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  • Writer's picturePastor Jeremy Schossau

Six Questions on Hell

What about hell?  Is it real?  Can a loving God really send people to a place of torture?  This is a common discussion among people who are curious about eternal things.  In more recent years there has been a growing acceptance, even among Christians, that hell cannot be a real place.  While this article by Mark Driscoll is not completely exhaustive, I found it helpful and challenging and thoroughly Biblical.  I hope that you’ll take time to read it through and ponder an eternity away from God.  I pray that you’ll be encouraged to know and love God more after reading…

- Jeremy Schossau | Lead Pastor

6 Questions on Hell

Every once in a while, someone of note questions or denies the classic Christian belief of a literal hell with eternal, conscious suffering. Then a debate rages and becomes personal between representatives of various perspectives on the issue.

Meanwhile, the average person’s questions about hell can remain unanswered. So rather than attacking any individual, I thought it might be helpful to address the issues by answering some of the most common questions about hell. Ministry leaders, including myself, are often asked these questions, and I asked these questions myself as a non-Christian and then as a new Christian in college. Rather than selling you, I will seek to simply be honest and say what the Bible says and allow you to make up your mind for yourself. I will be pulling from a few sections of a book I wrote with a friend who is the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

1. What happens when we die? 

God created humans as thinking, feeling, moral persons made up of spirit and body tightly joined together. Death is not normal or natural, but an enemy, the consequence of sin. Death is the tearing apart of these two intertwined parts, the end of relationship with loved ones, and the cessation of life on this earth. The body goes to the grave, and the spirit goes into an afterlife to face judgment. The Bible is clear that there will one day be a bodily resurrection for everyone to either eternal life with God or eternal condemnation apart from him in hell.

Christianity differs from all religions in that Christians believe our eternal status depends on our relationship with Jesus. We really believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It may not be politically correct, but our lives are shaped by the reality that “whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

“Jesus talks about hell more than does anyone else in all of Scripture.” 

Upon death, a believer’s spirit immediately goes to heaven to be with Jesus. Jesus gives us a picture in Luke 16:19–31 of existence after death. Lazarus, the godly beggar, goes to be with Abraham, while the self-indulgent rich man is in a place of torment.

Jesus, who has come back from death and is thus the expert on what awaits us on the other side, was emphatically clear that a day of judgment is coming when everyone will rise from their graves and stand before him for eternal sentencing to either worship in his kingdom or suffer in his hell. At the final judgment, all—even you—will stand before Jesus. Jesus’ followers whose names are written in the Book of Life will be with him forever. The Bible could not be clearer: “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

2. What judgment awaits non-Christians at the end of this life?

A day is coming when God will judge the living and the dead through the Son. When the Son of Man comes to sit on his throne, all will stand before him for judgment. From the beginning of creation to the end, the Bible makes it clear that the basis of God’s judgment is our deeds.

Jesus made this very clear, saying in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Jesus’ death propitiated God’s wrath against sin. Those who refuse this gift have the double penalty of wrath for their sins and for rejecting God’s Son. Jesus himself taught this in John 3:18, saying, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Unlike Jesus’ words to the sheep, to the goats on his left he will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

However, this does not mean that the relatively nice sinner suffers equally with Satan or his most committed human servants. There are degrees of punishment in hell like there are degrees of reward in heaven. Both in life and in hell some sins receive more severe punishment, because that is just.

3. What does Scripture teach about hell?

Jesus talks about hell more than does anyone else in all of Scripture. Jesus’ words come in the context of the rest of Scripture, which says that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Furthermore, he “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

Despite God’s love for and patience with sinners, it is a horrid mistake to dismiss the Bible’s clear teachings on hell. Richard Niebuhr characterized the ongoing attempt of liberal Christians to deny hell as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Jesus said more about hell than about any other topic.

Amazingly, 13 percent of his sayings are about hell and judgment; more than half of his parables relate to the eternal judgment of sinners. 

“Christianity differs from all religions in that Christians believe our eternal status depends on our relationship with Jesus.” 

