Lately I have been seeing many articles dealing with the subject of hell. Like most people I have avoided this subject at times because it is so easily misunderstood. Many are rejecting what they have been told is God’s viewpoint on the subject. On the other hand, God’s word helps us to understand it when we see it from His perspective.
In order to do that we must believe that God’s word is true as it was recorded and that it reveals God’s perspective on all issues that He wants us to know about. If you do not believe this about God’s word you might as well stop reading here because this article assumes that truth. Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation but depends on the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to those who seek truth (2 Peter 1:20, 21).
Let me begin with this helpful statement from King Solomon: “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). In this passage in Ecclesiastes Solomon is talking about time and how it is difficult for us as finite beings to see it from the perspective of an infinite God. Notice that he says that we humans “will not find out the work which God has done.” No matter how hard we try we will not be successful in understanding the aspect of time and eternity because God does not grant us that privilege.
First, let’s understand that the Bible teaches that the human soul and spirit are eternal. God did not create us like the animals to live, die and then cease to exist. He has “set eternity in their heart” Solomon says, speaking of all human beings. Any number of passages speak of living forever (Luke 16:19–31; Ps. 23:6; 22:6; 2 Sam. 12:23). Here are some good examples.
Jesus promised Martha that those who believe in Him will never die:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25, 26).
Jesus, affirmed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob still lived by saying that God is the God of the living:
“But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matt. 22:31, 32).
There were living souls of martyrs who awaited the final consummation of the age:
“When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (Rev. 6:9).
Moses and Elijah, who died years ago, appeared to talk to Jesus:
“And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him” (Matt. 17:3).
Paul was sure that when he died he would instantly be with Christ:
“But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Phil. 1:23).
Sheol, the place of the departed dead celebrates as the king of Babylon enters. This verse speaks of the dead as if they still have life:
“Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones” (Isa. 14:9).
So the Bible clearly teaches that our soul continues to live after we are physically dead. That being the case, it follows that both the righteous and the unrighteous will live on in some way after they die. The question then arises as to the nature of that future existence.
In addressing that issue we need to understand that we can never in this life fully understand the nature of eternity. We made this point earlier when quoting king Solomon who said “we will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). God does not expect us to understand eternity but simply to accept it as real. God’s eternal purpose is to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10) which means that we must receive Christ by faith in order to be part of God’s eternal future.
First of all, since we know that our souls live forever, we must realize that punishment for those who reject Christ will be forever. You may die physically but your soul continues on in whatever state you are in when you die. If you remain separated from God because you rejected Him, you will live an eternity separated from Him. Your soul will never know life in union with God because you rejected Him in this life. You would live forever without the possibility of your soul receiving transformation. It would go from bad to worse because Christ is not in you.
This salvation is not made so difficult that few receive it despite what many preachers tell you. God offers you the free gift of His Son to rectify the consequences of sin: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). It’s free. No charge. Just receive Christ by faith and let His presence in you change your life (2 Cor. 3:15–18).
Paul told Timothy that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to know the truth fully” (1 Tim. 2:4). He is divinely patient and desires that “all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). It will not be God’s fault when people reject Him and the salvation He offers. Think of the thief on the cross who simply said, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42) and woke up in paradise with the Lord (v. 43).
Every human being knows that there is judgment for doing wrong things. It is built into our soul by God. Jesus told us this about the Holy Spirit:
And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. (John 16:8–11).
The Holy Spirit convicts (or convinces) everyone (the world) concerning sin, righteousness or judgment. We all can identify sin because the Holy Spirit lets us know. We all know what righteousness is for the same reason and judgment for sin is a forgone conclusion to every person. We know by the Holy Spirit that Satan, “the ruler of this world” has been judged and we will join Him if we choose him in this life.
God says this in another place at the hand of Paul: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:18, 19).
Did you see those words? “The wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness.” It has been revealed that God hates sin and is going to judge it in the end. The word “revealed” means that God has made it perfectly clear how He feels about ungodliness. Every human being who has ever lived knows this because God has made it clear. He says that which can be known about God “is evident within them.” We inherently know this because He revealed it to our hearts. The truth about God and His coming judgment have been brought out into the light through Jesus Christ and the revealing work of the Holy Spirit. Paul says later in this passage speaking of all people: “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Anyone who must spend eternity separated from God because of their choice will have no excuse when all is said and done.
So, let’s stop with this talk about how a holy God could allow people to be punished forever! He made us to live forever and then gave us more than enough evidence about how He feels about sin and what He has done through His Son to rectify the situation. He gave His Son to pay our penalty and made of the way of salvation free for the asking (Rom. 5:6–11). Then He gave us His Holy Spirit and His word, the Bible, to make this all clear to all people (John 16:13). We are without excuse if we refuse His offer!
It is also important to recognize that there are degrees to the punishment that people will experience. Jesus makes this clear in some of His statements. In His parable of the servants He said
That servant who knew what his master wanted but didn’t prepare himself or do what was wanted will receive a severe beating. But the servant who did things that deserved a beating without knowing it will receive a light beating. Much will be required from everyone to whom much has been given. But even more will be demanded from the one to whom much has been entrusted (Luke 12:47, 48).
Punishment will be determined by the level of one’s knowledge of what they were doing. One servant receives a “severe beating” and the other “a light beating.”
Jesus told the hypocrites “you will receive greater condemnation” (Matt. 23:14). They were destined to have a greater punishment because they had been entrusted with God’s purpose but had diminished it in peoples’ lives with their hypocrisy. The word “greater” implies degrees of intensity to the punishment of God.
People tend to form their thoughts on eternal punishment based on what they have gleaned from the opinions of others or some ancient document like Dante’s Inferno. They picture Satan, pitchfork in hand, standing over a burning sulfuric lake torturing the dead in his glee. They forget or never knew that God created this place of detention for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). There have always been two choices for us as presented in the Garden of Eden: God or the liar Satan. We will spend our eternity with the one we choose.
In the first place, any mention of fire in reference on this issue is a metaphor for God’s judgment. Fire is almost always a metaphor (Dan. 7:9, 10; Rev. 4:5; James 3:6; Matt. 25:30; Rev. 20:10, 14; John 16: 8–11; Rev. 1:14, et al). We cannot assume physical fire when considering the judgment of God.
James makes this very clear: “And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
Speaking of the danger of using our speech in the wrong way, James says “the tongue is a fire.” Clearly this is metaphorical. He goes on to say our life can be “set on fire by hell.” He is obviously talking about how our tongue can set our life on fire and this fire is from hell. He uses the word “Gehenna” which is the word used often in the word for the state of punishment that the wicked will experience. Gehenna is a real place that God prepared for the devil and His angels (Matt. 25:41) and it is the place of God’s final judgment but it is clearly spiritual judgment. How could a spiritual being be affected by physical fire?
We cannot understand the nature of eternity and time so we need to stop trying to define it by our limited knowledge. We must leave the judgment up to our just and righteous God. But we must not make the mistake of redefining it from our human sense of justice. Paul, speaking of this judgment, says “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2). If you are one of these unrepentant people you will experience the “the righteous judgment of God” it is time to turn to Him and get it right.
So, while there is time turn to the Lord Jesus Christ and receive His free gift of salvation, don’t make the mistake of thinking that God thinks the way you do. He does not. He is the almighty God and He knows all things and you can be sure He will get it right.