As I sit in McDonalds writing this article, hearing AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” playing in the background, I can’t help but shiver. Any teaching on Hell is not to be taken lightly but is immensely important for both Christians and a lost world. Recently, some Christians have shied away from speaking or thinking about Hell, and some professing believers have rejected eternal punishment altogether. In the UK, whilst 45% of people believe in Heaven, less than 40% of the population believe that Hell exists.
However, Jesus was not short on teachings about Hell. The Apostle Paul spoke about the fate of the wicked after death over 80 times in his letters1 (more than he spoke about mercy, forgiveness or Heaven combined). If we want to see Christ-like families, Christ-like friendships, Christ-like churches, Christ-like evangelism and a Christ-like world, then we need Christ-like understanding, not least on the subject of Hell. Whilst we explore what Jesus had to say on this subject, we’ll be using points raised in Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle’s incredibly helpful book ‘Erasing Hell’.
Hell is a Place of Punishment After Judgement
Jesus makes clear that the purpose of Hell is for punishment. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s disciples came and asked Him questions about the end times (Matthew 24:3). As He teaches them about His coming judgement, Matthew 25:31-46 explains the fate of the wicked:
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”Matthew 25:31-32
Then He will say to those on His left “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:41, 46
When speaking about the Pharisees after being tested by them, Jesus says:
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?Matthew 23:33
The key thing here is to understand is the sentencing that Hell is. This is retributive punishment, not an allegory or a corrective state. Jesus leaves no room for us to consider Hell as a non-literal or a type of correction facility after death. We all know John 3:16. A beautiful verse speaking about God’s love. Just two verses later we also learn about the fate of those who reject Him. John 3:18 teaches that 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.
The same God who “so loved the world” unapologetically warns people of what rejecting Him leads to. If we are to be truly loving, we would be willing to tell people the truth, even if it costs us moments of awkwardness, social exclusion, or worse, death.
Hell is a Place of Torment
Again, Jesus does not hold back in describing the nature of this sentence. Two of the ways that Jesus uses to describe Hell are intended to wake us up to the severity of sin in the eyes of a Holy God.
A Place of Burning Fire
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.Matthew 13:40-41
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.Matthew 18:8-9
A Place of Darkness
When speaking to a non-Jewish centurion about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says:
While the sons of the kingdom [of Israel] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”Matthew 8:12
In another parable taught to His disciples, Jesus says His servants will,
Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’Matthew 25:30
You may ask, “How can Hell be both fiery and dark?” Of course, the descriptions are symbolic. But don’t allow the symbolism to cause any complacency. Some say Gehenna (Hell in the New Testament) is a reference to a burning rubbish heap outside of Jerusalem and not to be taken literally. This fails for two reasons:
- This idea was developed by a Jewish Rabbi, 1200 years after the life of Jesus (David Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13). There is no evidence that there was such burning rubbish heap near Jerusalem2.
- Even if the above was true, symbols are used to describe realities that are more intense than the symbol i.e. a precious diamond ring can be a symbol of love that is more precious than the diamond. In the same way, the descriptions of Hell describe a reality more intense, not less intense, than the words used.
Perhaps the reason so many people struggle to believe in the reality of Hell is that many people lack an understanding of the nature of sin and the holiness of God. A proper understanding of the reality of Hell would give Christians a better understanding of the nature of sin, and therefore encourage us to seek Christ’s mercy and go on to live holy lives.
Hell is Eternal
There are 2 camps that evangelical Christians fall into when thinking about the extent of eternal punishment. Annihilationism and Eternal Conscious Torment. I believe that only Eternal Conscious Torment is consistent with the full biblical teaching of Hell, but my aim in this article is not to expand on both views in detail. Instead, my aim is to show that Jesus teaches us something indisputable – Hell is not a type of second-chance purgatory for sinners but an eternal punishment for those who reject Christ in this life.
Again, let’s look at the words of Jesus Himself:
“Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:44-46
And in the words of the disciple whom Jesus loved, the Apostle John:
“And the devil who had deceived them was 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… And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”Revelation 20:10,15
What we see here are very chilling words. I wonder, how could anyone proudly claim to be on a “Highway to Hell?” It saddens me to think about my loved ones that have died who, as far as I know, were not trusting in Christ. I choose to believe that everything God does is correct, and I live by faith in Him instead of faith in “what I would do if I was God”.
There is only one reason why meditations upon Hell can bring me even an ounce of Joy.
Hell is Avoidable
Jesus did not teach people about the fate of the wicked with no intention to offer the rescue plan from such a condemnation.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”John 3:16
“That whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” We don’t deserve the forgiveness of God. But God’s lovingkindness motivated Him to offer the gift of eternal life if we simply believe in Christ and submit to Him (Romans 6:23). Christ takes what we deserve by dying in our place on the Cross (2 Corinthians 5:21) and instead gives us what only He deserves.
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. No exceptions.
But how will they call if they haven’t believed? And how will they believe if they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?Romans 10:14-17
You are being sent.
Well firstly, you’re being called to repent. If you haven’t trusted in Jesus then now is the time. Let your experience of grace and gratitude to God spur you on to calling those who don’t know Christ to the same freedom, the same forgiveness and the same relationship with Him. As we better understand the subject of Hell, we better understand the subject of grace. Thank God for His mercy! Let’s continue to trust in Him for salvation, whilst we call on others to do the same.
1: Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 92-93.
2: “Gehenna: The Topography of Hell,” Biblical Archaeologist 49/3 , 188-89