A Biblical Understanding of Hell

by Matt Perman

"For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already ..." (John 3:17-18). The Bible teaches that every person is guilty of sin. Sin is choosing our own way over God's; it is rebellion against God; and in a real sense it is an attack on the holiness of God. Because God is just and righteous, as well as loving, He cannot merely overlook our sin. Would God really be righteous if He did not do anything about attacks on His holiness?

The Bible teaches that our sin earns a penalty of death. Since all have sinned, this means that all are deserving of God's judgment in hell. Because of His love, God sent His Son Jesus to save us from this judgment. He died on the cross in our place to pay the penalty for our sins. By being judged in our place, Jesus satisfied the righteousness of God and made it possible for us to receive forgiveness.

God has done everything necessary to rescue us from the penalty of our sins. We have the responsibility to respond to God's free offer of forgiveness by turning from our sin and relying on Jesus to forgive us and give us eternal life. The penalty for our sins must be paid. Those who do not accept Jesus and His work at the cross must pay this penalty themselves in hell for all eternity.

The subject of hell is indeed very difficult and terrifying. Yet, it is a clear teaching of the Bible and needs to be understood; we cannot ignore the facts about something that God has revealed just because it is uncomfortable. This has been written to encourage understanding and to clear up much confusion on this important issue.

Hell is Real
Jesus repeatedly warns of hell. For example, see Matthew 5:21-22, 27-30; 23:15, 33. To deny the existence of hell is therefore to reject the authority of Jesus. It would be strangely inconsistent to accept Jesus as Lord but reject an aspect of His teaching. Furthermore, this would place a huge moral flaw on the character of Christ, if He taught of hell's reality when it really wasn't a danger to anyone. It must be understood, however, that Jesus does not want people to go to hell -- He came so that we could be rescued from it through faith in Him. Hell is the necessary consequence of not accepting Christ's invitation for salvation -- if one refuses to be with Him in heaven, the only other alternative is to be separated from Him in hell.

Hell is a Place
Hell is always referred to as a place. The Greek word used for hell in the Gospels is gehenna, a transliteration of the Hebrew expression, "Valley of Hinnom." In this valley (which was located outside Jerusalem), human sacrifices were offered to false gods at various points in Israel's history (2 Kings 16:3, 21:6; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 32:35). It later became a "garbage dump" of Jerusalem, with a fire that continually burned consuming its rubbish. When Jesus used gehenna to refer to hell, this called attention in his listeners mind to this valley, and they understood the terrible suffering that the wicked would undergo.

Hell is a Place of Punishment
At the conclusion of a parable, Jesus spoke of the faithful servant as being rewarded, but said that the unfaithful one would be "cut in pieces and assigned] a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 24:51). Both Testaments speak of "cutting in pieces" as severe punishment (Deuteronomy 32:41; Hebrews 11:37). Jesus probably does not mean that the lost will be literally "cut in pieces," but is using the expression to say that they will be punished. Some further passages on the terrible punishment of hell are Hebrews 10:29; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Revelation 19:20; 20:10. At this point it should also be noted that the images of fire in hell are not to be taken with wooden literalism, but are descriptions of the terror and pain of hell with language from the present world.

There are two aspects to the punishment in hell -- the pain of loss and the pain of sense. The pain of loss is the absence of all that is good; most significantly it is separation from God. This does not mean that God is not in hell, it means that those in hell will have no relationship with God and will not experience any His love, grace, or blessing. In other words, they will be cut off from any enjoyment of His spectacular glory. This is the meaning of the image of darkness used to describe the fate of the lost. Those in hell will experience God's wrath and justice. The pain of sense is the suffering of torment in the body and soul -- the addition of undesired punishment. Both of these aspects of hell are conveyed by Jesus in Matthew 25:41, when He says to the lost "Depart from Me [the punishment of loss], you cursed, into the everlasting fire [the punishment of sense -- torment] prepared for the devil and his angels." In summary, the punishment of loss is the subtraction of blessing and the punishment of sense is the addition of physical and spiritual torment. In this section, we will investigate the punishment of sense. Later we will discuss the punishment of separation.