The Bible does not give us a detailed exposition of hell, but there are many descriptions of the fate of its inhabitants in that place of eternal punishment. They include: fire darkness punishment, exclusion from God’s presence, restlessness, second death, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. Satan will not reign there. Hell is a place of punishment that God prepared for the Devil and his angels. It is where the beast and the false prophet and those who worship them will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.

At the end of the age, the Devil will be “thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Hell will be ruled by Jesus, and human and demon alike, including Satan, will be tormented there continually. 

“People who reject Jesus in this life will not rejoice in him after this life.”

Hell is real and terrible. It is eternal. There is no possibility of amnesty or reprieve. Daniel says that some of the dead will be resurrected “to shame and everlasting contempt.” Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…And these will go away into eternal punishment.” Paul tells us:

God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.

Perhaps the clearest and most gripping depiction of hell in all of Scripture is the frequent mention of hell as “Gehenna.” The name refers to an area outside of the city of Jerusalem where idolatry and horrendous sin, including child sacrifice, were practiced. Gehenna was a place so despised and cursed by God’s people that they turned it into the city dump where feces, refuse, and the dead bodies of criminals were stacked. Jesus spoke of Gehenna as the hellish final home of the wicked. Since Gehenna is described as a fiery abyss, clearly it is also the lake of fire to which all the godless will ultimately be eternally sentenced, together with Satan, demons, and unrepentant sinners. So when the Bible speaks of hell as a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die, the original hearers would easily have remembered Gehenna, where this reality was ever present outside of their city.

4. What are some of the major objections to the doctrine of hell?

A loving God would not send billions of people to a horrible hell.

In a very important sense, God doesn’t send anyone to hell. The only ones there are those who have rejected his revelation, choosing to suppress the truth he made plain to them. God made people in his image, after his likeness, with the power to say no and to reject the universal revelation of himself. Subsequently, sinners have no one to blame but themselves if they are damned. 

To get to hell, someone must reject the God who shows them his goodness and out of love for all “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything,” reject the Spirit who “convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment,” and reject the crucified Son who said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Obviously, God has been exceedingly gracious to sinners.

People who reject Jesus in this life will not rejoice in him after this life. Hell is only for those who persistently reject the real God in favor of false gods. So in the end, people get to be with the god they love. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, either people will say to God, “Thy will be done,” or God will say to them, “Thy will be done.” Not only is God loving, but he is also just. Heaven and hell are the result of his love and justice.

A loving God would be more tolerant.

People who judge God need to really consider if they would be more pleased if God were tolerant of everyone, including rapists, pimps, pedophiles, and even those who have sinned against them most heinously. The idea is completely absurd and unjust. Not everyone in hell is a rapist, of course, but everyone there chose sin over God throughout his or her entire life.

A loving God protects his children from sin and evil by separating them. In this way, God is a father who is tolerant of all who obey him and are safe for his children. But he is intolerant of those who sin against him and do evil to his children. Subsequently, God is intolerant in a way that is like our own cultural intolerances of those who drink and drive, steal, rape, and murder; we, too, demonstrate our intolerance by separating such people from society. To call such actions on God’s part intolerant is shameful, because tolerance would denote both approval and support of evil.

Hell is mean.

To understand what love is, look at what Jesus did at the cross. He suffered and died for the ungodly, for sinners, for his enemies. Or, to say it another way, Jesus suffered and died for mean people. A God who will suffer and die for mean people is not mean. In fact, such a God alone is altogether loving; to be condemned by a God of perfect love shows how damnable our sin truly is.

Eternal torment in hell is an unjust punishment for people who sin for a few decades.

Some argue that the punishment of sinners is annihilation. This means that after someone dies apart from faith, they suffer for a fitting period of time and then simply cease to exist so that hell is not eternal in duration. In question is the nature and length of the punishment.

Annihilationism is simply not what the Bible teaches. Daniel 12:2 says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Jesus teaches the same thing and speaks of those who “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Grammatically, there is no difference here between the length of time mentioned for life and that for punishment; rather, there is simply eternal life and eternal death.

“Satan will not reign there. Hell is a place of punishment that God prepared for the Devil and his angels.”

The Bible tells us that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image” and “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” The word forever (Greek aion) means unending. 

