Hell is probably one of the most misunderstood topics in the Bible. I don’t claim to have a corner on any topic, let alone Hell, but it would behoove us all to gain a better understanding of this most important topic.
First off, our source of information will be the Bible alone. Life after death experiences are interesting but outrageously unreliable. But so can one’s personal interpretation of the Scriptures. So you may disagree with my perspective but it’s always good to get another viewpoint before you make a final decision on where you stand on any particular subject of significance.
On the most basic level, Hell is a place of punishment, not unlike prison. But prison in the United States, with all of our laws to “protect” the criminal, is not a good comparison. It would be more like a prison in Iran or North Korea. Hell’s inmates are the worst of the worst, but the Warden is truly demonic.
But who goes to Hell and for how long? That’s a good question for which there is no clear answer, at least not as clear as we would like. Part of the problem is when addressing this topic, Jesus many times would teach in parables. A parable is an analogy told in story form. The issue is that parables have to be interpreted, which can be challenging at best and confusing at worst.
One of Jesus’ most well-known parables is that of the Prodigal Son. In that easily interpreted parable we are represented by the son who runs away from home and squanders his inheritance. God is represented by the loving Father who welcomes his son back home.
Not all parables are as easily deciphered.
When allegorically teaching on the issue of Hell, Jesus once said, “ 47 And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. 48 But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few.”- Luke 12:47- 48.
Then a few verses later He says, “58 When you go with your adversary to the magistrate, make every effort along the way to settle with him, lest he drag you to the judge, the judge deliver you to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.59 I tell you, you shall not depart from there till you have paid the very last mite.”
So what is Jesus saying? In verses 47- 48 He refers to Hell as a place of punishment where one is punished according to the level of his misdeeds and his level of accountability. This answers the age old question of what happens to people that never heard the Gospel. If they committed acts deserving of punishment, their sentence will be more lenient than those who knew the Truth but rejected it.
But in John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” The problem is we tend to think that there are only two possible destinations, Heaven or Hell. That may actually be the case, but there may be other destinations, or there may be degrees of Heaven and Hell. What we know for sure is that Hebrews 9:27 says, "It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment."
Then in verses 58 – 59, Jesus goes on to say that one goes to Hell until he pays for his crimes. Satan is the “Adversary,” God is the “Magistrate” and “Judge.” Jesus said to make every effort to settle with the Judge “along the way” (here in this life) or else you will end up in “prison” (Hell) until you have paid for your crimes. The insinuation is that the offender’s time in Hell may be limited.
There are verses in the Bible that indicate that Hell is eternal. But who is there forever? To answer that, we must look at Hell’s original or true purpose.
Jesus said in Matthew 25: 31-46, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holyangels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides hissheep from the goats.33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in;36 Iwas naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feedYou,or thirsty and giveYoudrink?38 When did we see You a stranger and takeYouin, or naked and clotheYou?39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you diditto one of the least of these My brethren, you diditto Me.’
41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink;43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
44 “Then they also will answer Him,saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’45 Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not doitto one of the least of these, you did not doitto Me.’46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
That’s some heavy-duty stuff! So let’s take a look.
First, we see that this might actually be another parable. People don’t go to Heaven or Hell for giving or not giving someone food. The food, clothing and water is probably referring to something spiritual like the Word, the Gospel and the Spirit. That’s not to downplay the importance of good deeds, but we are saved by Grace, not by works.
Secondly, we see that Hell was originally “prepared for the Devil and his Angels.” But so was Heaven. Satan is a fallen angel. In Luke 10:18, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven.” So Satan came from Heaven, but will spend eternity in Hell because of his disobedience. He is not unlike us in that perspective. We were originally designed to spend eternity in Heaven with our Creator.
Hebrews 11:6 says, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” All we have to do is observe His evidence and respond to His Grace. But if we choose to turn a blind eye to the magnificence of Creation and a deaf ear to His calling, we will end up just as separated from God in the afterlife as we were here on Earth.
Jesus said in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” All we need to do to end up in Hell is when He knocks, keep the door locked. All we need to do to end up in Heaven is to keep the door open, so when he knocks we welcome Him into our hearts.
But back to Matthew 25. Verse 46 uses that pesky word “everlasting.” So is Hell truly everlasting? I would say that the actual physical place of Hell is eternal. But as we have read earlier, there are indications in other verses that seem to insinuate that there are either degrees of Hell or potential limitations on a person’s length of stay.
All we know for sure is that God is merciful, loving and full of Grace. But He is also a God of Justice. And just like it would be wrong for an earthly judge to let a criminal go unpunished, He, too, must render an appropriate sentence when we miss the mark.
The question really comes down to a more basic perspective. Why take the risk? Why chance the possibility of Hell in the first place. Not believing in Hell won’t keep you from going there. Sticking your head in the sand does not make your situation less dangerous. In actuality, it makes you more vulnerable, not less.
So rather than debating the existence of Hell or being angry at God for creating such a horrible place of detention, why not decide to NOT go there? The path is simple, it’s called repentance. The definition of repentance is to “turn around and go the other way.” If you are walking away from God, to repent would mean to walk towards Him instead. To quote the most well-known verse in the Bible:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”- John 3:16.
That’s the only verse you need to know. But you need to know it and embrace it as a personal reality in your own heart.
If you do, Earth will become the only Hell you will ever know. If not, Earth will be the only Heaven you will ever know.