The term Hell has two uses in Scripture: (1) the temporary, intermediate holding place for the coming judgment (sometimes referred to as sheol, hades, or tartarus), or (2) the place of eternal punishment for the damned (gehenna). Both senses entail suffering and torment. Of the latter Jesus said the "worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). Hebrews describes "eternal judgment" as of the foundation of the "elementary doctrine of Christ" (Hebrews 6:1-2).

Hell exists because of the justice and holiness of God.

"If the slightest sin is infinite in its significance, then it also demands infinite punishment as a divine judgment. Though it is common for all Christians to wish that there were some way out of the doctrine of eternal punishment because of its inexorable and unyielding revelation of divine judgment, one must rely in Christian faith on the doctrine that God is a God of infinite righteousness as well as infinite love. While on the one hand he bestows infinite grace on those who trust him, he must, on the other hand, inflict eternal punishment on those who spurn his grace."^[1]^


Old Testament teaching

The Old Testament "clearly suggests that the sufferings of the wicked continue forever"^[2]^, but it more often than not refers to a shadowy holding place (sheol).

Relevant passages

  • Deuteronomy 32:22
  • Isaiah 33:14-15; 14:9-10
  • Psalm 94:1-2, 23
  • Job 21:30-34

See related article: Sheol

Intertestamental teaching

"In the last four hundred years before Christ there was extensive discussion among Jewish theologians concerning the Old Testament doctrine of everlasting punishment. Generally speaking, the Pharisees taught that there was everlasting punishment, while the school of Hillel thought that the punishment of the ungodly would last only a year before they would be annihilated. The latter believed that some of the more wicked would go on being punished for some time. These interpretations of Jewish scholars in the intertestamental period are not decisive as they lack the further revelation of the New Testament. Their conclusions are not backed by Scripture."^[3]^

New Testament teaching


"[H]ades is used of the temporary place of the unsaved after death but is not used in relationship to the lake of fire or eternal punishment, though it implies duration at least for the time being. The most definitive term in the New Testament is gehenna, uniformly translated 'hell' and referring to everlasting punishment (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6). One instance of the Greek word tartaros is found in 2 Peter 2:4; it is translated 'hell' and considered equivalent to gehenna"^[4]^ See main articles: Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus

Relevant passages

  • Luke 12:47-48
  • Hebrews 6:1-2; 10:27
  • 2 Peter 2:4,9
  • Jude 6-7
  • Revelation 14:10-11,13-14; 20:10,13-14; 21:7-8

Apostolic Fathers

William Crockett writes^[5]^,

During the time of the early Apostolic Fathers, Christians believed hell would be a place of eternal, conscious punishment. In Ignatius of Antioch's letter To the Ephesians (ca. A.D. 117) we read: "Such a one shall go in his foulness to the unquenchable fire" (16:2). Likewise, in the Epistle to Diognetus (ca. A.D. 138) we read: . . . when you fear the death which is real, which is kept for those that shall be condemned to the everlasting fire, which shall punish up to the end those that were delivered to it. Then you will marvel at those who endure for the sake of righteousness the fire which is for a season (10:7-8). 40 And 2 Clement reads (ca. A.D. 150): Nothing shall rescue us from eternal punishment, if we neglect his commandments (6:7). And again: '...when they see those who have done amiss, and denied Jesus by word or deed, are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire (17:7). Finally, in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (ca. A.D. 156- 60) we read: And the fire of their cruel torturers had no heat for them, for they set before their eyes an escape from the fire which is everlasting and is never quenched (2:3). And again: You threaten with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment (11:2).

Everlasting punishment?

"In the Old Testament a number of Hebrew words are used to express the thought of eternity, such as olam, alam, nesah, and ad. In the New Testament aionios is used most prominently... In support of the idea that aionios means 'endless' is its consistent placement alongside the duration of the life of the godly in eternity. If the state of the blessed is eternal, as expressed by this word, there is no logical reason for giving limited duration to punishment...

