There is sometimes confusion about use of the term hell as the temporary gathering place of the dead (also known as Sheol or Hades). This article will focus on one common usage of the word hell as being synonymous with the lake of fire, the eternal place of punishment reserved for the lost.
If heaven is vastly misunderstood thanks to misconceptions and falsehoods perpetuated by myth and popular culture, the realities of hell are all the more misunderstood. Medieval art, fanciful literature, and biblical illiteracy may be the top three reasons why the average person’s understanding of hell is clouded with ignorance and fallacies. Compounding the problem, many pastors and Bible teachers avoid discussing hell for fear of upsetting their congregants. Indeed, hell is a most unpleasant topic, but since our Lord Jesus taught on hell, we should not remain silent on the matter. According to the Bible, hell is real (Mark 9:43), it is where sinners are punished (Matthew 5:22), it is a place of torment (Revelation 14:11), and it is eternal (Mark 9:48). Hell was originally created for Satan and his angels (Matthew 25:41).
Dispelling some of the more prevalent myths about hell is useful in adding to our biblical understanding:
Myth 1: The devil’s headquarters are in hell. The devil is not in hell now. Hell, or the lake of fire (also referred to as the second death), will receive its first occupants at the end of our Lord Jesus’ millennial reign (Revelation 20:7–10). Also, hell is a place of torment (Luke 16:23–24; Revelation 20:10), so cartoonish images of prancing devils brandishing pitchforks while merrily dancing around a ring of fire are nonsensical. Rather than partying with his legions of demons, Satan will languish in hell.
Myth 2: Hell is reserved solely for the worst of evildoers such as cruel dictators and serial killers. While there are likely degrees of eternal punishment (Luke 12:47–49), all who refuse God’s mercy must endure His wrath (John 3:18). There is heaven, and there is hell; there is no third option. While this reality makes the average person uncomfortable, there will be more unrepentant barbers, plumbers, middle school teachers, bricklayers, airline pilots, and accountants in hell than tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Stalin will not be sent to the lake of fire because he murdered millions of his own countrymen; rather, Stalin, like the unrepentant librarian, will suffer in hell because he scorned God’s mercy and rejected Christ.
Myth 3: A loving God would not send people to hell. If, by “love,” one is thinking of an indulgent, enabling, misguided sort of sentimental affection, then there would be no eternal punishment. But God is not to be confused with a drowsy old man who winks at his grandchildren’s mischievous antics from a rocking chair. God is just (Romans 12:19), and He will repay evil with affliction (2 Thessalonians 1:6). Rather than accusing God of being cruel, we should remember hell is reserved for those who, by their own volition, snubbed God’s mercy (Hebrews 2:3). Salvation is a free gift for the asking (Ephesians 2:8–9), but the world is filled with those whose minds and hearts are so full of earthly matters they haven’t any room for what God would gladly give them. Ultimately, hell will prove to be a place for those who were willing to settle for less than God’s best.
Myth 4: A just God would not send people to hell. Of all the arguments against hell, this may be the weakest. Where else would a just God send rebels who stubbornly and steadfastly refused to repent of their evil? Even in our own sometimes corrupt criminal justice system, lawbreakers are sent to prison. Should a just God reward hardened evildoers with eternal bliss? Additionally, those who will occupy hell will be those who avoided contact, companionship, and communication with the One who made them. Why should we think the unrepentant sinner who ran from the presence of God here on earth would be happy in His intimate company in heaven?
In his usual pithy style, Christian writer and apologist C. S. Lewis explained, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’” (The Great Divorce, Signature Classics, p. 339). Hell will be populated by people who chose to be there.
Myth 5: Hell is merely a scare tactic to enforce a particular brand of allegiance or behavior. If hell is real, then we will do well to fear it, and if hell is only a scare tactic, then might the same be said of warnings against tobacco use, drinking and driving, or income tax fraud? Jesus warned of the dangers of hell (Matthew 10:28). Would He have alerted us to the dangers of hell if the dangers were not real? Are those who deny hell’s existence wiser, smarter, and better informed than the Son of God? To deny the perils of hell is to cast doubt on the words of our Savior.
Hell is a place of misery and suffering; hell is where torment and anguish never cease (Revelation 14:11). Whether the flames are literal or symbolic of some even greater woe, we can be certain that all this world has to offer—money, fame, reputation, power, or sexual gratification—is hardly worth the forfeiture of our eternal souls (Mark 8:36–38).
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 8:32). He finds no satisfaction in those who choose hell over Him. On the contrary, God loved the world so much that He sent His Son to rescue and redeem us (John 3:16). Jesus’ death and resurrection are good news for lost sinners willing to believe that our sin debt has been paid in full. Those who receive God’s grace through faith will live forever with Him.
Jesus is the best God can give us. God has nothing greater to offer than His Son. Those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ have no reason to fear death and the grave; on the contrary, the best is yet to come. Yet there are those whose hearts are hardened and are more interested in gaining what the world has to offer. What a tragedy this is, for Christ has overcome sin and death and hell on our behalf.