For Christians who believe in a God of love, the concept of an ongoing hell can be disturbing and difficult to understand. What the Bible truly teaches about hell may surprise you!
Dante and Virgil view the torments of hell as imagined in Dante’s work The Divine Comedy.
Source: Woodcut by Gustave Doré
Are you afraid that a friend or someone you know is in hell, burning now and forever in fiery torment? On the other hand, you might not be too worried about the thought of your enemies burning in hell.
Perhaps you don't buy into the concept of going to hell at all. Some think it's mere superstition. After all, if God is a Being of great love, why would He condemn people to suffer horrendous agony in hell forever?
Even for a great many who consider themselves Christians, hell can be disturbing and difficult to understand. What the Bible teaches—the truth—is much simpler.
Many believe a in a perpetual fiery hell
Millions of people believe their enemies and even some of their loved ones are burning in the fires of hell right now. A recent survey found that the majority of Americans believe in a fiery hell. The belief is not just one held by Americans. In Britain and Australia, more than three out of 10 surveyed professed a belief in hell. About the same number in Canada accept hell as real.
Many believe that hell is a real place where bad people who have led sinful lives receive eternal punishing. But many struggle to understand how a loving Creator God would condemn His creation to eternal torment. How could that be love?
What are the facts from the Bible about hell? Does God's Word describe it as a real place, or something symbolic? Is it just plain fiction, or is hell something else altogether?
Did you know that early Christians did not believe in the idea of an ever-burning hell? It wasn't a teaching of Jesus or the Bible! We'll explore exactly what Jesus did teach the early Church about hell and judgment. First, let's investigate where the idea of fiery, eternal torment in execution of judgment of sinful life actually came from.
In the early 1300s, the noted Italian poet Dante Alighieri penned an imaginary description of hell in his work The Divine Comedy. The beginning section of that epic poem is known as the Inferno —the Italian word for hell.
This one story is probably most responsible for the commonly held notions of hell today. How could this one story about hell form and shape what millions believe?
In his poem, Dante imagines that the ancient Roman poet Virgil takes him on a guided tour through hell.
At the entrance gates to Dante's hell is an ominous inscription that ends, "Abandon all hope, you who enter here" ( Inferno, A New Verse Translation, Dante Alighieri, ed. Elio Zappulla, Canto III, p. 39).
Virgil tells Dante about the journey through hell: "I'll be your guide, and you will follow me, and I will lead you through a world of pain where dead souls writhe in endless agony and clamor, as they cry, to die again" (Canto I, p. 24).
Dante is led through nine circles of hell—various compartments and levels of torturous afterlife. He writes about what he envisions: "So in the ditch, far down below the arch on which we stood, there bubbled viscous pitch . . . I only saw the bubbles rise and burst, the huge mass heave, contract, heave, and contract repeatedly" (Canto XXI, pp. 189–190). He looks to see someone condemned to this level: "The sinner plunged into the pitch [and] they pricked the sinner with a hundred prongs" (Canto XXI, pp. 190–191).
Dante sees souls locked in searing fiery tombs, people boiling in blood and rained on by fire. Malicious demons jab, poke, whip and beat those who are lost. These sinners are buried head first, but suffer even more misery as scorching flames burn their feet.
Nevertheless, this isn't the fate of all. Others are frozen in a lake up to their heads to suffer the agony of stinging, bitter cold—only able to move their chattering teeth.
Dante created stunning, unforgettable visual images that became etched into people's minds. He played on our worst fears. The gripping scenes he imagined captured the attention and horror of the world—we see this expounded in movies and other popular culture centuries later.
So effective was this one story about hell in its horrid depiction of Dante's ideas of punishment for the sinnerthat this poem, rather than the Bible, molded and shaped the thinking of the world. Don't forget, it was a time very different from today. There were no Bible bookstores, and there certainly wasn't a Bible in every home (the movable-type printing press wouldn't be invented for almost another century and a half).
No wonder people believed it to be true. Even though Dante's work barely has any reference to actual Bible passages, it became the benchmark of what people would believe about the afterlife. The Catholic Encyclopedia even calls it "the Sacred Poem." Dante's Inferno seemingly became the standard of what hell is like and who would go there.
But the story is fiction!
It's important to remember, though, that the Inferno is fiction —fantasy and imagination! It's a made-up story—it's pretend, with no factual evidence! This poem is not literal. It's not even close to a factual interpretation of the Bible's teachings regarding hell! What it describes is not at all what Jesus taught about the fate of sinners!
Dante wrote The Divine Comedy as an allegory, an imaginary poem. It reflects the politics and history of the Italy of his day.
However, that didn't change the incredible impact it had on people's ideas of what hell must be like. It stirred up and reinforced the belief that there must be blistering punishment for the incorrigibly wicked in an ever-burning hell.
Sadly, many have come to believe Dante's descriptions are more or less accurate. Yet they are not!
This may be shocking but, according to the Bible, there is no hell as commonly conceived. The kind of hell most people believe in is not real, nor is it referenced in the Bible. I hope you will not misunderstand: The Bible does teach that there will come a judgment for every human being, but it does not teach that any judgment will end in eternal fiery torment.
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ," the apostle Paul wrote, "that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians:5:10).
So what exactly is the ultimate punishment for unrepentant sinners?
