Many people do not believe – or, at least, they are skeptical – that there is actually a place of eternal torment referred to as hell, where unrighteous people are punished after they die. And, even many of the people who do believe in hell do not think that a loving God would send people to such a place to be punished forever, unless they have been guilty of heinous sins, such as murder, rape, etc.
Furthermore, many, if not most, people in our country who are not Christians apparently believe that the worst that can happen to them after they die is that they will just cease to exist. They do not think anyone will spend eternity in a place that the Bible refers to as hell. Furthermore, even Christians differ in their opinions as to what the punishment is for people who are sent to hell. [For a discussion of why people are condemned to hell, click on “Why Would a Loving God Send People to Hell?”]
How the Term Hell Is Defined
Before attempting to determine what the Bible teaches about what hell is like, we think it is necessary to define the term hell. There are three words that are translated as hell in English translations of the manuscripts that are the basis for the Bible. These three words are sheol, in the Old Testament, and hades and gehenna, in the New Testament.
A number of sources indicate that the Hebrew word sheol usually refers to the grave. However, Unger’s Bible Dictionary says that sheol refers to “‘the place of the dead;’ and by this is meant, not the grave, but the place of those who have departed from this life.” Furthermore, Unger subsequently states, “the term is thus used with reference to both the righteous and the wicked.”
Strong’s Concordance of the Bible is at least somewhat in agreement with Unger in reference to sheol, as indicated by the following:
Sheol is the abode of the dead, a place of degradation, the locality or condition of those who have died or have been destroyed. It is implied that although, so far as the world is concerned, they have perished, yet they are still in a state of existence. . . .
With regard to the Greek word hades, Strong states that it pertains to “the place (state) of departed souls.” Likewise, Unger says that hades “refers to the underworld, or region of the departed, the intermediate state between death and the resurrection.” A number of Bible commentaries believe hades includes – or, at least, did include until Jesus Christ died and was resurrected – the departed spirits of both “the lost” (i.e., everyone who died without having trusted in God for eternal salvation), and the “blessed dead” (i.e., those who died before Christ’s death and resurrection, but trusted in God for eternal salvation).
Neither of the previous two words that are translated as hell is the primary one on which we will be focusing subsequently in this article. The Greek word gehenna is the primary word that is translated as hell that we will be focusing upon. Strong says geenna (or gehenna) is “a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment.” Likewise, Strong defines similar Greek words, such as geenna and gehena, as names “for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment.”
Also, in regard to the word gehenna, Unger states that scriptures such as Revelation 19:20 and 20:10, 14, 15 “describe the eternal state of the wicked as forever separated from God and consigned to the special abode of unrepentant angels and men in the eternal state.”
In answering the basic question as to what hell is really like, we will consider Bible scriptures that deal with what we regard as eternal hell’s two primary aspects: (1) whether or not the resulting punishment will be everlasting, and (2) what the nature of the punishment will be.
[Note that when we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise. When words in a quoted scripture passage are shown in bold print, the emphasis is our own.]
Will Those Who Go to Eternal Hell Suffer Everlasting Punishment?
Insofar as we can determine, there is only one scripture that definitely supports the concept of eternal punishment for people who are not righteous. This scripture is Matthew 25:46, which states, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [Note: Those who are not righteous can be defined as people whose sins have never been forgiven by God, because they did not trust in Him or His Son Jesus Christ for eternal salvation.]
Matthew 25:46 states very clearly that the punishment of the unrighteous will be everlasting. According to Strong, the Greek word for punishment in this verse is kolasis, which “stresses the punishment aspect of judgment” and suggests eternal punishment.
In reference to the same scripture,, Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible says, “In regard to the meaning of the word “everlasting” in this place, it is to be observed . . . that the literal meaning of the word expresses absolute eternity. . . .”
Adam Clarke Commentary states in reference to Matthew 25:46, “The original word . . . is certainly to be taken here in its proper grammatical sense, continued being, . . . Never Ending.”
And, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary asserts with regard to the same scripture, “While eternal may imply a qualitative as well as a quantitative concept, the aspect of unending duration cannot be disassociated from the word.”
