In recent newsletter articles we answered two questions asked by children at VBS: “Who made God?” and “How tall is God?” This month we answer another: “Did God make hell?” That’s a big question, isn’t it? Just asking it changes the mood in the room. Lutheran theologian, professor, author, and former president of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Francis Pieper captured the sobering nature of the question with these words, “the thought of a never-ending agony of rational beings, fully realizing their distressing plight, is so appalling that it exceeds comprehension” (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics Vol. III: 545).
Nonetheless, the question must be answered (for Scripture answers it). In all its jarring brevity the answer to the question “Did God make hell?” is yes. Jesus, speaking of the fate of unrighteous people, offers that hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). Man, in his unbelieving wickedness, tragically, can be condemned to an eternity in hell.
But such an answer only raises more questions, questions about the nature of God and the nature of hell, questions such as: How could a loving God sentence someone to eternal torment? And Is hell really eternal?
These are important questions, questions we will address momentarily, but we must point out in advance that these questions cannot be answered by appealing to what we think God should be like or to what we think is fair or just. We do not stand in judgment of God and we do not define justice. These questions can only be answered from Scripture, from what God has revealed. Apart from divine revelation, questions regarding hell can no more be answered than a cave be explored without a light.
Before addressing these questions, however, we need first to define the variety of terms used in Scripture for hell and its related concepts.
Sheol occurs over 60 times in the Old Testament and it typically refers to the undifferentiated realm of the dead. For Old Testament writers, both righteous and unrighteous go to Sheol. They don’t often distinguish between fates of the dead (i.e. heaven or hell). Synonyms in English might be the hereafter or the afterlife, terms that don’t specify whether a person is in heaven or hell. Consider a few examples of Sheol in the Old Testament:
Even though the Old Testament doesn’t offer a sharp distinction between the fates of the dead, it does ascribe deep and abiding hope to the righteous in Sheol. The psalmist writes, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Ps. 49:15). So while the Old Testament doesn’t typically conceptualize the afterlife in hard categories such as heaven or hell, it does highlight the joyful hope (ultimately revealed in Christ’s resurrection) the righteous in Sheol have (as opposed to the unrighteous).
Hades is the basic equivalent to Sheol in the New Testament. It, too, essentially refers to the realm of the dead, although when it specifies the unrighteous dead, it describes the torments endured in Hades. And when the dead described are righteous, Hades (the realm of the dead) may be understood as paradise (i.e., a place of refreshment, what we typically conceptualize as Heaven where the redeemed await the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the earth). Consider how the New Testament speaks:
When the New Testament speaks of what awaits the unrighteous in Hades (or the unrighteous still living!) it often uses the word Gehenna. This word was originally associated with a deep valley just beyond Jerusalem in which children had been horridly sacrificed to the pagan god Moloch. Later it served as the city’s garbage heap, refuse that was often burned with fire – truly an awful, wretched place! This is the term the New Testament uses to describe hell and the experience awaiting the wicked upon Christ’s victorious return. Jesus speaks of it this way:
Jesus describes hell as a place of “darkness” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (think grinding your teeth to their roots!) (Mt. 8:12), a “fiery furnace” (Mt. 13:50), an “eternal fire” (Mt. 25:41), and “eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46). He further adds that the unrighteous will be raised specifically to be judged (John 5:29). He even offers that the torments of the wicked in hell will be weighted or degreed based upon the measure of wickedness perpetrated while on earth (Mt. 11:22).
Paul says hell is a place of “destruction” (Phil. 3:19). He adds that the wicked will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed…” (2 Thess. 1:9-10).
John adds to the horrific scene in his apocalypse as he describes the last judgment and condemnation into eternal torment:
He adds to his description,
The devil who had deceived [the nations] was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever…
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10, 14-15).
Is hell really forever?
Scripture adds, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Rom. 3:23).