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Is Hell Real?

Hell Is Awful

What exactly are we talking about when we say “hell”? We hear the word used all the time in a street-level way—“What the hell . . . ?” “Hell no!” But when we stop and consider the actual reality of hell, beneath the irreverent and casual uses of the word, what do we find?

Scripture teaches us these five truths and more about hell.

1. Hell Is Experienced by the Whole Person

A common misconception is that it is only a person’s spirit or soul or mind that suffers in hell, once the body has been left behind. But the Bible’s teaching is that while those in hell now are indeed suffering without a body, when the Lord Jesus returns everyone will be raised for judgment, and the impenitent will suffer in hell, body and soul.

In Matthew 5, Jesus twice speaks of one’s “whole body” going to hell (Matt. 5:29–30). In another place he warns us to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Humans sin against God with both their body and their soul; they suffer judgment by him, accordingly, in both body and soul. Some Christians think only they are resurrected while unbelievers remain in a permanently disembodied state. But the Bible speaks clearly of “a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15; see also Dan. 12:2).

Is Hell Real?

Dane Ortlund

In this booklet, Dane Ortlund explains what Scripture has to say about the awful realities of hell and the wonderful grace of the gospel.

2. Hell Is Painful

We might hear our neighbors complain on a summer day, “It’s hot as hell out here!” The crass references to hell we hear in everyday conversation shouldn’t dull the agonizing awareness all believers should have of the pains of hell. Hell is where no sin is forgiven, where regrets loom large, where our folly and stupidity remain ever in our minds, and where God himself judges us with the pain that we deserve.

Some speak of hell as the absence of God, but hell is not the absence of God absolutely— indeed, it is the presence of God in wrath. The New Testament speaks of hell as a place of “chains of gloomy darkness” (2 Pet. 2:4), a place of “torment” (Luke 16:23) and “anguish” (Luke 16:25). We experience the judgment of God, and we are haunted by our many sins and follies. In heaven, all the sins and scars of this life become beauty marks that ennoble us all the more (Rom. 8:17–18); in hell, our sins and scars torment us. In heaven, joy squeezes out any opportunity for sadness. In hell, sadness squeezes out any opportunity for joy.

We should clarify one thing here. While hell is the presence of God in wrath, it is true to say that hell is the absence of Jesus. The Godman, Jesus Christ, is in heaven—as the ancient creed rightly teaches, Christ “ascended into heaven.”1 Indeed, Jesus Christ is what makes heaven heaven. There’s a word for heaven without Jesus: hell.

Some object to Christian teaching on hell by saying that they cannot fully enjoy heaven if they know that they have loved ones suffering in hell. That’s understandable. Human love throbs powerfully—husband for wife, parents for children, and so on. But here is what we must realize about heaven: we will be so overwhelmingly satisfied with God and Christ in heaven that there will be no room for sorrow. And that’s not because our love for our family members in hell has lessened. It is simply because all earthly losses have been swallowed up in Christ and the love flowing back and forth between him and us. You do not mourn the loss of a penny through the drain when you have just inherited a fortune. Moreover, in heaven everything we love about our lost ones will be found in Christ, perfectly. Jonathan Edwards made this point three hundred years ago:

When a saint dies, he has no cause at all to grieve because he leaves his friends and relations that he dearly loves, for he doth not properly leave them. For he enjoys them still in Christ; because everything that he loves in them and loves them for, is in Christ in an infinite degree.2

You don’t mourn leaving behind your sandpit when you are going to the beach. While the damned endure hell endlessly, believers enjoy the endless perfections of Christ forever, and all that they love and desire is in him.

So, yes, hell is the presence of God—the righteous wrath of God, as unbelievers suffer the torments of their ruinous sin forever. A common image that the Bible gives us of hell is fire (Matt. 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:48; Luke 16:24; 2 Thess. 1:8; James 3:6). This may or may not be a literal reference, but it hardly matters—the point is that the fierceness and heat and destructive force and fearfulness of fire are a picture of what will be experienced by those who spend an eternity in hell.

