According to the Bible, hell is a real place where God judges unrepentant sinners with eternal, conscious punishment. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines hell as the “Place of God's final retributive punishment. Scripture progressively develops this destiny of the wicked: the Old Testament outlines the framework, while the New Testament elaborates on it. Jesus, however, is most responsible for defining hell.”
The traditional, biblical understanding of hell consists of three parts: eternal, conscious, and punishment. The duration of hell is eternal. Because people are made to last forever, they will either live eternally in heaven or eternally in hell. The prophet Daniel wrote about the eternal nature of heaven and hell when he said, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
The experience of hell is conscious. People in hell are not asleep or annihilated; instead, people are awake and aware of their experience. Jesus said, “While the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).
Hell is also a just punishment for sins. Hell is not an unearned sentence but a lawful condemnation of sinners who deserve the penalty they receive. Jude explained the penal nature of hell when he wrote, “Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7).
There are several ways the Bible describes hell. The New Testament is more clear than the Old Testament about hell because of the Old Testament’s multiple meanings of the term sheol (Hebrew: שְׁאוֹל), which is most often translated in English as hell. Sheol sometimes refers to the place of the dead, but sometimes just refers to the grave, highlighting man's mortality. And since the Bible progressively reveals truth, we can focus on New Testament terms related to hell, especially on what Jesus had to say.
Why is hell eternal? The eternal, never-ending nature of the sinner’s punishment is directly related to the infinite and eternal nature of God. When you sin against an infinite God—and all sin is primarily oriented toward God—you accrue an infinite debt. This is the only way to explain the Father’s decision not to spare his Son but to deliver him to suffer in our place (Romans 8:32). An eternal, infinite being was needed to bear the weight of an infinite punishment.
Why is there punishment? The punishments of hell are directly related to the transcendent holiness of God. Those who face that weight of condemnation have sinned against a God who is truly, purely holy. God’s holiness is unable to tolerate anything or anyone that is unholy; his holiness produces a reflex that acts out in wrath against all sin (Romans 1:18). On the cross, even Christ had to cry out in his forsakenness, feeling as if he was cut off from all that was good and pure and holy as the wrath against sin was poured out on him (Matthew 27:46).
Why is punishment conscious? Those who have sinned consciously must also bear their punishment consciously. The Bible tells us that we have not been passive in our rebellion against God but have been willing participants and active rebels. In some mysterious way, we were even willing participants in the sin of Adam, and we cannot claim we would have done any differently. Justice demands conscious punishment, not mere annihilation of the person or his or her sin. What clearer example do we have than Jesus Christ, who consciously bore God’s wrath against sin? If Christ’s suffering for our sin was conscious, so too will be the suffering of those who bear their own sin apart from forgiveness in Christ. God will not ask less of them than he asked of his Son.
Given the reality and nature of hell, it raises the question: are people in hell now? Luke 16 is our best window into what happens to people when they die. In Jesus’ account of Lazarus and the rich man, he answers whether people are currently in hell, a place of conscious torment.
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:19–24).
We learn from this true narrative when the rich man died, he found himself in Hades (Greek: ᾅδῃ), or hell. The rich man did not enter a kind of sleep known as “soul sleep,” as some groups teach. Instead, he immediately went to a place of judgment. Just as this man found himself in hell shortly after his physical death, we can infer from this passage that people are in hell right now. There is a technical sense in which the final state of judgment, being cast into the lake of fire which is the second death (Revelation 20:18), comes later, but it is clear that those who have not repented and trusted in Christ face the consequences immediately after death.
Can people who are in hell see outside of hell? Scripture does not give us much information regarding what people can or cannot see from hell. However, there appears to be a way for people in hell to see outside to some extent. In Luke 16, we also learn the rich man could see “Abraham far off” (Luke 16:23). It is possible for at least one person to see outside hell, which suggests others can as well.
In addition, some outside of hell may be able to see inside hell. In the Luke 16 passage, Abraham converses with the rich man. And although the passage doesn't directly state this, it is logical to infer that just as the rich man could see Abraham and Lazarus, they could also see (and respond verbally) to him. This passage suggests that those outside of hell (presumably in heaven) will be able to look into hell to see God’s judgment upon unrepentant sinners.
