Many people don’t believe — or, at least, they are skeptical — that there is actually a place of eternal torment where “bad” people go after they die. And, even many of the people who do believe in hell do not think a loving God would cause people to suffer forever, unless they have been guilty of heinous sins, such as murder, rape, etc.
Non-Christians, in particular, apparently believe that the worst that can happen to a person when they die is that they will just cease to exist. They don’t expect to spend eternity in a place that the Bible calls hell. Furthermore, even Christians differ in their opinions as to what happens to people who die without having trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior. [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 hell, we think it is necessary to define the term hell. There are three words in the Bible that are translated as hell in English translations. These three words are Sheol, which is used in the Old Testament, and Hades and Gehenna, which are used in the New Testament.
A number of sources indicate that the Hebrew word Sheol may refer to the grave. However, Unger’s Bible Dictionary says 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.” Unger subsequently states that “the term is thus used with reference to both the righteous and the wicked.”
To some extent, Strong’s Concordance agrees with Unger’s belief, 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 scholars believe Hades includes – or did include until Jesus Christ died and was resurrected – the departed spirits of both “the lost” (i.e., everyone who has 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 terms for hell is the primary one on which we will be focusing subsequently in this article. The primary term for hell on which we will be focusing is the Greek word Gehenna. Strong says Geenna (or Gehenna) is “a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment.”
Unger adds the following perspective regarding Gehenna:
Gehenna is identical in meaning with the “lake of fire” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15). Moreover the “second death” and “the lake of fire” are identical terms (Rev. 20:14). These latter Scriptural expressions 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 of what Gehenna (ultimate hell) is like, we will consider Bible scriptures that deal with what we regard as ultimate hell’s two primary aspects: (1) whether or not the resulting punishment will be truly eternal, and (2) what the actual 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.]
Is Hell Eternal and What Will Be the Nature of the Punishment There?
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 Matthew 10:28,
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. . . .
In Matthew 18:8-9, 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.”
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible says with regard to Matthew 18:8, “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.”
The Greek word for everlasting in verse 8 is aionios, which Strong says refers to “that which in nature is endless.” The Greek word for fire in this verse is pur, which is “the ‘fire’ of Hell, to be endured by the ungodly hereafter.” And, Strong indicates that the Greek word translated as hell in verse 9 is geenna (or gehena), which is “a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment.”
Regardless, we believe Jesus was speaking figuratively, not literally, when He stated in Matthew 18:8 that a person should cut off their hand or their foot if it causes them to sin.
In Matthew 25:41, Jesus Christ asserts that after His second advent (i.e., His return to the earth), “He [the Son of Man; i.e., Jesus Christ Himself] 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, which we just discussed. Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible says with regard to Matthew 25:41, “The term fire represents metaphorically that dreadful punishment which our senses are unable to comprehend.” In other words, the term fire should not necessarily be taken literally; it may represent some form of incomprehensible punishment.
Barnes offers the following comments on Matthew 25:41:
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:
1. that the main truth intended to be taught refers not to the manner of suffering, but to the certainty and intensity of it.
2. that the design, therefore, was to present an image of terrific and appalling suffering – an image well represented by fire
3. that this image was well known to the Jews (Isaiah 66:24), and therefore expressed the idea in a very strong manner.
4. that all the truth that Christ intended to convey appears to be expressed in the certainty, intensity, and eternity of future torment.
5. that there is no distinct affirmation respecting the mode of that punishment, where the mode was the subject of discourse.
6. 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.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible asserts that the everlasting fire refers to” the wrath of God; and that the phrase expresses the intolerable fierceness of it, and its perpetual continuance. . . .” Furthermore, a number of other Bible commentaries also take the position that Matthew 25:41 indicates the punishment will be eternal, despite the fact that this scripture says nothing about eternal punishment; it just says that the fire is everlasting.
In contrast, David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible provides the following perspectives regarding 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)
Another scripture that refers to eternal fire is Jude 7, which 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 of scripture, 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.
The Pulpit Commentaries also indicates that the word vengeance in Jude 7 can mean punishment.
