Will people literally burn in Hell for all of eternity?
C. S. Lewis said that if he could remove anything from Christianity, it would be Hell. I can understand his statement. How could a loving God send billions of His creations to a place where they will be burned alive forever for not believing the right thing? And what about all those people who have never heard of Jesus? It seems rather petty!
Atheists have long used Hell as an argument against Christianity. They argue that it is immoral, because no crime is worthy of infinite punishment. Many Christians would admit they are right. So what are we to say? Will people literally burn in Hell for all of eternity just because they didn’t believe in Jesus?
Some try to answer this by arguing that, no, the Bible actually teaches that people will be annihilated in Hell, that is, they will cease to exist. We will examine this position in detail in a later post, but for now, we will simply note that verses like Rev. 21:8 and Dan. 12:2 make it unlikely. Others believe in a literal Hell, but argue that just rejecting, or being ignorant of, Jesus may not be sufficient for such punishment. Even Billy Graham seems to have taken this approach recently (see video below).
Against this, Jesus said that He is the only way to eternal life (John 14:6) and that unless men believed in Him, they would be condemned (John 3:17-18). So it seems that if we believe the Bible should be taken literally, we must conclude that the Bible speaks of Hell as a real place of eternal torment, however this may offend our senses. But perhaps if we have not stopped to consider the nature of this torment that is the source of our moral confusion.
It is true that the Revelation speaks of a “Lake of Fire” where all unbelievers will be confined forever. It does not immediately follow from this, however, that this fire must be literal. Fire throughout the Bible often speaks of divine judgment (Gen. 3:24; 19:24; Ezek. 10:2; Matt. 3:10; John 15:6, etc.). In Revelation 9:17-18, horses are depicted as riding in judgment with fire coming from their mouths. Maybe the fire speaks of eternal judgment rather than literal flames.
This is strengthened by other Scripture. Isaiah 66:22-24 describes the eternal state of the wicked by saying, “their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” (KJV). We still see the picture of fire, but the picture Isaiah presents is not a lake of fire into which people are thrown but of a dump where garbage is destroyed. Jesus also had the concept of a dump in mind when He spoke of the Lake of Fire in passages like Matt. 10:28. He used the word gehenna, which means “The Valley of Hinnom” and referred to a dump outside of Jerusalem where trash was burned.
It seems we have reason for taking the language used to describe the Lake of Fire as symbolic of judgment (just as the language used to describe Heaven probably also symbolic). But this should hardly cause us to think that Hell might not be so bad. The language was chosen to demonstrate the intensity of the torment those cast there will face. Seeing the language as symbolic, though, does allow us to understand better the judgment in light of the broader biblical data.
Both biblically and philosophically, we know that everything that is good comes from God. He is the source of love, kindness, compassion, etc. We know that evil is not a thing in and of itself but is actually a lack of goodness, just as darkness is a lack of light and cold is a lack of heat. We know that all people will be resurrected into physical, immortal bodies at the end of time (Dan. 12:1-2) and that believers will be resurrected to be like Christ (1 John 3:2). How, though, will the wicked be raised? Sadly, it appears that, having rejected God, they will not be raised as He is but as they are, and since all goodness is rooted in God, such people will have no goodness of any kind in them. Even the worst people history has ever known have had the moral law written on their hearts (Rom. 2:14-15). Yet it appears that these people will be totally separated from God—not from His presence, for the Bible says they will be in the presence of Jesus for all eternity (Rev. 14:10)—but from any kind of fellowship with Him. They will be eternally cut off.
Further, Paul says that when we sow into the flesh, we reap corruption (cf. Gal. 6:8; 5:19-21). What is the resurrection except the eternal reaping of what we have sown? Imagine the state these people will find themselves in: an eternity of anger, hostility, hatred, lust, envy, strife, bitterness, terror, and all things evil. They will be completely bent toward themselves. Can you imagine meeting a person who cared only for themselves in the absolute degree?
Their torment will be real and unimaginable, but it will be self-inflicted. Most amazingly, they will blame God forever, since they will have no concept of justice—only their own desires. C. S. Lewis once said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
The torment of Hell is literal, even if the flames used to describe them are not. But in examining the nature of the judgment, it is apparent that no other end could be expected. Hell is not a place of justice, where the lost finally get what they deserve. Hell is a place where the lost are kept for, having finally been given completely over to themselves, being what they are.
What are your thoughts on the matter? What do you think an eternity without God and any of His blessings would be like?