I. What is hell?
II. The language of hell.
III. Who rules in hell?
IV. Do people stay in hell forever or just for a time?
V. Why hell?
V.a. Punishment
V.a.i. Is God unjust or cruel?
V.b. Love
VI. Finally …

I. What is hell?
Most simply, hell is existence without God.

Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible, and the New Testament gives a clearer picture of the fate of the dead than does the Old. Many parables Jesus told about the Kingdom of God also mention the fate those who were rejected from it. The descriptions of and about it include: torment [1]; fire [2]; darkness [3]; worms [4]; weeping and gnashing of teeth [5]; soul and body are destroyed in it [6]; and it is better to lose a part of your body and be in heaven than be whole and in hell [7].

II. The language of hell.
There are several words in the Bible translated “hell”. The most common are the Hebrew “Sheol”, translated metonymously as “the grave”, and the Greek “Hades”. Both Sheol and Hades denote the realm of all the dead, whether they were righteous or evil in life. Nevertheless, there are indications that the final state of the righteous will be better than that of those who live their own way. Jesus’ tale of the rich man and Lazarus pictures Hades as an existence of torment in fire, while Lazarus is in paradise with Abraham [8]. As far as they are synonymous, Sheol and Hades seem to be temporary: divided and unbridgeable waiting rooms for all people until the final judgment, when death and Hades will be thrown into a lake of fire [9].

Another word used to denote hell is “Gehenna”, which Jesus used as a picture of judgment. The word apparently referred to the “valley of (the sons of) Hinnom”, just outside Jerusalem. This valley was the city’s rubbish dump, where a fire constantly burned; destroying everything thrown into it. Unlike Hades, what is said about Gehenna, although as description and not definition, indicates that it is the final domicile of humans who reject God.

As for the rebellious angels, some of them at least are kept in gloomy dungeons; the sentence of God called tartaroō (ō pronounced oh), translated “sent … to hell” [10]. The word implies a connection with Tartarus, which in Greek mythology is analogous to hell. 2 Peter is the only place in the Bible that uses the word, and there is no explicit indication how Tartarus compares to Hades or Gehenna except that, like Hades, it is a temporary holding place for the dead. Then, at the final judgment the devil, his followers, and all who reject God’s self-testimony will be thrown into a lake of fire, where they “will be tormented night and day for ever and ever” [11].

Hades; Gehenna; Tartarus; the lake of fire: none of them promise anything pleasant for those who dwell in them.

III. Who rules in hell?
There is a belief that if you were bad, you would go to hell and be tortured by demons. It may have arisen from well-meaning people, or possibly by exasperated parents, using the stick-and-carrot method (or rather, the stick-and-stick-and-more-stick method) to improve others’ behaviour. In any case, the misconception is popular in movies and TV shows about hell: Little Nicky, Ghost, Charmed and so on. Demons are fallen angels, so it seems reasonable that if they oppose God, and God is in heaven, then they will be in hell. The Bible says that angels are more powerful than humans, so demons would be higher in the infernal hierarchy [12].

The misconception is that anyone in hell has power over anyone else. The Bible nowhere says that demons control hell and have the power to determine how a person is punished. On the contrary it is Jesus who holds the keys to death and hell [13]. When Jesus was confronted by a legion of demons who possessed the man from Gadara (or Gerasa), they begged Jesus not to torture them before the appointed time [14]. Revelation 20 says that Satan was bound, and thrown into the abyss, which was then locked and sealed [15]. After that, at the final judgment the devil and his followers will be thrown into a lake of fire, where they “will be tormented night and day for ever and ever” [16]. Does this sound like demons are in control of hell? Perhaps, from the use of the passive voice (“they will be”), people inferred that someone inflicts the torment but would burning in eternal fire not be torment enough?

Maybe the idea that the devil controls hell arose from several reasons: first, passages such as those in Ephesians 2, that we once “followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient”, and Colossians 1, that God “rescued us from the dominion of darkness” [17]. Second, as people tried to following God’s reasoning that led to the Cross they asked, Who required payment for our sins? Why could God not just forgive without a sacrifice? One of the answers was that we belonged to Satan’s kingdom, so the devil required payment. The logic behind this theory is flawed: it is God who we have wronged, not Satan; and although that ancient dragon is more powerful than any other created being, he has no power to hold us if God has chosen to set us free.

