When we think hell, we think of fiery lakes, burning pain, destruction, and unquenchable thirst. These images ought to come to mind, because it’s how the Bible describes hell. But it’s important to ask about the intentions of the original authors. Did the biblical authors intend for us to take these images literally, or to understand them differently? What is hell really? Isn’t a lake of fire barbaric and silly?
Tim Keller writes,
Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical. (Since souls are in hell right now, without bodies, how could the fire be literal, physical fire?) Even Jonathan Edwards pointed out that the biblical language for hell was symbolic, but, he added, ‘when metaphors are used in Scripture about spiritual things . . . they fall short of the literal truth.’ … To say that the Scriptural image of hell-fire is not wholly literal is of no comfort whatsoever. The reality will be far worse than the image.
So if hell is not a fiery lake, then what is it?
First, hell is a place of separation from God’s grace (2 Thes. 1:9). While the bible does not say where hell is, it does emphasize that it’s location is absolutely separate from God’s loving provision. (Lk. 16:26). You see, if God is the true treasure and joy of the universe, nothing could be worse than absolute alienation from him, and his loving kindness. Imagine an infant without its mother, a lover without his love, an academic without his books. It is like that, but far far worse. In hell, we are totally separated from God’s grace and love. Our only contact with God is his wrath, from which there is no break, there is no quenching.
Second, hell is a place of unquenchable thirsts (Mk. 9:43). In the parable of the rich man and lazarus, Jesus describes a rich man in hell, who cannot quench his thirst (Lk. 16:24); in other places he describes hell as a place of unquenchable fire (Mk. 9:43). From this we gather that hell is place where people’s desires cannot be quenched, where there is no fulfillment, no satisfaction, and no peace. You see, satisfaction can be found in God alone. Therefore in hell, where we are totally separate from God, even the small things cannot fulfill us, because even the small tastes of fulfillment we get (like a cold glass of water after a long run) are graces that come only from God.
Third, hell is a place of total degeneration. In this life, Christians and non-Christians alike experience God’s common grace. God gives us grace so that we’re able to love, able to serve, and able to know truth (Matt. 5:45-48). But these are small graces, meant to point us to God. In hell, we are seperate from God. His grace no longer enables us to do good, and we are given over to our evil desires. Jesus says that in hell “the worm does not die” (Mk. 9:48). We are in a constant state of spiritual decomposition. Imagine a human after a billion years of following his most selfish, most evil fancies. We degenerate into eternity. That is hell.
When we talk about hell, we must paint the true picture. Because fire, and undying worms, do not fully capture the biblical view of God’s eternal judgement. To modern minds it is a ridiculous picture, far from frightening, and far from compelling. You see, we must remember that Hell is far worse than we can imagine. It is compared to flames, not because it is less than flames, but because it is worse. Hell is where God pours his eternal wrath on those who sinned against him. The true picture not only makes sense, but also deepens our understanding of what Christ experienced on the cross–the wrath of God that we deserved. You see our God is just and the justifier. He saves us, by bearing our hell. If we mock hell, we mock his cross, we mock his salvation.