Hell isn’t a place we like to think of. We would rather spend our spiritual efforts thinking of heaven’s glories. However, like it or not, the existence of heaven’s counterpart is plainly written in the Bible. Jesus Himself spoke about that, specifically in Matthew 5:22. It seems pretty straightforward: hell is the place you go if you abandon the Lord, but is it that simple?

Understanding the biblical principle of hell is complicated by the numerous unbiblical images we typically associate with it. We imagine hell as cavernous and dark, one with flames erupting all around you as the red-horned devil roams freely with his pitchfork and serpentine tail swinging back and forth. These images populate comic books, horror movies, and TV shows, but they don’t convey biblical reality.

Hell has no life.

The Bible uses all kinds of images when trying to describe hell. Hell is never pictured in one way. Instead, it’s pictured as a place of eternal torment, a lake of fire, or a place of punishment. These images are frightening and graphic. However, they’re just that: images. The Bible uses these images to describe a spiritual reality that lacks life. Although hell is envisioned as a place, this place is understood as the antithesis of eternal life. One can’t exist outside of God’s gracious presence and love. Therefore, the Bible mainly describes hell as a place of death.

We see this in verses like Romans 6:23, where Paul writes that the wages of sin are death, but God’s gift is life. Paul contrasts the everlasting state of life with the eternal state of death. However, it’s interesting that Paul doesn’t suggest that sin’s wages are eternal punishment. The consequence of sin is torment, not death, which is consistent with Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:28. In this verse, Jesus warns people to be scared of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Hell equals destruction, meaning one doesn’t physically die, but they also die spiritually.

This is consistent with how the Old Testament describes God’s punishment of the wicked. Throughout the Old Testament, condemning the wicked happens via destruction, not eternal punishment. For example, Psalm 37 tells us not to worry about evil people or be jealous of people who do wrong because, like the grass, they’ll soon wither away.

We could also think about the episode where the ground swallows up Dathan and Abiram after opposing Moses and Aaron’s authority, as detailed in Numbers 26:9-10. These passages don’t suggest that the wicked live in the depths of the earth forever, surrounded by fires. Instead, the truth is that the wicked had been swallowed up by divine judgment. They’ve ceased to exist. Simply put, one can’t be alive in hell because it’s a place of death.

Hell is an illustration of destruction, not torment.

This brings us to a critical question: If hell is best understood as eternal death, why does the Bible typically use pictures of fire to describe this eternal state? For example, Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus seems to suggest that hell is a place where one is surrounded by endless flames, as detailed in Luke 16:24. If hell is a place of death and devastation, then why all the fire? We must never forget that the Bible describes spiritual truths by using metaphors, images, and words common to the first-century world. Jesus builds His parables around recognizable situations and stories. Today, as we’re separated from the biblical world by several millennia, these references aren’t always recognizable. The illustration of hell is one of these instances.

In discussing hell, Jesus typically uses the word “Gehenna.” Over time, this word came to be linked with misery, torment, and weeping. Therefore, we translate this word as “hell.” However, in the first-century world, “Gehenna” referred to a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem. This valley was used to blaze the bodies of criminals, animals, and other forms of refuse. Notably, “Gehenna’s” fires never went out. The reason this valley was chosen to be a place of burning was because, at one point, the wicked in Jerusalem used this valley to sacrifice children to the god Molech. Jeremiah refers to these sacrifices in Jeremiah 7:30-31, noting the specific location where this idolatrous practice occurred.

The Valley of Ben Hinnom, later called “Gehenna,” came to be understood as a place of evil. Due to this correlation, this valley was useless to Israel, and thus, it became the place to burn all that was tainted. The bodies of the wicked, along with other waste, were thrown into the valley to be consumed by fire. Therefore, going to “Gehenna” was deemed the final act of judgment on the wicked. This is the illustration that Jesus uses when He illustrates hell. He never intended to refer to a physical place of endless torture but to a place where the wicked are consumed in fire. Jesus never taught that evil people live on a spiritual trash pile for eternity. Instead, they’re consumed. Therefore, “Gehenna” isn’t a place where the sinful feel the heat of tortuous flames. Those who suffer the outcome of sin are accordingly judged and consumed in judgment’s fire.

Did God create hell?

In one respect, we can answer this question affirmatively. Did God create hell? Yes, “Gehenna” is a physical place, and Jesus points to a particular location as an illustration and image of hell. However, in another respect, “Gehenna” is created by humanity’s sinfulness. It’s humanity’s sinful nature that creates and lives out separation from God. In Romans 6:23, Paul’s language of death being a wage of sin implies this. A wage is that which is given to someone in response to a work or earning. The proposition is that eternal death happens as a result of our sinful decisions.

God created humanity with free will. In His love and mercy, He gives humanity the capacity to reject Him. Not only does He give humanity the chance to reject the Lord of life, but He also respects that choice. Like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:22, Jesus allows us to walk away from Him. Jesus makes eternal life an option for all who come to Him in faith. However, it’s our choice to accept this invite or not. If we decide to reject eternal life, then that which awaits us is the opposite of eternal life, that being death.

While this might not mean that we’ll feel our skin burning in the eternal fire, this doesn’t mean that our eternity will be marked by the absence of God’s grace, love, and gift of salvation. If that’s the case, how can we not call this anything else but hell?

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