There are other reasons, albeit inferential and less convincing (to me), to think that the devil doesn’t rule hell, or will have any control over us. By its nature hell is a state of existence where God is not. His gifts to us – thought, feeling and so on – are not taken from us in as far as they are an essential part of human nature. We will retain these abilities, but there will be nothing on which we can use them except ourselves because one of the chief gifts from God is the ability to relate to others and to the world, being able to affect one another by sharing thoughts and feelings. This ability to relate includes being able to govern: in Genesis, God commanded the man and woman to rule over the Earth as His caretakers. In hell, our ability to relate will not be taken away but anything with which we can relate will be: the Earth, other sentient creatures like people and angels, even fallen ones. To torment and be tormented are kinds of rule and relationship and no doubt, it would give Satan pleasure to do so. But pleasure and hell cannot coexist in the same universe.

IV. Do people stay in hell forever or just for a time?
Some Christians do not believe that the experience of hell lasts forever but for a limited length of time. They might appeal to the fact that only God alone is immortal by nature, so people won’t exist forever in hell [18]. But how can people then live forever in heaven if we aren’t immortal? The logical answer is that God enables us to [19]. Fair enough; even so, on what basis does God decide how much or how long people are to suffer in hell before being annihilated? (They will not be permitted to enter heaven, because Hebrews points out that it is “today” we are given to turn to God. “Today”, the time we have to accept God’s offer of forgiveness, will end when we die or God ends this world. If we have not committed ourselves to God by then, it will be too late.)

The Bible says that people will be destroyed, not annihilated, which means to cease to exist. It might be argued that anything kept in a fire for long enough will be as close to annihilation as it can get but this proposition has flaws; firstly, the debatable validity of the natural-otherworldly analogy; secondly, it is an argument from silence; and thirdly, the definition of “annihilate”. Walter Martin pointed out that “annihilate” and “destroy” aren’t synonyms: a car can be destroyed – it can no longer function as a car – but it still exists, warped and crushed and in pieces perhaps. It is not annihilated, which means to not exist; to not be. So in hell, people are not annihilated but destroyed: all that they might have achieved and been will be lost. There will be no relationship, no comfort, no hope, no joy.

This distinction between “destroy” and “annihilate” may be valid for us who speak English but I don’t know if the Greek has a word for “annihilate”, although it can say that something is not: the words are pronounced “ook ohn”. What the Bible does say is that the fire of final judgment is eternal, unquenchable and it never goes out [20]: the focus is on the fire, rather than how long people live in it. We might infer from this that hell does last forever: if people were punished in it for a while and then annihilated or otherwise removed, there would be no need for hell to exist. But if the fire never goes out, it isn’t a huge leap of logic to conclude that it therefore lasts forever.

Another point raised in favour of the eternity of hell is that God is infinite, so sin against Him carries infinite consequences. The sin that keeps us hell-bound is rejection of Christ’s sacrifice for us, so there is no other place for us to go. It is either heaven or hell. Rejection of Christ will never become acceptable after a time. Someone once suggested that in the descriptions of hell, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth – in regret? anger? frustration? – but not repentance. (This is an argument from silence, and could be true or false.) Philippians 2 says that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but confession is not repentance. A person can agree to the truth of what they Bible says and yet not honour God as He deserves. As James notes, even the demons believe that there is one God – and shudder. They know the truth but don’t repent; assuming they can.

