We Cannot Cancel Hell

Finding Hope Through Final Judgment

I don’t want to go to hell. In some part of me, I don’t want there to be a hell. I became a Christian, at least in part, to escape the prospect of hell. And at times, I’ve intensely studied Christian theology, at least in part, to find a scriptural case for nobody staying in hell.

On the personal level, I’ve found assurance that, united to Jesus, my future is secure with him. But I cannot, with theological integrity, scrub out hell from the Bible. Nor can I ignore the witness of the church through the centuries that everlasting separation from the triune God remains a fearful possibility. My heart may at times want to be a universalist, but the word will not let me.

It’s vital that we do not avoid considering the reality of damnation. So, I’d like to make three observations about hell from Scripture that lead to one astounding hope.

Beyond the Dead

Hell is a place yet to be. As I read Scripture, prior to the resurrection of Jesus, when someone died, his spirit separated from the body and entered a shadowy nonphysical realm. Sheol (in Hebrew) and Hades (in Greek) express this state, or place, of the dead. It was a lonely, twilight kind of existence. It was devoid of experiencing the personal presence of the Lord in prayer or worship (Psalm 6:5). Both the evil and the faithful went there, though (it seems) to different parts. In the unfolding revelation of Scripture, however, we come to see Sheol/Hades as but an intermediate state for the human spirit.

With the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, we learn that Sheol/Hades is not a permanent state, either for believers or unbelievers. For those united to Christ, our spirits get to go directly into God’s presence (Philippians 1:23). For those not united to Christ, some traditions, following Hebrews 9:27, believe that these persons enter judgment immediately. To my reading, Scripture doesn’t give us enough information to say definitively what happens to the spirits of those who die without Christ. Sheol/Hades as an intermediate state may still be a possibility. What is abundantly clear, however, is that for every human spirit there is more to come.

With the return of Jesus at judgment day, all the dead will be raised (1 Thessalonians 4:16). As Paul writes, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. . . . The dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). Human beings don’t go out of existence. Our spirits live after death. Then, “at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:52), we will be raised into spiritual bodies.

This rising, however, is not as hopeful as it first sounds. We all will give an account. Paul writes, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Jesus chillingly clarifies, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29).

What follows for those judged and found wanting is Gehenna, properly translated as “hell.” Gehenna is the same word in both Hebrew and Greek, designating the fiery place of everlasting punishment. Gehenna is a variation on the Valley of Hinnom, a place outside Jerusalem where children had been sacrificed in idolatrous rites (Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). It later became a garbage dump, and its fires smoldered continually. By Jesus’s time, the name of this notorious valley had become equated with punishment in the afterlife, a condition to occur after the intermediate state of Sheol and after the day of judgment. Gehenna is what we usually think of as hell.

Beyond Metaphor

The Bible describes the suffering of hell in vivid terms. Jesus speaks of “the outer darkness.” “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). He also quotes from Isaiah in describing hell as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). These images suggest an endless devouring from both inside and outside.

“Jesus warns us about hell precisely so we do not have to experience it.”

In his final parable, Jesus depicts the Son of Man saying to the wicked, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41). Hebrews speaks of “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27). Revelation starkly describes “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Revelation 21:8) in a torment that goes on forever (Revelation 20:10).

All this language is imagistic, but it is not imaginary. Taken literally, it’s hard to picture how one could be in the brightness of a burning lake and in the outer darkness at the same time. And would not such a fire consume our teeth beyond all gnashing? These descriptions seem metaphorical. But metaphorical doesn’t mean unreal. The true words of Scripture point to realities beyond description in this world. Scripture likens the experience of hell to horrors we can picture, but the actuality will be more terrible, not less.

So, Paul sums it up as he writes of those who reject the gospel: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

Beyond Myself

The reality of hell shakes us awake from the delusion of our own sovereignty. It turns out that we do not belong to ourselves. And we’re getting away with nothing! Hebrews tells us, “No creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

Similarly, Jesus warns his disciples of hypocrisy: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light” (Luke 12:2–3). Nothing is lost in the past. Everything will be exposed for what it is. For God to set all things right, the stark truth about us must be told. Just as it’s supposed to, that thought terrifies me. Jesus continues, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:4–5).

Lest we comfort ourselves that such words are merely for the notoriously reprobate, Jesus throws an easy-grace theology into a tailspin by linking our failure in works of love with the punishment of Gehenna. He says to his disciples, “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment . . . and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell [Gehenna] of fire” (Matthew 5:22).

Metaphorically, Jesus directs us to cut off a hand or tear out an eye should either cause us to sin. For these painful extremes would be far better than to be thrown into Gehenna for our sin (Mark 9:42–49). Jesus uses the term Gehenna, then, as a kind of shorthand for what he describes elsewhere as the “eternal punishment” that awaits those who fail to do acts of kindness to “the least of these my brothers” (Matthew 25:40, 45–46). The word also encapsulates Jesus’s teaching on the exaction of the Father against those who do not forgive their brother from the heart (Matthew 18:35).

Jesus, more than anyone, declares us accountable to God for our lives. He does not spare even his beloved first disciples from moral, spiritual, and relational responsibility, nor from the consequences of failing.

Beyond Wildest Hope

Since Jesus’s words are the standard, then I can only agree with him that I am liable, deserving, due, and bound for the fires that ever burn. With David, I plead, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3).

Indeed. Yet, David anticipates, “With you there is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:4). How can that be? Because our judge is “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Jesus warns us about hell precisely so we do not have to experience it! He became accountable for us as he engaged a life of sinless righteousness and love.

At the end of his ministry, of course, his disciples did fail him. They betrayed, denied, and deserted their Lord. But Jesus took on the responsibility for their (and indeed our) failures. Jesus entered the fiery judgment for his people. On the cross, he endured the hell of God-forsakenness. He underwent the fearful second death of Gehenna before he had entered the first death! He knew the utter darkness and the fiery lake. But not for himself. For us.

And so, for those joined to Christ, the fires of judgment get transformed. We will still stand before the throne. And surely we will weep when so many of our words and deeds are found worthless. As Paul says, “The fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13). But we ourselves will be saved through our union with Christ. The fires will be cleansing rather than penal. Beyond all deserving or even our most daring hope, Jesus, who set the impossible standard, is also “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

Hell cannot be excised from Scripture. But we need not go there. Joined to Jesus, we can experience the promise made through Isaiah in greatest depth: “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned” (Isaiah 43:2).