Director of communications, Missouri Baptist Convention
The doctrine of hell is disturbing. The very idea of suffering and separation beyond the grave elicits a wide range of responses, from anguish to anger.
The possibility of departed loved ones languishing in outer darkness only adds to the grief of those laying flowers on their graves.
Some atheists cite hell as a reason to deny the existence of a loving God.
For Anglican cleric John Stott, who wrote the influential book Basic Christianity, the idea of eternal suffering in hell was so repugnant that he rejected it in favor of annihilationism, the idea of being extinguished after death.
According to a 2014 survey by LifeWay Research, fewer mainline Protestants believe in hell than do Americans in general (55 percent vs. 61 percent, respectively).
And for many evangelicals, hell remains an inconvenient truth.
Some may want to believe that hell is not forever. How could the sins of a single lifetime warrant everlasting punishment? Is that really fair? Maybe the wicked are annihilated at death. As for the really vile sinner — a mass murderer, rapist, or child molester — perhaps his punishment is to suffer for a while in hell before passing into non-existence.
But there are good reasons to believe hell is forever.
For starters, the testimony of Jesus. Of the 12 uses of the word “Gehenna” in the New Testament, 11 come from the lips of the Messiah. He tells us that hell was created for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Since angels do not die, fallen angels must experience a never-ending torment in the lake of fire. Indeed, this is what John notes of Satan in Revelation 20:10.
As for humans, the beast and the false prophet of Revelation appear to be the first such creatures cast into hell (Revelation 19:20). Satan joins them later — perhaps after 1,000 years — and they are still very much alive.
Further, Jesus depicts the wicked as going into “eternal punishment” and the righteous into “eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). The same Greek word “aionion” is used to describe the never-ending existence of the wicked as for the follower of Jesus.
Even so, it grieves the heart of God that anyone spends eternity apart from Him. God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). Jesus lamented over the inhabitants of Jerusalem who would soon cry out for His death (Matthew 23:37). Further, Christ’s offer of salvation stands for all people, and He graciously delays His return in judgment so more people hear the gospel and turn to Him (II Peter 3:9).
Those who embrace the idea of body and soul ceasing to exist after a time in hell point to the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28, where He warns us to “fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.”
However, the word “destroy” does not mean annihilate. As Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon defines the word “apollumi,” it means “to be delivered up to eternal misery.” In every instance where this word is found in the New Testament, something other than annihilation is described, according to Robert Morey in Death and the Afterlife.
Jesus’ teachings on “outer darkness,” “eternal fire,” and “eternal punishment” support the concept of Gehenna as a place of conscious, everlasting separation from God. That’s not only because unbelievers have accumulated a lifetime of sins but because their sins have been committed against an eternally holy Creator.
The severity of a wrong is not determined solely by the act itself, but also by the one against whom the wrong is committed. Think about it: How could you possibly repay the sin debt owed to an eternally existing and perfectly holy God? It would take an eternity.
However, if someone who is both eternal and perfect could take your place and endure your punishment, your debt to God would be paid and His justice would be served. Isn’t that what Jesus accomplished through His sinless life, death, burial, and resurrection?
That’s why the apostle Paul could write, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).
Hell is forever. But because of Jesus, no one has to go there.