Did Jesus travel to hell after he was crucified? The Apostle’s Creed, an early church creed, states of Jesus, “he descended into hell.” Though this document is not in the Bible, it represents an early church perspective about Jesus (Christology). There is disagreement among conservative commentators regarding whether Jesus actually went to hell after he died on the cross, and the inclusion of the phrase in The Apostle’s Creed can be seen to change over time. Those exegetes who affirm Jesus went to hell point to a few passages:
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18–20)
In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? (Ephesians 4:9)
These passages seem to suggest Jesus went somewhere after he died on the cross like “the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40) or “into the lower regions” (Ephesians 4:9). From these passages, some have argued that Jesus did go to hell after his crucifixion and death.
However, others argue Christ’s descending into the earth is a metaphor for his incarnation. For instance, Psalm 139:15 states, “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” In that Psalm, it does not appear David is literally suggesting he was created in the middle of the earth. Instead, the text is a metaphor for how he was made within his mother in a hidden place. In the same way, commentators would see Jesus’ descent into the earth as his actual burial, not an excursion into hell. This position coincides with Jesus’ words in John 3:13, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
As you can see, there is debate on whether Jesus went to hell between his death and resurrection, and both sides aim to justify their position from Scripture. The ministry of Answers in Genesis does not take an official position on the answer of whether Jesus went to hell in some fashion. However, we must firmly deny any notion that Jesus experienced any form of punishment for his own sins or the sins of others, as many false teachers have claimed. All of the payment for sin was accomplished on the cross, as Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished” before he died, only to victoriously rise from the dead on the third day.
Some commentators have tried to ignore or spiritualize all references to eternal torment. One position known as “annihilationism” argues that hell is temporary or non-existent. Annihilationists do not believe in a real place of eternal, conscious punishment of unredeemed sinners.
The major issue with annihilationists is how they handle the Bible. Annihilationism requires every instance of eternal punishment to be reinterpreted as an allegory or symbol. Annihilationists cannot explain Matthew 25:46 (“And these will go away into eternal punishment . . . ”) or Revelation 14:11 (“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever . . . ”) apart from allegorizing Scripture in an unjustified manner. And if Matthew 25:46 does not teach an eternal hell, it cannot teach an eternal heaven, since the same words are used to describe each. In addition, the majority position of church teachers throughout history has advocated for the traditional understanding of hell as eternal, conscious punishment, while those who have denied hell have been considered heretics.
Hell can be a difficult teaching to grasp. When Jesus’ disciples heard one of Christ’s teachings about discipleship, they exclaimed, “this is a hard saying” (John 6:60). So there is precedent in the Bible for hearing challenging instruction and acknowledging the gravity of the teaching. Indeed, hell is a “hard saying.”
Despite the emotional difficulty of the doctrine of hell, the Bible records more words Jesus spoke about hell than he did about heaven. Hell is the just punishment for sin. God demonstrated his perfect righteousness by judging sin in two ways. Firstly, God condemned sin in awesome dimensions in the sacrifice of his eternal Son, a punishment more than all creatures combined could ever suffer. Secondly, God will forever punish Satan, his demonic hordes, and all other unrepentant evildoers in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10, 21:8). In this way, God underscores his justice against sinful, rebellious creatures in light of his infinite holiness.
Eternal, conscious punishment in hell is a serious matter. Anyone who values their eternal soul wants to avoid hell at all costs. Thankfully, God has secured for us a rescue from the just sentence of hell for our sins. God sent his Son Jesus who satisfied the righteous requirement of the law that condemned us to hell. In one of the most famous passages in the Bible, we learn, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
You do not have to perish in hell. Instead, you can be saved from hell by turning from your sins and putting your confidence in Jesus to save you from the proper punishment of your sins. Jesus Christ, died, was buried, and was resurrected. Believe in him and you will be saved from hell. And beyond avoiding God’s just punishment, you will find eternal joy in the forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God the Father through the substitutionary death of God the Son and the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower you to live a life that is pleasing to God. Your eternal future can be one of forgiveness and worship of your Creator.