Many ideas are floating around out there. The Barna Research Group reported: "While there is no dominant view of Hell, two particular perspectives are popular [in the U.S.]. Four out of ten adults believe that Hell is 'a state of eternal separation from God's presence' (39%) and one third (32%) says it is 'an actual place of torment and suffering where people's souls go after death.' A third perspective that one in eight adults believe is that 'Hell is just a symbol of an unknown bad outcome after death' (13%)" (Barna.org, Oct. 21, 2003).
These are just a few of the many ideas about hell. Does the Bible teach that any of these ideas are accurate? No.
What the Bible actually teaches about hell
Notice this short but powerful scripture: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans:6:23, emphasis added throughout).
Did you notice the contrast described in this verse? What do sinners earn? They earn death, not eternal life in hell. On the other hand, God's gift is eternal life through our Savior Christ Jesus. So God's plain teaching is "the wages of sin is death," not "eternal life in torment." Simple but true—yet so many are confused over this truth!
Notice how clearly Scripture describes this. God says: "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel:18:4). A few verses later, God repeats this, giving it emphasis: "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel:18:20).
This is significant! It's a major difference between what God says and what so many people believe. God tells us that souls can die. The Bible plainly says that you don't automatically go on living forever as an immortal soul either in heaven or in hell!
Jesus himself taught, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John:3:16).
There is something significant in this famous verse that you may have missed. Jesus tells us that without His sacrifice, we die— we perish —we do not live forever in separation. To "perish" does not just mean to stop living, but to be destroyed, or "to come to nothing"—to cease to exist. In no way does it mean to have eternal life in torment.
You may not have realized that this is what Jesus taught. So take this challenge: Are you willing to be honest with yourself and look at the facts of the Bible and consider that your current understanding is in error?
Hellfire ends existence of the unrepentant
Here's another passage God inspired that you should review. It gives insight into the truth about hell:
"For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,' says the Lord of hosts, 'that will leave them neither root nor branch . . . You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,' says the Lord of hosts" (Malachi:4:1-3).
Will there be punishment for the wicked? Yes. Is it an ever-burning hellfire? No. As their punishment, evildoers will quickly burn, not in eternal torture but in a merciful, quick penalty. Unrepentant sinful people will not be tormented forever. Instead, they will be totally burned up —destroyed and reduced to ashes.
That may sound surprising to you. But that's what the Bible teaches! Those who willingly and willfully reject God's way of life will simply cease to exist; they will not suffer forever.
Yes, the Bible does say that those who choose not to repent of their evil attitude and sin will be punished by fire—but not the mythical hell of human imagination. The Bible shows that God is a God of mercy and love. The wicked will be consumed by fire once, quickly, and then forgotten. They will not be tortured for all eternity. They will receive their eternal punish ment (they will cease to exist), but not eternal punish ing . Again, their death, their eternal punishment, will last forever, but not the punishing.
So God is indeed the God of great mercy, wisdom and righteous judgment. You don't have to be bogged down with fabricated traditions. Instead, you can take comfort and be encouraged by what Jesus really taught in the pages of your Bible.
There is much more to consider on the subject of hell. The following section examines some specific questions to help you understand more deeply.
Understanding what Jesus teaches about hell
Someone might say to you: Wait a second, didn't Jesus teach about hell? What about Matthew:10:28? It says: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."
What is the hell to which Jesus referred? Jesus said people would not suffer everlasting torment. In our English language Bibles, hell in this case is translated from the Greek word gehenna, which refers to a valley just outside Jerusalem. Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew term Gai Hinnom, which means the Valley of Hinnom (Joshua:18:16).
This was what we today would refer to as the city dump—where garbage, trash and refuse were thrown and consumed in the fires that constantly burned there. The carcasses of dead animals—and the bodies of dead, despicable criminals—were also cast into gehenna for disposal. Jesus used this location and what took place there to help us understand the fate the unrepentant will suffer in the future—which, as we saw above, is to be burned up by fire.
God will destroy the wicked, but without proper historical understanding, many people draw incorrect conclusions and have misconceptions about this verse. If you lived in Jerusalem at the time of Christ, what would come to your mind when Jesus mentioned gehenna? You would naturally think of the "city dump" where trash and dead bodies were burned up.
Jesus uses gehenna to describe what the Bible elsewhere calls the lake of fire. God can destroy—annihilate—both the body and soul (physical conscious being rather than immortal soul) in this gehenna. When God destroys an incorrigible person in this gehenna, the resulting death is eternal.
And when are the wicked punished? When does this punishment take place? Does it happen immediately at death? Gehenna is the word Christ used to refer to what Revelation:20:10 and Revelation:20:14-15 call "the lake of fire." It brings "the second death"—permanent, eternal death. This is a reference to the final fate of the wicked. "The second death" means one receives the eternal death penalty, with no possibility of resurrection to eternal life! Those who have sealed their minds never to repent or surrender to Jesus Christ will be totally burned up— destroyed.
Revelation:21:8 says, "But the cowardly . . . and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." Ezekiel:18:4 says, "The soul who sins shall die"—again, the soul is not immortal.
So yes, there is coming a time when Jesus will make those who ultimately refuse to repent take personal responsibility for their actions, meaning for them the lake of fire or second death. But it will not be an eternity in agony!
Hope and mercy
There is hope: "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter:3:9).
There is no contradiction with God; He truly is a God of mercy and love. Those who willfully reject His way of life will be cast into a hellfire to be burned up. They will not suffer forever in hell or somehow be tortured for all eternity.
We can all be thankful for God's justice, His fairness and His plan of salvation through Christ!