Is hell real? How could a loving God send me there?
Remember the Y2K scare? One problem created by the turn of the millennium was very real. Perhaps you’ve been to a cemetery and noticed the headstones already in place for the spouse of the deceased, with the birth year followed by 19–. What’s now to be done? Some monument companies created epoxies to fill in the numbers, but without much luck. It was a Y2K problem etched in stone.
We don’t know when we will die, but we know that we will unless Jesus returns first. So far we’ve studied death and heaven. Now we’ll look at the other place.
What is hell?
Hell is a real place, mentioned 23 times in the New Testament, 15 times by Jesus himself. Jesus calls it a place of “torment” (Luke. 16:23). Hell is real, despite its unpopularity today. 62% of all Americans, including 52% of “born-again Christians, say that Satan does not exist. Only 2% of all Americans are worried about going to hell. But our ignorance and deceit do not change the fact that hell is real.
God’s word often describes hell as “fire” (v. 24). Jesus said, “The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew. 13:49-50). Jude 7 calls hell “the punishment of eternal fire.” There God’s enemies “will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:10). Hell is “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
Hell is also called “darkness”: “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew. 22:13; cf. Jude 6). In another description, this one taken from the literal trash heap called Gehenna, Jesus said, “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark. 9:49; cf. Isaiah 66:24).
Worst of all, hell is separation from God (Luke 16:26). Remember Jesus’ warning: “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew. 7:23). This separation is permanent (Luke 16:26), for it is the “second death” (Revelation. 20:14).
Is hell a literal place?
Most interpreters see the descriptions as intentionally symbolic, but descriptions of a literal place and reality. Calvin, Luther, J. I. Packer, C. S. Lewis, and Billy Graham all interpreted the pictures seen above as symbolic of a literal reality.
We know that those in hell cannot literally see those in heaven, as Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 describes. Hell is described as “darkness” in Jude 6, yet a “fiery furnace” in Jude 7. Physical fire only works on physical bodies, yet Matthew 25:41 teaches that the eternal fire was first created for spirit beings like the devil and his angels.
But don’t miss the point—hell is terrible. Jesus used the worst pictures he could find. The point is, you do not want to go there, or let anyone you know go there. To be absent from God, and from all that is good, for all eternity—that is hell.
Who goes to hell?
Jesus clearly taught that he is the way, truth, and life; no one goes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Those who refuse Jesus’ offer of eternal life, choose hell instead. As a result, these whose names are not found written in the “Lamb’s book of life” are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation. 20:15).
Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes clear that such persons are punished immediately. Then they are condemned to eternal hell at the final judgment: “This is how it will be at the end of the age,” Jesus says, then he describes “the fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:49). Paul taught the same: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
Is such judgment fair? The rich man in Jesus’ parable knew he deserved to go there. He wanted to spare his brothers, for they deserved to go there as well. Those in hell would make the greatest evangelists on earth.
The fact is, heaven is a perfect place. One sin would ruin it. So Jesus died to pay for our sins, to cleanse us from them. But if we refuse his forgiveness, we must pay for our sins ourselves. This means that we are unable to come into the presence of God, forever.
Hell is an actual reality. Dr. Charles Garfield has done extensive research with those who died physically and were brought back to life medically. His results: “Almost as many of the dying patients interviewed reported negative visions (demons and so forth), as reported blissful experiences” (Maurice S. Rawlings, M.D., To Hell and Back).
Dr. Maurice Rawlings tells about one of his patients, a man who died three times. At his first death he saw things so horrible that he experienced a religious conversion. His second clinical death, some days later, produced a wonderful, heavenly experience. At his third and final death, he was the one reassuring his doctor.
I especially appreciate the way Calvin Miller puts it: “God, can you be merciful and send me off to hell and lock me in forever?” “No, Pilgrim, I will not send you there, but if you chose to go there, I could never lock you out” (Calvin Miller, The Singer ). God doesn’t choose hell for us (2 Peter 3:9). But we can choose it for ourselves. Tragically, many do.