Some people have suggested it’s unhelpful to think of eternity in terms of time. God is infinite and beyond time, and at the end of the world and the beginning of eternity, we will enter God’s realm where time will no longer exist. On the other hand, the idea that there will be no time after the end of the world seems nonsensical if we think of the new heavens and new earth as places beginning to exist after the old are destroyed. Time is relative so we can only speak of “before” and “after” when we have a point of reference. The end of the world is a point of reference – the end of the old and the start of the new – so we can speak of “before” and “after”: five thousand years after the apocalypse, ten billion, fifty quadrillion … The thought of periods of time of this magnitude is staggers the imagination but that is no reason to reject it. Nevertheless, the idea of existing outside time is not logically impossible. Human minds cannot compass the infinite, so God babbles – speaks baby talk – to us (balbutio as John Calvin said), teaching us great concepts in language we can understand.

Another point in favour of the argument that eternity refers to unending time is the Bible’s statement that all people will be resurrected for the final judgment. Resurrection requires a physical body. Bodies are matter and take up space; therefore there must be space for these physical bodies to exist; therefore the new heavens and earth – and hell – must be places, as far as we understand the concept. This could include other dimensions but as God is omnipresent He would be in those places as well. The existence of a place, as an entity separate from God and therefore created by Him, carries the necessary corollary of time. The new heavens and earth will come after the old is destroyed; we therefore have a point of reference, which enables us to speak of time, albeit unending time.

Moreover, Jesus as the God-human voluntarily restricted the use of His divine attributes, such as omniscience (this is how we can understand Jesus not knowing the day or the hour of the apocalypse while still being full deity), could there not likewise be a place or dimension God withdraws Himself from? This place would be hell.

Whether people experience hell for eternity or only for a limited time, we must recognise the possibility that the Bible is describing what hell is like, rather than defining what it is. The difference is analogous to telling someone what a lamington tastes like versus telling them how to make it. I think the former is more likely to be the primary intent, as the Bible was written for a purpose: to bring people to face God in repentance now rather than in condemnation after we die. So “eternal” could describe the type of existence – as from God, rather than mortal, human, of the world – rather than the length of it, but it could just as easily combine the two possibilities; that is, “eternal” can refer to both the kind and length of something: life or death or fire or darkness.

After reaching no definite conclusion, I don’t doubt that this section isn’t even scratching the surface of the issue. I cannot help but suspect that the reality will be beyond what we can presently imagine or can think. This talk of “unending time or no time at all” seems somehow too narrow and limited; nevertheless, I can’t think of any other possibility. The human inability to comprehend the divine means that the horizons of our understanding are fuzzy; nonetheless, like the subject of the Trinity, although the topic of Hell is beyond human comprehension it is not contrary to reason.

V. Why hell?
The Bible indicates that hell (Gehenna/ the lake of fire) is the final destination of those who rebel against God. It is both God’s punishment of us for our rejection of His word, and a necessary result of rejecting His love.

V.a. Punishment
Hell is a punishment from God for the unforgivable sin, which Jesus says is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit [21]. The work of the Spirit is to bring people to trust God’s word, and more specifically that Jesus is the only way by which people can be saved. Thus the unforgivable sin is unbelief: refusing to trust God’s word.

To sin means to do what we think is right, irrespective of what God says. We might expect atheists to be supercilious, self-centred, amoral, and malicious, while supposing theists of any variety to be humble, respectful, generous and forgiving. But this deduction is flawed: a person who rejects God’s word doesn’t necessarily become evil or even a garden-variety blackguard, nor does a person who trusts God’s word become a clone of Ned Flanders. The essence of sin, of rebellion against God, is to decide for ourselves what’s right and wrong, rather than fall into line with what God says.

We may be good people by human moral standards but God’s standard isn’t morality. He judges us primarily (that is, whether we go to heaven or hell) by our allegiance, not our actions. Let’s use the United States’ Civil War as a hypothetical example: imagine that God said that Federal rights took precedence over those of the individual states. This would have meant that no matter how kind or noble or generous or self-sacrificing any individual Confederate was, all of them had set themselves against God’s word. More specifically, Robert E. Lee disapproved of secession and of slavery but his highest allegiance was to his state: Virginia. He was a superb soldier, a bold tactician, was just, merciful, and was respected and admired by people on both sides; nevertheless, Lee chose to ally himself with the Confederates – the enemy.

We might live a good life because God says (which is righteous) or because we decide to (which is sin). The act itself is still good but the crucial difference between heaven and hell is: who rules your life – you or God?

