We have probably all said this to someone or something in anger. Or we have said its more profane equivalent. These words flow easily without understanding their literal meaning. Hell is not a place I would wish on my worst enemy or on the worst of people.
Is Hell real or was it just a fable to control people with fear? Without a doubt the fear of Hell has been abused by some, but Jesus clearly speaks of its reality. If you take Heaven seriously, you have no ground for not taking Hell seriously since Jesus spoke of it often, maybe even more than Heaven as a destination for mankind.
To be specific, I make a contrast between two words that are often rendered as “Hell”. Jesus speaks of Gehenna and Hades. These are not synonyms, so they should not be translated as the same word. Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol. It is the destiny of those without the forgiveness of sins prior to Judgment Day. The characteristics of Hades do resemble that of Gehenna, so people have tended to conflate them. Hades and Sheol constitute the majority of references to Hell in the Bible.
When I, and most people, think about Hell, they are thinking about the final place of judgement, not a temporary one. Because of this, I prefer to reserve the word Hell for the post-Judgment Day destination of the damned. That convention would limit the references to Hell to the following passages that I would like to handle a couple at a time over the next few entries.
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)
This passage comes at the end of the Sheep and the Goats story which definitely describes Judgment Day. Just two words describe Hell here: eternal and punishment. We will have to look elsewhere to find the nature of the punishment. The disturbing thing here is “eternal”. There is no end to it. I would be more comfortable with “permanent destruction” suggesting that the evil people come to an end, or even “long” punishment. Eternal is tough. What could be bad enough to deserve eternal punishment? The gravity of this has caused some to postulate that Hell doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t exist for any human, or it actually is temporary. I think this passage is pretty clear. People are going to eternal punishment.
In the same chapter are these words:
And throw that servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:30)
Does this refer to the eternal Hell, too? It doesn’t expressly say, but a couple of things would make me conclude so. First, Matthew 25 is all about preparation for Judgment Day, so this seems like an outcome of that. Then the words “outside” and “darkness” imply a separation from God, which is the ultimate judgment. When Jesus was forsaken by His Father on the cross, it seemed that was far worse than the nails or other torments. Jesus being forsaken results in our not needing to be forsaken, if we are connected to Jesus.
The other descriptors are “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth”. Both sound horrible. They also sound physical. The final judgment is a punishment of both body and soul. More about this later.
I would love for Hell to be either fictional or empty, but I would rather know the truth rather than be surprised by it. I would also prefer to learn about Hell from afar rather than from experience. Though unpleasant, please follow me as I look at the other references in the Bible.