6 Surprising Truths About Hell In The Bible

I know talking and thinking about hell is unpleasant to say the least. Most of us would rather just avoid it and often we do just ignore it. C.S. Lewis said in the Problem Of Pain, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this {hell}, if it lay in my power.” Hell in the Bible is tough to talk about. It’s caused some to question God and others to leave Christianity all together. So, what does the Bible say about hell?

Yes, hell is a difficult topic to talk about. But it’s something the Bible teaches and we cannot ignore it. We need to lean into the description of hell in the Bible, grapple with it, and learn from it. 

One of the biggest challenges when addressing the topic of hell is that many of the common beliefs about hell are not found in the Bible. Hell has been so influenced by culture, opinions, and misinformation that many of the common beliefs about hell look nothing like hell in the Bible. That’s a problem. 

I want to take a fresh look at what hell is and while look through the lens of, what does the Bible say about hell?

We will get to the 6 truths about hell in just a minute. But first we need to take a look at the description of hell in the Bible and see what it teaches us.

What Does The Bible Say About Hell?

Both the Old Testament and New Testament talk about hell. Although they approach it very differently. Because of that I broke the topic of hell in the Bible into two parts. First we will look at hell in the Old Testament and then hell in the New Testament. 

You can read the top 100 verses about hell in the Bible here: What Does The Bible Say About Hell

So, what does the Bible say about hell?

Hell In The Old Testament

The concept of hell in the Old Testament is vague to say the least. The concept of hell in the Bible doesn’t really pick until the New Testament. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing, so let’s take a look. 

The word the Old Testament uses that’s sometimes translated as hell is sheol and it’s used 65 times. This is where the difficulty comes in. This word translates as the grave, death, destruction, the pit, and sometimes hell. That’s quite the spectrum of possible definitions. 

At very least sheol is referring to death. At most sheol may refer to some sort of afterlife human existence for the wicked.

Ezekiel 32:17-32 offers us the longest description of the afterlife for the wicked in the Old Testament. Still it’s only a few glimpses and nothing solid. The picture he paints is one of separation for the wicked and judgment for their deeds. There are hints that the wicked feel shame, but also that they are comforted.

Ezekiel isn’t the only example. Here’s a few more: 

  • Daniel 12:2 says the wicked will be resurrected and punished. 
  • Jude 1:7 compares “hell” to what Sodom and Gomorrah faced. 
  • The psalmist in Psalm 16:10 thanks God for not abandoning his soul to sheol.
  • Numbers 16:33 states that those who go to sheol perish. 
  • And a variety of poetry mentions sheol in similar ways.

The Old Testament offers a few glimpses of hell, but it’s far from clear. In some passages, hell seems to be portrayed as eternal and in others extinction. Many times sheol isn’t even referring to eternal consequences, but rather physical death for wickedness.

According to the Old Testament, what does the Bible say about hell? Not much. Let’s check out hell in the New Testament. 

Hell In The New Testament 

Hell in the Bible really picks up in the New Testament which speaks about it much more frequently. However, it’s mostly in parables and illustrations. And maybe most surprisingly, it is Jesus that spends by far the most time talking about hell in the New Testament. 

Still the common thread when asking the question, what does the Bible say about hell, is that there is no passage that says exactly what hell is. Hell in the Bible stays more abstract. 

There are several words that the New Testament uses to describe hell. We’ll start with Jesus’ go to word for hell. 

The most popular word for hell in the New Testament is Gehenna. But this really wasn’t a word for hell in Jesus’ day. It was a literal place you could visit; it was a small valley just south of Jerusalem. 

Some speculate that in Jesus’ day Gehenna was a city dump in which trash was burned, day and night. You can imagine the foul smell and constant smoke that would be associated with the area. Hell, is one way to describe it. But that’s not fully proven.

However historically we know Gehenna was a much more evil place. Some of Israel’s darkest moments happened in that valley. It was a place where God’s people would go to worship other gods and practice human sacrifice. Often involving children. Gehenna was literally hell on earth.

It’s no coincidence that Jesus chooses this word to describe hell.