Also, in reference to Matthew 25:46, Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible declares, “What is involved in eternal punishment is something that we are in no position to be dogmatic about. All we know is that it is eternal in its consequences. . . .”
Another scripture to consider with regard to everlasting punishment is Revelation 20:10, which says, “The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
Although Revelation 20:10 clearly indicates that the lake of fire and brimstone, which we will further discuss in the next section of this article, is generally regarded as eternal hell, where the devil and certain other beings will be punished forever, this scripture does not indicate that everyone who is cast into the lake of fire will be punished there forever.
A subsequent verse, Revelation 20:15, which we will also further discuss later, states that “anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” Likewise, this verse does not say that these people will suffer everlasting punishment.
Nevertheless, a number of Bible scholars, whose comments we subsequently mention in conjunction with other matters that we discuss in the following sections of this article, support the belief that the punishment in eternal hell will be everlasting.
What Will Be the Nature of the Punishment in Eternal Hell?
The Everlasting Fire
Matthew 18:8-9 is one of several scriptures in the Bible that refer to an everlasting fire. In this scripture passage, Jesus Christ declares,
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. [Mark 9:43-47 has similar wording.]
[Note: We believe that Jesus Christ was speaking figuratively, not literally, when He stated in Matthew 18:8-9 that a person should cut off their hand or their foot if it causes them to sin.]
The Greek word for everlasting in Matthew 18:8-9 is aionios, which Strong says refers to “that which in nature is endless.” And, according to Strong, the Greek word for fire in this verse is pur, which is “the ‘fire’ of Hell, to be endured by the ungodly hereafter.”
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible says with regard to the same scripture, “It is implied, in all this, that if their sins . . . were not abandoned, the soul must go into everlasting fire. This is conclusive proof that the sufferings of the wicked will be eternal.”
Another scripture to consider in reference to everlasting fire is Matthew 25:41. In this verse, Jesus Christ asserts that after His second advent (i.e., His return to the earth), “He [i.e., Jesus, who refers to Himself as the Son of Man] will . . . say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . . .’”
The meaning of the term everlasting fire in this verse is exactly the same as in Matthew 18:8-9, which we previously discussed.
Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible says in with regard to Matthew 25:41, “The term fire represents metaphorically that dreadful punishment which our senses are unable to comprehend.” In other words, Calvin believes that the term fire should not necessarily be taken literally; it may represent some form of incomprehensible punishment.
The following statements by Barnes offer a similar viewpoint, but provide much more detail:
It has been asked whether the wicked will be burned in literal fire, and the common impression has been that they will be. Respecting that, however, it is to be observed:
- that the main truth intended to be taught refers not to the manner of suffering, but to the certainty and intensity of it.
- that the design, therefore, was to present an image of terrific and appalling suffering – an image well represented by fire
- that this image was well known to the Jews (Isaiah 66:24), and therefore expressed the idea in a very strong manner
- that all the truth that Christ intended to convey appears to be expressed in the certainty, intensity, and eternity of future torment
- that there is no distinct affirmation respecting the mode of that punishment, where the mode was the subject of discourse.
- that to us it is a subject of comparatively little consequence what will be the mode of punishment.
The fact that the wicked will be eternally punished, cursed of God, should awe every spirit, and lead every man to strive most earnestly to secure his salvation. As, however, the “body” will be raised, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a mode of punishment will be adopted suited to the body – perhaps bearing some analogy to suffering here, in its various forms of flames, and racks, and cold, and heat, and disease, and ungratified desire, and remorse – perhaps the concentration of all earthly woes, all that makes man miserable here, poured upon the naked body and spirit of the wicked in hell forever and ever.
Also, in reference to Matthew 25:41 John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible asserts that the everlasting fire refers to “the wrath of God; and . . . expresses the intolerable fierceness of it, and its perpetual continuance. . . .”
A number of other Bible commentaries also take the position that Matthew 25:41 indicates the punishment will be eternal. However, this scripture says nothing about eternal punishment; it just says that the fire is everlasting.
