Summary: Hell is the eternal, conscious, tormenting state of existence of those separated from God.
The summer of my seventh year I attended a Vacation Bible School at Grace Baptist Church in Tyro, North Carolina. My family attended a United Methodist Church in the neighboring community and this VBS was quite similar to what I was used to: games; sugar wafers; cherry Kool-Aid; flannel-graph; I am a C ... I am a C.H. ... I am a C.H.R.I.S.T.I.A.N."; you get it ... standard fare. What I was not expecting occurred the final evening. Our sweet, grandmotherly VBS teacher stood one final time to tell us about Jesus, only this time there was a solemn tone to her voice that made us all a bit anxious.
She said some like this: "Boys and girls I’m going to tell you about a place where you don’t want to go. It’s called hell. Those who don’t believe in Jesus live there after they die. It’s a dark and hot place where you’re all alone. You ask for a glass of water to drink because you’re so thirsty, but no one brings you anything. You call out for a piece of bacon because you’re so hungry, but nobody brings you anything. You’re scared and you cry for your momma, but no one comes. Your momma’s not there. You’re all alone ... forever ... because you’re in hell."
Let me ask you: Was what that little old lady said true? Would a loving God torment someone in a fiery hell for all eternity? Even if it is true, should she have scared the wits out of me and my fellow VBS-ers?
Hell is a subject that we 21st century Christians don’t talk much about anymore. It seems so medieval. It makes God appear mean and sadistic. After all who tortures people these days other than serial killers, terrorists, and the CIA? Frankly, hell is a subject we don’t want to think about, much less verbalize in a skeptical world.
Rob Bell, rock star preacher of the evangelical world, has been making news lately with his book, Love Wins. Bells appears to promote universalism in the book (the belief that all will eventually be saved), while at the same time denying it when confronted with the question. A month or so ago he was asked bluntly about hell:
"Is there hell? If not, does that take anything away from the cross?" one participant posed to him Monday.
"I actually think there is hell because we see hell every day," Bell answered.
At an earlier point in the discussion, he described hell this way: "Greed, injustice rape, abuse, we see hell on earth all around us all the time ... And we actually see lots of people choosing hell. We see oppression, we see tyranny, we see dictators using their power to eliminate the opposition, literally."
How’s that for a non-answer? If the preaching gig doesn’t work out, Bell should probably consider politics.
What does the Word of God have to say about hell? It says a lot and the descriptions are horrifying.
Upon encountering the astonishing faith of a Roman centurion, Jesus remarked:
"I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
It’s dark and the inhabitants of that place simultaneously mourn and seethe with anger. In hell there is a sense of great loss topped by great frustration.
In Matthew 13 Jesus used a similar description, but with a puzzling difference:
"They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
What’s the difference? Weeping and gnashing of teeth is the same, but instead of darkness, now there’s fire? How can fire and darkness exist in the same place?
In Matthew 3:12 Jesus further described the fire of hell this way:
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12
The author of the Revelation tells us that this unquenchable, dark fire will be tormenting:
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Revelation 20:10
No matter what Hollywood, comic books, and fantasy novels say, Satan and his demons will not rule hell. They will be imprisoned there in suffering. Jude 7 compares hell to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah except that it is eternal:
In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.