It’s important that we know the backstory. Because when Jesus used the word Gehenna to describe hell, those listening would have immediately had a picture of what Jesus was describing. They would have immediately recalled the painful memories of what their ancestors did. 

Hell to his audience isn’t a far off place that someday some people would go to. It was a literal place they could walk to. And that is a key distinction we need to keep in mind as we continue to look at hell in the Bible.

Another word that is used for hell in the New Testament is hades. Literally translated this word means the unseen place, referring to the invisible realm that the dead reside in. 

Jesus uses this term a few times, but this is mostly used in Revelation. What’s striking about this word is how it’s used. Hades is never used as a place where any person goes. Rather hades typically refers to the power of hell. 

Two exceptions are Luke 10:15, which says Capernaum (a city) will go down to hades, but that’s probably referring to death and not hell. Jesus also uses it in a parable in Luke 16, with the rich man living in hades. But really that parable does talk about the power that hades has over him. 

When the New Testament uses the word hades it is showing that it doesn’t have power over God. It’s not referring to hell and torment for the wicked, but rather that hades will not prevail and will be thrown into the lake of fire. In other words, when you see hades, it’s often good news about what God has done. 

One last word I want to note that the New Testament uses only once is tartarus. Literally meaning to cast into hell. 2 Peter 2:4 is the only occurrence of this word and is used to refer to the fallen angels being cast into hell.

According to the New Testament, what does the Bible say about hell? A lot more, but still the picture of hell in the Bible is not as clear as some make it out to be.

So, what can we know about what the Bible says about hell? Here’s what we can know about hell in the Bible. 

Description Of Hell In The Bible (and what it means)

Almost every description of hell in the Bible is hell is like and not hell is… The Bible refrains from telling us exactly what hell is. Anyone that gives absolutes about hell has to input a hefty dose of their own opinions. Rather, the Bible paints a picture and tells a parable. But it never breaks down in detail what hell is. 

That doesn’t mean we know nothing about hell. There’s still plenty of truth about hell in the Bible. Here’s 7 truths we can know about hell. 

1. Hell Is Separation From God 

The most basic principle the Bible teaches about hell is that it is separation from God. Hell is a place where people who refuse to follow God are separated from those who choose to follow him. 

This truth about hell in the Bible is found in almost every instance Jesus talked about hell. His parables and illustrations of what hell is like often contain this imagery of separating the good from the bad. The Bible is clear that hell means separation from God. 

What does the Bible say about hell? Hell is separate, removed.

2. Hell Is Outside, Not Underneath

I think this is an important distinction. Death in the Bible is often portrayed as below, but hell is portrayed as outside. Again the Bible never gives anything concrete, but this is what the majority of passages point to.

This imagery is brought on strongest by the New Testament, and Jesus’ word of choice for hell: Gehenna. A literal place where people went to practice idolatry. To worship things other than God.

Hell is outside the city because that’s where they wanted to be. There is still an illustration of separation. But it’s outside, not underneath. Jesus makes it clear that people willingly choose to leave the city. Not people that are forcibly locked in an underground chamber. Hell is not a place people are forced to; it’s a place people choose. It’s a place where they can reign in their own kingdom apart from God’s. They are so close to the life God intended for them. It’s just instead the wide open gate. But they refuse to enter and live on the outside, in Gehenna. The trash dump. Worship their own god, themselves.

Many of these themes are brought about by what Jesus said. I wrote an article on it called: What Jesus said about Hell (and what it means).

What does the Bible say about hell? It’s outside God’s kingdom.

3. God’s Power > Hell’s Power

The Bible never downplays the power of hell. It often talks about its power (Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 6:12). Hell’s power is real. The contrast that hell in the Bible makes is that God’s power is much greater. 

Revelation captures this idea the clearest. Four times Revelation mentions hades and alludes to it’s power, but also it’s impending doom. Jesus alludes to this same principle. Most clearly in his defeat of death, now everyone has access to his power to overcome hell. Hell might have power, but it’s nothing compared to God. 

What does the Bible say about hell? The power of hell is real. But God has overcome even hell itself. 

