When I did a Bible study about the nature of hell, I was greatly surprised. I had been taught that hell was a fiery place, where those who rejected Jesus would be tormented forever. My first surprise was that the scriptures give very little information about what happens to those who are condemned at the last judgment. There is very little about their eternal destiny in the Old Testament and the New Testament letters do not add much more. To learn about the destiny of the lost, we have to go to the gospels and the words of Jesus. It is almost as if God only trusted his Son to speak about this subject.
Even Jesus did not tell us that much about the about what would happen to those who reject the gospel. The word “hell” is only used once in Luke’s gospel and twice in Mark’s. It is not used in John’s gospel at all. Clearly Jesus did not spend a lot of time talking about “hell”. We must be very careful that we do not try to add more detail than he has provided.
My second surprise was that “destruction” of those who reject the gospel is the common theme in the New Testament. Those who are shut out of God’s presence will be not be tormented forever, they will be destroyed. In the rest of this section, I will explain why I reached this conclusion.
The New Testament does not describe hell in detail, but uses a number of images to describe what it is like. These images cannot be taken literally. Hell cannot be both fire and darkness, because fire produces light. It cannot be a furnace and a lake. Rather, Jesus used a variety of images to describe different aspects of what happens to those who reject Jesus. These images must be interpreted carefully because they can be understood in several ways.
Valley of Himmon
The most common image used by Jesus to describe the fate of those who reject him is the word in the Greek New Testament translated as “hell". “Gehenna" is not a Greek word, but a transliteration of two Hebrew words. “Ge” is the Hebrew word for gully, gorge or valley. “Himmon” is a foreign word and is probably the name of a Jebusite man who lived in Jerusalem before the Exodus (Jos 15:8). Gehenna (Ge Himmon) is the name for a valley or gulch outside the city of Jerusalem.
The Valley of Himmon was a place where children had been sacrificed to Molech and where Baal had been worshiped (Jer 32:35). In Jesus time, it had become the rubbish dump for the city of Jerusalem. Fires in the valley burned continually for the destruction of garbage. Sulphur was put on decomposing garbage to reduce the spread of disease. So when according to Matthew, Jesus said,
It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Matt 5:29; cf Matt 5:30;18:8; 18:9).
He was really saying,
It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into the rubbish dump.
The rubbish dump is place where stuff is discarded and destroyed. Things that are no longer required are sent there for destruction. They have no value, so they can be destroyed and forgotten. The rubbish dump is not a place of torture or torment.
When Jesus said that a person’s body would be thrown in the rubbish dump, he was saying that they were of no value to anyone. Their body could be destroyed and forgotten.
The safest way to understand what happens to those are condemned at the last judgement, is to look at the descriptive words used in the New Testament. Before looking at other images used, I will examine some clear descriptions.
1. Eternal punishment.
Then they will go away to eternal punishment (Matt 25:46).
Those who reject Jesus will face punishment, but this verse does not describe the nature of the punishment. Rather, it emphasises the finality of the judgement. There is no second chance. Those who reject Jesus can never escape from the fate they have chosen.
2. Separation from Jesus
Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matt 7:23).
The worst aspect of this punishment is that people will be separated from Jesus. If everything that is good and wonderful in this world is fulfilled in Jesus, being separated from him is absolutely terrible.
Jesus warned that those who reject the gospel face destruction.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it (Matt 7:13)
While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled (John 17:12).
The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life (Gal 6:8).
Their destiny is destruction (Phil 3:19).
The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men (2 Pet 3:7).
4. Everlasting destruction
He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power (2 Thes 1:8,9).
This is the clearest description of what happens to those who do not know Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction.
Everlasting destruction is an interesting expression. Once something is destroyed it does not exist. It cannot be destroyed again and again. Everlasting destruction cannot be destruction over and over again as that does not make sense. The passage is describing a destruction that lasts forever. Those destroyed will never be restored or recreated again. Their destruction is final. They will cease to exist forever.
5. Destruction of body and soul
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28).
These words of Jesus make the extent of the destruction clear. Both body and soul will be destroyed. Nothing will be left of the person who is shut out from Jesus.
6. Weeping and gnashing of teeth
But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12).
Earth is an interesting place. Although it is created and sustained by God, it is possible to live on earth in separation from God. After the last judgment, a life in separate from God will not be possible. The new heavens and the new earth will be full of his presence and his holiness is so awesome and terrible that anyone who has not been spiritually renewed will not be able to bear to be in it. They will have to flee from God, because the pain of being in his presence will be too awful for a human being to bear. The problem is that there will be no place for them to go where God is not present. They will choose to go into the destruction of nothingness, because they cannot bear to be in the presence of God.
Those who have rejected Jesus will not have to be sent away, but will choose to go. However, they will also know that they have been created for eternity. They will get a glimpse of eternity, yet
know that they cannot go there. To know that you were created for eternity, yet know that that you cannot go there, will be a terrible experience. That is why there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The choice of nothingness over eternity will produce enormous,
but brief, anguish.
The common idea in all these expressions is "destruction". The future of those who reject Jesus is eternal separation from God, and apart from him there can be no existence. Those who are not renewed by faith in Jesus will be destroyed because they cannot bear to be close to him.
Contrast with Salvation
Many scriptures use the word destruction or destroy to describe the opposite of salvation or eternal life. The Greek word for destruction (apolia) is sometimes translated as lost or perish, so the emphasis is slightly hidden.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not
perish (destruction) but have eternal life (John 3:15,16)
The man who loves his life will lose it (destruction), while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for
eternal life (John 12:25).
