There are few ideas more distasteful and repugnant to modern people than the concept of hell. This idea is so utterly terrible that we naturally are taken aback and withdraw from even considering whether it could be real. Yet according to Scripture and the Lord Jesus himself it is an unspeakably terrible reality that at least some human beings will experience.
In the Old Testament or Hebrew portion of Scripture, the term used is Sheol. It basically means the place of the dead (for example, see Isaiah 5:14). In the New Testament or Greek portion of Scripture, there are three words translated as “hell” in English translations of the Bible: Hades, Gehenna and Tartaros.
The Greek word Hades is roughly equivalent in meaning to Sheol, designating the place of the dead (see Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:8; 6:8; 20:13, 14). Gehenna designates the eternal place where all demons and all who side with them against God will eventually go (see Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; parallel Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Matthew 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33; Luke 12:5; see also Matthew 25:46; Revelation 20:11-15). James references gehenna in regard to demonic influence over human speech and behavior (James 3:6). The third term, tartaros, is apparently a deep and dark section of gehenna which is reserved specifically for certain demonic spirits (2 Peter 2:4; see Jude 6).
I do not understand the nature of hell (any of the three) and in writing about it here I am not attempting to advance any specific view on hell. I will only note that there has been among some contemporary theologians a lively debate regarding whether those persons who end up in hell (gehenna) exist on for eternity (as is promised to believers) or they cease to exist at some point. This is a subject that would require another extended written piece to address—and thus I only want to note this for readers to be aware of.
It may be helpful here to note that Christians are not the only ones who believe in a concept of “hell.” The ancient Greeks had a varied conception of the afterlife which included suffering and punishment for those especially who had done evil in their lives. The Qur’an plainly teaches that hell is a real place where unbelievers will go for eternity—indeed, it goes so far as to explicitly state that God predestines some human beings for hell. Some Buddhist traditions affirm concepts that are somewhat parallel to the biblical teaching on hell. Though it should be noted that in Buddhism the source of the suffering is rooted entirely in one’s own decisions to avoid the nature of reality and thus it is all self-inflicted.
Regardless of what other people believe, it seems to me that it is indisputable, based on Scripture, that “hell” is a future reality for some of humanity—unless we are to simply blot out the biblical passages that describe it. What I think is more important to establish is what the rational for this teaching may be. Why would such a horrific place exist? Why would there be no other option for God to take except placing people who refuse to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in “hell”?
This doctrine becomes, in my view, somewhat more understandable when considered from the vantage point of the reality of human freedom and dignity. The brilliant English writer G.K. Chesterton is helpful on this point. “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.” (source unknown)
For God created human beings with genuine choice to either say “yes” or “no” to relationship with God and participation in God’s supernatural provision of spiritual life; thus given that some will say “no” logically requires the existence of some “place” like hell. For if God respects our choice to trust and love him by faith (which is his will) then he will not force us to believe (trust) him. In the same way, would God not also respect a person’s choice to not trust and love him by faith?
Clearly, Scripture teaches that God loves all his creatures and does not desire for anyone to perish (see Ezekiel 18; especially 23-32; 2 Peter 3:9). Did not the Lord Jesus himself affirm about the future Judgment that some would be justly ordered “into the eternal fire prepared for the devils and his demons” (Matthew 25:41, NLT)? My reading of these passages leads me to conclude that any human being going (eventually) to hell was never part of God’s design or intention. Those humans who end up there do so because of what they have chosen in regard to God’s offer of walking on either the path of life or the path of death.
God’s love and mercy have been extended to all the creatures that he has made. But the way each individual chooses to respond to God differs. “The same sun hardens the clay but also melts the wax” (source unknown). I commend these points to the reader to ponder when considering the doctrine of hell.