4. Hell Is Our Choice

Jesus paints a very interesting picture of hell in many of his parables. It’s not a prison full of convicted sinners thrown against their will. Rather it’s a place where people who willingly reject God reside. Jesus makes it clear that EVERYONE is invited into the party, into heaven. But some people will choose to reject the invitation.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what the invitation looks like or when the invitation expires. But if you read the stories Jesus said the invitees have several opportunities to respond. In other words, God is very gracious and patient wanting everyone to come in. Jesus makes it clear that all people have the choice to enter into heaven. We often think of hell as a place with a lock on it. And I think that’s accurate. But the lock is on the inside.

What does the Bible say about hell? Hell is not a place people are thrown against their will, it’s a place they choose. 

5. Hell is a Place of Self-Torment

Most people think that hell is a place of torture. People who go to hell are oppressed by someone or something. Often it’s viewed as God or Satan that are inflicting the pain. But that’s not the picture that the Bible paints. 

A better picture of hell in the Bible is that it’s a place of self-torment. It’s a place where people get what they want, life without God. They refused healing and forgiveness and choose to live in their broken condition. 

The best parable to illustrate this is The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. If you haven’t read this story you should. It’s fascinating. In this story, Jesus paints a picture of two men that lived drastically different lives. First a rich man, who remains unnamed, is living a life of luxury. 

He has everything the world has to offer. And then there’s Lazarus. A lame (as in couldn’t walk) beggar with sores covering his body. He had nothing, but interestingly enough he gets a name in Jesus’ story.

One day they both die. Lazarus goes to Abraham’s side, aka Heaven. And the rich man goes to Hades, aka hell. This is where it gets interesting…

While in “torment,” an important distinction here, not torture, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that Lazarus could dip his finger in the water and cool his tongue. In other words the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him. He hasn’t changed one bit. He still thinks he’s better than Lazarus.

This is the picture of hell. It’s a place of self-torment. The rich man refuses help to rid him of his selfishness. He’s not being oppressed by torture from some cosmic being. Rather he’s being tortured by his own refusal to deal with his sin. It seems even in his place of torment there’s room for repentance. But the offer is refused. 

Hell is a place that is locked up. But the lock is on the inside. God’s not keeping people in hell; they choose to stay there. He’s not torturing them. They brought it on themselves. They would rather reign in hell than be a servant in God’s kingdom. So they live in torment because they have refused God’s offer. 

Some will say that’s downplaying the seriousness of hell. I don’t think so. Actually I think it does the opposite. They have the opportunity to be healed and restored and instead choose to live in torment with weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

What does the Bible say about hell? It’s not a place of torture, but self torment. 

6. Hell Exists Because Of Love

Hell is God’s last act of mercy. It’s about love. I know that sounds absurd but hear me out. 

Most people would agree that God’s most primary attribute is love. And that all his other attributes (grace, holiness, justice, mercy, righteousness, etc…) flow from it.

Here’s the thing about love, it cannot be forced. Love has to be a chosen. It has to be accepted by both parties. One party cannot force the other to love them.

Philip Yancey in Disappointment With God says this, He Desires what power can never win. He is a King who wants not subservience, but love.

God has given us free-will with the hope that we will choose him and experience the depth of love. But the double-edged sword is that we might choose someone or something else. 

When someone rejects God’s offer what would be the most loving thing for God to do? Let them go. Let them live a life apart from him. 

That’s the primary picture Scripture gives of hell: eternity apart from God. Those who reject God will get what they want. Life without him. That’s what they wanted. So that’s what God gives them because he loves them. 

What does the Bible say about hell? It’s God’s final act of love. 

For more about this concept check out: Rethinking The Traditional Views of Hell and The Skeletons in God’s Closet

Closing Thoughts About Hell In The Bible 

I think Tim Keller sums hell in the Bible concisely… Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever… In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.

The Bible gives us a picture of hell that’s much different than what is commonly held in churches across the country. We should let the Word direct our view of hell and not what culture tells us.

Let’s hear from you! What do you think about this teaching of hell in the Bible?

Don’t forget to leave a comment. What were you taught about hell in the Bible?

Jeffery Curtis Poor
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