What Is Hell Like, Who Goes There, When, and Why?


volume 16, number 33, August 17, 2017

These will go away into eternal punishment.” -Matthew 25:46

What Is Hell Like, Who Goes There, When, and Why?

Fifty-six million people all over the world will die this year. That’s 153,000 every day, 6390 every hour, 107 every minute.[1] Presumably the majority of these people go to hell at their deaths. Is that really true? Isn’t God in the forgiveness business? Isn’t He merciful and gracious? 

Hell, like heaven, is part of what we call the “Intermediate State.” Just as heaven for the Christian is to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord, so for the unbeliever, to be absent from the body is to be present in hell. There are final destinations beyond heaven and hell. Hence the term “Intermediate State.” The moment one outside of union with Christ dies, his soul, the very essence of his being, goes to hell. What is hell like? First of all, Jesus developed the doctrine of hell far more than any other Biblical writer. In the parable mentioned above He says that unbelievers will go away into eternal punishment. He says that it is better to enter heaven with one arm or one eye than to go into hell with one’s whole body, a place where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched (Matthew 5:29,30, Mark 9:43,44). While the Old Testament uses the word Hades or Sheol to refer generally to the netherworld, the place of death, Jesus tells us that it is a place of agony, torment, and flames (Luke 16:19-31). 

To go further, hell is also a place of justice. Paul makes clear that none in the world are righteous in themselves, that none seek for God, that all have turned aside, that there is no fear of God before the eyes of anyone (Romans 3:10ff). If non-believers understood the awful destination to which they are going, they would live in abject fear all their days. They do not, however, believe they are going to hell. They believe that hell is for only the really, really bad people like Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler or people engaged in pedophilia or sex trafficking. Paul makes clear, however, that God is dealing out retribution to those who do not know God, who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thessalonians 1:8,9). God says that vengeance is His right, that retribution (pay back time) is His to give, that the steps of the wicked will slip in due time (Deuteronomy 32:35). God says numerous times that He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, that He is a jealous and avenging God (Exodus 34:6, Nahum 1:2,3, Psalm 94:1, Isaiah 29:6). 

Hell is also a place of conscious torment. “. . . storing up wrath for themselves . . . to the selfishly ambitious, who do not obey the truth but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. Tribulation and distress is upon every soul who does wrong, of the Jew first and also of the Greek,” (Romans 2:5,8,9). Again, in Luke 16 it is very obvious that the rich man in hell knew exactly where he was, that he was in agony, that he was in flames, that he was asking for relief but none was coming. It is not like when you are asleep or in a coma and oblivious to all your surroundings. Those in hell know exactly where they are. They know they have rejected Christ. They know they are suffering, and they know they have no means of escape. 

Finally, those in hell will be there forever. This, my friends, is perhaps the most dreadful word of all. Jesus calls it eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46). He says it is a place where the worm never dies. Some theologians, including Philip Hughes and John Stott, have suggested there is annihilation of the souls of the condemned in hell. That is, due to God’s mercy those souls in hell will eventually be destroyed. That is a nice thought, but is not what the Bible teaches. Hell is forever. There is no escaping it. There is no annihilation of the damned. The eternity of hell is like swimming in an ocean with no shore, like falling down a dark elevator shaft, waiting in abject terror for the moment you hit the pavement falling at 150 miles per hour. It is like burning in unquenchable fire forever, but never being consumed. Jesus refers to hell as outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 22:13). Hell is utter and complete loneliness. Contrary to the bravado of many unbelievers who tell me that they will enjoy hell with all their friends, they will be isolated, completely cut off from everyone. There will be weeping and wailing like none of us have ever heard. I have heard some horrible wailing by grief stricken parents or spouses over the sudden, tragic loss of a child or a husband or wife, but nothing will be like the sounds of those wailing in hell over their pain, sorrow, and eternal despair. The gnashing of teeth reminds me of the horrible descriptions of those poor Jews placed into the Nazi gas chambers. After long train rides in cattle cars, stripped of their clothing, they were told they were to have a nice, refreshing shower. As they were huddled in the showers, the gas came forth and in fear, pain, and panic many bit their own bodies or those of others around them. Hell will be far worse than that. 

But who goes to hell? Surely most of us will have no trouble believing that serial rapists, murderers, child molesters, sex traffickers, or despots who have murdered millions of their own people will go there. But is that all? No. Paul makes clear that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). He goes on from there to lay out the case against ungodly, vile sinners (Romans 1:24-32), nice, moral sinners (Romans 2:1-16), and religious sinners (Romans 2:17-29). He summarizes by saying that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Jesus said that all who believe in Him are not judged, but all who do not believe are judged already (John 3:18). So, everyone, whatever their condition, who has not been born again by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is on the road to hell. 

When will it happen? It is appointed for men once to die and then comes the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). I don’t know, you don’t know the time or the occasion for your death, but you know it is coming. It can come in multitudinous ways, but it will come. 

Why? Why eternal damnation in hell? Isn’t that way over the top? The very fact that hell is eternal, conscious torment tells you all you need to know about how vile, heinous, seditious, and horrible sin is before the eyes of the Holy One. He is pure and He cannot look upon evil. The full measure of His eternal, just wrath comes upon the damned, condemned sinner because it is an affront to the One who loves us and has given us everything to enjoy in this world. Our sin is wickedness, treason, and perversion before the Holy One.

But no one has to go there, my friend. Jesus is the propitiation in His blood through faith. He took the wrath of God you deserve upon Himself on Calvary’s cross. This is the glory of Christ’s magnificent, redeeming work. If you are a Christian bow humbly and thank God for saving your soul. If you are not, I beg you to be reconciled to God this very day. Do not delay. Flee from the wrath of God which is surely coming, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is your only hope.    


1. <www.hebrew4christians.com>

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