Place of God's final retributive punishment. Scripture progressively develops this destiny of the wicked: the Old Testament outlines the framework, while the New Testament elaborates on it. Jesus, however, is most responsible for defining hell.
The Old Testament. In the Old Testament Sheol denotes the abode of the dead; conscious souls face a shadowy existence in this "land of oblivion" (Job 10:21; Psalm 88:12; Eccl 9:10; Isa 14:10). Since death is not a natural occurrence but issues from the fall, the Old Testament confidently awaits God's demonstration of his lordship over Sheol by raising the righteous to life (Gen. 2-3; Psalm 16:10; 49:15; Isa 25:8; Hosea 13:14). While God's kingship also has implications for the wicked, here the Old Testament is more reserved. The Old Testament infrequently suggests a bodily resurrection for the wicked (Dan 12:2), a final judgment and retribution for evil deeds (Psalm 21:10; 140:10; Mal 4:1-2). Nevertheless, the contemptible and horrible destiny of the wicked, irretrievably isolated from the righteous, is clear (Psalm 9:17; 34:15-16).
The Intertestamental Period. The intertestamental literature constructed divergent scenarios for the wicked dead, including annihilation (4 Ezra 7:61; 2 Apoc Bar 82:3ff.; 1 Enoch 48:9; 99:12; 1QS iv. 11-14 ) and endless torment (Jub 36:11; 1 Enoch 27:1-3; 103:8; T Gad 7:5). Sheol frequently became an interim location for the dead, distinguished from the place of final punishment (1 Enoch 18:9-16; 51:1). This final punishment was usually located in a valley south of Jerusalem, known in Hebrew as Gen Hinnom or the Valley of Hinnom (2 Apoc Bar 59:10; 4 Ezra 7:36), and in Greek as gehenna [γέεννα] (2 Esdr 2:29). This valley had a long history as a place of infamy. Notorious for the child sacrifices offered to Molech during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31-34; 19:6), this valley was further desecrated when Josiah used it as Jerusalem's refuse dump (2 Kings 23:10) and it was prophesied as the place of God's future fiery judgment (Isa 30:33; 66:24; Jer 7:31-32). While some intertestamental writings equate hell with the "lake of fire" in this "accursed valley" of Hinnom (1 Enoch 90:26, 27; 54:1, 2), others use it to denote a place in the underworld (Sib Or 4:1184-86).
In addition, the respective scenarios for the wicked, whether annihilation or eternal torment, shaped images of God's judgment. For instance, at times fire consumes the wicked (1 Enoch 99:12); in other texts fire and worms torment their victim to a useless existence (Judith 16:17).
The New Testament. In the New Testament hell is where the reprobate exist after the resurrection from Hades and the final judgment. In this lake of fire God punishes the wicked, along with Satan and his henchmen (Matt 25:41), bringing an end to evil's free ways.
Gehenna [γέεννα] is the standard term for hell in the New Testament. Related phrases include "punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7), "lake of fire" (Rev 19:29; 20:14-15), and "judgment." English versions occasionally translate hades [ᾅδης] (esp. Luke 16:23) and tartaroo [ταρταρόω] (2 Pe 2:4) as hell. However, these terms appear to denote the intermediate state, not the final destiny of the wicked.
Jesus says more about hell than any other biblical figure. His warnings of the eschatological judgment are liberally colored with the imagery of hell (Matt 5:22; 7:19; 8:12; par. Luke 13:28-30; Matt 10:15, 28; 11:22, 24; 18:8-9; par. Mark 9:43-49; Luke 17:26-29; John 15:6). He portrays this future judgment through pictures of Sodom's destruction (Luke 17:29-30): fire, burning sulfur, and a fiery furnace (Gen 19:24-25). These images of God's judgment were well established in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature. Important portrayals of hell are also present in Jesus' parables, including the tares (Matt 13:40-42), the net (Matt 13:50); the great supper (Matt 22:13), the good servant and the wicked servant (Matt 24:51; par. Luke 12:46-47), the talents (Matt 25:30), and the last judgment (Matt 25:46). Here "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 13:50; 24:51; 25:30) and "darkness" (Matt 22:13; 25:30) are key descriptive phrases.
The New Testament conception of hell does not exceed Jesus' description. The following headings outline its essential features.