This is why the Bible speaks of hell as conscious, eternal punishment. One summary of the Bible’s teaching on the pain of hell says: 

Those in hell suffer intense and excruciating pain. This pain is likely both emotional/spiritual and physical (John 5:28–29).

Hell is a fate worse than being drowned in the sea (Mark 9:42).

It is worse than any earthly suffering—even being maimed (Matthew 5:29–30; Mark 9:43).

The suffering never ends (Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:48).

The wicked will be “burned with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12)

Those in hell will be thrown into the fiery furnace and will experience unimaginable sorrow, regret, remorse, and pain. The fire produces the pain described as “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30)

The intensity of the suffering seems to be according to the wickedness of the person’s behavior (Romans 2:5–8).

Hell is utterly fearful and dreadful (Hebrews 10:27–31).

This punishment is depicted as “coming misery,” “eating flesh with fire,” and the “day of slaughter.” (James 5:1–5)

Those in hell will feel the full force of God’s fury and wrath (Revelations 14:10).

They will be “tormented” with fire (14:10–11).

This suffering is best understood as endless since the “smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.” (14:11)

This suffering is constant because it is said that those in hell “will have no rest day or night” (14:11) and “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (20:10)

In summary, annihilationism is not biblical. For this reason, it was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople (AD 553) and the Fifth Lateran Council (1513).

Today, though, it is becoming popular to hope that sinners will eventually repent, and everyone will end up in heaven. This is universal reconciliation, the ancient view of Origen. However, there is not a shred of evidence for post-mortem repentance. The continual teaching of the Bible is that we die once and are then judged, without any second chance at salvation. As one clear example, Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

5. Do people who have never heard about Jesus go to hell?

Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Peter preached, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The conclusion is simple: there is only one way to the Father and that is through Jesus Christ. All other religious roads lead to false gods and a real hell.

But there are many ways to Jesus. While the norm is responding to the preached Word of God, there are biblical examples as well as life experiences where God gives special revelation of the Messiah to unsaved people in other forms, including direct speech, dreams, and visions. God called Abraham directly. He gave Pharaoh dreams. He spoke to the treacherous prophet Balaam in a vision so that he prophesied about the Messiah. He appeared to Cornelius in a vision, which resulted in him being saved.

“Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

There are many such stories. The reality is that anyone who is searching and willing to respond to the goodness of God as Cornelius did will receive special revelation. God is perfectly able to bypass the “normal” channels to accomplish his purposes.

No one who comes to the Lord will be cast out. As Paul says:

For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Therefore, while there is no salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ, there is also no reason to overlook the creativity of God to get the gospel out. His creativity includes using us to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth as pioneering missionaries to unreached people groups and generous givers to ministries that translate the Bible into new languages.

6. Am I going to hell?

The closing verses of the Bible say, “Come!” as an invitation for all who desire to receive God’s saving grace as a gift. Jesus died and rose and is exalted in heaven. If you repent of sin, change your mind about who or what is lord of your life, and believe, trusting that you can stake your life and eternity on the truth of what God says, then you will receive full forgiveness of all sin, new life in and by the Holy Spirit, membership in the church of Jesus Christ, a meaningful part in his rescue mission in the world, and citizenship in his kingdom. You will be with Jesus and his people now and forever.

I want this for you.

Have you confessed your sins to Jesus Christ, seeking forgiveness and salvation through his sinless life that is your righteousness, death that is your payment, and resurrection that is your salvation?


Is Hell a Vital Doctrine?

Theology professor Ashish Naidu on the afterlife and why it's essential to believe that 'love warns'.

This spring, evangelical megachurch pastor Rob Bell caused a firestorm of controversy when he released his new book — Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book, which questions much of the traditional Christian teaching on hell, sparked extensive debates about the doctrine of hell and landed the topic on the cover of Time magazine with the cover headline: “What If There’s No Hell?”

Biola Magazine recently sat down with Ashish Naidu, assistant professor of theology at Talbot School of Theology, to discuss the biblical case for hell and how Christians can respond to some of the current challenges to the doctrine.

How central is the doctrine of hell for Christianity? Is it “essential” or “nonessential”?

