Hell is real. Jesus, the Son of God, came from heaven to teach us the way to heaven. He promised that he would give eternal life and raise from the dead everybody who believes in him (John 6:34-40). At the same time, nobody in the Bible warns so often about hell as Jesus does.
Unbelievers go to Hades
Jesus taught in the story about the rich man and Lazarus that immediately after death unbelievers go to Hades. There they are “in torment“, and the rich man complains that he is “in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:23-24). Of the believing Lazarus Jesus says that he is “at Abraham’s side” (Luke 16:22). Later Paul writes that after death believers are “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). These are the states that we often think of as hell and heaven, and that we go there immediately after death. That is not totally wrong, but we should realize that these are temporary states, waiting for the judgment of the last day, when Jesus will return. Only then the full glory of heaven and the full terror of hell will be revealed.
The judgment on unbelievers
The judgment on unbelievers on the last day is described in various ways in the Bible.
- “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” – Daniel 12:2
- John the Baptist about Jesus: “he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” – Matthew 3:12
- Jesus talking about judgment on the last day: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” – Matthew 25:41
- “…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” – 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9
- “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” – Revelation 20:15
All these verses make clear that there are two elements to the punishment of the unbelievers. It is a punishment without end, as seen from the words ‘everlasting’, ‘unquenchable’, and ‘eternal’. It is also a severe punishment, most often compared to ‘fire’. This does not mean a literal fire, for other words are used as well: ‘shame and contempt’, ‘destruction’, ‘outer darkness’ (Matthew 25:30). Together these terms point to a terrible reality.
God’s judgment is always righteous
Yet the torments of hell will not be the same for everybody. The Bible clearly teaches that some will be punished more severely than others. This becomes clear from the following passages:
- “But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” – Matthew 11:24.
- “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” – Luke 12:47-48.
So the severity of the eternal punishment will depend both on what unbelievers have done in their lives, and on the opportunity they have had to hear and respond to the Gospel. God’s judgment is always righteous.
The ones believing in Jesus
Yet whoever believes in Jesus does not need to fear hell. He will be eternally happy in the presence of the Lord on the new earth. Let the reality of hell be a reason for us to abhor sin and to put our trust in Jesus, and thus escape the judgment of God and the fire of hell.