David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible provides reasons to believe either that the fire is actually everlasting or it is not, He offers the following perspectives in reference to Matthew 25:41:
Everlasting fire: The literal meaning of this ancient Greek word [i.e., everlasting] is “age-long.” As Bruce says, “The strict meaning of [everlasting]: agelong, not everlasting.” Because of this, some have thought that the suffering of the cursed is not eternal. Some suggest that the cursed are eventually rehabilitated and brought to heaven (the larger hope idea); others believe they will eventually cease to exist (the annihilation idea).
Yet there are good reasons for believing that the sense of aionion in this passage is indeed eternal. “Aionion can refer to life or punishment in the age to come, or it can be limited to the duration of the thing to which it refers (as in Matthew 21:19). But in apocalyptic and eschatological contexts, the word not only connotes ‘pertaining to the [messianic] age’ but, because that age is always lived in God’s presence, also ‘everlasting’.” (Carson)
Jude 7 also refers to eternal fire is Jude 7. This scripture states,
Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
With regard to this verse, Barnes says,
The word “vengeance” means punishment; that is, such vengeance as the Lord takes on the guilty. . . . The phrase “eternal fire” is one that is often used to denote future punishment – as expressing the severity and intensity of the suffering.
Likewise, The Pulpit Commentaries indicates that the word vengeance in Jude 7 can mean punishment.
Another relevant scripture is Revelation 20:11-15, which says,
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
According to Strong, both of the words translated as death in Revelation 20:11-15 are derived from the Greek word thanatos, which “has the basic meaning of separation of (1) the soul (the spiritual part of man) from the body (the material part), the latter ceasing to function and turning to dust . . . [or] (2) man from God.”
Barnes says the lake of fire expresses “extreme suffering, as a death by burning is one of the most horrible that can be conceived.” And, in reference to Matthew 25:46, which we previously quoted, he states, “The original word translated here as ‘punishment’ means torment, or. it denotes anguish, suffering, punishment. . . . It does not mean simply a ‘state or condition,’ but absolute, positive suffering. . . .”
However, Revelation 20:14 strongly indicates the fire in eternal hell is merely symbolic. The passage states that Death and Hades will be thrown into the fire, but Death and Hades (what Strong refers to as “the place or state of departed souls”) are not physical in nature and, therefore, they cannot literally be thrown into a fire.
Furthermore, if only the person’s spirit goes to eternal hell, physical punishment in the afterlife (i.e., after the death of a person’s earthly body) seems improbable, because it is highly doubtful that a spirit could experience physical pain. On the other hand, if a non-believer’s resurrected body, rather than their spirit, goes to eternal hell, it is conceivable that the resurrected body might experience pain.
In Matthew 10:28, Jesus Christ states, “[D]o not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him [i.e., God] who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” The Greek word for destroy in this verse is apollumi, which is “the loss of wellbeing in the case of the unsaved hereafter,” according to Strong.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible says with regard to this scripture,
This is a description of God, and of his power, who is able to do that which men are not: all that they can do, by divine permission, is to kill the body; but he is able to “destroy”, that is, to torment and punish both body and soul “in hell”, in everlasting burnings; for neither soul nor body will be annihilated. . . .
Another scripture to consider with regard to everlasting destruction is 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which declares, “These [i.e., the unrighteous] shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power. . . .”
The Greek word for destruction in this verse is olethros, which Strong says pertains to “the effect of the divine judgments upon men at the ushering in of the Day of the Lord and the revelation of the Lord Jesus,” and it suggests ruin through death or punishment.
Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., on page 493 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, assert with regard to the term destruction used in 2 Thessalonians 1:9,
“Destruction” does not mean annihilation here, otherwise it would not be “everlasting” destruction. Annihilation only takes an instant, and it is over. If someone undergoes everlasting destruction, then they have to have everlasting existence.
Likewise, Barnes explains,
The word which is here rendered “destruction”. . . is different from that which occurs in Matthew 25:46, and which is there rendered “punishment”. . . . It does not denote annihilation, but is used in the same sense in which we use the word when we say that a thing is destroyed. Thus, health is destroyed when it fails. . . .
