In Dante’s classic work Inferno, the ancient Roman poet Virgil gives Dante a tour of Hell. When Dante first passes through the gate of Hell, he reads a chilling inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Inferno, though a fictional work with many extrabiblical descriptions of Hell, captures a critical biblical truth in this inscription. For the sinner, there is a day when hope ends, the day he or she passes through the portal of Hell.
In recent years, the biblical concept of Hell has come under fire. Hell is seen as the great scarecrow of Christianity, an antiquated tactic used by preachers of yesteryear to frighten people into making professions of faith. Those who view this as illegitimate fearmongering have responded by reinterpreting biblical passages on Hell to make it more palatable and less offensive.
Some of these attempts to air condition Hell include universalism (everybody is saved in the end, and all roads lead to Heaven), annihilationism (sometime after death a person’s soul simply ceases to exist), and viewing Hell as merely a place of spiritual torment rather than physical.
Some will go so far as to deny Hell altogether. They maintain that books about Hell, including the Bible, belong on the same shelf as books about werewolves, vampires, and Harry Potter. Hell is fiction, fantasy, and fake.
But Scripture teaches that Hell couldn’t be more real and gives great detail about the horrors of this habitat of certain torment. Below are some details you may not have considered:
All fires that we know of—kitchen fires, campfires, and even the greatest wildfires in history—come to an end. Hell, on the other hand, is called “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43) and “the lake of fire” in which people are “tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Rev 20:10) The pain from the burns is so great that it leads to weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 25:30) For those who have had the severe misfortune of being burned alive, at least death came as a relief. In contrast, God will resurrect the wicked and give them new, immortal, and indestructible bodies suited to endure the eternal flames, so the relief of death never comes. (Rev 20:11-15)
George Whitefield comments on this sobering reality when he writes
Consider the torment of burning like a livid coal, not for an instant or for a day, but for millions and millions of ages, at the end of which souls will realize that they are no closer to the end than when they first begun, and they will never, ever be delivered from that place.
Once you are in Hell, there are no grounds for appeal, no hope of release. The judge has slammed his gavel, and your case is closed forever. There are no exit signs in Hell.
Hell is so horrific because it is the exact opposite of what makes Heaven so amazing. The apex of joy and the height of believers’ experience in Heaven is that God “will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.” (Rev 21:3)
In contrast, those who do not obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” (2 Thess 1:8-9) In Hell, God does not dwell among men. He is not their God, and they are not his people. They are banished from the fountain of life and joy.
Paradoxically, Scripture also teaches that God is in Hell. Those in Hell “will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” (Rev 14:10) Jesus, the Lamb, is present in Hell. He is not only the ultimate judge who sentences people to Hell, He is also the ultimate executioner who pours out the wrath of God on those who enter.
How can this be? How can the presence of God be absent from Hell, and yet the presence of Jesus, who is God, be there? Certainly, there is some mystery here, and we cannot fully reconcile these two truths in our finite minds. What we can say as we let these two truths lie side by side is that God is present in Heaven to bless, and God is present in Hell to curse. God’s presence to love and comfort is in Heaven, while God’s presence to punish and torment is in Hell. In other words, in Heaven, God is present in all the ways we want him to be, and in Hell, He is present in all the ways we don’t want him to be.
Do you see how this raises the stakes? Those in Hell cannot escape the omnipresence of God. Dying in your sins does not mean that Jesus simply banishes you to Hell and then forgets about you. No, He is there in Hell awaiting your arrival. You will face your judge, the one you rejected. You will receive direct punishment from Jesus, the one you defied day after day, year after year.
When you picture Hell in your mind, do you picture darkness? Scripture repeatedly calls Hell a place of outer darkness. (Matt 8:12; 25:30) In Hell, you can hear the screams of pain, you can feel the burn from the flames, you can feel your teeth grinding together, and you can smell the burning sulfur, but you will have great trouble seeing anything at all because of the darkness.
Solitary confinement is one of the most severe punishments a prisoner can receive. Today, many activists are seeking to abolish solitary confinement citing studies showing that it is so severe and so inhumane that it causes permanent psychological damage.
The descriptions the Bible uses to paint the picture of Hell suggest that it is something like solitary confinement. The New Testament frequently portrays Hell as a prison that can be locked with a key. (Rev 9:1-2; 20:1-3) The Apostle Paul writes that “there will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil.” (Rom 2:9) The Greek word for “distress” is stenochōria, a compound word which combines the words for “narrow” and “space.” Paul chooses this specific word to convey that those in Hell are confined to a narrow space. This is significant because the Bible often portrays judgment as being in a narrow space, and blessing as being in a broad, open space. (Job 36:15-16; Ps 18:19)
To put the biblical picture of Hell together: you are locked in a prison, crammed into a narrow space, and left in the darkness.
On a short-term ministries trip to Osaka, Japan, I had the opportunity to share the gospel with a Japanese college student. I explained Heaven and Hell to him, and afterward, his response was simply, “I want to go to Hell.” I thought, “Certainly, there must be a language barrier here!” So, I explained Heaven and Hell again, and he again replied, “I want to go to Hell.” When I asked him why he would say such a thing, he replied that if only those who believe in Jesus are in Heaven, then his ancestors were in Hell. With his Buddhist and Shinto background, he was called to venerate his ancestors, which would include striving to be with them in the afterlife. I then shared the harsh truth that Hell will be a lot like solitary confinement—like being locked up, jammed into a small space in the dark. There’s a good chance he will never even see his ancestors and they will never see him. After explaining this to him, I asked him, “do you still want to go to Hell?” He didn’t have an answer.
Unhappily Ever After?
These descriptions show that a life outside of Christ is a story that ends unhappily ever after. But the story doesn’t have to end this way. The living need not abandon all hope for they have not yet entered the gates of Hell. In fact, we have great hope because God desires all men to be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) He “has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (Ezek 33:11)
This great hope is ultimately seen in Jesus Christ hanging on a cross, absorbing Hell in the place of sinners. Jesus experienced Hell on the cross so that the flames of Hell wouldn’t singe one hair on your head. He suffered abandonment from God and cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so that you would never have to utter such a phrase. (Matt 27:46) He endured the active wrath of God in the great darkness so that you could escape judgment. (Matt 27:25) He was tried as a criminal and hung on a wooden cross with nails so that you could walk free. Jesus experienced Hell so that He could offer you Heaven.