In my recent article about what exactly happens when you die, I'm afraid I may have finished quite abruptly in a bit of a cliffhanger—if you will pardon the pun. If you recall, or if you go back and read that article, you will see that, while I described what passage into the eternal afterlife will be like after departing one's physical body, and how one's eventual resurrection to live forever in a new heaven and new earth will manifest for those who believe in Jesus and have cast their burdens upon him…
…I didn't exactly explain what happens when you die if you don't believe.
Ah, so am I about to answer the classic “So you're saying I'm going to hell if I don't believe the way you do?” question?
Not exactly. Whether or not you are going to heaven or hell is between you and God. I'm not here to judge you or judge the answer to that question. It's not my role or responsibility.
But in this article, I would like to at least clear the air about how things will actually be, well, down there, which seems quite a logical next step since I've talked so much about Jesus's journey to hell as part of his Hero's Journey, what heaven will be like, and what death will be like.
Heck (sorry, I did it again), I'd be remiss not to address this topic. After all, if you were giving a friend directions to get to a restaurant, and you knew that one road led to the parking lot, but a second road ended at a broken bridge over a dark chasm, you probably wouldn't just tell them about the safe road. Instead, you would likely mention the existence of and warn them of the dangerous, wrong road.
What Will Hell Be Like?
One of the most well-known descriptions of hell comes from the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent.
In it, hell is described as a “most loathsome and dark prison in which the souls of the damned are tormented with the unclean spirits in eternal and inextinguishable fire. This place is called gehenna, the bottomless pit, and is hell strictly so-called.”
This description is most likely derived from the words of Jesus in Mark 9:43, in which Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.” Gehenna was the Greek name for a valley southwest of Jerusalem, where pagan sacrifices occurred, including the burning sacrifice of children. In Jesus’ time, Gehenna was a garbage dump where trash from the city was continually burned. Thus, Hell is associated with a place of perpetual fire and pain.
But Jesus thought of hell as far more than just an evil trash-heap. Let's look at how Jesus viewed hell, since he spoke quite often about hell… more, in fact, than any other character in the Bible, and in quite bleak terms—and also, as a deity and the son of God, possessed a knowledge of hell that surpassed anything any mortal human might have.
In passages such as Matthew 10:28, Matthew 13:40~42 and Mark 9:43~48, Jesus not only referred to hell as a real place, but also described it in quite graphic terms, including as an eternal fire that burns but doesn’t consume, a never-dying worm that slowly eats away at the damned, and a lonely, all-enveloping darkness with complete separation from God the Father.
Jesus also says in Matthew 8:12 that sinners “will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and in his parable of Lazarus and Abraham refers to an uncrossable chasm that separates the wicked in hell from the righteous in Paradise. Luke 16:19~31 says:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.’
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“O, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
This passage implies that those in hell will not only suffer terribly, but will also remain entirely conscious and able to feel intense pain, able to retain their memories of life on earth, long incessantly for relief from their loneliness and pain, will never find comfort, cannot escape, and have lost any semblance of hope.
Again, it's important to understand that this fire and darkness is eternal, and not a temporary punishment or eventual “burning away” of one's sins, after which one is free to go. After all, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus says, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”, Revelation 20:10 tells us of Satan being cast into a lake of fire and “tormented day and night forever and ever”, and Revelation 14:11 says, “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.”
Compared to accepting God's free gift of salvation, and simply believing in the deity, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (something so simple that a child can do it) this picture of hell that Jesus painted is quite bleak indeed—but it really isn't even the worst of hell.
Will There Be Different “Levels” Of Hell?
Before telling you what the worst part about hell will be, there is one question that I need to address, because I think it's important: the question of whether or not there will be differing degrees of torment or intensity in hell.
For the answer to this question, we can once again turn to the Bible.
In Luke 12:47–48, we are told, “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.”
Then there's Matthew 10:15, which says, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”
And in Matthew 11:21–22, it says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.”
Finally, Romans 2:4–5 tells us, “: “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath.”
