What do you know about Hell?
Perhaps you imagine a place of darkness and fire, where God happily sends unbelievers to suffer in eternal, smoke-filled agony at the hands of demonic torturers.
If you did, you’d be wrong.
Hell is one of the most misunderstood concepts of Christian theology, both by those within the religion, and by those outside of it. This misrepresentation of Hell not only does damage to the image of the Christian Church, but also causes some of the faithful, themselves, to fall away from what they perceive to be a monstrous God.
At the heart of this is the issue of the very character of God—what we believe about Hell affects what we believe about the Lord who created it. When we are wrong about Hell, we misrepresent God.
And so it is vital to try and grasp the reality of what Hell truly is.
Hell is real. There is no worse place in all creation. But it’s also very different from what you’ve been taught.
Here are the three misconceptions about Hell that you need to stop believing.
“Hell is eternal."
The biggest lie we’ve ever been told about Hell is that it lasts forever.
The Bible simply does not support the idea of unending, conscious torment. There is much more evidence that, instead of agony, the end of the wicked lies in oblivion.
Annihilationism is the view that anyone who refuses God’s redemption simply ceases to exist after an indeterminate period of torment—they are eventually annihilated rather than damned to suffer eternally. The Bible, when we read carefully, seems to support this view in several ways.
Scripture speaks of the wicked suffering “eternal punishment,” “eternal destruction,” and “eternal judgment,” but the language indicates that it is the consequence of unbelief that is eternal, not the duration. The unsaved are “destroyed forever,” but they are not eternally being destroyed. They are annihilated, and cease to be.
Most tellingly, Matthew 10:28 reads, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” While Christian pop culture teaching will tell you that the still-living soul burns in Hell forever, this verse shows that God destroys souls in Hell.
The warning of an eternal Hell is what puts many non-Christians on the defensive, but the warning of the annihilationist is both Biblical and believable, and, as we’re about to see, shows God’s true character.
“God wants unbelievers to go to Hell.”
If there’s one image that criticize the Church seize on the most, it is that of the eternally angry God who enjoys locking the unsaved away in the fires of Hell.
There’s one problem here. That’s not God’s character at all.
Psalms 30:5 speaks of God’s temperament, saying “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.” Numerous other scriptures speak of God’s enduring, eternal love—if God’s anger is temporary and his love, eternal, then what sense does an eternal Hell make? It’s simply not compatible.
But it is in Ezekiel 18:23 that we find the most compelling description of how God feels about the unrepentant. Here, God says, “’Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?’ declares the Sovereign Lord. ‘Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’”
God loves His creations, and only wants the best for us. He is grieved when we do not choose to live in His word.
Why, then, you might ask, would He allow Hell? Why not take everyone up to Heaven, no matter what?
The answer to that lies bound up in the gift of free will.
God always allows us choice—He did not create automatons. And in the end, we’re given a final choice: go and live with God in Heaven, or separate ourselves from Him. And since God is the source of all life and energy, to separate from Him is to cease. Without Him, we are un-created.
A lesser being wouldn’t give humankind that choice—it would create slaves of us. But God doesn’t do that. He loves us so much that He gives us a choice.
“In Hell, demons will torture you.”
The final popular misconception about Hell is that it is a place where human souls are tortured by demons. This image has been popularized by historical art, by modern film and fiction, and even by the Church, itself.
But there isn’t a shred of evidence in the Bible that Hell’s horrors come from demons. They’re prisoners, too—not the jailers.
While Hell as a place of agony may not be eternal, it is still a very real place, with very real consequences. The book of Revelation shows that Hell, as a place of agony, is a holding area for those who refused God in life, where they remain until the Day of Judgment, when they will be made nothing.
But if the tortures of this temporary Hell do not come from demons, from where do they come?
Real torture comes from the separation from God.
There doesn’t need to be literal fire in Hell. It couldn’t hold a candle to this separation. No demon’s blade or whip could match it. No darkened pit could replicate its horrors.
Imagine being in the presence of absolute perfection, love, and goodness once, and then never seeing it again. That is Hell.
We were, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, made for another world: Heaven. We intrinsically belong there with God. So when we are forever cut off, it is an indescribable pain.
But it is also a pain that we choose, not one that is inflicted on us from the outside. And that makes all the difference.
Think Outside the Box
Do you believe certain arguments about the nature of Hell because you’ve studied the Bible and reasoned it out? Or do you believe because that’s what the Church has always taught? Challenge yourself to place Biblical study over ecclesiastical tradition, and you may find that some incredible surprises await you.
With the Church’s popular conception of Hell being so out of sync with ideals of justice, kindness, and love—all aspects of God—it’s no wonder some are driven away. But when we embrace a close examination of scripture, we’re better able to show the world God’s true face.
And, as His representatives on Earth, there’s little Christians can do that is more important than that.