Punishment involves exposure to the wrath of God: Hebrews 10:27, 31; Romans 2:5; John 3:36
Punishment in hell will be a result of exposure to God's wrath. While God is not in hell in grace and blessing, He is there in holiness and wrath. John 3:36 says "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." Revelation 14:9-11 says that "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of God's wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name."

God's wrath is the righteous assertion of His holiness against all that is unholy; it results in retributive punishment. Drinking from the "cup of God's wrath" means that the lost will directly endure this wrath in hell. Exactly how God's wrath will be experienced, I do not know (Romans 1:18-32 and Jude 7 perhaps give some partial insight into this). What does seem clear is that those in hell will be tormented because of God's wrath. John's use of the words "fury" and "full strength" show the terror of falling into the hands of the living God. We should note that God tolerates only so much sin until he responds in wrath.

Punishment involves terrible pain: Matthew 13:30, 40-43, 49-50, 18:6-9, 24:51
In Matthew 13:42 Jesus says "They will throw them [unbelievers] into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Some hold that the imagery of fire signifies annihilation of the wicked. But Jesus does not associate fire with annihilation, but with pain -- "gnashing of teeth." Five times in Matthew Jesus describes those in hell as crying and grinding their teeth in pain; the people are "gnashing their teeth" because of the terrible pain (see Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51). Jesus speaks of the fire causing pain, not consumption (also see Matthew 13:49-50).

Punishment involves conscious torment: Revelation 14:10-11, 20:10; Luke 16: 23, 28
We have seen the many Scriptures indicating the terrible pain and torment of punishment in hell, which results from exposure to God's wrath. It almost goes without saying that this will all be experienced consciously by the person (otherwise it wouldn't be punishment), and this is confirmed by Jesus' famous parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 In this parable, Lazarus went to paradise and experienced joy after death. The rich man, who had been greedy and had never repented of his sin, went to Hades and experienced torment after death. This man was aware and conscious of the torment, at one point saying "I am tormented in this flame."

Craig Blomberg, an expert in the study of parables, says that we should derive one point for each major character in a parable. Taking Blomberg's principles of interpretation, we can draw many significant teachings from this parable. First, like Lazarus, there will be life with God for God's people. Second, the unrepentant will experience irreversible judgment like the rich man. Notice that Jesus made it clear that there was no second chance after death, but instead there was an unbridgeable gulf between heaven and hell (16:26). Third, God adequately reveals Himself through Scripture so that none who neglect it can legitimately protest their fate.

Robert Stein, another scholar on parables, teaches "the rule of end-stress." This means that Jesus saved the main idea of the parable for last in order to leave it most significant in His readers minds. The final point in this parable is that God's word is necessary and sufficient for salvation -- neglecting it is to commit "spiritual suicide." The parable ends with the statement, "If they do not believe Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead" (16:31). Jesus' main concern seems to be to draw attention to the severity of ignoring the Bible's message.

Hell is a Place of Separation
Having examined the punishment of sense in hell, we will examine the second aspect of hell's horror -- exclusion from God and others.

From God: Ephesians 2:12, 5:8; Romans 6:23; Matthew 7:23, 8:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Jude 13
In Matthew 7:23 Jesus utters some of the most shocking words in the Bible. Having just warned of false prophets who look good on the outside but whose sin will ultimately give them away, Jesus addresses the topic of false disciples: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father. For on that day many will say to me, 'Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many great works in your name?' And I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers!'" How terrible that these people expected to gain entrance into heaven on judgment day, only to find that they had never really entered into a relationship with Jesus. This should be a call to seriously examine ourselves and "see if we are of the faith" (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Matthew 25:30 says that the lost will be thrown "outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Being thrown out into the darkness symbolizes being excluded from the glorious light of God's presence, the absence of all good. The gnashing of teeth symbolizes the extreme suffering and remorse.

2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 says, "This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power ..." Those who do not know God will be excluded from His presence forever when Christ returns.