Yes, an eternity.

3. Hell Is Eternal

When the New Testament speaks of hell as a place of “destruction,” that does not mean that those in hell cease to exist at some point, but that hell is a place of torment and chaos and breakdown. That’s why Paul refers to “the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9). Scripture is clear: hell is an unquenchable fire (Mark 9:48). Jesus quotes the Old Testament to drive home the horrifying un-ending-ness of hell when he speaks of hell as the place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48, quoting Isa. 66:24). It’s difficult to think about, but the image here is of a destructive worm eating its way through a body, while never actually totally consuming it—the body is simply perpetually gnawed on in a gruesome eternal torment. As the last book of the Bible puts it in describing the enemies of God, “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev. 14:11).

In heaven, joy squeezes out any opportunity for sadness. In hell, sadness squeezes out any opportunity for joy.

4. Hell Is Both Chosen and Not Chosen

This point is a bit trickier. Here’s what I mean. On the one hand, all who go to hell have no one to blame but themselves. They chose it. Through hardness of heart and refusal to bow the knee to Jesus, through proud insistence on saving themselves and being their own lords, they willingly stiff-arm the free offer of forgiveness to all who acknowledge they are a sinful disaster and cast themselves on Christ.

This is reflected in Jesus’s teaching on the rich man and Lazarus, which ends with Jesus saying that even if someone should rise from the dead, those alive on earth with hard hearts will not be convinced of the truth and repent (Luke 16:27–31). Impenitence is blind and hard and cannot be reasoned with. In a sense, the hard heart loves its hardness. C. S. Lewis captured this side of the truth in his imaginary depiction of hell in The Great Divorce when a character says,

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find.3

At the same time, it is clear from Scripture that while the impenitent choose hell, God casts them there. God is sovereign over all, and he is not wringing his hands, weak and impotent, wishing fewer people would choose hell. The Scripture speaks of God’s “authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:5). Even the fallen angels are “cast” by God into hell (2 Pet. 2:4). If we do not repent we will be “thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29). God is actively involved in a person’s descent into hell.

We are now wading into a mystery that theologians call “human responsibility” and “divine sovereignty.” Humans are responsible if they choose to go to hell. They have no one to blame but themselves. And yet God is supremely sovereign over all that happens, and he is the one who casts them into hell. The point is this: both are true. Our finite minds may not be able to resolve this perfectly. But we trust the teaching of Scripture, and we hold up both truths side by side, not allowing one truth to cancel out the other.

5. Hell Is for the Impenitent

We have been assuming this throughout this book, but let’s close by making this clear and
explicit. Hell is not for the worst people. It is for the impenitent people. By “impenitent,” I mean someone who does not repent—that is, someone who does not acknowledge that they are a sinful wreck and deserving of judgment. “Penitent,” on the other hand, refers to someone who has in honesty and contrition bowed the knee to Jesus and acknowledged personal wickedness, holding nothing back. The point is this: a penitent murderer goes to heaven; an impenitent orphanage founder goes to hell. That may offend you. But anything else is works righteousness. Christians believe the gospel, the good news that Jesus died and rose again so that anyone who believes in him receives full and free forgiveness. All our bad does not make us harder to save, and all our good does not make us easier to save. What saves us is Christ, and therefore all we contribute is honesty—admitting we are sinners and casting ourselves on him.

The world tends to believe that heaven is for the good and hell for the bad. Heaven is for those who found charities and feed the poor and pay their taxes and stop at red lights, and hell is for inmates and rapists and drug-lords and pimps. That is not the teaching of the Bible. The Bible teaches not that heaven is for the good and hell for the bad, but heaven for the penitent and hell for the impenitent—however good or bad anyone has been.


  1. The quote is from the Apostles’ Creed.
  2. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: The “Miscellanies,” a–500, ed. Thomas A. Schafer, vol. 13 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 167.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Touchstone, 1974), 72.

This article is adapted from Is Hell Real? by Dane C. Ortlund.

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