The reality of hell, like heaven, is hotly debated in large part because no human has visited and returned with first-hand knowledge of the place. In Christianity, followers of Jesus Christ believe he is the incarnation of the all-knowing God (Matthew 1:23) and the “Word [of God] made flesh,” (John 1:14). With this understanding, we the living can best know what hell is like by studying how God’s word as a whole describes it and what Jesus, specifically, said about it in the Gospels.
We can know from what Jesus said that hell is an eternal (Matthew 25:41), physical (Matthew 10:28), and horrifying (Mark 9:43) place where those who’ve sinned (Romans 3:23) are headed, and from where Jesus Christ came to rescue all who would believe in him (John 3:16-18).
Still, there is much debate about what hell is like because “the metaphors that the Bible uses about hell describe a reality that we can’t relate to immediately on earth,” as Andy Naselli, seminary professor, said in his video, “Is the Bible’s Language about Hell Literal or Metaphorical?”
How Does the Bible Describe Hell?
God’s word is faithful to warn against hell by describing the depth of its torment with images of darkness, gnashing of teeth, fire, and complete separation from God.
The book of Job, known as the oldest book in the Bible, contains many descriptions of a “land of deepest night, of utter darkness and disorder,” (Job 10:21-22). Other passages in Job mention a “realm of darkness” (Job 17:13), even a “day of darkness” (Job 15:23), which may refer to continued suffering on earth or a day of judgement and eternal suffering in hell. These verses show early depictions of how people understood the place of the dead.
Other descriptions of darkness in hell:
- “Realm of darkness” (Nahum 1:8)
- “Thrown outside into the darkness” (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 25:30)
- “Blackest darkness” (Jude 1:13)
- “Plunged into darkness” (Revelation 16:10)
Hope found in Jesus: “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46)
2. Gnashing of Teeth
Jesus spoke about hell more than any other person in the Bible. He often warned people against this terrible place using the vivid word gnashing, which means biting or grinding (Strong’s 1030).
Jesus uses the phrase “gnashing of teeth” while explaining the Parable of the Weeds to his disciples:
“The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:41-43)
Hope found in Jesus: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5).
In the Old Testament, Isaiah prophesied about a place of “unquenchable fire.”
“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isaiah 66:24).
According to the Cambridge commentary, “this verse is the basis of the later Jewish conception of Gehenna as the place of everlasting punishment.” Gehenna is the Greek word translated from the Hebrew, “Valley of Hinnom,” (Strong’s 1067) which is the where previous inhabitants of the land offered child sacrifices to the god, Molek (Leviticus 18:21). The desecrated area outside Jerusalem was where people left trash and refuse to burn.
Other descriptions of fire in hell:
- “Blazing furnace” (Matthew 13:42; Matthew 13:50)
- “Fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 18:9)
- “Eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8; Matthew 25:41)
- “Unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43; Mark 9:48)
- “Tormented with fire and brimstone” (Revelation 14:10)
Hope found in Jesus: “Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life’” (John 4:13-14).
4. Separation from God
This is another biblical metaphor for hell that, again as Naselli said, is “a reality that we can’t relate to immediately on earth.” Because even unbelievers experience God’s blessings, although often unknowingly.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:45 that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” And he said in Luke 6:35 that God is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Why? Because as Romans 2:4 says, “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.”
While on earth, people are offered God’s gift of repentance. Those who do not accept this gift tragically spend eternity in hell, separated from God, left without access to love, hope, peace, and other blessings of God.
Other descriptions of separation from God in hell:
- “Shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
- “‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” (Matthew 25:41)
- “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)
Hope found in Jesus:“Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
- ApologeticsIndex.org, “What Does the Old Testament Say About Hell?” David Kowalski, 2013.
- BibleHub.com, Barns’ Notes on the Bible, Job 10:21.
- BibleStudyTools.com, John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, Job 15:23.
- Christianity.com, “Is There One Way to Heaven?” Dr. Bruce Ware, 2009.
- EnduringWord.com, Commentary: Mark 9, David Guzik, 2018.
- KnowingJesus.com, Fire of Hell.
- OpenBible.info, Eternal Separation.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/JaclynMoy