If God sent us to heaven or hell based on what we did, no doubt there are atheists and Muslims and Buddhists and (people who call themselves) Christians who would end up in both places. But on what side of the eternal divide we land depends not on what we do but on who God is to us. Does He determine what we do; or do we? This isn’t to say we can say “I trust God” but continue to live immorally: if we really do trust God, we will seek to live a good, or moral, life: giving to the poor and so on. If we fall and fail, we will get up and try again.

V.a.i. Does hell mean God is unjust or cruel?
In other words, couldn’t God just forgive without requiring a penalty? For example, if your child puts a pop tart in the DVD player and ruins it, you don’t require them to pay for it; you forgive them. True, but if you want the DVD player to be repaired or replaced, someone has to pay for it. If you forgive the child, you can’t require them to pay. You yourself have to pay the cost.

Even the smallest sin is committed against God not as a private individual but as the ruler of the universe, who is responsible for order and justice. Any infraction of that order must be punished because God is just: to not punish sin, no matter how seemingly insignificant, would mean that God is not just. And if God the judge and ruler is not just, how can he then punish anyone for their injustice? That would be hypocritical. You might object that human judges are imperfect yet they punish others. True, but they do so according to external laws: their authority is not dependent on their own behaviour. Moreover, they themselves are bound by the same laws. But if God judges people by His own innate standards, how much more must He be just? He cannot demand perfection of us if He is not perfect. God is bound by His own justice, because justice is an essential part of who He is.

The Bible states unequivocally that God is both just and forgiving. Contrary to what some people believe, many of whom haven’t read the Bible but rely on what others say, God’s justice and mercy are demonstrated throughout both the Old and New Testaments, reaching their acme at the Cross, when God paid the cost of our rebellion and evil.

But people do question the justice and mercy of God on the issue of hell. How can it be fair to send someone to hell forever just for lying or stealing? We can understand someone like Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, or Pol Pot going to hell forever, but normal people like us? It doesn’t seem right [22]. I would agree if people went to hell because of the bad acts they did and the good ones they didn’t do. But what we do is secondary to our allegiance, which we looked at in the previous section. Moreover, it is a mistake to think that we are born morally neutral and become good or evil – from the divine perspective at least. The Bible states that we are born dead to God: this means we can’t get to heaven by doing good – but neither do we go to hell for being bad. We are born rebels, and the bad things we do are demonstrations of the realm we belong to: bad thoughts, words and acts are natural to rebels.

Punishment is based on the quality of the crime and the value of that which is destroyed. But how can we quantify the worth of someone’s life or suffering and translate that into a period of time? Human courts do it but it is an arbitrary measure. The time it takes to commit a crime, or a sin, should not determine time in gaol or in hell: rape can take only a few minutes but does this mean the rapist should spend that same amount of time in gaol? Of course not.

You might question whether being in hell forever is overkill: there aren’t many crimes that would seem to deserve the punishment. But again, this is based on the assumption that we are sent to hell for the bad things we do, which we aren’t. The Bible indicates that people receive differing degrees of reward in heaven – although even that is the gift of God – so we might extrapolate that to conclude that there are different levels of punishment in hell, although the Bible doesn’t state this explicitly.

If being in hell forever is unfair, think about the flip side: is it fair that a perfect, righteous God allows born rebels into heaven? And on what basis: their admission that they deserve to go to hell; that they can only get to heaven because Jesus died in their place? Is that fair? It isn’t fair to us; it is merciful. Yet we can only experience God’s mercy because Jesus experienced His justice.

It is on the same basis that people end up in hell: they refuse to accept God’s only way out. If after God’s own courage and sacrifice we then refuse to take that way, to accept God at His word, we have no one but ourselves to blame.

But hell forever? We’ve already looked at the question in section four – and came up with no definite answer. Some more information that might either clarify or obscure the topic relates to what we’ve already said: that punishment should relate to the quality of what is destroyed or disrespected. What price the life of the eternal, self-sacrificing deity?

There is a second reason that hell exists: God loves us.

