In the previous article, there was barely enough room to look at passages about the Christian’s glorious future. I intentionally left out any discussion of what those who die outside of Christ may expect. But the Bible talks about that, too.
Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” Then He will also say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels…” These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matthew 25:31-46).
Note that “eternal fire” is described. Fire hurts! It was originally designed for the Devil’s angelic followers. But humans who reject Him will also go there, where they will experience “eternal punishment.”
John provides another witness, that at the end of all things, “the Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone … [to] be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Then, in the same paragraph: “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire… If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (20:14-15).
I admit that it is difficult to imagine a loving God maintaining a place of torment. I feel bad frizzling an ant under a magnifying glass, and can’t imagine doing that to a person. But Jesus uses the same word “eternal” to describe both life and punishment. If we dismiss what He says about the duration of the punishments of Hell, we can’t trust what He says about the duration of the life in Heaven. Hell is the place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:42-48).
It helps me to realize that God doesn’t really have to stoke the fires of Hell, gleefully making it hotter for those suffering within. In some ways, the key words of Matthew 25 are “depart from Me” and “go away.” You see, no person has ever experienced life outside of God’s blessings. So long as a person draws breath, God provides bountifully (Matthew 5:45), and God beckons him to respond to His grace (1 Timothy 2:4). But many people continue to shake their fists and defy God’s word, demanding to be free from God’s authority and God’s presence. In a tragic way, Hell is simply God ratifying the desire of the prideful person, to be free from God forever. Hell is the absence of God. Sadly, when they experience it, the decision cannot be changed (Hebrews 9:27).
It also helps me to realize that justice demands Hell. God will judge one day; all wrongs will be made right. We do not need to fret when the wicked escape the courts, for the Supreme Court will one day convene (Romans 12:17-21). “It is only just for God to repay… These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).
If the Christian longs for life after death, people ought to fear the alternative: death after death. It’s so horrifying it’s called “the second death” (Revelation 20:14, 19:6). It is “black darkness” (Jude 13). “In that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). It’s a fate worse than death (Matthew 18:6-9, 26:24).
There’s no grey area. One’s name is either recorded in the Lamb’s book of life, or it isn’t. There’s no in-between less-awful state for good non-Christians, for heathen philanthropists, for atheists who do not lie cheat or steal (Romans 3:23, 6:23). If a person has never been born again into the name of Christ, He cannot avoid the second death. “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matthew 10:28).
One more thing: if Hell comes after Judgment Day, what happens to those who die outside of Christ between now and that day? There actually seems to be a difference between “Hades” and “Hell” (Greek: Gehenna) that many translations are careful to observe. At the judgment, “Hades” is emptied and thrown into Hell (Revelation 20:14). But for those who die outside of Christ, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the experience of Hades (Luke 16:23) and Hell. Perhaps it’s like sitting in prison, knowing you’re guilty, but waiting for the final sentencing hearing. “The Lord knows how … to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority” (2 Peter 2:9-10).
Let us be thankful that through Christ, we can overcome our fear of such an awful fate (Hebrews 2:14-15). Glorify Him daily! –John Guzzetta