1. Sinners will occupy hell. While God created us for a loving relation with himself, at the fall humankind rebelled. God's judgment falls on all sinners, unless they have faith in Jesus. After the provisional state of Hades and the final judgment, God's wrath culminates in hell. According to the New Testament, the objects of God's wrath range from the pious hypocrites (Matt 23:33) and those failing to help the poor (Matt 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31) to the vile and murderers (Rev 21:8).
Some argue that only an explicit repudiation of Jesus attracts God's eternal wrath, referencing lu 12:8-9. However, Jesus says "the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). In other words, he came offering grace to a world that was "condemned already" (John 3:17-18).
Since hell is not a natural fixture of creation but results from the fall and is destiny of the wicked, the New Testament occasionally personifies hell as the demonic forces behind sin. The sinful tongue is itself aroused and "set on fire by hell" (James 3:6). Similarly, Jesus labels the Pharisees "sons of hell, " identifying the root of their hypocrisy (Matt 23:15).
2. Hell exists for the requital and retribution of evil deeds. Hell is the place of God's final judgment. Here God, our King and Supreme Judge, finally rectifies wrongs through his retributive wrath. Here the damned will be paid back for the harm they have done (Matt 16:27; Luke 12:47-48; 2 Peter 2:13; Jude 15 Rev 14:9-11). Wrath is not the natural consequence of evil choices in a moral universe or the sinner's misconstrual of God's love. Rather, as Paul's use of orge shows, wrath is an emotion or feeling in the Godhead, and thus God's personal action (Rom 1:18-32). By extrinsically imposing penal conditions on the sinner, God rectifies wrongs and reestablishes his righteous rule (Matt 25:31-46; Rom 12:19; 1 Cor 15:24-25; 2 Col 5:10).
3. Hell is a final place of bondage and isolation from the righteous. After the resurrection and the final judgment, the wicked and even Hades are thrown into hell. The New Testament describes hell as a place: a furnace (Matt 13:42,50), a lake of fire (Rev 19:20; 20:14-15; 21:8), and a prison (Rev 20:7). The wicked are imprisoned here so they cannot harm God's people (Matt 5:25-26; 13:42, 50; 18:34; Jude 6 Rev 20:14-15).
While the parable of Lazarus and the rich man occurs in Hades, the intermediate state, and not Gehenna, it does foreshadow the latter. Jesus says an unbridgeable spatial chasm separates these two so no one can "cross over from there" (Luke 16:26). John's vision in Revelation 21 of the new city on a high mountain confirms this separation between the blessed and the damned after the day of judgment. Consequently, Scripture provides no warrant for those speculative images of the righteous rejoicing in the torture of the damned. The prophecy in Isaiah 66:24, which has been so used, does not refer to this eschatological event, for the resurrection of the body has not occurred.
4. Sinners suffer penalties in hell. Jesus repeatedly accentuates hell's dreadfulness and horror: "if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out… It is better … to enter life with one eye than to … be thrown into the fire of hell" (Matt 18:9). While Scripture remains reticent on the specific torments for the impenitent, certain dimensions are clear.
At the final judgment, God will declare, "I don't know you… Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire" (Matt 25:12,41). The wicked in hell are excluded from God's loving presence and the "life" for which humans were originally created (John 5:29). The damned are "thrown outside, into the darkness" (Matt 8:12; 22:13). Consequently this "second death" (Rev 21:8) is a useless and ruined existence (Matt 25:30; Luke 9:25; John 3:16-18; 2 Thess 1:9; 2 Peter 2:12; Jude 12; Rev 21:8). Sin has thoroughly effaced every virtue. The reprobate have become obstinate in their rebellion against God, like "unreasoning animals" (Jude 10,13; 2 Peter 2:12-22). Consequently, the doors of hell can be locked from the inside, as C. S. Lewis observes.
In hell, the damned receive their due for "things done while in the body" (2 Col 5:10; 2 Peter 2:13; Jude 15 Rev 14:9-11). The "undying worm" has often been interpreted as the soul's internal torment, coveting and grieving what has been lost (Mark 9:48). This regret is compounded since the reprobate are not penitent but locked into their rebellion. But the grave's worms and darkness are also common images of a contemptible fate. Scripture suggests that there are degrees of punishment in hell. The one "who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows." More severe is the punishment due to the disobedient who were "entrusted with much" (Mark 12:40; Luke 12:48).