Again, it is important to note that when we speak of those in hell as being "separated" from God, it does not mean that God is not in hell. It means that the lost are separated from fellowship with Him -- they are not experiencing His glorious presence and love, but rather His anger and displeasure.

From others: Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30; Jude 13; Revelation 22:14
In Matthew 8:11-12 Jesus again declares that unbelievers "will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." This is in contrast to the many who "will come from the east and west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." The lost will be cast into "utter darkness," indicating utter loneliness and separation from all that is good. And as shown by their exclusion from the feast, unbelievers will be excluded from the joys of heaven and the presence other people. Matthew 22:13 and the verses listed above further describe hell as a place of darkness and separation.

Hell is a Place of Deep Regret
Seven times it is said that "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12, 13:42, 50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30; Luke 13:28). The weeping signifies deep crying in terrible sorrow, which results from the deep regret.

Hell has Degrees of Punishment
All who are in hell do not receive the same punishment. While all people there will be equally separated from God (which is the punishment of loss), not everyone will experience the same punishment of sense. The degrees of punishment are based upon the amount of light received and upon the works of the person.

According to light received
Greater knowledge of God brings with it greater responsibility. This means that the greater the amount of light rejected, the greater the judgment. This is evident in Matthew 11:21-24: "And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you." Those in Capernaum will have a stricter judgment because they had more light. This is perhaps an unsettling concept to those of us in the United States, where there are at least three times as many Bibles as people.

In Luke 12:42-48 Jesus is also clear that there are degrees of punishment in hell. At the end of His parable, Jesus distinguishes the punishments of "many blows" and "few blows" based upon the amount of knowledge the unfaithful servants (who represent the lost) had of their masters will. He says "And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many blows. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few" (Luke 12:47-48). The basic principle is that "for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required" (v. 48).

According to works
Paul says in Romans 2:5 that unbelievers are "storing up wrath for themselves." The word used for wrath in this passage is the same word used when Jesus encourages believers to "store up treasure in heaven" (Matthew 6:20). Just as some people have more treasure "stored up in heaven" because of their obedience to God, so also some people have more wrath "stored up" for themselves because of their utter disobedience and rejection of God. Judgment according to works guarantees that the punishment will "fit the crime" and that the lost will be punished in proportion to their sins.

Satan Does Not Rule in Hell
A common misunderstanding is that Satan rules in hell. According to the Bible, this cannot be true because Satan himself will be enduring terrible torment in the Lake of Fire. He will not be able to torment anyone else there, let alone rule, because of the terrible fate that he will be experiencing.

Hell is Eternal
At the judgment, Jesus will say to the unbelievers "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). This verse shows that hell was not originally created for humans, but for Satan and his demons. Because of mankind's rejection of God, however, those who refuse to come to Christ will share in the fate of the devil. Revelation 20:10 further elaborates on the fate of devil: "The devil ... was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur and will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." Since unbelievers are to share the fate of the devil, and the devil will suffer torment in hell forever, unbelievers will also suffer eternal torment. Also note that Jesus says that the fire is eternal, which could not be said if hell was only temporary.

Matthew 24:46 is one of the clearest testimonies that people who are in hell will suffer eternally: "Then they [the wicked] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." Jesus is drawing a parallel between the destinies of the wicked and the righteous. Since both destinies are said to be eternal, "it follows necessarily that either both are to be taken as long-lasting but finite, or both as endless and perpetual. The phrases 'eternal punishment' and 'eternal life' are parallel and it would be absurd to use them in one and the same sentence to mean: 'Eternal life will be infinite, while eternal punishment will have an end.' Hence, because the eternal life of the saint swill be endless, the eternal punishment also ..." [1]

Jesus asserts that in hell "the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). When a fire consumes its fuel, it goes out. The fire of hell never goes out because its work is never done. Thus, the fire never goes out because the wicked suffer eternal torment in hell, not eventual extinction.

The apostle John's statement in Revelation 14:9-11 that the lost will be tormented "with burning sulfur" refutes the annihilationist's claim that the purpose of fire in judgment is to end one's existence. (Annihilationism teaches that the lost one day are annihilated in hell and cease to exist.) John is clear here that the purpose of the sulfur is to torment, not annihilate.

