No topic stirs greater resistance than hell. Who wants to think about eternal punishment? We prefer to casualize the issue, making jokes about its residents or turning the noun into a flippant adjective. "That was a hell of a steak." Odd that we don't do the same with lesser tragedies. You never hear, "My golf game has gone to prison." Or, "This is an AIDS of a traffic jam." Seems a conspiracy is afoot to minimize hell.
Some prefer to sanitize the subject, dismissing it as a moral impossibility.
"I do not myself feel that any person," defied atheist Bertrand Russell, "who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment." Or, as is more commonly believed, "A loving God would not send people to hell." Religious leaders increasingly agree. Martin Marty, a church historian at the University of Chicago Divinity School, canvassed one hundred years of some scholarly journals for entries on hell. He didn't find one. "Hell," he observed, "disappeared and no one noticed."
Easy to understand why. Hell is a hideous topic. Any person who discusses it glibly or proclaims it gleefully has failed to ponder it deeply. Scripture writers dip pens in gloomy ink to describe its nature. They speak of the "blackest darkness" (Jude 13), "everlasting destruction" (2 Thess. 1:9), "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 8:12).
A glimpse into the pit won't brighten your day, but it will enlighten your understanding of Jesus. He didn't avoid the discussion. Quite the contrary. He planted a one-word caution sign between you and hell's path: perish. "Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
Jesus spoke of hell often. Thirteen percent of his teachings refer to eternal judgment and hell. Two-thirds of his parables relate to resurrection and judgment. Jesus wasn't cruel or capricious, but he was blunt. His candor stuns.
He speaks in tangible terms. "Fear Him," he warns, "who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28 NKJV). He quotes Hades's rich man pleading for Lazarus to "dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue" (Luke 16:24 NKJV). Words such as body, finger, and tongue presuppose a physical state in which a throat longs for water and a person begs for relief—physical relief.
The apostles said that Judas Iscariot had gone "to his own place" (Acts 1:25 NASB). The Greek word for place is topos, which means geographical location. Jesus describes heaven with the same noun: "In My Father's house are many mansions....I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2 NKJV). Hell, like heaven, is a location, not a state of mind, not a metaphysical dimension of floating spirits, but an actual place populated by physical beings.
Woeful, this thought. God has quarantined a precinct in his vast universe as the depository of the hard-hearted.
Exactly where is hell? Jesus gives one chilling clue: "outside." "Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness" (Matt. 22:13). Outside of what? Outside of the boundaries of heaven, for one thing. Abraham, in paradise, told the rich man, in torment, "Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us" (Luke 16:26 NKJV). No heaven-to-hell field trips. No hell-to-heaven holiday breaks. Hell is to heaven what the edge of our universe is to earth: outside the range of a commute.
Hell is also outside the realm of conclusion. Oh, that hell's punishment would end, that God would schedule an execution date. New Testament language leads some godly scholars to believe he will:
Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28 NKJV)
Whoever believes in him shall not perish. (John 3:16)
Jesus parallels hell with Gehenna, a rubbish dump outside the southwestern walls of Jerusalem, infamous for its unending smoldering and decay. He employs Gehenna as a word picture of hell, the place where the "worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48 ESV). A deathless worm and quenchless fire—however symbolic these phrases may be—smack of ongoing consumption of something. Jesus speaks of sinners being "thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 8:12). How can a nonexistent person weep or gnash teeth?
Jesus describes the length of heaven and hell with the same adjective: eternal. "They will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:46 RSV). Hell lasts as long as heaven. It may have a back door or graduation day, but I haven't found it.
Much perishes in hell. Hope perishes. Happiness perishes. But the body and soul of the God-deniers continue outside. Outside of heaven, outside of hope, and outside of God's goodness.
None of us have seen such a blessingless world. Even the vilest precincts of humanity know the grace of God. People who want nothing of God still enjoy his benefits. Adolf Hitler witnessed the wonder of the Alps. Saddam Hussein enjoyed the blushing sunrise of the desert. The dictator, child molester, serial rapist, and drug peddler—all enjoy the common grace of God's goodness. They hear children laugh, smell dinner cooking, and tap their toes to the rhythm of a good song. They deny God yet enjoy his benevolence.
But these privileges are confiscated at the gateway to hell. Scofflaws will be "shut out from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess. 1:9). Hell knows none of heaven's kindnesses, no overflow of divine perks. The only laughter the unrepentant hear is evil; the only desires they know are selfish. As the Scottish professor James Denney describes it, God-rejecters "pass into a night on which no morning dawns." Hell is society at its worst.
More tragically, hell is individuals at their worst. It surfaces and amplifies the ugliest traits in people. Cravings will go unchecked. Worriers will fret and never find peace. Thieves will steal and never have enough. Drunks always craving, gluttons always demanding. None will be satisfied. Remember: "their worm does not die" (Mark 9:48 ESV). As one writer put it, "Not only will the unbeliever be in hell, but hell will be in him too."
Death freezes the moral compass. People will remain in the fashion they enter. Revelation 22:11 seems to emphasize hell's unrepentant evil: "Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy" (RSV). The God-less remain ungodly.
Hell is not a correctional facility or reform school. Its members hear no admonishing parents, candid sermons, or Spirit of God, no voice of God, no voice of God's people. Spend a lifetime telling God to be quiet, and he'll do just that. God honors our request for silence.