Hell is a problem. It makes compassionate Christians uncomfortable. It makes hateful Christians gleeful. Some people say that hell is unfair. Others say a loving God could never create people to send them to hell. How can hell be reconciled with “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8)?
Let us be careful. Jesus, who revealed God’s love, discussed hell more than any prophet.
Hell (Hebrew sh’ol, Greek hades) is just where people go when they die (Ps 89:48; Eccl 9:10). Jacob, Job and Hezekiah expected to go there (Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29; Job 17:16; Is 38:11). Although the term is not used, the dead Samuel foretells that Saul and his sons would join him (1 Sam 28:19). It is most often mentioned for sinners (Num 16:30, 33; 1 Kgs 2:6, 9; Job 21:13; Ps 9:17; 31:17; 49:14; 55:15; Pr 5:5; 7:27; 9:18), but then, all people (but one) are sinners! God saves people from it by preserving them alive (2 Sam 22:6 = Ps 18:5; 30:3; 86:13; cf. human discipline Pr 23:14). Job even wishes he could hide there until his suffering stops (Job 14:13)! No one in the ancient world denied that hell exists; the only question is what it’s like.
The OT describes sh’ol as a pit (Pr 1:12; Isa 14:15; Ezk 32:18) too deep for human knowledge (Job 11:8), so deep that God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence are revealed by his reach even there (Deut 32:22; Job 26:6; Ps 139:8; Pr 15:11; Is 7:11; Am 9:2; Jon 2:2). The people there are assumed to be forgetful and inactive (Ps 6:5; 88:11; Eccl 9:10). It is the common example of something never satisfied (Pr 27:20; 30:16; Hb 2:5). It is described as destruction, but not generally as fiery, although Job says it consumes sinners like drought & heat consume snow (Job 24:19). There is a hope that it may be avoidable, or perhaps that God may make it temporary for the faithful (Ps 16:10; 49:15; 73:24; Pr 15:24; Ho 13:14). In the NT, hades is where Capernaum will go & the rich man did (Mt 11:23 = Lk 10:15; 16:23), what will not overcome the Church (Mt 16:18), a place referred to in Ps 16:10 (Ac 2:27,31), and linked with Death in Revelation (1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14).
By contrast, gehenna is named after a valley outside Jerusalem where idolaters burned their children (2 Kgs 23:10; 2 Ch 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31; 32:35). In the NT, Jesus names it as the place where sinners are punished in fire (Mt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mk 9:43-48; Lk 12:5), and James says the tongue “is set on fire by gehenna” (Ja 3:6). Revelation says death and hades will be swallowed up in “the lake of fire,” presumably a synonym of gehenna (20:14). The good news of Christianity is that Jesus rescues us from hades and gehenna – you don’t have to go there!
Some people suggest that hell is empty, and heaven is for everyone (universal salvation), but Jesus predicted a resurrection of judgment for evildoers (John 5:29), and when asked whether only a few would be saved, he affirmed that many would not be (Luke 13:24). Others suggest that hell might be only temporary, either purifying people for heaven or annihilating them so they cease to exist, but Daniel foretold the resurrection of judgment as “disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Dn 12:2), and Jesus quotes Isaiah regarding the condemned: “Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched” (Mk 9:48; Isa 66:24). People hope by these options to remove the stigma of hell, but they contradict what God has revealed.
There is widespread misunderstanding about why people go to hell. Some people think that, because those who believe in Jesus are saved, therefore those in hell are there because they did not believe in Jesus. Others believe that people in hell were sent there by God for no reason. Both are false reasoning, and would be unjust of God. The Bible is clear that those who are in hell are there because of their sins (Job 24:19; John 5:29). Hell is where we all belong, the necessary default option created by human sin. Some people think it unjust for a human sin, a finite offense, to be punished eternally, so they accuse God of injustice. In fact, God’s holiness is such that he cannot tolerate evil (Ps 5:4-6). And this is a good thing! Sinful people would make even heaven into hell, because any corruption stretched out over eternity becomes total corruption. Imagine living with someone for eternity who only whines once every century: that’s still an infinite amount of time whining. That is why God does not just declare us justified, he also sanctifies us to make us properly perfect in order to enjoy eternity together with him. Sanctification is part of the good news of Jesus, and he alone can accomplish it (Gal 3:3). Hell is the default option for everyone (but Jesus), and anyone who gets to avoid it does so only by God’s grace to us.
There are a number of things we do not know about hell. It is unclear whether we should distinguish sharply between hades and gehenna, regarding the former as temporary, and the latter as the eternal punishment. Alternatively, perhaps hades was where everyone went before Christ, but the righteous were liberated from there by Christ’s death (see Matt 27:52-53), so perhaps gehenna is the name of the part of hades where the wicked are punished. Some people (notably C.S. Lewis) have speculated that hell might be locked from the inside: that people in hell do not wish to live with God eternally. It is striking that the rich man in hades asks Abraham not to get him out of there, but merely to relieve his suffering (Luke 16:24). I myself have wondered, following a Syriac author from the 600s, whether the pains of hell are the pains of remorse, that is, a perfect understanding of how you particularly sought to harm God and other people despite God’s abundant goodness to you in particular. True repentance is willingness to acknowledge one’s wrong and allow God to deal with the fallout, but it is possible to have remorse without repentance (e.g. Judas Iscariot in Matt 27:3). But these are speculations.
The core idea is that hell is not a problem for God, or a problem for Christianity. The problem came when unbelieving Christians rejected the notion of sin, denied God’s holiness, and took heaven for granted. This made hell hard to understand. But it can be understood, in light of the reality of sin, in light of God’s absolute and necessary holiness. Instead of being the arbitrary imposition of a fickle God, hell is the natural outcome of human sin. It is the default outcome of every human life, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). If we stop there, God is perfectly just and perfectly holy, but we have no hope. Fortunately, Paul did not stop there: “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). All of us deserve hell, but the good news is that we don’t have to go there. God has provided a freely available alternative to anyone who wishes it: joyous and abundant life forever with him in paradise. The shocking thing is how few people even want it, and how little paradise with God is desired even by Christian.
Does this theology matter? It changes our relationship to God. Instead of suspecting him of injustice, or arbitrary standards, we can overflow with gratitude to him for what he has done and is doing for us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and it can make us more eager to be used by God to bring more people into our blessed hope. This theology also changes our relationships with non-Christians. Instead of trying to impose upon them a belief or a behavior that feels kinda arbitrary even to us, we can invite them to an unending life of blessed joy, and we can assure them that suffering can be limited by mortality. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). For those who take heaven for granted, we can assure them that God and heaven are even better than they think: they don’t have to live forever with whiners, slanderers, back-stabbers, liars, and cheats, but can be made perfect, as God is perfect, for eternal joy! But hell is necessary because sin is possible; God in his love provides a way out.