What do you think happens to bad people when they die? Or maybe let’s take morals out of the equation. What happens to people who aren’t Christians after they die? Do they burn forever in a fiery hell?
That’s what a lot of Christians assume. But think about it for a minute. Why would God punish people forever in hell like that? After all, life’s pretty short. So is it fair that the penalty for a brief lifetime of misbehavior earns an eternity of torture and pain? Doesn’t eternal, conscious torment in hellfire seem excessive? Why would a loving God do that?
If you’re a thinking person, you can’t take it lightly. These and other questions about the doctrine of hell are puzzling to many Christians, and they must be answered. There are many incorrect ideas out there taught by Christian churches.
Did you know that the Bible says there is no hell as most people understand that term? Now before you put the magazine down in frustration, let me explain what I mean. The Bible does use the term “hell” in English translations—but not for an afterlife of unending torment. Scripture does teach that there will be judgment for every single human being—and ultimate punishment for those who refuse to repent. But what is that ultimate punishment?
Let’s explore key questions related to the concept of hell, examining what the Bible has to say about it and how it relates to the nature of God, and what lies ahead.
Does a traditional hell match God’s character?
Eternal torture. Endless agony. Infinite affliction. That is what so many believe about hell. But the Bible doesn’t teach that! If that’s your view of hell, I hope you’ll take the challenge and study what the Word of God truly says. Let’s discover what Scripture actually teaches and realize it’s something quite different from the traditional view of hell.
A recent poll has shown that a third of Americans believe that hell is “an actual place of torment and suffering where people’s souls go after death.” Many people have never taken the time to think more deeply about hell and to study God’s Word to compare what they’ve been taught to what the Bible really says. Have you accepted the challenge to do just that?
A common Bible-based Christian teaching is that God loves everybody. So why do so many think that a loving God has created an ever-burning hell? Some even believe that righteous, saved people will actually be able to observe the sufferings of the wicked forever.
Imagine that! By that kind of reasoning, parents would witness the unending suffering of their own children and delight in it. Husbands and wives would somehow feel joy in seeing their unbelieving spouses tortured forever. And here’s the worst part: This idea of hell depicts God as sadistic, cruel and merciless.
Can this concept of hell possibly be true? Let’s remember something that’s critical as we consider the mistaken idea that unsaved people are tortured for all eternity.
The Bible proclaims that “God is love” (1 John 4:8 1 John 4:8He that loves not knows not God; for God is love.
American King James Version×; 1 John 4:16 1 John 4:16And we have known and believed the love that God has to us. God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.
American King James Version×, emphasis added throughout). That’s His character, His personality, His nature. It always has been—and it always will be. We are consistently reminded of this throughout the Bible: “Because the Lord loves you … Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:8-9 Deuteronomy 7:8-9 8 But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn to your fathers, has the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of slaves, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the LORD your God, he is God, the faithful God, which keeps covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations;
American King James Version×).
Centuries later the apostle Paul also wrote about the wonderful, distinctive qualities of the character of our Father: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5 Ephesians 2:4-5 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us,
5 Even when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together with Christ, (by grace you are saved;)
American King James Version×).
From the beginning of the Bible to its end, God’s essence—His very being of love—is described repeatedly. At the beginning of the book of Revelation we’re told: “Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come … and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:4-6 Revelation 1:4-6 4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be to you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. To him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
6 And has made us kings and priests to God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
American King James Version×).
Do these passages harmonize with the idea that a loving God will punish people in a hell of unceasing torture and misery? Does it seem reasonable that the penalty for a short lifetime of offense should be agonizing torment that is never-ending?
Why would a loving God send people to hell forever? We’re told, “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).
That is the heart of God—He wants the best for everyone. He even tells us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44 Matthew 5:44But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you;
American King James Version×). Yet the traditional view of hell would have us believe that God vengefully torments evil people for all time —not just for a few decades or even a few centuries but for infinite time without end! The perception that God sentences people to eternal, ceaseless torture is so disgusting that it has even turned some away from belief in God.
What’s the biblical view of hell?
Here’s a familiar passage—one that you may have memorized. It’s where 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 John 3:16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
American King James Version×). Is there something significant in this famous verse that you may have missed?
What happens to us without the sacrifice of Christ? Jesus said we die . We perish, we do not live forever. In fact, the word “perish” doesn’t mean just to stop living, but to be destroyed, or “to come to nothing”—to cease to exist. That’s a huge difference between what God says and what so many people believe. The Bible tells us that you don’t automatically go on living forever, either in heaven or in hell. Jesus says that we do not have eternal life already in us but that we need to be given everlasting life.
Here’s another powerful passage that reveals this same great truth. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Did you notice the contrast described in this verse? The penalty for sin is death, not eternal life in hell. Death means cessation of life—not conscious separation from God, as many try to redefine it. Those who sin, or disobey God, don’t earn continual torture. They don’t earn unending pain. They don’t earn everlasting agony. They earn death. Their life ends.
But on the other hand, to the repentant, God gives the gift of eternal life in the Kingdom of God through our Savior Jesus Christ. You see, we don’t have eternal life naturally. We don’t have an immortal soul. Eternal life—eternal conscious existence—has to be given to us. That’s why we need to understand God’s plain teaching that “the wages of sin is death”—not a life of ceaseless suffering.
