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What is hell like?

“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 hell, 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.’ Luke 16:22-24

The Bible offers very few physical descriptions of hell, but enough clues to keep people from wanting to go there.

Hell is described as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. What does this mean? Are people eternally wearing the enamel off their teeth? This description could describe hell in terms of the emotions felt. Weeping and gnashing of teeth expresses worry, discontent, dissatisfaction and confusion. Hell certainly contains a lot of deep personal struggles.

The Bible uses terms like fire and darkness to describe hell, two terms that cannot co-exist in the same place - light and dark. So which is it? Fire or darkness? The only way it can be both if the terms are figurative.

The “fire” describes the complete destruction of all former things—our works, intentions, dreams—causing sadness. In hell, everything we worked for on earth that we thought was so important (career, car, status) will been burned up. Meaningless.

Most descriptions of hell use imagery that relates to things discarded and thrown away: fire pit, trash dump, ash heap. It’s a place where all the deeds of its inhabitants have been reduced to ashes. The ancient garbage dump is the best picture of the place of hell, which acted as a sort of ongoing incinerator, burning trash dumped inside it (also called Gehenna).  So hell fits that imagery as a terrible place where things that are useless to God are “thrown away.” (Heaven, on the other hand, is a place where your deeds are rewarded and everything is renewed.)  

The “darkness” describes hopelessness, confusion, misdirection, abandonment, emotions you feel in the dark. (Hell may literally be dark since God is described as light and since He is not present in hell, hell could be dark.)

The Bible does not speak of torture in hell, in the sense that God or angels whip and beat humans. The torture appears to be self-imposed, felt more on a personal level, as one considers the choices they made and the opportunities missed.

People cannot be “burning” in hell for two reasons. For one, everyone who is dead now is in a spiritual state. Spirits do not burn. The rich man in the story Jesus told in Luke 16 cannot literally be thirsting since he has no physical body, sweat glands or stomach. But, he is thirsting for fulfillment found in the water of life.

Second, it’s not until the final resurrection that people will be in a physical state. Even then, how can people be constantly burned over and over for eternity? Is their skin rejuvenated, then burned off again? Isn’t the separation from God enough torture?

Also, demons are not in hell torturing people because they are being punished also. So hell does not act as a Disneyland for Demons for eternity. They fear hell too!

Other religions believe different things about hell. The Koran describes hell as a place of physical torture. The Mormons do not believe there is a hell and everyone goes to some level of heaven. The Jehovah Witnesses say people who do not follow their religion just cease to be.

The Bible says hell is a real place, where people are separated from the love of God for an eternity by their own choice.  That separation causes the ongoing experience of death, filled with regret, pain and loss.