I would think it’s an essential doctrine. Look at what the Bible has to say about hell, and look at Jesus. Jesus was perhaps the most prolific teacher on the doctrine of hell. Historic Christian orthodoxy has always maintained the doctrine of hell. If you go back to the earliest creeds — the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed — they all talk about Christ returning to judge the living and the dead. If I remember correctly, the word “hell” occurs 12 times in the Gospels, 11 of which are from the lips of our Lord. So definitely, the doctrine of hell is central to the Christian faith, and always has been.

What is the standard view of hell within orthodox Christianity?

The orthodox position affirms an eternal, conscious torment for all those who reject Christ and reject the gospel message. That has been the wide swath of orthodoxy right from the get go. The historic Christian faith has always affirmed the eternality of life for those who believe in Christ and the eternality of death for those who disbelieve or reject him.

“Annihilationism” seems to be increasingly accepted as a view of hell within evangelicalism. Is this a biblical position?

There have been individuals within the broad evangelical community who have subscribed to this view of annihilationism, which basically is the idea that the unbeliever will be tormented for a particular amount of time in hell but will eventually be terminated or annihilated. It’s the idea that fire destroys and brings things to an end — to ashes. It’s the idea of conscious, but not eternal torment. I’m not quite sure if there’s any biblical basis for this. From what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, the problem seems to be more existential, more emotional than scriptural and textual. Annihiliationism is held by some theologians in the church — Clark Pinnock, Edward Fudge — but to be honest, textually speaking I’m not quite sure how they can affirm this.

What is the biblical evidence for the eternality of hell?

In Matthew 25:31-46, you’ll notice that Jesus uses the same adjective to talk about eternal life and eternal punishment. So if life in Christ is going to be eternal, then life without Christ is also going to be eternal. Look how Matthew 25:46 puts it: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." The Bible is replete with mention of everlasting punishment for those who would reject Christ. In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus responds to Peter by saying: "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” So when Jesus talks about eternal life he’s talking about everlasting life—something that will go on forever. I’ve noticed that, very famously, Rob Bell has argued that the word “eternal” does not necessarily mean eternal life. There’s plenty of evidence in scripture that argues to the contrary. That’s a very selective reading of scripture and selective way of exegeting scripture.

Has evangelicalism emphasized hell too much?

I think in a regular church we subscribe to an expository method of preaching, and so when the doctrine of hell comes up, you’re supposed to preach it. Preaching about hell can be a very loving thing to do, because love warns. Jesus warned about the impending judgment that is to come. When you and I speak or preach about hell, we don’t do it with dry eyes. We do it with urgency in our hearts, so that others would hear the good news of the gospel. You don’t have to go to hell. Love warns. Warning people of an impending act of judgment is a loving thing to do.

But I do understand the other aspect of the question — that we have preachers who are constantly preaching hellfire and brimstone messages from the pulpit, with no emphasis on the idea of the love of God. So there are instances where that can be a problem.

One of Bell’s claims in Love Wins is that after death, unbelievers will have another chance to accept Christ — that our life on earth isn’t the only chance to be saved. Are there any grounds for this belief in the Bible?

Bell has selective exegesis here. He likes to use Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1—where God talks about reconciling all things. But if you look at the writings of Paul, both in Colossians and Ephesians, he also talks about the wrath of God coming upon the disobedient. Paul is very clear about his teaching on hell. When the Bible talks about reconciliation in those contexts it is talking about all of creation submitting itself to the lordship of Christ, the obedient for his blessing and the disobedient for his curse. He came as a savior. He came to offer salvation the first time around. When he returns he is going to come back as a king and judge. That is the context of Ephesians 1. It’s not that God is going to give second chances to people after they die. The Bible is very clear on this. The writer of Hebrews 9 says it is appointed once for man to die, and after that, judgment.

In the chapter “Does God Get What God Wants,” Bell claims: “Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t.” How does an eternal hell bring God glory?

I think when we talk about the love of God, we also talk about God loving his character, his nature, his infinite perfections. And of course, his character is reflected in the law of God. The law reflects his infinite goodness, love and mercy. So when people break the law of God, they’re breaking the very moral code that God gave us, which is a reflection of his infinite goodness. Scripture very clearly says that when the law is broken, the penalty must be paid. The soul that sins must surely die.