"The ultimate convincing argument for eternal punishment is found in Revelation 20:10-15, in the context of how eternity will change things in time. In this passage, as has been previously pointed out, the beast and the false prophet, cast into the lake of fire at the beginning of the millennium (19:20), are still there a thousand years later and are declared to join with Satan in the torment which will continue 'day and night for ever and ever' (20:10). The state of the wicked is likewise declared to be that of being cast into the lake of fire. The wicked who had suffered in hades, in some cases for thousands of years, are then transferred to the lake of fire (20:12-15). John goes on to imply they will have a permanent 'place . . . in the fiery lake of burning sulfur' (21:8). Instead of predicting the termination of punishment, all the implications of these statements support the doctrine of eternal punishment. Finally, though aionios is generally used of eternal life, it is specifically coupled with punishment of the wicked in Jude 7, where Jude says of Sodom and Gomorrah: 'They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.' This is in contrast to 'eternal life' mentioned in verse 21."^[6]^

Literal fire?

Some hold the view that, while hell entails eternal conscious torment, it does not necessarily involve a literal fire. Others hold to the notion that the Bible paints too strong a picture of hell with fire to avoid it as an aspect John F. Walvoord writes,

"[T]he frequent mention of fire in connection with eternal punishment supports the conclusion that this is what the Scriptures mean (cf. Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9; 25:41; Mark 9:43, 48; Luke 16:24; James 3:6; Jude 7; Rev. 20:14-15). There is sufficient evidence that the fire is literal. In the case of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, the rich man in hades asked father Abraham to cool his tongue with water because, 'I am in agony in this fire' (v. 24). Thirst would be a natural reaction to fire, and the desire to cool his tongue would be in keeping with this description."^[7]^ William Crockett affirms that hell entails eternal conscious torment, but disagrees that the Biblical language of fire indicates that hell necessarily involves literal fire:

"[T]here is overwhelming evidence... that the New Testament pictures of hell are metaphors and not literal descriptions. "First, the biblical writers do not intend their words to be taken literally. Jude calls hell the 'blackest darkness' (Jude 13) when only moments earlier in verse 7 he pictures it as an 'eternal fire.' The same is true for Matthew, who often uses the opposite images of fire (Matt. 3:10, 12; 25:41) and darkness (8:12; 22:13; 25:30) when describing hell. If we extend this to the broad sweep of New Testament theology, we can hardly miss the incongruent images of blackest darkness in Jude and Revelation's vast 'lake of fire' (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14-15; 21:8). "Second, physical fire works on physical bodies withphysical nerve endings, not on spirit beings. We see in Matthew 25:41 that the eternal fire was created for spirit beings like the devil and his angels. The fire must in some sense be a spiritual fire, which is another way of acknowledging it to be a metaphor for God's punishment of the wicked. "Third, the New Testament descriptions of heaven and hell are symbolic pictures, not itemized accounts of eschatological furniture. The writers use the most powerful symbols available in the first century to communicate their meaning. Heaven is pictured as an ancient city, adorned with the treasures of the world. It comes complete with golden streets, pearled gates, jewel-laden walls, and sparkling rivers. Even the most lowly have plenty of food, spacious living quarters, and eternal rest. Hell is the opposite. There the wicked suffer in darkness and fire, afflicted by maggots and tormented with blows. There they weep and gnash their teeth. Like stars, they wander in eternal night, a symbol of ultimate remorse, where joy and hope are forever lost. "Fourth, in ancient times teachers often used words symbolicallyto underscore their points (rabbinic hyperbole, as we now call it). To be a disciple you must 'hate' your father and mother (Luke 14:26), 'gouge out' an offending eye (Matt. 5:29), let the dead 'bury their own dead' (Luke 9:60). Such colorful language was understood by all to be hyperbole, picturesque speech to bring home the urgency of the situation. The same is true with the images of hell recorded in the New Testament. Their purpose is not to give the reader a detailed, literal picture of torment, but a symbolic one. "Fifth, the pictures we have of hell outside the Bible in Jewish literature are vivid and mostly symbolic. The object was to paint the most awful picture possible, no matter how incompatible the images. Writers warn of 'black fire' (2 Enoch 10:2), 'blazing flames worse than fire' (1 Enoch 100:9), and a place where the wicked burn eternally, even though at the same time their bodies rot with maggots (Judith 16:17; Sirach 7:17). Their picturesque descriptions are not meant to be literal reports of the doings of the damned, but warnings of coming judgment."^[8]^ Crockett further writes:

