The Reality of Hell

Jesus said: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” (Matthew 13:47-51). 

I wonder if we understand these things because I believe that if we truly comprehended the terrifying reality of what Jesus was speaking about, we would be very different people, and the world would be a very different place. The terrifying reality that Jesus was speaking about was hell. He spoke about it a lot. The early church did so as well. But nobody seems to do so anymore. 

I suspect that part of the reason is the fear that church leaders have of frightening their congregation away. With already dwindling numbers, they are determined not to lose more of the flock. So the general strategy is this: Focus on love, mercy and grace, throw in some extra bonuses like the promise of easy healing and deliverance, deliver some nice message about how God wants everyone to be prosperous, and stir in some nice worship, and everybody is happy. 

These things aren’t untrue—Jesus did promise life and life in abundance—but the problem is that in not making people who reject Christ aware of the clear and present danger that is hell, we put them at risk for all eternity. And because we might be unwittingly rejecting Christ too, we put ourselves at risk as well.

This article hopes to change that and I would like to share how it came about because there are some insights to be gained from this. 

A few weeks ago I watched some videos about people who purportedly were shown visions of hell during a near-death experience (NDE). An NDE is a personal experience associated with death or impending death. 

The descriptions of hell by those sharing their experiences were uncannily similar: searing heat, foul smells, an inability to breathe, a constant cacophony of screams and howls from those suffering in tremendous pain, a continuous thirst for water that couldn’t be satiated because there was none to be found, demons who engaged in unending torture, and shrill cries for mercy that went unheard and unheeded. 

I must confess I am very skeptical when it comes to the paranormal, and I watched the videos with a certain degree of incredulity, until one of the narrators spoke about how Jesus suddenly made an appearance in his vision of hell and how the cries of the people intensified. “Lord, Lord,” they cried with piteous voices. “Have mercy on us, Lord!” And Jesus replied, “Why do you call me ‘Lord’? I am not the Lord of the adulterer, or the fornicator, or the liar or the thief. ” 

I was reminded of something that Jesus had once said: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). 

Jesus is not the Lord of the murderer, the adulterer, the fornicator, and other people who engage in deliberate and continuous sinful behavior. When those who consistently engage in such activity without remorse proclaim Jesus as Lord, the proclamation is patently false. When we acknowledge somebody as our Lord, then shouldn’t we do what he commands? When we don’t obey his commands, we are just professing something without truly believing it. Such people will not enter the kingdom of heaven, and when Jesus declares it we have to take it seriously. 

Suddenly it all became shockingly clear and even if the experiences the people were sharing in the videos were fabricated, their descriptions of hell weren’t, because every single thing they spoke about—thirst, torment, torture—had a basis in Scripture! And the person talking about these things was Jesus! We believe his words about salvation but we find it difficult to accept his words about hell! 

It shook me hard, because I realized that almost everybody I knew, including leaders in the Church, looked upon eternity with an appalling degree of casualness. None seemed even remotely disturbed by this reality that Jesus had so graphically portrayed innumerable times. If they had, two things would have happened. One, the salvation of souls would have become a priority, so they would focus their attention on how to draw people to Christ instead of playing oneupmanship games. Two, they would understand that by not fulfilling their commission they were at risk of judgment themselves. Jesus said: On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23). 

Anyone reading this ignores what is said at their own peril. They cannot say they weren’t warned, because Jesus has spoken repeatedly about being cast into the “outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13) where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42,50); and “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:48).

The rest of this article will follow a dialectic method of writing, with linked questions and answers. All answers are taken from Scripture, with little or no commentary, inviting you to discover the truth for yourself and arrive at your own conclusions.

Does Jesus really say that hell exists and that it is a terrifying place?

Yes, he does, and he says so more than anybody else in the Bible. Apart from various mentions of hell (also referred to as Gehenna) a classic tale of hell is the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. 

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:19-31).

But this is a parable; it cannot be taken literally. 

Perhaps not, although every parable does point to certain important truths. In this story, one truth is that it is a place of great torment. Another is that a great chasm separates heaven and hell and there is no crossing over between the two. (For those who like to draw fine lines, Hades—or Sheol—is not a place of eternal punishment, but a temporary abode of the dead. In Revelation 20:13–14 Hades is itself thrown into the “lake of fire” after being emptied of the dead. The point remains the same.) 