That the "smoke of their torment rises forever and ever" (Revelation 14:11) also signifies that hell's suffering are without end. Annihilationism teaches that John intended a distinction between the fire and smoke when he wrote this, and thus he is not saying that the punishment will be eternal. It is said that while the smoke will last forever, the fire does not last forever (but only until the wicked are extinguished and cease to exist). This is serious distortion of the text. The smoke could not rise eternally if their was no fire to cause it. Plus, there is no indication that John intends to distinguish between the smoke rising forever, but not the fire lasting forever.

Revelation 20:10 is clear that the Devil, the Beast, and the False Prophet will endure eternal torment: "They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." Since Jesus taught that unbelievers will share the fate of the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), unbelievers will also be tormented forever. Also, Revelation 20:15 is clear that unbelievers will be thrown into the Lake of Fire just as the Devil was.

Jude 7 says, "In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire." First, note that the fire is a punishment. Next, note that it is eternal. Since the fire denotes punishment, and it is eternal, then the punishment must be eternal. For those who hold that the fire indicates that the wicked will be obliterated, we should note that Jude clearly defines the fire as being a punishment for the wicked, not as an agent to extinguish them from existence. One needs to exist to be punished.

British church historian Richard J. Bauckham elaborates on Jude's use of Sodom and Gomorrah as an earthy, temporal example of the fate of those in hell: "The idea is that the site of the cities ... a scene of sulfurous devastation, provided ever-present evidence of the reality of divine judgment ... According to Philo [a first-century Jewish writer] 'even to this day   the visible tokens of the  indescribable disaster   are pointed   in Syria -- ruins, cinders, brimstone, smoke and murky flames which continue to rise from the ground as from a fire still smoldering beneath.' ... Jude means that the still burning site of the cities is a warning picture of the eternal fires of hell." [2]

Jude 13 says "They [false teachers] are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever." The blackness, denoting complete separation and loneliness, is "reserved forever," so it will never end. This statement is very clear.

Jesus expels evildoers to "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). John says that this involves being tormented day and night for ever and ever (Revelation 20:10). The Bible is clear -- hell is eternal.

The Intermediate and Final States
One last thing that should be noted is that the Bible distinguishes between the intermediate state and the final state. The intermediate state is a person's disembodied existence after death but before the resurrection of their body (the Bible teaches that both believers and unbelievers will experience a resurrection of the body). This "intermediate state" is not purgatory, but is existence either in heaven with God (for believers) or in Hades excluded from God (for unbelievers). The final state is the believers existence on the new earth and in the new heavens after their resurrection, and the nonbelievers existence in the Lake of Fire (Hell) after their resurrection.

The main difference between the intermediate and final states is that during the intermediate state the person does not yet have their resurrected body, and in the final state everyone will have their resurrected body. The intermediate state for the lost is not technically hell. Hell is the Lake of Fire after Christ's return and the Last judgment. However, the aspects of hell which we previously discussed are true of both the intermediate and final states for the lost.

Conscious suffering (for unbelievers) and blessing (for believers) in the intermediate states is taught in Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. 2 Peter 2:9 also teaches conscious existence after death but before the final judgment and resurrection: "The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment."

Robert Peterson sums up the matter when he says that the images of hell "shock our sensibilities. They present a fate involving utter ruin and loss (death and destruction), the eternal wrath of God (punishment), unspeakable sorrow and pain (crying and grinding of teeth), terrible suffering (fire), and rejection by God and exclusion from his blessed presence (darkness and separation)." [3]

Jesus died to save us from hell and bring us into the everlasting enjoyment of His glory. All we need to do is turn to Him in repentance and faith and He will give us eternal life. There is no question of more importance in this life than where we will spend eternity.


  1. Augustine, The City of God, 1001-2 (21.23). Quoted in Robert Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment.
  2. Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), p. 55. Quoted in Peterson.
  3. Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Philipsburg, New Jersey: PR Press), p. 195. Peterson's book was a main resource for this paper. It is an excellent book, saturated with Scripture, and very clearly written.

All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.

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