What is Hell Like?

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

When Jesus taught with parables, each story is based on true events: people do purchase fields, widows do lose coins, and fishermen do catch a variety of things in their nets. In one story, Jesus tells of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The story is not presented as a parable. In fact, it contains a notable difference. Jesus' parables are generic stories -- specific individuals are not named. But regardless of whether you wish to label the story a parable or not, it contains several important facts.

"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, 'or I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'" (Luke 16:19-31).

In this story, two men lived, two men died, and their situations in the next life were the exact opposite of this life. The rich man became a beggar in torments, while the poor man was comforted in paradise. Of all the passages regarding life after death, this is the clearest glimpse of what is in store for mankind.

Hell is Eternal

In discussing the fate of mankind, Jesus said two possibilities exist: "And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:46). The words translated here as "everlasting" and "eternal" both come from a single Greek word, aionios, which means "eternal, everlasting, without end, never to cease, or indeterminate as to duration." It is the same word that describes God (Roman 16:26) and the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14).

So exactly how long is the promised punishment? If Hell only lasts a thousand years, then Heaven will cease then as well since the same word is used to describe both Heaven and Hell. If Hell is limited in duration, then God and the Spirit have a limited span of existence since the same word describes them. But if we acknowledge that God, the Spirit, and Heaven all have no end, then the punishment in Hell must be seen in the same light. Punishment in Hell will last for ever and ever and ever and ever ....

Some object to this, saying that such a future is too long. It isn't right to punish a man who was disobedient for five years of his life by condemning him for eternity. But if such is the case, then it is wrong to take a man who was obedient for five years of his live and bless him in Heaven forever! The truth is that this objection is a slap in the face of every criminal justice system in the world. How do you determine the hideousness of a crime? By the act or by length of time it took to commit the act? How long does it take for a mass murder to kill a number of people with a semi-automatic weapon? Shall we say thirty seconds? How long then should such a crime be punished? Thirty seconds? Perhaps we should double it or triple it to ninety seconds. Would that be fair? But what do we actually do to a convicted mass-murderer? If he escapes the death penalty, he is usually locked up for the rest of his life -- forty to sixty years for something that only took thirty seconds to do! Obviously, punishment for a crime is based on the hideousness of the crime and not on the length of the criminal act.

What we are reluctant to admit is just how hideous our sins our in the sight of God. Yet, the most horrible thing a man can do is to live in rebellion to his Creator. Whether a man lives five years, or five months, or five weeks in stubborn rebellion against God and he dies in that condition, he will be justly punished in Hell forever because that is what he justly deserves for his deeds.

Hell is Punishment

Another object to the concept of Hell is that it is too ugly. Well, then Heaven is too beautiful. If Hell is too horrible, then Heaven is too wonderful. Since Heaven is the alternate to Hell, any objection to Hell is a disguised objection to Heaven.

Perhaps you are thinking, "Oh, I can accept that Hell's fire will burn forever and I believe the punishment is everlasting, but I think you misunderstand the idea of punishment." If you are thinking this, then you probably believe that when a man dies and is sent to Hell that he ceases to exist. Like the dog, Rover, who is dead all over, some cling to the idea that there is no consciousness in Hell -- one becomes dead eternally. Yet, the idea is false at its very core. In Matthew 25:46, the word translated "punishment" comes from the Greek word kolasin -- the word for chastisement or torment. The same word is used in I John 4:18, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment." Look again at Luke 16; the rich man was in torments. He wanted a drop of water for his tormented tongue. He wanted Lazarus to be sent back to warn his five brothers, lest they join him in this awful place. Abraham affirmed that the rich man was tormented and Lazarus was comforted. Does this sound like the cessation of existence?

Consider as well the descriptions found in Revelation. "The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10). The devil and his followers will not cease to exist. Instead, we find a promise that they will be tormented constantly forever and ever. The promise is the same for all followers of corruption. "And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name" (Revelation 14:11).

Some will bring up II Thessalonians 1:9 which says, "These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power." The problem is that the Greek word olethros translated as "destruction" is not the word for complete annihilation. Olethros means "a sudden ruin or death." It is used in I Timothy 6:9 which reads, "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition." And, it is found in I Corinthians 5:5, "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." In neither of these examples is complete annihilation being discussed. Face it, you cannot be tormented if you are unconscious. Hell is an everlasting, conscious, suffering torment!

Hell is Darkness

"For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment" (II Peter 2:4).

"These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever" (Jude 13).

"And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 25:30).

Hell is described as a place of darkness, but this leads to the question of "Why?" The explanation is found in the nature of God. God is described as the Father of lights. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning" (James 1:17). Or as John describes God, "This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5). By declaring that Hell is a place of darkness, the Bible is stating that God's presence is not found in Hell. "Since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (II Thessalonians 1:6-9).

