Hell: the Horror of Eternal Punishment

By Andrew E. Courtis

One cannot help but notice that the bulk of teaching on the doctrine of Hell comes from the very lips of the Lord Jesus Christ. In-fact, He taught on Hell more than He spoke about Heaven. This then reveals the seriousness of this important subject. The Old Testament makes reference to the punishment of the wicked (Isaiah 66:24 and Daniel 12:2) and there are a number of references in the rest of the New Testament (1 Thess. 1:102 Thess. 1:9Heb. 9:27Jude 7Rev. 14:9-11Rev. 19:20Rev. 20:15Rev. 21:8) that do the same. Hell is a topic that ought to create a sense of sensitivity and sorrow to any listener. It is not an easy topic to talk about because of the horror related to it. Nonetheless, it is in the Word of God and must be addressed.

The Reality of Hell

Hell is real. Despite the modern usage of hell as a reference to a state or condition of difficulty and discomfort – the Scriptures teach that it is a real place created by God for the purpose of punishing those outside of Christ (Matt. 25:41). Our Lord described it as follows: a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12), a fiery furnace (Matt. 13:42), outer darkness (Matt.22:13), unquenchable fire (Mark 9:48) and everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:46). Hell is certainly a horrible, terrifying and real place.

The Occupants of Hell

Who will go to Hell? Hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41) and will be the abode of all who are unconverted (Rev. 20:15). The occupants of Hell are all “workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23).

The Duration of Hell

What does the Scripture say concerning the duration of hell? Some have suggested that it will be limited as the Lord will simply annihilate His enemies. However, it will be my argument in a later post that the Scriptures teach an eternal conscious punishment of the wicked. The Scripture says Hell is “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12Mark 9:43), a place where “the worm does not die” (Mark 9:47-48), a place where there “will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12), a place of “eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8Matt. 25:41) and “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). Hell is everlasting. By God’s grace, not all will go to Hell. Why? Because He has made provision for the forgiveness of sins found exclusively in Jesus Christ.

1. HELL IS A REAL PLACE

In stories or movies you will come across many places that are not real. Of course, we may allow our imaginations to treat it as real while we engage in the story, but at the end of the day, we know that they are simply fictional. Unlike the places of fiction like Oz, the 100 Acre Wood and Willy Wonker’s Chocolate Factory – hell is not something that occurs in fictional literature and therefore is to be dismissed. Nor is it a mere metaphor for discomfort and difficulty. Hell is a real place. Of course if we are going to obtain a right understanding of what it is like we must go to the one authority we can count on, and that is the word of God. In the Scriptures there are numerous names and images used to describe hell. Of these, I will consider the most common ones found in the New Testament.

Hades

The word hades appears ten times in the NT (Matt. 11:23; 16:18 Luke 10:15; 16:23Acts 2:27, 31Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14). It is used in two ways, a place of punishment (in my opinion the word hell is an appropriate translation) and secondly as the state of death (the transliteration “hades” is helpful). In reference to it being the place of punishment, it refers to the temporary torment of the wicked (cf. Luke 16:23). Though we may refer it it as hell, it is not the final hell.

Gehenna

Gehenna comes from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom which is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom (located at the south end of Jerusalem). The depraved action of sacrificing infants in the fire to the god of Molech occurred in this valley (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:62 Chr. 28:3; 33:6). It later on became a place where refuse, waste, the dead bodies of criminals and animals were burned. When referring to the place of punishment and condemnation for the wicked, our Lord referred to it as Gehenna (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33Mark 9:43, 45, 47Luke 12:5). Such a name was a vivid picture in the minds of our Lord’s listeners.

Fire

Linked with the word hell is the word fire. It is called the “lake of fire” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15), “unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12Mark 9:43, 46, 48), “fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:42, 50) and “eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41). It is unknown what this actual fire will be like, it is clear that it is horrifying. These terms help us identify the reality of hell as an actual place. It is not an illustration nor is it a fictional place – it is real.

2. HOW LONG WILL HELL LAST?

The Lord Jesus Christ said that hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Scripture also teaches that hell will be the abode of all who are unconverted (Revelation 20:15). I made the point earlier on that hell is a real place. As a place it certainly is not pleasant to think about. Hell is horrifying. For how long do the unbelieving go to hell? Some have suggested that no one will go to hell (universalism), but this ignores the clear teaching of Scripture (Matthew 25:46Revelation 20:15). Others say that the punishment in hell is limited, that is to say, those that go to hell will be annihilated and not suffer everlasting torment (annihilationism). What does the Scripture say concerning the duration of hell? I believe the  Scriptures teach an eternal conscious punishment of the wicked. Though the OT teaches an eternal punishment of the unbelieving (Psalm 78:66Isaiah 33:14Isaiah 66:24Jeremiah 23:40Jeremiah 25:9Daniel 12:2), I will restrict myself to some NT verses in this article. The Lord Jesus Christ said a lot concerning its duration. He said that hell is “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12Mark 9:43), a place where “the worm does not die” (Mark 9:47-48), a place where there “will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12), a place of “eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8Matthew 25:41) and “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). The language of these references is not referring to something of a limited duration. The final reference I quoted speaks of the righteous going into eternal life whereas the unbelieving go into eternal punishment. To redefine eternal punishment would also change the meaning of eternal life. Some will object and say, doesn’t the Scripture speak of the lost being destroyed? The answer is yes it does (Matthew 10:282 Thessalonians 2:10), but the word destroyed (Gk apollumi) can have varying meanings that are determined by the context. For example, the same word is also used of a lost sheep (Matthew 10:6) and a lost coin (Luke 15:9). On many occasions apollumi is used to refer to that which comes to ruin and loss. Given the teaching of the Lord Jesus in passages mentioned earlier, it is clear that when the unbeliever goes to hell, they will experience destruction, ruin and loss – not annihilation. I conclude with the sobering words of John. When referring to the unbelieving he said they

will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.  And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name (Revelation 14:10-11).