Annihiliationsim and the Extent of Hell. The extent of hell has occasioned much debate in recent scholarship. There are three major points of contention.
Some annihilationists have argued that the biblical imagery of a consuming fire, destruction, and perishing implies the cessation of life (Stott). However, Jesus' pictures of hell are not literal descriptions but metaphors. They are mutually exclusive, if taken literally, for the fires of hell conflict with its "utter darkness." In the intertestamental literature the metaphorical image of a fire could suggest annihilation or everlasting punishment, showing the inconclusiveness of this argument.
Some annihilationists have argued that when the Greek adjective for eternal, aionios [αἰώνιος], is used with nouns of action, it refers to an occurrence with eternal results, not an eternal process (Fudge). "Eternal punishment, " it is argued, denotes a punishment that occurs once with eternal results. However, counterfactuals dispute this argument. The eternal sin (Mark 3:29), for example, is not just one sin, but an action that irretrievably debilitates so one only sins. Similarly, everlasting salvation (aionios [αἰώνιος] soteria [σωτηρία]) does not refer solely to Christ's work long ago, and thus preclude his sustaining and preserving presence. For Scripture describes believers, even in the age to come, as existing "in Christ" (Rom 8:1; Eph 1:13; Col 2:6-7; 2 Tim 2:10). So aionios soteria [αἰώνιοςσωτηρία] refers to Christ's eternal (aionios [αἰώνιος]) salvation of the blessed, an action that is everlasting as well as final.
In Matthew 25:46 Jesus differentiates the two futures of eternal life and eternal punishment, using the same adjective for each, aionios [αἰώνιος]. In Jesus' mind, it appears, the extent of each future is identical. If the existence of the righteous is endless, so also is the existence of the wicked. Other statements suggest the same conclusion. Jesus teaches that "whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him" (John 3:36). As long as God's wrath abides on them, the damned must exist. Jesus' picture of hell as a place where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48) indicates that this manifestation of God's wrath is unending. Other passages in the New Testament reiterate Jesus' dreadful warning, by describing hell as "everlasting torment." Even annihilationists admit the difficulty of such texts for their position.
Objections to Hell. Hell is a dreadful reality. Just as Christ wept over Jerusalem, believers are similarly troubled and anguished by this destiny of the lost. Some have raised serious challenges to the reality of hell.
One perennial difficulty concerns the relationship between God's love and holiness: How could a loving God reject forever the creature he loves? This question assumes that the creature is the highest intrinsic good, even for God. But the highest good for the God of Scripture is not humanity. Humanity was created for God, and cannot be defined in terms of itself; we exist to glorify God (Psalm 73:24-26; Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 10:31; Col 1:16). That is why Jesus insists it is idolatrous to enlist God as humanity's servant (Luke 17:7-10). Certainly God loves the creature; creation itself reflects God's free love. But since God's love is complete in himself, even before creation, the creature cannot be presumed as his one and only end. Nor can the character of God's love be decided a priori, but only by revelation. Consequently, Jesus' warning of the wrath to come (Matt 25:31,41,46) must be accepted as an inherent possibility of God's love.
Some acknowledge retribution, but question why the wicked are eternally kept in existence to suffer. At issue is the punishment due sin. Since pride conceals the sinner's true debt to God the Judge, again this question should be answered by examining Christ's priestly work of propitiation. At the cross God in Christ became our substitute to bear the punishment for our sins, so as "to be just and the one who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus" (Rom 3:26; cf. 2 Col 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24). The God-man propitiated our sin. This fact, that God the Judge, the "Lord of glory" himself (1 Cor 2:8), accepted the punishment due us, suggests that the penalty for sin against the Infinite is infinite.
Questions will remain. But believers personally know God's love in Jesus Christ. And their response to a lost world will parallel that of their Lord, who humbled himself to our condition, suffered, and died for the wicked.
Timothy R. Phillips
See also Death, Mortality; Eternal Punishment; Grave; Hades; Judgment; Judgment, Day of; Sheol
Bibliography. D. L. Edwards and J. Stott, Evangelical Essentials; E. Fudge, The Fire that Consumes; A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future; C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain; S. McKnight, Through No Fault of Their Own: The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard, pp. 147-57; T. R. Phillips, Through No Fault of Their Own: The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard, pp. 47-59; W. G. T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment; D. F. Watson, ABD, 2:926-28.