The Eternal Reality of Hell

Perhaps one reason people have bristled at the thought of hell in recent times is the vivid descriptions of hell offered up by poets and theologians in history, particularly those in the medieval and post-reformation period.


“The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter.” – Pascal, Pensees

Of all doctrines in the Bible, hell has historically been the most difficult to accept.  It is extremely disconcerting to know that a friend or family member will be consigned to such a place for all eternity.  In a world that gives second chances to rapists, child-molesters, robbers, and liars, it has become incompatible with our culture to believe that “it is appointed for men to die once, and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

Perhaps one reason people have bristled at the thought of hell in recent times is the vivid descriptions of hell offered up by poets and theologians in history, particularly those in the medieval and post-reformation period.  At times the descriptions seem like ancient torture chambers, with elaborate portrayals of suffering.  Dante took the idea of levels of punishment in hell to dramatic extremes.  In his circles of hell, each circle got progressively worse.  In one of the deepest circles, the heretics (notably Mohammed, founder of Islam) walked a loop and continually had their flesh ripped from their bodies:

As one I mark’d, torn from the chin throughout
Down to the hinder passage: ‘twixt the legs
Dangling his entrails hung, the midriff lay
Open to view, and wretched ventricle,
That turns the englutted aliment to dross.
Whilst eagerly I fix on him my gaze,
He eyed me, with his hands laid his breast bare,
And cried, “Now mark how I do rip me: lo!
How is Mohammed mangled: before me
Walks Ali weeping, from the chin his face
Cleft to the forelock; and the others all,
Whom here thous seest, while they lived, did sow
Scandal and schism, and therefore thus are rent.
A fiend is here behind, who with his sword
Hacks us thus cruelly, slivering again
Each of this ream, when we have compast round
The dismal way; for first our gashes close
Ere we repass before him.1

Jonathan Edwards is unfortunately most recognizable to people today as a “fire and brimstone” preacher in colonial America.  He and several other prominent theologians are well known for their graphic depictions of hell.  In Edwards best-known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he comments, “The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation don’t slumber, the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the flames do now rage and glow.  The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened her mouth under them.”2  Similarly, Charles Spurgeon describes the torments of hell to his congregation, “Thine heart beating high with fever, thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony, thy limbs cracking like the martyrs in the fire and yet unburnt, thyself put in a vessel of hot oil, pained yet coming out undestroyed, all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune.”3  Although the intent of Spurgeon and Edwards was evangelistic, and won many converts, in this day and age men rebel at the thought of an eternal hell.  Indeed, today the common reaction is exactly the opposite of what godly men such as Spurgeon and Edwards intended; men either twist the scriptures to support universalism or annihilationism, or they reject the Word of God altogether.

In order to form a complete view of hell that is morally and theologically correct, several different studies prove necessary.  First, we must examine human nature: what about human nature makes it necessary for each person to have an eternal destiny?  Secondly, this paper examines crucial soteriological truths that demand an eternal punishment: why doesn’t God just save everyone?  Thirdly, we will explore central philosophical considerations: how can common objections to hell be answered?  After establishing the existence of hell, we will investigate the future occupants of hell: who all will be eternally consigned to this dreadful place?  Fifthly, it proves crucial to consider the original language of hell: what words were used in ancient Greek and Hebrew to describe the abode of the wicked?  And finally, we will conclude with an in depth discussion of the nature of hell according to the Bible: what the does biblical record say concerning the duration and type of punishment in hell?  As the direct, reliable revelation of God, each question concerning eternal destiny must be answered relying ultimately on the Bible as the final authority.  Finally, I echo the sentiments of C.S. Lewis, “I am not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable.  Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable.  But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral.”4

1 Alighieri, Dante, The Divine Comedy (New York: Doubleday, 1947), 116.
2 Edwards, Jonathan, A Jonathan Edwards Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 91.
3Spurgeon, quoted in Fudge, William; Peterson, Robert, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 20.
4 Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 107.