Hell: A Horror Beyond Imagining
May 1, 2007 - There is a puzzling claim near the end of the second chapter of Hebrews. After declaring that Jesus shared in our humanity so that “by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil,” the author goes right on to say “and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15, NIV, emphasis added). Because the Bible is God’s Word, every claim in it is true. But this claim seems false, doesn’t it?
by Mark R. Talbot
Before you put your faith in Christ, were you constantly worried about dying? Aren’t most of us like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable who assumed that he was going to live much longer even though God required his soul of him that very night? No doubt, we usually fear death when it seems about to overtake us. But otherwise we don’t give it much thought. So why does Hebrews make this claim?
Not Merely Biological Death
If we think of death as merely biological, then this claim is problematic. Yet Scripture refers to another kind of death, emphatically claiming that biological death is not the death that we should most fear. “I tell you, my friends,” our Lord said to His disciples, “do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-5). Later, in Revelation, Jesus urges the Smyrnan believers to be faithful even to the point of death. He will give the crown of life to those who overcome their fear of suffering for Him, and so they “will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:11). In other words, they will not be cast into the lake of fire—which is “the second death” (Revelation 20:14)—and which is one biblical image of hell.
What Hebrews 2:14-15 is assuming is that, no matter how much we deny it, each one of us, deep down in our heart of hearts, knows that we are “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Indeed, the Apostle Paul argues that no matter how much we try to suppress this truth, we cannot fully succeed because God won’t let us (Romans 1:18-2:16). To one degree of consciousness or another, all human beings are aware that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). As Paul claims in Romans 1:32, all of those who have suppressed God’s truth in their unrighteousness, no matter how bad they have become, still know God’s righteous decree that those who sin deserve death. Given the passages we’ve considered in Luke and Revelation, we should assume that this is not just biological death. It is the second death. In other words, even the worst of us has some awareness that our sins deserve damnation.
Paul puts his point in Romans 1:32 in the third person—“Although they know God’s righteous decree ...” But this “they” includes all of us, as Paul emphasizes. Alluding to all of the sins that he has catalogued in Romans 1:24-31, Paul continues: “You may be saying, ‘What terrible people you have been talking about!’ But you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things” (Romans 2:1-2, NLT). God’s kindness, tolerance and patience in delaying our judgment and punishment, Paul cautions, should not make us presumptuous, as if God will not ultimately call us and all other sinners to account; rather, it should lead us to repent (Romans 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:3-9). In fact, Paul stresses this bad news about judgment and punishment in order to set up his great “But now ...” at Romans 3:21, which spearheads his proclamation of the Good News about what God has done in Christ for all who believe (Romans 3:21-26).
God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked; He is always pleased when they turn from their ways and live (Ezekiel 18:23, 1 Timothy 2:1-4). But if God’s kindness does not lead us to put our faith in Christ’s redeeming work, then what should we expect? Revelation 20:10 portrays Satan as being thrown into the lake of fire, where he will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” A few verses later we are told that every human whose name is not found written in the book of life will also be thrown into that lake, with no hint that their fate will be any less unending (Revelation 20:15 with Revelation 14:11). Add to this our Lord’s own words that it is better for us to enter life maimed or crippled or without an eye than for us to have two hands or two feet or two eyes “and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:47-48). Jesus is quoting Isaiah 66:24 here, where maggots feed on decaying human flesh. Of course, both maggots and fires die once they have consumed their food and fuel, but here both the feeding and the flames are unending, and so our Lord is prompting us to picture a kind of torment that never ends. This must be, then, the paradoxical “punishment of eternal destruction” of which Paul speaks (2 Thessalonians 1:9, ESV). So although some very well known evangelicals have questioned it, it seems that if we are to be true to the Scriptures, then we must expect the punishments of hell to be everlasting.
But why must hell be everlasting? The Bible never answers this question outright, yet perhaps we can make sense of it in this way. God made us to love and obey Him perfectly (Mark 12:28-30, 32-33; Joshua 22:5). When we refuse to do this, we sin. But Scripture portrays sin—and even what we may consider to be “minor” sins, such as eating a forbidden fruit—as totally unjustified rebellion against a wholly righteous and infinitely good God and, hence, as incalculably serious (Genesis 2:15-17, Deuteronomy 28:15-20). This means, however, that it is impossible for us to grasp over any limited period of time how bad sin is, for our finite minds can only grasp so much at once, and so we cannot ever grasp all at once either God’s infinite goodness or sin’s immeasurable badness. Consequently, we can begin to understand what is infinitely good or immeasurably bad only over an unlimited length of time. So only an everlastingly long experience of the riches of Christ’s forgiving grace or of the depths of God’s righteous wrath will even begin to bring us to feel and acknowledge how serious sin is (Daniel 12:2, Mattthew 25:31-46).
Retributive, Just, Final
What will hell be like? As the previous paragraph implies, the pains of hell will be retributive and utterly just—they will involve evildoers being paid back for the wrongs they have done (2 Thessalonians 1:6, 2 Peter 2:13, Revelation 6:10), which means that each person in hell will know that whatever he or she is suffering is exactly what he or she deserves. Hell will be final (Luke 16:26, 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9); those who go there will have no opportunity to turn back the clock and repent. Scripture often refers to the destiny of the ungodly as a kind of “destruction” (Philippians 3:19, 2 Peter 3:7), yet Paul’s reference to “the punishment of eternal destruction,” along with our Lord’s words about undying worms and flames, imply that this will not be personal annihilation. Rather, it will be the dissolution of all hope and the destruction of everything that makes conscious existence worth having. Hell will include the “hell” of utter and endless regret, remorse and despair. For instance, it will mean the end of all worthwhile work and responsibility, and thus consist in the kind of personal ruin and frustration that the Bible portrays as “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:45-51, 25:14-30). Those in hell will have been banished from Christ’s presence and excluded from His Kingdom (Matthew 7:21-23, 25:41, 13:37-41). In place of knowing the perfect satisfaction that would come from fulfilling their reason for being—which is to live in everlasting happiness worshiping Christ their Lord—those who suffer the second death will know no rest from God’s full fury and wrath against their sin (Revelation 14:10-11).
Thus, the doctrine of everlasting punishment is truly horrifying. But this does not make it untrue. Even now, there are horrors happening in our world—child sexual abuse, torture, self-mutilation and who knows what else—that are beyond our imagining unless we experience them. The Bible is telling us that hell is a horror beyond all imagining, but that does not imply that no one will suffer it nor that God will be unrighteous or cruel to send sinners there.
Let us grasp—and let us do everything we can to help others to grasp—God’s gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord before it is too late.