The subject of hell is not a pleasant one to consider. However, since the Lord Jesus Christ spoke of it more than any other teacher recorded in the Bible, we ought not to shun the topic, but rather to seek to learn and hold the truth as to it, and to warn souls of its terror. Most importantly, it ought to be our aim to justify God in His consignment of fallen angels and intransigent men to an everlasting hell, and to glorify God for sparing not only His elect angels, but also for saving so many millions of us humans from that place we all alike deserve.
We cannot cover all that the Scriptures teach on hell in a short article, but we can set forth the reality that its environment is characterized as a lake of fire and as outer darkness;¹ that its inhabitants will experience the timeless torment of both an internal “worm” (of conscious and consuming enmity) and an external “fire” (of judgment and wrath);² and that their everlasting occupation will be that of weeping, and of gnashing the teeth.³ We may assume that some of the language the Lord Jesus used to describe hell is figurative or pictorial, as in the experience of the rich man in Luke 16, because condemned spirits and men with resurrected bodies will no doubt experience sensation differently than we do who are alive on the earth. But it has been well said that figurative language like this “is the Lord’s picture, who meant to teach us [something] by it”,° and He did not mean to teach that men are either unconscious or annihilated in that terrible place of torment.
For those who believe and hold dear the Word of God, hell is a defined reality. What sometimes causes Christians difficulty is the permanence of that state, along with the impossibility of change or repentance in the utterly lost soul. Throughout the history of Christendom, these objections have fostered various false doctrines, such as soul sleep, annihilation of the soul, purgatory, and universalism.
A few observations on the nature of timeless permanence may be in order. While it is impossible for us to come close to comprehending it fully, it is not wrong for us to make an attempt at understanding the eternal state a little better. Our mortal bodies are necessarily bound to both space and time in this physical creation, but it is probable that neither our spirits nor our future resurrected bodies will be sensitive to duration of existence. There will be no conception of the future following the present. Even the past may seem current to the soul in hell, in all but actual state, for it is the passage of time in this life that allows memories to fade in our physical brains. I have no doubt that our spirits retain a memory of all the experiences and emotions and inclinations we’ve ever had (I Corinthians 2:11), excepting perhaps those that God may mercifully cause His saints to forever forget. But while still alive on the earth, the imperfection of our physical brains hinder or limit the cognitive ability of our mind, which includes our spirit, and one needs only to refer to an infant or an Alzheimer’s patient to understand that.
Now as to the impossiblity of repentance in hell, we may be confident that there will never be a soul in hell that is inclined to repent and glorify God by it. One might try to object by pointing to the rich man and Luke 16, who desired that his brothers not come to where he was, requesting not that he himself be able to warn them, but that Lazarus might rise from the dead to move them to repentance. But in all this, he took for granted the impossibility of his own repentance or release from torment, and any regret he had was over the loss of his comfortable life exchanged for torment in the flames of God’s judgment. Man simply will not repent except they are given new life and faith, so that the obstinacy of a perishing soul in this life simply continues in the next where time is no more. Think of Esau: he found no space for repentance because he was never thus inclined, but he regretted much the loss of the birthright blessing and benefit, lamenting it with careful tears (Hebrews 12:16-17). If souls are spared from going to hell and a lake of fire, which we all deserve, it is solely because they are brands plucked out of the fire, and not because of any inclination in their naturally evil hearts.
Think also of the earth-dwellers in Revelation 16, who, when punished to an extremity for their sins, still do not repent, refusing to give God glory, and moreover increase their blasphemy against Him. Consider the unrepentant abuser or abortionist or terrorist of our day, as well as their apologists and defenders. Why should we suppose it possible that the heart set against God in this life, be that life ever so many years long, should be softened once time ceases? Here, one experiences God’s mercies and his goodness that should lead to repentance, but every inducement and favorable environment that God has put in place here does not and will not cause souls to come to Christ. God, if we might put it this way, is left with one means by which to incline a man to himself, and that is to take the initiative and do the unilateral work of quickening, causing the soul to be born again through no inclination of its own. And we may say further, that if God does not quicken the souls of men (give them spiritual life) outside the realm of time, and we believe He will not, then men will in that timeless permanent state of things continue in their hatred for their Creator. That is what is portrayed in the term used by Jesus: “gnashing of teeth”. We may tend to think of gnashing of teeth to be similar in meaning to the phrase “gnawed their tongues for pain” (Rev. 16), but gnashing of teeth in the Bible consistently speaks of extreme hatred and an intense desire to destroy its object, were it possible. So it will be with those unrepentant gnashers of teeth in that everlasting hell.
Perhaps we wonder about those whose apparent moral uprightness seems to make them unlikely candidates for condemnation. We cannot know God’s thoughts and purposes toward them, nor their thoughts toward God, and without a doubt, the Lord knows them that are His when all may be unclear to us. And it may be that He quickens many more souls, even at the eleventh hour, than we might imagine. But this at least we can be certain of, that every soul in hell will be there because they hated God and despised His goodness until the end in this life, and will forever continue in that hatred in a permanent, timeless experience of damnation and darkness. No doubt this will be Satan’s everlasting demeanor as well.
It befits the character of a merciful and righteous God that He would grant the soul He must cast into hell a perfect understanding of why it must be there, while also removing a comprehension of the duration of the punishment. The torment of the flame that brings ungodly regret and weeping, and the undying worm of hatred that causes teeth-gnashing, take place in the eternal present, void of even a concept of time. Indeed, the “Judge of all the earth [shall] do right”(Genesis 18:25).
If you are fearful of hell for your own soul, come to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith this very day. He is waiting to redeem you and bring you to God through faith in His precious blood (Romans 3:20-26).
What a debt of gratitude we redeemed ones owe to the God who chose us in His mercy and saved us by His grace, in spite of the judgment we deserved!
¹ Revelation 20:15; Matthew 25:30
² Mark 9:48
³ Matthew 8:12; 22:13
The heading is taken from the words of Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:33.