Jesus said, in John 5:28-29,
An hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
Hopefully, as Christians, most of our decisions are motivated by the love of God and the love of others, or at least by a sense of duty. But, from time to time, when faced with a temptation that we really crave, our decisions must be guided by the fear that “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9).
As we studied last week, Heaven is a wonderful hope for Christians. But the alternative is unspeakably awful. God plainly describes the features of Hell, so that we avoid it.
Jude 13 speaks of evildoers, “for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever.” Jesus describes Hell as “outer darkness.” I guess I had always imagined the flames of Hell as giving off a flickering light. But inky blackness, like the palpable darkness of a deep cave, is even more fearsome.
Jesus warns of eternal “punishment” (Matt. 25:46). Some punishment is corrective, designed to encourage repentance and change. This punishment is simply punitive. It’s vengeance.
The earthly sensation God chooses to describe this torment is fire. Jesus calls it “the furnace of fire” in Matt. 13:42. It’s “the lake of fire” or “the lake that burns with fire and brimstone” in Rev. 20:15, 21:8. Fire is an intense pain. I burned my elbow on a stove once, and it hurt for days. It’s hard to imagine the kind of “agony in this flame” experienced by the rich man in Luke 16:24.
Jesus says, “in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13). Equal to the agony of flame is the agony of regret. One can only blame himself for rejecting the love of God and missing out on Heaven. Perhaps this explains the increased suffering of fallen Christians described in 2 Peter 2:21—a greater sense of regret in the hearts of those who at one time possessed salvation.
Some say that Hell is “annihilation,” simply a snuffing out of existence, like tissue paper tossed into a burn barrel. That’s not what the Bible teaches.
Jesus uses the same word, “eternal,” to describe both Heaven and Hell, in the same sentence (Matthew 25:46)! If we doubt what Jesus says regarding the forever-ness of Hell, we have no basis to trust what He says regarding the forever-ness of Heaven.
Furthermore, it’s not just that Hell is eternal; it’s that people’s experiences in Hell are eternal. John’s Revelation says, “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10, 15). Jesus says that some can expect a fate worse than death (Matt. 18:6-9, 26:24), implying that the sinner in Hell lasts.
Forever is a long time. There’s a fictional illustration of eternity in James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist that made an impression on me—basically, imagine a sparrow traveling back and forth across the universe with exactly one grain of sand in his beak on each trip; imagine how long it would take him to transfer an entire planet of sand across the universe; then multiply that time by the number of leaves on every tree in the forest, by every drop of water in the oceans, by every star in the night sky; and at the end of such a limitless expanse of time, it cannot be said that eternity has even begun. Clearly, there is nothing in this world more deserving of attention than my eternal destiny.
The Absence of God
Jesus shouted, “depart from Me, accursed ones!” (Matt. 25:41). In 2 Thess. 1:6–9, Paul describes those who “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power.”
Despite all that I read in the Bible, sometimes it still outrages my sense of a loving God, to think of Him maintaining such a place. But then I realize that God doesn’t need to continually, angrily stoke the fires. Hell is simply defined as the place without God. He simply has to say, “Go away.”
No one, not Charles Manson, not Marilyn Manson, not Satan himself, yet knows what it is like to be in Hell, to be without God. They may reject God, but God blesses the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Matt. 5:45). God is only ratifying what sinners declare, by their words and actions, they really desire—to be completely free of God, and have Him out of their lives. Sadly, when God sends them away, and they truly experience the first second without God, it will be too late to change their minds. –John Guzzetta