"Fire is often nonliteral in Jewish writings; they use colorful language to make a point. Even the Torah was said to have been written with 'black fire on white fire' (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6:1, 49d), and the tree of life was described as goldlooking in 'the form of fire' (2 Enoch 8:4). There are mountains of fire (Pseudo-Philo 11:5), rivers of fire (1 Enoch 17:5), thrones of fire (Apoc. Abram. 18:3), lashes of fire (T. Abram. 12:1)—even angels and demons of fire (2 Bar. 21:6; T. of Sol. 1:10). In the Scriptures God is said to be a 'consuming fire' (Deut. 4:24), who has a throne 'flaming with fire' that has a 'river of fire' issuing from beneath the throne (Dan. 7:9-10). Sometimes the images of fire approximate our understanding of material fire on earth. God speaks out of fire that does not consume a desert bush (Ex. 3:1-6) and carries a prophet to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). In the New Testament, John says of the exalted Christ, 'his eyes were like blazing fire' (Rev. 1:14). Fire is also used figuratively for discord (Luke 12:49), judgment (1 Cor. 3:15), sexual desire (1 Cor. 7:9), and unruly words (James 3:5-6)."^[9]^ John Piper argues that, even if "fire" is a symbol, this doesn't alleviate the horror of hell:

"Suppose fire is a symbol. Do people use symbols of horror because the reality is less horrible or more horrible than the symbols? I don’t know of anyone who uses symbolic language for horrible realities when literal language would make it sound more horrible. "People grasp for symbols of horror (or beauty) because the reality they are trying to describe is worse (or better) than they can put into words. If I say, 'My wife is the diamond of my life,' I don’t want you to say, 'Oh, he used a symbol of something valuable; it’s only a symbol. So his wife must not be as valuable as a diamond.' No. I used the symbol of the most valuable jewel I could think of because my wife is far more precious than jewels. Honest symbols are not used because they go beyond reality, but because reality goes beyond words. "So when the Bible speaks of hell-fire, woe to us if we say, 'It’s only a symbol.' If it is a symbol at all, it means the reality is worse than fire, not better. The word 'fire' is used not to make the easy sound terrible, but to make the exceedingly terrible sound something like what it really is."^[10]^ J.I. Packer takes the metaphorical view and concurs that the symbol represents far worse than literal fire:

". . . the mistake is to take such pictures as physical descriptions, when in fact they are imagery symbolizing realities . . . far worse than the symbols themselves."^[11]^

Degrees of punishment?

"Jesus... indicated that punishment in hell would be by degrees, depending on their understanding of the will of their master. Accordingly, one servant would have a lighter beating than another (Luke 12:47, 48), and hypocrites would receive more condemnation than others (Mark 12:40)."^[12]^

In Matthew 11:24, Jesus says, "But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you." (cf. Revelation 20:11-12)

This teaching makes annihilationism particularly awkward. On this William Crockett writes,

"The Pharisaic-minded crowds, who believed in eternal suffering for the wicked, could not mistake what Jesus meant. Even the most vile people, he was saying, would receive a lesser sentence in the afterlife than they who had received and rejected so much truth. In other words, what you sow, you reap. If you are exceedingly evil, you will be punished exceedingly; if your sin is less, your punishment will be less when God sentences you on the Judgment Day. Annihilationism fits rather awkwardly here. It has no sense of distributive justice—Heinrich Himmler and Mahatma Ghandi receive the same punishment. "Annihilationists might respond that certain evildoers will simply suffer longer, or more intensely, before being extinguished. The problem is that the setting for the gradations of punishment in Luke 12:47-48 is gehenna (12:5). So now we have extended suffering in the final abode of the wicked. If we were to ask which line of Jewish eschatological punishment this fits better with annihilationism or eternal, conscious suffering the answer would surely be the latter. The truth is that when punishment is administered according to the depth of sin, the presumption is that the wicked will suffer for an extended time—presumably forever. For example, in the Sibylline Oracles noted above (2:290-310), the wicked must pay 'threefold' for the evil deeds they have committed. The more evil committed, the more suffering in the next life. And their anguish in gehenna never ends. This is precisely the point mentioned in Matthew and Luke sixty years or so earlier. Hell is a dreadful place, but not a place of equal suffering. Some will receive lesser punishment, some more."^[13]^