V.b. A necessary result of love.
Love is a choice, not a feeling [23]: love seeks what is best for the one who is loved. Likewise, whether to receive someone’s love or not is a choice: love can be received or spurned. God wants the best for all of us; but if we refuse to accept what He says is best for us, even God cannot make us accept His love, or make us love Him. Love is voluntary on both sides, and even God cannot do what is logically impossible.

So what happens to people who refuse to accept God’s love? He will not continue to offer it forever; if for no other reason than we die and can no longer receive it. God rules everything, everywhere but hell – in as far as hell is a place; it seems to be more a type of existence than a place – and accepting this is a necessary part of relationship with Him. He, not us, is God. So those who reject God’s rule must finally dwell where God is not: hell. To make people who reject Him live where He is control, where He is the centre of all attention and celebration and joy, would be to force them to accept what they do not want to accept; but love does not force anyone.

Those who reject God have only one path to take: total independence. In hell, people have the freedom to make life as they want it to be; to be master of their own world. In Genesis, God created the world with everything we would need: shelter – wood, rock and metal; food – earth, water, sunshine, plants; companionship – other people; and the ability to relate to all of those things – our senses, our ability to think and feel and communicate. God gave us all of these things: do we have the ability to make them ourselves, ex nihilo [24]? No, but hell allows us to try.

People got together and told God, “We can create life ourselves, so we don’t need you any longer. So we want you to stop telling us how we should live.”
God replied, “Okay, if you can create life from the beginning, you have a deal.”
The people set about their task. They began mining all the minerals they would need. God said to them, “Whoa! I said ‘from the beginning’; so create your own elements!”

VI. Finally …
The purpose of the Bible’s description of Hell is to exhort us to avoid it, rather than give a schematic diagram of it. Of course, there is not necessarily a conflict: one can serve the purpose of the other. We must be careful not to assume that all we read is all there is to know, and that our interpretation is the correct one. Undoubtedly there is a correct understanding and maybe we have it – and all of us would like to think that we do – but logic (and in my case, past experience) should prevent us from presuming that we do.


[1] Luke 16:23
[2] Matthew 5:22
[3] Matthew 22:13; Jude :13
[4] Mark 9:47-48
[5] Luke 13:28
[6] Matthew 10:28
[7] Mark 9:43-48
[8] Luke 16
[9] Revelation 20:14. This personification indicates that nevermore will we be separated from one another by death.
[10] 2 Peter 2:4
[11] Revelation 20:10-15; cp Matthew 25:41.
[12] Psalm 8. Possibly this idea is supported through the Eastern idea of a natural balance: yin and yang oppose and complement each other; so good and bad, heaven and hell, balance each other.
[13] Revelation 1:18. In Revelation 20 the angel holds the key to the Abyss – probably a synonym for hell. Angels are God’s messengers (“messenger” is what the Greek word, translated “angel”, means); so this angel was apparently delegated by Christ to imprison the devil.
[14] Matthew 8:29
[15] I interpret this imprisonment of the devil as meaning that his time and power are limited. It might be an allusion to Genesis 3:17, where the dragon, accused of deceiving Eve, ends up without a leg to stand on. Compare this with Revelation 20:2, and see the misconception about the serpent being a snake.
[16] Revelation 20:10-15
[17] Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 1:13.
[18] 1 Timothy 6:16
[19] “Jesus Christ … has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:10)
[20] Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43, 48
[21] Chapter 12 of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
[22] Joseph Stalin, absolute ruler of Russia (and later of the USSR) from 1928 to 1953, is responsible for the murder of about 20 million Russians. Mao Zedong, the ruler of the Peoples’ Republic of China (as China is a Communist dictatorship, this name is a bitter misnomer) is responsible for the deaths of at least 38 million Chinese people. Pol Pot, ruler of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, is responsible for the murder of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians. Of a population of eight million, that’s almost 1 in every 4 people. Remember, these were their own people.
[23] Being in love is a feeling. See Relationship misconception 1: Love and being in love.
[24] It has to be from nothing because all that is belongs to God.