The Bible states that God is everywhere. "Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, "Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night," even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You" (Psalms 139:7-12 NASB). (Psalms 139:7-12 NKJV). As Jonah discovered, it is impossible to get away from God. But there is one place God is not. God is not in Hell. Since God is the source of light, where He is not must be a place of darkness.

Think about it. In Hell there won't be a God to hear your repeated prayers for rescue from torment. There won't be a God to listen to you scream and beg for mercy. No mercy will be possible because God will not be there.

Hell is Fire

"His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:12).

"The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:41-42).

"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'" (Matthew 25:41).

"If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched -- where 'Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.' And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched -- where 'Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.' And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire -- where 'Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.'" (Mark 9:43-48).

"The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10).

"And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:15).

Without a doubt the Bible speaks of Hell as a place of eternal fire that cannot be put out. Yet, the comparison to fire is likely to be a metaphor, such as "I am the door" or "I am the vine." God is an infinite God and Hell is an infinite place. How do you describe what has never been experienced? How can doe God relay to us what Heaven or Hell is like when all we know is our physical existence on earth? Can you imagine describing an airplane to George Washington? What do you say? "Well, it is like a bird ... but not exactly, its wings don't move ... no, it doesn't float, it actually is very heavy ..." You can give a rough description, but you haven't even started describing what a jet really is like.

This is the problem in describing Heaven and Hell. They are beyond our experience. Hence, God describes Heaven as a place with jade walls, golden streets, and gates of pearl. It is not a literal description of Heaven, but imagery to tell us that Heaven is more wonderful than anything we have ever known. In the same way, the description of Hell is to tell us that Hell is far worse than anything we have ever considered. The nearest thing on earth to Hell is fire.

Have you ever burned yourself? It hurt, didn't it? And I'm sure you only experienced it for a brief moment. I'm told that to burn to death is the most agonizing way to die. Now, if Hell is just one-tenth as bad as the Bible describes it, it should produce fear in the heart of anyone reading it. But the truth is that Hell is far, far worse than any description found in the Bible. It is a place of pain, intense ceaseless pain. That is why Jesus called it a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30). "But He will say, 'I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out" (Luke 13:27-28).

Hell is Without Rest

"And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name" (Revelation 14:11).

"The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10).

The reason is obvious, when one is in pain there can be no rest. I've been sunburned a few times, and I vividly remember how difficult it was to lie down to rest. The pain constantly jarred me back awake. There is nothing like laying down to rest when you are exhausted, but there is no opportunity to rest in Hell. There is no pause. There is to break from the torment.

There is no relief. The rich man wanted just a drop of water, but he did not get it. "How cruel!" you perhaps are thinking. But you see, the rich man didn't have to be there. He could have obeyed God. He neglected his opportunity. No one needs to face Hell. You can stay out. But if you ever enter, you cannot get out!

Hell is Without Hope

Jesus stated that Hell was everlasting punishment. Consider just how long eternity lasts. If a bird flew between the sun and the earth, depositing one grain of sand every ten years, but the time the earth was entirely consumed in the sun, Hell would just be beginning!

If my time in Hell were only one hundred years, I could stand it. After the first day, I could say "Only 99 years, 364 days to go." If it were only a thousand years, I could bear it. The faint glimmer of hope would cause me to hold on -- to endure it just a bit longer. But after a man has been in Hell for a trillion years, he has no less time to stay. Hell has no end.

When you look at a person, what do you see? A rich man, a poor man, a black man, or a white man? We ought to see an individual made in the image of God. A man for whom Jesus gave His precious life. A man who will one day be in the presence of God and will be rewarded with Heaven or sentence to an eternity in Hell. Nations rise and fall. Cultures come and go, but of all the things in this world, only people will live on and on. Where will they spend their eternal life?

How many people do you know who have died this year without Christ? How many loved ones? How many relatives? How many friends? How many people will now face eternity in Hell because you never opened your mouth to turn them from the path of destruction? Oh the tragedy of all tragedies to die without Christ! Tragedy that needs not happen.

The number one issue facing each person is being justified before God and staying with the Lord throughout our lives. Instead, we spend time worrying about food, shelter, and clothing when there is only one thing that should dominant our thoughts. Where will we spend eternity? I don't want to be lost, and I don't want you to be lost either!

In Hell There Will be No Forgetting

As Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man could feel, see, hear, talk and remember while he was in torments. Abraham had asked him to remember that in his life on earth he had received good things. The rich man remembered his five brothers and wanted them warned. If he remembered all these things, then it is reasonable to assume that he remembered the times he neglected to do the Lord's will.

If you lose your soul and find yourself in torments, one of the horrible things you will face is the haunting memories of the things you should have done. "If I had only listened." "If I had paid attention to my friend's warning." "If I had just responded to the invitation at church." If, if, if ... but it will not change your situation. In torment you may say "If I had only obey the Lord." But all your "if"ing will not change your destiny. Your memories will plague you for all eternity.

And yet, right now it doesn't have to be that way. Ananias told Paul, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Just what are you waiting for?