Investigating the Bible: Is Hell a place, an idea or a choice?


At a dinner party, Mark Twain was quiet as the subject of eternal life and hell was discussed. A woman seated next to him asked why he had not spoken. “Madam,” he replied, “I am silent because of necessity. I have friends in both places.” According to 2021 Pew Research, 62% of U.S. adults believe in hell and 73% believe in heaven. The final punishment of a hell seems too harsh for a loving God; it is only less so if we consider Hitler, Stalin or terrorists. What does the Bible say?

Hell is described as a real place of eternal suffering. As Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount that if a person is angry to the point of calling someone a fool, he “will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:22, New International Version used throughout). The Greek word for hell used here is Gehenna, which was also the name of a place outside of Jerusalem, where refuse was dumped and a smoldering fire burned constantly. Gehenna is used in the New Testament to describe the place of final punishment. The gospels describe this as a place, where the “…worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:48).

Hades is the New Testament word for a temporary place of punishment at death, until the final judgment.’ Jesus used this word in his parable of an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. When the time comes for both to die, Lazarus is carried away by angels to a place of comfort described as Abraham’s bosom. The scripture explains that “The rich man also died and was buried. In hell (Hades), where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side, so he called him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” (Luke 16: 22,23).

One internet pastor softened this by explaining that the rich man had a choice; he could stay or leave. There is nothing in the context to support that interpretation. The rich man only asked for permission to go and warn his brothers so they would not come to this terrible place, saying “…if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” (Luke 16:30). Abraham denies this request. His response is a clear reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:29,31).

After final the final judgment by God, “…death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:14,15).

The New Testament makes it very clear that God’s intention and desire is to offer people eternal life and not eternal punishment. Numbers alone indicate this. The words Gehenna and Hades are used in the New Testament 20 times. The word for Life is used 129 times and the word for Heaven is used approximately 573 times! God’s offer and method of escaping hellfire permeates the New Testament. Speaking of Jesus, the apostle John wrote, “…to all who received him…he gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12).

The Bible offers freedom of choice before the grave. Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote that there are two kinds of people, “…those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No one that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

David Carlson Pastor (yes, that is his last name but not his profession) is a Polk County resident and graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in Minnesota (M.Div., M.Th.).


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