God is doing the most loving thing when he sent his son Jesus and offers us salvation. He’s saying, “Here’s my son: Receive him, so that you might have life and so that you may not enter hell.” Hell brings glory to God because it basically is a reflection of the fact that he takes sin seriously. He can’t overlook sin or brush it under the carpet. It brings glory to his name because God upholds the infinite justice of his character. And to do that is the most loving thing to do. Hell points to the fact that God means what he says and will do what he promised.

In a recent Time cover story on hell, Jon Meachem wrote that “the dominant view of the righteous in heaven and the damned in hell owes more to the artistic legacy of the West, from Michelangelo to Dante to Blake, than it does to history or to unambiguous biblical teaching.” Is this true? How much of our concepts of heaven and hell are cultural rather than biblical?

Long before Dante and Michelangelo depicted what they thought about hell, the Bible taught it, going back all the way to Genesis. Fire has long been associated with God’s judgment. We think of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how God reigned down sulfur and brimstone on the city for its wickedness. The idea of fire is always associated with the judgment of God in the Bible, and that’s how the Renaissance artists get the picture. It’s not something they’re making up out of thin air. Fire and judgment is a biblical picture.

If we believe that hell is a place reserved for any non-Christian to eternally suffer, then we would have to say that both Gandhi, and Hitler, and the millions of Jews that Hitler murdered, are all in hell, right?

There’s definitely an existential edge to that question. At the end of the day, we know that we’re dealing with a just God, a loving God, a God who is our heavenly Father. That’s why we don’t view his sovereignty as tyrannical. We also see clearly the way that people are saved. There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus is the only way. There have been many people who have considered Christ a great moral teacher, but haven’t confessed him as Lord. And I think as believers we have to be faithful to Scriptures that say that anyone who has not confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will not get to spend eternity with him.

Do you think it’s ever wise for Christians to make statements about who is or isn’t in hell?

I think we should be very careful if we are going to speak in those terms, because at the end of the day, you and I do not have infinite knowledge. Could it be possible that some of the Jews in the Holocaust turned to Christ before they were executed? It could have happened. We just don’t know.

What if I’m a good Muslim who, because I was born into an Islamic culture and context, simply followed that religion as earnestly and faithfully as possible, because it’s what my family taught and I didn’t know any different?

God is sovereign. We know that the story of our salvation does not begin on this earth, but in eternity with Christ. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. So God knows how to communicate the message of the gospel to people out there. Look at my own story. Born into a Hindu family. Several generations ago, my great-grandparents came from the Hindu priesthood, idolaters. Then in the late 1800s, British missionaries came to India and converted them. I see God’s sovereignty there. He sent the messengers with the gospel, and in the gospel proclamation my ancestors received the message and were converted. Likewise, I see and hear stories of individuals in the deepest and remotest Muslim nations where the gospel message is proclaimed and people receive it.

One of the things we say in this is that the seeker finds out that he is sought. InThe Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer really captures this. There is a longing for God that we all have. Before I became a believer, I thought I was the one seeking after God, only to realize after reading Scripture that it was God seeking me — the “Hound of Heaven.” At the same time, I do understand that not everyone hears the gospel. That’s why it’s our task as Christians to obey the Great Commission and to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. It’s a serious calling. We cannot afford to neglect it.

What happens to unsaved children when they die? Or an individual lacking the mental capacity to understand the gospel?

There have been two views historically on this topic. One view basically says, only the children of the elect, of believers, will go to heaven, because of the covenantal structure they hold to. But I hold to the second view, which states that all children and infants who die are actually elect. All children will go to heaven. The Bible is very clear about the loving heart of God and Jesus’ relationship with children. Jesus himself takes a child and puts him in his lap and says “Forbid not the little children come to me, for such is the kingdom of heaven.” We can also look at David, who, after his little son died, said, “I will see him again.” I’m of the opinion that infants who die are elect and will have life eternal with God. Same thing for people who are mentally challenged — adults who are operating on a child’s mental level. In these cases I think there is good biblical support for the idea of the grace of God and the age of accountability. Though this phrase doesn’t occur, I think we can extrapolate this teaching from Scripture. 

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