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being
saved it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18).
For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are
perishing (destruction) (2 Cor 2:15).
They perish (destruction)because they refused to love the truth and so be
saved (2 Thes 2:10).
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are
saved. (Heb 10:39).
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and
destroy (James 4:12).
In all these passages, those who are not saved are destroyed.
Gehenna is just one image that is used to describe eternity without Jesus. There are may others.
But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire ((Matt 5:22).
Fire can symbolise several different things. Fire causes pain to human flesh. Fire purifies gold and silver. Fire also causes destruction. We cannot just assume that Jesus chose the image of fire to symbolise painful punishment. Jesus might have chosen fire as a symbol of destruction. The link with Gehenna suggests that he was thinking about the fires in the Valley of Himmon that were used to destroy rubbish.
2. A Fiery Furnace
As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 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 fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:40-42).
The weeds are thrown in the furnace because they are not wanted. They are destroyed, so that their seeds cannot spread and grow.
When I was young we often burnt the stubble and straw once the crop of wheat had been harvested. Dry straw burns really fast. When it is burnt there is almost nothing left. There is almost no ash, because the straw is totally destroyed. The image of the fiery furnace implies that those who cause evil will be totally destroyed.
3. Eternal fire
If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. (Matt 18:8).
The fire is eternal, but the person who is figuratively thrown into the fire is not. They will be destroyed by the fire. The word eternal is used to emphasis the fact that this destruction is permanent.
4. Lake of fire
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14).
A lake of fire does not make sense, if taken literally, because lakes do not burn. The water of the lake would eventually evaporate or put out the fire. If fire symbolises destruction, then the lake intensifies the image. The lake of fire symbolises signifies total destruction.
Death is not a physical thing, so fire cannot harm it. The idea of Hades being thrown into a fire does not make sense. However the idea that death and Hades will be destroyed makes real sense. Death has no place in eternity so it must be destroyed.
The ideal that the lake of fire is a symbol of destruction is confirmed by the expression “second death”. Death means the end of something. When a body dies it decays and rots until it has disappeared. Death is a symbol of destruction. When something dies life comes to end. Those whose names are not written on the book of life will experience a “second death”. This death will be fatal.
I find it odd that some people want to take the lake of fire literally see people burning in the lake for ever. That can only happen if these people stay alive, which implies that the second death does not kill them. A literal lake of fire requires a symbolic second death.
And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness (Matt 25:30).
Darkness is an interesting image, because it does not fit neatly with the image of fire. Fire produces light, so fire removes darkness. Jesus is not using these expressions literally, but to bring out different aspects of what these people will experience.
Darkness is the absence of light. This image reminds us that nothing can exist apart from God. Those who are shut out from God’s presence will be shut out of existence. Darkness is an image of nothingness. Those who reject Jesus will have no choice but to depart from his presence and go into nothingness.
Jesus used these stark images to describe the seriousness of the situation, not to give a literal description of what hell would be like.
The one New Testament passage that could be interpreted to mean eternal torment is Revelation 14:9-12.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name." This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
However, this passage does not refer to events in eternity, but to life on earth. The expression “in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb” is misleading. The literal meaning is “in the sight of the Lord”. John is saying that Jesus and the angels see this event, it does not occur in their presence. Other aspects of this passage make this clear. The third angel is preceded by two who announce the proclamation of the gospel and the destruction of Babylon the Great. These events happen on earth. The saints are still enduring, but they will not need to endure in eternity. People are still dying (Rev 14:13), so the passage cannot be a description of eternity.
John warns that the judgments coming on earth at this time are so terrible, it will be like the days of Sodom and Gomorrah (fire and brimstone). Those who worship the beast will have no rest. The smoke rising forever is a declaration that these events will be so bad that they are never forgotten. Smoke is not the fire. Smoke continues after the fire has ceased. The memory of this event on earth will continue after it is complete.
Eternal Death and the Gospel
Knowledge of eternal death should be a great spur to the preaching of the gospel. If all men and women are to be saved eventually, it does not really matter if they hear the gospel. Unfortunately, this is not what the Bible teaches. Since we know that those who reject the gospel are destined to eternal destruction, we should be proclaiming the gospel with great urgency. However, preaching the gospel is best motivated by love. We have a great salvation to offer, so we should want every person on earth to experience it.
Jesus did not command us to tell everyone about the second death. His comments in the parables of Lazarus and the Rich Man, suggest that he though it would be a waste of time.
He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment'...... Abraham said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the
dead' (Luke 16:27,31).
When Jesus sent out his disciples to preach the gospel, he told them what to say and do.
As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give (Matt 10:7-8).
Jesus’ message centred on the glory and wonder of the kingdom. Their actions were intended to demonstrate that wonder. He did not tell them to warn people about death after death. Our focus should be the same. We should answer people who ask, but our presentation of the gospel should not be based round pain and finality of “eternal death”. We should focus on the glory of the kingdom and what Jesus has done.
Those who reject Christ will cease to exist for all eternity. This destruction is described as the second death to indicate its finality. After physical death there is still hope that God will be merciful in judgment. After the second death, there is no hope.
No one will be forced into the outer darkness. When those who have rejected Jesus stand before God and see the glory of his holiness, they will flee away from his presence. For those who have not been transformed by the gospel, the holiness of God will be too terrible to bear. Eternal death will be painful, but people will choose to go to everlasting destruction, rather than remain in the awful presence of God.
What happens to the Devil