Notice how plainly and consistently Scripture describes this fact: “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 Ezekiel 18:4Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins, it shall die.
American King James Version×). A few verses later, God repeats this—giving it emphasis: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20 Ezekiel 18:20The soul that sins, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him.
American King James Version×).
This is significant! What a difference between what God says and what so many believe. God tells us that souls can die. Have you ever heard that before? Do you realize that the Bible teaches that souls stop living? Jesus Christ said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him [God] who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 Matthew 10:28And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
American King James Version×). So there is a “hell” of sorts—but it results in total destruction of body and soul, not merely life in torment while forever separated from God.
Here’s the thing: God must sustain life—all life belongs to Him. Souls are actually what we are. According to His Word, we are living souls or beings. We don’t have a soul that is somehow separate from our mind and body. Now what happens to the sinner—the soul—that will not repent? Again, the Bible plainly says that sinners don’t automatically go on living forever in the punishment of hell. Instead, they die.
God’s justice is perfect
In recognizing that the biblical idea of hell isn’t eternal conscious torment, we need to be cautious we don’t fall into the other ditch of thinking there is no ultimate punishment for the wicked. Because God is love, does any kind of punishment at all contradict His character? Absolutely not. Unrepentant sinners will be punished—but fairly and impartially. And not in the kind of eternal hell in which most people believe.
The Bible foretells God’s judgment on the wicked. As punishment, the hardened, unrepentant sinner will be thrown into a lake of fire and will be burned up —no eternal torture, just a merciful, quick death penalty. This is the real hellfire. The unrepentant wicked will not burn forever in this fire. Instead, they will be totally and completely burned up—destroyed and reduced to ashes by the flames of the lake of fire.
Have you ever read this Bible passage? “‘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 Malachi 4:1-3 1 For, behold, the day comes, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yes, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that comes shall burn them up, said the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
2 But to you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and you shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.
3 And you shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, said the LORD of hosts.
American King James Version×).
God’s Word is clear: Those who ultimately choose not to repent of their wickedness and sin will be punished by fire—but not the mythical hell of men’s imagination. It’s not an ever-burning hellfire. It’s not eternal, conscious isolation from God. It’s not unending emotional, mental or physical torment. It’s not everlasting shame, regret or pain. It is final capital punishment that brings the end of life —in fact, the end of existence, utter annihilation, with conscious awareness never to return.
The truth about hell displays God’s mercy
God respects human choice. Because of His loving character and intent that we be like Him, He doesn’t force belief on anyone. Instead He wants us to willingly choose His way. The desperately wicked will be punished not because God refuses to forgive them. It will be a conscious choice on their part to refuse God’s mercy and not repent. Since the wicked will not choose His way, they will be consumed by fire and be no more. They won’t be tortured for all eternity. In fact, God loves them so much He wants their suffering to end.
There is no contradiction. God is a God of mercy and love. He mercifully puts those who reject Him, the Source of all life and all goodness, out of their misery. God is the God of great wisdom, mercy and righteous judgment. When it comes to the topic of eternal punishment and hell, that is the most important thing to remember: God is a God of mercy and love.
Hell is a controversial and often misunderstood subject. What’s the truth? Your Bible clearly states that the wicked will be consumed—destroyed by fire. They will no longer exist. They won’t suffer in eternal conscious torment. When God’s plan for humanity is complete, there will be no more crying, no more tears, no more sorrow, no more pain (Revelation 21:4 Revelation 21:4And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
American King James Version×). The final death of the hopelessly wicked in a lake of fire is a loving act of God’s justice and mercy.
We can all be thankful for His fairness and great plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. He’s planned a wonderful future for those who love Him and accept His mercy. I hope you’ll choose to learn more about it!
Four Different Words Translated “Hell” in English Bibles
None of the words translated “hell” in English Bibles refers to a conscious afterlife of endless torment. In fact, Scripture states that there is no conscious awareness in death, but that we must be raised to conscious existence in a future resurrection (see Ecclesiastes 9:5 Ecclesiastes 9:5For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
American King James Version×, 10; Daniel 12:2 Daniel 12:2And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 15:6 1 Corinthians 15:6After that, he was seen of above five hundred brothers at once; of whom the greater part remain to this present, but some are fallen asleep.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 15:18 1 Corinthians 15:18Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 15:20 1 Corinthians 15:20But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 15:51 1 Corinthians 15:51Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
American King James Version×; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 13 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
American King James Version×). So what do these words translated “hell” mean?
First is the Old Testament Hebrew sheol, which is equivalent to the New Testament Greek term hades. Both these words are used in Scripture in reference to the grave—to burial in the earth.
Next is the Greek term tartaroo, which occurs in only one verse (2 Peter 2:4 2 Peter 2:4For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved to judgment;
American King James Version×). It refers here to the present condition of demons, rebellious angels, being restrained or imprisoned on the earth.
Last is the word gehenna, the New Testament Greek form of the Hebrew Gai Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom than ran along the west and south sides of Jerusalem. During biblical times of terrible apostasy people were burned here in pagan sacrifice—and it became a place to burn garbage. This term was used by Jesus in reference to future judgment in the lake of fire that will ultimately burn up the wicked. There is no sense here of a fire burning and torturing forever.
To learn more about these words and how they are used in Scripture, and more about what the Bible has to say on this subject overall, be sure to send for or download our free study guide Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach?
— Tom Robinson