Jesus Christ declares in Matthew 25:46a, “And these [i.e., the unrighteous] will go away into everlasting punishment. . . .” [Note: The “unrighteous” can be defined as people who may not be more sinful than most other people, but their sins have never been forgiven by God, because they never trusted in Him for eternal salvation.]
The Greek word for everlasting in this verse is the same as in Matthew 18:8. However, unlike the previous scriptures in Matthew that we have discussed, Matthew 25:46a 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.
Also with regard to Matthew 25:46a, Barnes 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. . . .
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 the same scripture, “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 Matthew 25:46a, “While eternal may imply a qualitative as well as a quantitative concept, the aspect of unending duration cannot be disassociated from the word.”
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. . . .”
Second Thessalonians 1:9 says, “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 everlasting in this verse is the same as in Matthew 18:8. And, 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 Barnes’ conclusion 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 of those on whom this judgment is imposed.
The Lake of Fire
Although Revelation 20:11-15 does not even elude to terms such as eternal or everlasting, we believe it is relevant to our discussion. This passage states,
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 this scripture passage 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.”
Most Bible commentaries agree that the second death mentioned in Revelation 20:14 pertains to the ultimate eternal separation from God of those who have not been saved, because they have not trusted in Him. [Note: Several other scriptures in the book of Revelation, including 2:11, 20:6, and 21:8, also mention the second death.]
As previously stated, Unger says that Gehenna is identical in meaning with the “lake of fire.” And Barnes says the lake of fire expresses “extreme suffering, as a death by burning is one of the most horrible that can be conceived,” but does not say anything about the duration of the lake of fire.
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 locations and, therefore, they cannot literally be thrown into a fire.
Furthermore, physical punishment or torment in the afterlife (i.e., after the death of a person’s earthly body) seems improbable if only the person’s spirit goes to eternal hell, since it is doubtful that a spirit could experience physical pain. Strong suggests that the punishment may actually be distress or the loss of well-being, rather than extinction. On the other hand, if a non-believer’s resurrected body, rather than their spirit, goes to eternal hell, it is conceivable that this eternal body could experience pain.
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. . . .” A number of other Christian scholars likewise believe that the worst part of the suffering that comes from being in the ultimate hell will be attributable to separation from God.
In regard to the Book of Life mentioned in Revelation 20:15, Barnes says it is “the book which contains the names of those who are to live with him [God] forever.” Likewise, Unger states, “In the N.T. “the book of life” refers to the roster of righteous who are to inherit eternal life (Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 21:27), from which the saved are not to be blotted out (Rev. 3:5).” Thus, those whose names are not written in the Book of Life will not inherit what the Bible refers to as “eternal life.”
However, the statement in Revelation 20:11-15 that the lake of fire is the second death seems to indicate 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). The passage states specifically that Hades is cast into the lake of fire and destroyed. This is significant, because Gehenna, not Hades, is defined as the place where there will be eternal punishment of those who are there (i.e., Gehenna will not be destroyed).
Barnes’ belief about the second death supports this viewpoint, as indicated by his following comments:
[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].
Gill says with regard to the second death, “[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.” [Note that 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.]
Pett, however, seems to have a different perspective. He declares with regard 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 apparently believes that no form of hell is eternal.
It is our belief that a preponderance of the pertinent comments of the Bible commentaries that we have cited indicate that it is highly probable, if not absolutely certain, that everyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life will eventually be condemned to go to Gehenna, which is the ultimate hell where they will suffer some form of eternal punishment, but not necessarily from actual fire.
Although most Bible commentaries support the concept of eternal punishment for people who have not trusted in God for their salvation, several scriptures indicate that the degree of punishment will vary, depending on whether or not these people previously had an opportunity to respond to the gospel message (see Matthew 11:22-24; Mark 6:11; and Luke 10:10-14; 12:47-48). The Bible infers that God will also take a person’s deeds (probably, including their thoughts and their motives) into consideration in determining the extent of their punishment or, in the case of those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior, their rewards (see Romans 2:5-8).
The Bible indicates that only people who sincerely trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior can be sure of 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.
We encourage those who are not sure if they will go to eternal hell rather than spending eternity with God to read the articles we have written under the heading of 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 these titles.