The meaning then must be that the soul is destroyed as to the great purposes of its being – its enjoyment, dignity, honor, holiness, happiness. It will not be annihilated, but will live and linger on in destruction.
Most Bible commentaries seem to agree with the conclusions of Geisler, Howe, and Barnes regarding 2 Thessalonians 1:9, and several of them indicate that it is the person’s well-being that will be destroyed. Thus, this scripture does not necessarily indicate that the ultimate punishment imposed by God will result in the permanent annihilation (or extinction) of those on whom this judgment is imposed.
The Second Death and Eternal Separation
In Revelation 2:11, Jesus Christ states, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”
Revelation 20:6 says, “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.”
And, in Revelation 21:8, Jesus Christ declares, “[T]he cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
With regard to the meaning of the term death in these three scriptures, Strong states that the Greek word thanatos that is translated as death “is the opposite of life; it never denotes nonexistence.” Strong goes on to say, “As spiritual life is conscious existence in communion with God, so spiritual death is conscious existence in separation from God.”
Revelation 20:14-15, to which we previously referred (in part), is another scripture that mentions the second death. This scripture says, “Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”
Pett declares in reference to those whose name is not written in the Book of Life, “There is no reason to doubt that they . . . will be destroyed and utterly consumed. It is the second death for it is final. It is the death of the soul.” In other words, Pett believes the statement in Revelation 20:14-5 that the lake of fire is the second death indicates that those who are cast into the lake of fire will experience a second – and final – death, which will terminate their existence (i.e., they will be annihilated).
In contrast, Barnes states,
[T]he wicked will be destroyed, in what may be properly called the “second” death. . . . [T]his does not mean that this death will in all respects resemble the first death, but there will be so many points of resemblance that it will be proper to call it “death.” It does not mean that they will be “annihilated,” for “death” never implies that. The meaning is, that this will be a cutting off from what is properly called “life,” from hope, from happiness, and from peace, and a subjection to pain and agony, which it will be proper to call “death” – death in the most fearful form; death that will continue for ever [sic].
J. P. Moreland, Ph.D., says on page 174 of Lee Strobel’s book entitled The Case for Faith, “[T]he pain that’s suffered will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment from God. . . .”
Likewise, Gill states “[T]he second death [is] the destruction of the soul and body in hell, which will consist in an eternal separation of both from God, and in a continual sense of his wrath and displeasure.” Gill’s use of the term destruction does not refer to destruction in the usual sense, but instead it pertains to punishment by separation from God and a continual sense of His wrath and displeasure.
Similarly, a number of other Bible commentaries express the belief that the worst part of the suffering that comes from being in the ultimate hell will be attributable to eternal separation from God.
Most Bible scholars believe that people whose names are not written in the Book of Life that is mentioned in chapter 20 of the biblical Book of Revelation will experience eternal hell where they will suffer some type of everlasting punishment. However, the nature of the punishment in hell is uncertain. Some Bible scholars think the punishment will be a form of torment (e.g., by fire) or destruction, but not annihilation, whereas other Bible scholars think the punishment will be separation from God.
Although we did not mention in the text of this article that the degree of punishment in hell may vary, depending on whether or not the people who are there previously had an opportunity to respond to the gospel message, there are several scriptures that support this possibility (see Matthew 11:22-24; Mark 6:11; and Luke 10:10-14; 12:47-48). Also, in determining the extent of their punishment, Revelation 20:12-13 seems to indicate that God will take into consideration what each person has done (probably, including their thoughts and their motives) while they were living on the earth.
In any case, the Bible makes it sufficiently clear that only people who have sincerely trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior can be sure that they will have eternal salvation. Among the scriptures that support this doctrine are Matthew 25:46b; Mark 10:29-30; John 3:15-16; 10:28; 17:2; Romans 6:23; and 1 John 5:11, 13.
If you would like to be certain that you will spend eternity with God, rather than in eternal hell, you can obtain helpful information about how to be certain by reading articles in the category of our web site entitled Basic Issues Regarding Eternal Life, particularly “Does It Really Matter What You Believe?” and “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”, which can be directly accessed by clicking on their titles.