The subject of hell is not one that we are inclined to spend time thinking about. The concept of people suffering endlessly after death is certainly a deeply unpleasant one. And it is therefore perfectly natural for us not to want to dwell on it.
I think it would also be true to say that it is fairly uncommon to hear Christian teachers referring to this topic. Most pastors will refer to it briefly from time to time. But it is unusual for much emphasis to be given to it. And I think many pastors, even of Bible-believing churches, often go for months at a time, perhaps longer, without making any reference to it at all.
The big problem with this, however, is that the New Testament contains a lot of teaching about hell. Most NT books refer to it either explicitly or implicitly. And importantly too, the person who can be found teaching most often about it is Jesus Himself.
The Gospels include a great many references to hell.
In Matthew Jesus says:
‘I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. And whoever says, ‘Raca’, to his brother will be liable to the council. And whoever says, ‘You fool’, will be liable to fiery hell.’
In Matthew 5:29-30 Jesus teaches:
‘If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. For 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. For it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go to hell.’
He can also be found making similar comments in Matthew 18:8-9 and Mark 9:43-48.
No fewer than seven times, in Matthew ; , 50; ; 24:51; 25:30; and Luke 13:28, Jesus, referring to punishment after death, states:
‘In that place there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’
In Matthew Jesus teaches:
‘Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul, but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.’
He says something very similar in Luke 12:4-5.
In Matthew 25:31-46, in His teaching about the sheep and the goats which represent the saved and the unsaved, Jesus states:
‘Then He will also say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” ’ (v. 41)
‘These [evildoers] will go away into eternal punishment . . .’ (v. 46)
In Mark Jesus refers to hell as a place ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not extinguished’.
In Luke 16:19-31, in His account of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus paints a graphic picture of torment in hell.
And in John 15:6 He says:
‘If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown out like and branch and dries up. And they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.’
There are numerous other direct or indirect references to hell in the Gospels, mainly from Jesus but also from John the Baptist. See Matthew 3:7, 10-12; 7:13-14, 17-19; 11:20-24; 12:32; 13:30, 40; 23:13, 15, 33; Mark 3:29; Luke 3:7, 9, 16-17; 10:10-15; 12:10, 42-48; John 3:16, 36; 5:29.
The letters of Paul
In the letters of Paul hell is also mentioned quite often.
In Romans 2:5 Paul refers to those who are not saved by faith in Christ, when he says:
‘Because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourselves on the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God.’
Then in v. 9 he says a little more about what this experience will involve:
‘There will be suffering and distress for every human being who does evil, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.’
In Romans 5:9 Paul says:
‘Much more, then, since we have now been justified by His blood, we will be saved from wrath through Him.’
In Galatians 6:8 he states:
‘The one who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.’
In Philippians Paul refers to the ‘destruction’ of those who are hostile to the Philippian believers.
He also describes the end of evildoers as ‘destruction’ in Philippians 3:19.
In 1 Thessalonians Paul says that Jesus ‘rescues us from the wrath to come’.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 he states that when Jesus appears from heaven, He will ‘punish those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus’ and that they ‘will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power’.
See also Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 3:17; 2 Corinthians 2:15-16.
The rest of the New Testament
The theme of hell is found in other parts of the NT too.
In Hebrews 10:26-27 the author warns his readers:
‘If we go on sinning wilfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire that will consume His enemies.’
And then in v. 31 he says:
‘It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’
In 2 Peter 2:9 Peter tells us that ‘the Lord knows how . . . to keep the wicked under punishment for the day of judgment’.
In Jude 13 Jude refers to certain people ‘for whom the gloom of darkness has been reserved forever’.
In Revelation 14:9-11 John states:
‘Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he will also drink of the wine of the anger of God, which is mixed at full strength in the cup of His wrath. And he will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. And they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” ’
Later, in Revelation , John refers to the beast and the false prophet being thrown into the lake of fire which burns with sulphur.
Then in he refers to the devil being thrown into this fire and says that the devil, beast and false prophet will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
And then in he asserts:
‘If anyone was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.’
Finally, in 21:8 John sees Jesus continue the theme by saying:
‘For the cowardly and unbelieving and detestable and murderers and the sexually immoral and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.’
A number of other NT passages referring to hell, mostly indirectly, also exist. See Acts ; Hebrews 6:4-8; ; James 4:12; 5:1-6; 2 Peter 2:1, 3-4, 17; Revelation 2:11; 18:5-6; -14.
The reality of hell should be taught often
The list of references that I have given is not exhaustive. There are others that could be added to it. My aim has simply been to show that in the NT there is a lot of teaching about hell, especially from Jesus.
It is therefore wrong for Christian leaders to ignore this topic or give minimal attention to it. Similarly it makes sense that it should feature in evangelism.
It is true that we should be sensitive about how we refer to hell. At times the Bible describes it quite graphically. But at other times it is much more subtle, for example when it refers to hell as ‘destruction’. Often when teachers or evangelists refer to it, there will be no need to paint a vivid portrait of the sufferings involved.
Nevertheless, the reality of this awful prospect after death for those who die without being saved from their sins by faith in Jesus Christ should be taught and taught frequently.
Hell does not conflict with God’s love
You will often hear people saying that belief in a loving God is incompatible with belief in hell. Some of those who say this see the supposed incompatibility as proof that the Christian faith is false. Others claim to be Christians who don’t believe that hell exists.
In fact, there is no need to see the love of God as conflicting with the existence of hell. Christian truth and biblical revelation contain much more tension and paradox than we are used to in the modern West. And the reality of both a God of love and eternal punishment in hell is an example of this.
We must remember that as well as being loving, God is just. And deeply ingrained within us all is a sense that justice is a good thing. We feel that it is right that an action that is morally wrong deserves to be followed by punishment, i.e., suffering of some sort as a consequence of that action. Hell simply has to do with the just nature of God being expressed.
It is certainly difficult for us to understand why God will punish people eternally rather than in some lesser way. However, because God is infinite, there is a sense in which any sin that a person commits is an infinitely serious offence against Him. And so perhaps it is not so strange for those who commit infinitely serious offences to be punished forever.
Warnings to avoid hell
Of course, there is an escape route from punishment in hell through faith in Christ and what He accomplished on the cross. As well as being just, God is also merciful. And the Bible reveals Him as having a preference for showing mercy over punishing.
Nevertheless, although God prefers to show mercy, Scripture makes it clear that only a minority of people actually choose to receive His mercy. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus can be found urging people to take the rarely-travelled, narrow road that leads to life instead of the well-populated, broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
So it is crucial that Christian leaders and evangelists warn people of the terrible danger of hell. Those who are unsaved should be warned that they need to be saved to avoid it. And those who are saved should be warned that they need to remain in the faith to avoid falling away from salvation and ending up there.