Sheol containing only unbelievers.[5]  When Old Testament passages containing the Hebrew word “Sheol” are quoted in the New Testament Greek, “Sheol” is always translated as ᾅδου (Hades) (e.g. Acts 2:27, 31).  However, when Jesus uses the term “Hades” in His earthly ministry, He apparently refers only to the chamber of Sheol containing the wicked (e.g. Matthew 11:23, 16:18; Luke 10:15, 16:23).

A second caveat concerns specific English translations.  The New American Standard translation is rigorously consistent, and it always renders the Greek word αδης̀̀ (Hades) as “Hades,” it translates the Greek word γέεννα (Gehenna) as “hell,” and it leaves “Sheol” untranslated as “Sheol” making the distinctions clear.  The King James Version always renders γέεννα (Gehenna) as “hell.”  However, it also renders αδης̀̀ (Hades) as “hell” in all places except one.[6]  And the KJV often renders the Hebrew word “Sheol” as “hell.”[7]  So if you prefer to use the KJV, you will have to consult a different translation or the original Hebrew and Greek texts to distinguish whether hell, Hades, or Sheol is referred to in a given verse.

(1) God is Just

So, given the sad reality that unbelievers experience eternal punishment in hell, what is the good news?  In fact, there are at least three reasons we should praise God for the existence of hell.  First, the existence of hell demonstrates that God is just.  He judges rightly, and fairly.  Since unbelievers have committed high treason against the infinitely holy God, their right punishment must also be infinite.  The consignment of unbelievers to hell demonstrates that God is a righteous judge, not a corrupt one.  He removes and confines the wicked so that they can no longer harm the righteous. 

Only a corrupt judge would let an established hardened criminal go unpunished.  Consider a criminal who raped and then murdered an innocent girl.  Imagine the judge at his trial said, “I’m feeling very generous today.  So, although all the evidence shows you are guilty, I’m letting you go free.  Enjoy!”  The family of the girl would certainly be disgusted by such a perversion of justice.  But our God is not like that.  He judges rightly.  The existence of hell proves it. 

Note that the mercy of God does not undo His justice.  Yes, God forgives the sins of believers.  But the penalty for the crime must still be paid.  And God Himself paid it.  Hence, the penalty for sin is always paid in God’s system – either by the sinners themselves, or by Jesus on their behalf. 

(2) God Respects Human Freedom

Second, the existence of hell is good news because it shows that God respects human freedom.  God has offered salvation to anyone willing to repent (Isaiah 55:7).  But many people are unwilling to repent (John 5:40; Matthew 23:37).  They do not want to turn from their sin (John 3:19).  They do not want God’s love.  And since God is not a cosmic rapist, He will not force His love on those who hate Him.  He will not drag them against their will into the Kingdom of heaven.  Rather, God allows such people to reap the consequences of their actions.  They do not want to be in His gracious presence for all eternity because they hate Him and His law.  So, God prepared a place where such individuals can exist apart from His grace, where the wicked can behave according to their own perverse standards.  In a sense, hell is simply God giving people exactly what they want: existence apart from Him. 

No one goes to hell for simply “not knowing any better.”  People go to hell by their own perverse choice (Romans 2:5-6).  They know God’s law because it is written on their heart (Romans 2:14-15).  And they hate it.  They do not want to repent and begin living by God’s law.  They want to live by their own standard.  And God respects their decision.  God will not drag unbelievers kicking and screaming into heaven against their desires.  No.  God allows the unbeliever to reap the harvest of sin.  Ultimately, in the end, all people get what they want.  But not everyone will like it. 

Fortunately, God can change our desires.  God would be perfectly righteous and fair to allow all people to continue in sin and reap the consequences of hell.  But by His grace, God grants repentance and faith to some (Acts 5:31, 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25; Philippians 1:29; Romans 2:4), giving them a new heart that loves Him and desires to live by His law (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26).  When we genuinely repent and believe the Gospel, confessing Christ as Lord, He forgives our sins, having paid the penalty for our sin on the cross (1 John 1:9; Acts 3:19; Luke 13:3; Romans 10:9-10; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 John 3:5).  And this naturally leads to the third way in which hell is good news.

(3) God is Merciful

The existence of hell demonstrates God’s mercy because it shows believers what we are being saved from.  God could have chosen to create only people who would freely obey Him from the start.  The human race would never have known sin or its consequences.  But then again, we would never have known God’s mercy and the depths of His love, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  So, God created Adam and Eve, knowing that they would rebel against Him and plunge the human race into darkness.  He rightly allows many to reap the consequences of their wickedness.  That is perfectly fair.  To others, He shows compassion and grants us repentance and salvation by taking our place on the cross (Acts 5:31, 11:8; 2 Timothy 2:25; 2 Corinthians 5:21). 

The Apostle Paul explains this in Romans 9:22-24.  “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?  And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.”

Eternal suffering in hell is what we all deserve, for all of us have broken God’s laws and have thereby committed high treason against the King of kings (Romans 3:10, 23; Isaiah 53:6; Psalm 14:2-3; James 2:10-11).  And God was under no obligation whatsoever to offer salvation to anyone.  Yet He Himself was willing to endure the penalty for sin on our behalf.  And He offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who will repent and confess Him as Lord (1 John 1:9; Romans 10:9-10).  The right response to the reality of hell is to acknowledge God’s righteousness and mercy, and to be filled with gratitude for all eternity. 





[1] Matthew 5:22, 29, 30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5

[2] These eleven verses refer to the eternal destination of unbelievers using the Greek word γέεννα (Gehenna).  This is distinct from Hades, although some English translations conflate the two terms.  More on this below.

[3] Joshua 15:8, 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; Nehemiah 11:30; Jeremiah 7:31,32

[4] Note that English Bibles such as the NASB, the ASV, and the RSV leave the Hebrew word “Sheol” untranslated, whereas the King James Version, the NIV, the NKJV usually translates the word as “grave.”  The KJV occasionally translates the word as “hell” which can be confusing since the word “hell” is often used in the New Testament to designate Gehenna and the Lake of Fire.

[5] This is similar to how the word “day” (both in English and Hebrew) can either refer to the entire 24-hour day, or merely the ~12-hour daylight portion of the day.

[6] The one exception is 1 Corinthians 15:55 where Hades is rendered as “grave” in the KJV.

[7] Deuteronomy 32:22; 2 Samuel 22:6; Job 11:8, 26:6; Psalm 9:17, 16:10, 18:5, 55:15, 86:13, 116:3, 139:8; Proverbs 5:5, 7:27, 9:18, 15:11, 23:14, 27:20; Isaiah 5:14, 14:9, 28:15, 28:18, 57:9; Ezekiel 31:16, 17, 32:21, 27; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2; Habakkuk 2:5.