Aberrant views

Conditional immortality (annihilationism)

This view is also called annhilationism and is held by Clark Pinnock. It holds that "God eventually destroys the souls of the wicked rather than punishing them endlessly."^[14]^

See main page: Annihilationism


"[Purgatory] is commonly understood to refer to the state, place, or condition in the next world between heaven and hell, a state of purifying suffering for those who have died and are still in need of such purification. This purifying condition comes to an end for the individual when that person's guilt has been expiated. But as an eschatological 'place,' purgatory is understood to continue in existence until the last judgment, at which time there will be only heaven and hell."^ [15]^

See main page: Purgatory


  • Four Views on Hell, by John F. Walvoord (Contributor), Zachary J. Hayes (Contributor), Clark H. Pinnock (Contributor), William Crockett (Editor), Stanley N. Gundry (Series Editor). Zondervan 1997. ISBN 0310212685.

See also


  • "To some, that the idea of 'forever' does not always mean an infinite duration in time may seem to be an unnecessary concession to the opponents of eternal punishment. But like the word 'all,' this word has to be interpreted in its context; and where the context itself limits the duration, this needs to be recognized in fairness to the text. At the same time, however, an important principle must be observed all throughout the Scriptures: while the term 'forever' may sometimes be curtailed in duration by its context, such termination is never once mentioned in either the Old or New Testament as relating to the punishment of the wicked. Accordingly, the term continues to mean 'everlasting' or 'unending in its duration.' Unfortunately, this is not recognized by those who are opposed to eternal punishment." - John F. Walvoord^[16]^

  • "The body will be full of torment as full as it can hold, and every part of it shall be full of torment. They shall be in extreme pain, every joint of 'em, every nerve shall be full of inexpressible torment. They shall be tormented even to their fingers' ends. The whole body shall be full of the wrath of God. Their hearts and their bowels and their heads, their eyes and their tongues, their hands and their feet will be filled with the fierceness of God's wrath. This is taught us in many Scriptures..."

    • Jonathan Edwards^[17]^
  • "Even if it were possible that the experience . . . of the lost contained no pain and much pleasure, still, that black pleasure would be such as to send any soul, not already damned, flying to its prayers in nightmare terror." - C.S. Lewis^ [18]^


John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 27 John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 17 John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 19 John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 19 William Crockett in Four Views on Hell, p. 65-66. Footnote 41 in the book reads: Translations of Ignatius, Diognetus, 2 Clement, and Polycarp are by Kirsopp Lake, Apostolic Fathers, Vols. 1 and 2, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1912-13). John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 23, 26 John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 28 William Crockett in Four Views on Hell, p. 30-31 William Crockett in Four Views on Hell, p. 53 John Piper, "God's Wrath: 'Vengeance Is Mine, I Will Repay,' Says the Lord", February 27, 2005. URL. 7J. I. Packer, "The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Crux 26 (Sept. 1990), 25. Quoted in Four Views on Hell, p. 45. John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 21 William Crockett in Four Views on Hell, p. 73-74 Back cover of Four Views on Hell, Zondervan, 1997. Zachary J. Hayes in Four Views on Hell', p. 93 John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 18 Jonathan Edwards, in John Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 56, n. 37; cf. pp. 54-55. Quoted in Four Views on Hell, p. 48. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 126. Quoted in Four Views on Hell, pp. 61-62.

External links

Jonathan Edwards