Most people think they know what hell is like. Ask them on a blast furnace August day how hot it feels. Search Google for graphics featuring hell and flaming infernos will fill your screen. The terrors of war are compared to hell. As is terminal disease, divorce, and a dysfunctional workplace.
The Bible uses similar pictures to describe hell. Jesus predicts how on Judgment Day his angels will throw those who have rejected him “into the fiery furnace.” He goes on to say that those in that furnace will weep and gnash their teeth (Matthew 13:50). Hell, then, is a place of abject sorrow and staggering grief. It is a place where people’s fate is horrific and unstoppable. That’s why they gnash (grind) their teeth to display their frustration, rebellion, and anger.
There are additional ways the Bible helps us relate to hell. In Jesus’ story about a rich man suffering there, he has the man describe the place as a torture chamber (Luke 16:24). Hell is pictured as a place of blackest darkness (Matthew 8:12, Jude 13). The Old Testament prophet Isaiah uses a metaphor Steven King would enjoy. He says the people in hell are perpetually consumed by worms (Isaiah 66:24).
The essence of hell is separation from God and his kindness, love, generosity, and care. It was from the depths of that separation that the sin-suffering Jesus screamed from the cross, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Paul promises such separation awaits those who reject God’s grace. “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Gruesome pictures. Distasteful descriptions. But even worse is being there. Words are inadequate to capture hell’s excruciation, its anguish, its dread. Little wonder that Jesus urges us to avoid hell’s torture, torment, and terror at all costs: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).
Hell is what anyone deserves who has ever done anything wrong. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Galatians 3:10). Hell is the destination for all who believe they don’t need forgiveness or that they can earn their own forgiveness. That’s the price a lack of perfection exacts in the holy God’s court of justice.
How wonderful that God provides us a way to escape. He gives us a place to live for an eternity that is the polar opposite of hell. That is what Jesus is all about. The Bible assures us, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…. God made him who had no sin [that’s Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:17,21). With Jesus’ righteousness, heaven is ours.