Each of these passages implies that there will not only be greater and lesser amounts of suffering in hell, but in the same way that we can lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven here on earth (Matthew 6:20), we can also accumulate a greater intensity of wrath poured down upon us in hell, when, as Romans 2:5 says, “God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” I can't say I know exactly what that will look like, but, rest assured, these sections of Scripture do indeed indicate that sinners will be punished according to the magnitude of their sinful deeds and unbelief.
The Worst Part About Hell
But the intensity of the levels of suffering, the consciousness, the ability to feel pain, the memories of life past, the longing for relief, the inability to ever escape, and souls burning alive for eternity of hell are not the worst parts about hell.
There is indeed, in my opinion, one primary reason for which we should most greatly fear eternal damnation.
See, the chief punishment of hell is, as 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says, “…eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord.” The Greek word for destruction used here is an interesting choice. It does not mean annihilation, which as nonexistence could technically not refer to an eternal disappearance, but rather refers to the loss of everything worthwhile. In 1 Corinthians, Paul used this same word to speak of the devastating temporal consequences of sin. Here, Paul uses the word to refer to the eternal consequences of sin: a penalty that is not annihilation, but rather eternal separation from the love of Christ.
This means eternal separation from the source of love itself, and a place of extreme loneliness the complete opposite of the glorious union with God that I describe here. Rather than the popular cartoonish portrayal of a Vegas-esque “party of sinners,” hell—also in a manner completely opposite of the fellowship, reunion, laugher, relationships and happiness I describe here—is actually a place where you are cut off from everybody, every friend, every family member, every loved one, every pet, every possession, and most importantly, God.
This amount of loneliness, combined with no hope, no good, no beauty, no pleasure, no satiation, no satisfaction, and complete, eternal separation from the source of all light and love should be terrifying to you. It means an eternity of solo darkness, separated from all humanity and from all that is true, good, and beautiful. Considering the hidden killing epidemic that loneliness is here in our mortal life, that amount of complete darkness and separation should, well, scare the hell out of you.
As C.S. Lewis so succinctly says in his book The Problem of Pain, which is an excellent treatise of why God would allow his creation to suffer pain in the first place, “To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell is to be banished from humanity.”
Finally, as to why on earth God would have even invented such a concept as eternal damnation in the first place, which I'm sure you must be wondering or have wondered at some point, I'd like to acknowledge and quote @jamie_wagner7 on Instagram who shared this excellent thought on the matter in response to my death post there on Instagram from last week.
Here's what he had to say:
“…I struggled with the concept of eternal damnation for a LONG time (I think most people do). What has really helped me is to study and focus on the Holiness of God. When we can begin to see God for Who He really is, we start to see ourselves as we really are—sinful, utterly depraved. Part of God’s holiness is that He is just; He HAS TO judge sin. It is His mercy and grace that He put that judgement upon Christ and then He gives each of us a choice: either see our sin for what it is (an affront to the Holy God), our need for a Savior, and choose to be IN Christ (accepting the forgiveness offered because of His sacrifice) OR be judged ourselves for our sin. That’s what eternal damnation is—people who did not choose to have their sin judged in Christ but to be judged themselves. It’s eternal separation from God because He’s not going to force somebody to spend an eternity with Him if they don’t WANT (i.e. choose) to…”
So there you have it.
Hell is loneliness.
And completely necessary as an integral part of God's perfect and holy character and our own utter depravity.
I'm afraid I can't paint it any differently than that.
Yes, it's quite sobering to think about. But there's hope. As Randy Alcorn, author of Heaven writes, “For Christians this present life is the closest they will come to Hell. For unbelievers, it is the closest they will come to Heaven.” In other words, for those who believe in Jesus, you're about as close now as you'll ever get to experiencing hell. But for those who do not believe, the loneliest moment you've ever experienced in your life comes nothing close to what you'll experience for an eternity in hell, completely separated from your Creator.
What about you? What do you think hell will be like? Have you experienced a taste of union with God here on earth, and found it to offer just a tiny glimpse of what could happen if that intense feeling of joy, satisfaction, connection, and hope completely disappeared for all eternity? Sadly, many do not embark upon the narrow road to Heaven, but fortunately, the steps to begin down that road are simple. Just believe. Feel free to leave your comments, questions, and feedback below. I read them all.