There are several other times when Jesus speaks about hell and there is no question that he is speaking literally. This is one such passage: The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41-42). Other instances can be found in Luke 12:5, Matthew 18:6-7, and Mark 9:43-46. All these Scripture verses border this article. 

If hell is, indeed, the terrifying place that it is, would a loving God really allow us to go to hell? 

This is what Peter writes: For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment; and if he did not spare the ancient world, even though he saved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly; and if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the lawless then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:4-7,9).

But then, what about the great love that God has for us? How can a loving God consign somebody to hell?

God is love (1 John 4:8). God is also holy. A holy God cannot stand anything that is unholy. God is also just. If justice is to be rightly served, he has to reward the righteous and punish the sinful. Those made righteous in Christ go to heaven; the unrighteous go to hell.

So where, then, is the great love of God to be seen?

It can be seen in what he did to save us from the fires of hell!

Let us understand this carefully. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23a). In this context, death is spiritual death, an eternal separation from God. Another word for this, as we have already seen, is ‘hell’. 

Now, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), we were all destined for hell. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8) and the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23b). 

It is in this that we see the great love of God. To save us from the eternal torment of hell, God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8). What amazing love this is that he came down from heaven and paid the price for our sins so that we could be with him for all eternity in heaven! As the famous Scripture verse declares: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

We must realize that God doesn’t want any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Hell is not so much where he sends us, as somewhere we choose by rejecting the gift of salvation. 

So all we need to do is believe in Jesus and we will go to heaven?

In the very first sermon Peter preached after he received the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostle said: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). 

Belief (or faith) is one side of the coin. The other side is repentance. You cannot have one without the other. Repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia, which literally means a “change of mind.” As used in the New Testament, it always speaks of a change of purpose, and specifically a turning from sin; a repudiation of the old life and a turning to God for salvation. 

To be baptized in Christ is to be born again of water and Spirit (John 3:5). Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission. 

But just as we turn away from sin toward God in baptism, we can also turn away from God toward sin again, rejecting the gift of salvation. So accepting Christ as Savior is key to salvation but our lives need to reflect the new life salvation brings us.

Paul writes: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). How does this factor into what you are saying?

We cannot earn our salvation; we can receive it only through faith in Christ Jesus. That is a fact. However, once we have been baptized in Christ, we cannot continue to lead degenerate lives. Paul also writes: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4). This newness of life is one where we are no longer slaves of sin.

But we are now under grace and not the law... 

True. But the apostle Paul exclaims vehemently. What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Romans 6:15). 

So are you saying that if I sin I will go to hell, even though I believe in Jesus?

If we willfully turn away from God, and remain persistent in sinning until the very end, then the answer is yes. The key words are “willful” and “persistent”. Listen to the author of the letter to the Hebrews: For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29). 

Okay, I’m convinced. What do I need to do?

That’s simple. Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38a). If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Baptism brings this sanctifying grace for the first time to the soul cut off from God because of original sin. If you already are a baptized Christian, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession), restores the sanctifying grace that has been lost because of mortal sin.

Mortal sin? Does Scripture say anything about this?

This is what John writes in one of his epistles: If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal (1 John 5:16).

What are some examples of mortal sin?

Paul writes, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21). All those who say that those who have become Christians can’t go to hell would do well to note that Paul wasn’t speaking to unbelievers; he was speaking to baptized Christians who had chosen to reject the salvific grace of Christ.

This is really terrifying ...

Proverbs 9:10 says: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. One of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2). 

Having a holy fear of God is not a bad thing. Neither is having a healthy fear of hell. After all, don’t we all have a healthy fear of heights or fire? This ensures that we are careful when we climb trees or mountains so we don’t fall and break our necks, or when we interact with fire so we don’t get burnt. A healthy fear of hell ensures we don’t fall into its pit.

Every major religion warns their believers about hell and offers solutions on how to avoid it and get to heaven. In some it is your personal holiness or obedience to the laws of God that gets you there. In others it is achieving a certain transcendental state of being. Neither are humanly attainable. The only way is through Jesus who did for us what we can’t do ourselves. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

The end of all fear!

But once we accept Christ as our Savior, fear ceases. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love (1 John 4:15-18).

As we abide in Jesus and he abides in us, we will grow to perfection in love, but it all begins by first accepting his great love through his wonderful gift of salvation. This salvation is for everyone, not just for the people who call themselves Christians, because he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

We pray, therefore, that Jesus draws the entire world to himself and the salvation that comes through him. Let us do what we can to make that happen. n