“A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).
Jesus is coming back. That is good news for some, bad news for others.
“According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1Thes 4:15-17).
This return will be quite literal, physical, and unmistakable (Luke 17:24). When will it happen? No one knows. Life will be carrying on just as it always has, and then it’ll happen (Matt 24:36-39). It’ll be unexpected, coming “like a thief” (Matt 24:42-44, 1Thes 5:2-3, 2Pet 3:10).
What comes next is greatly debated, but at some point after that, whether it’s immediately, seven years, or a thousand years, everyone else will be raised to life also, and Christ will judge everyone.
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:11-15).
This is what we call Hell. Heaven was created for us (cf, John 14:2-3); Hell was not. It was created for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41). But humans who have persisted in sharing their rebellion will share their fate.
Jesus taught about this a lot, sometimes speaking of fire (eg, Matt 13:42), sometimes darkness (eg, Matt 22:13) but both including “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The phrase “gnashing of teeth” has come to refer to deep sorrow in our culture, but in the OT, it is always a show of anger (eg, Psalm 37:12), therefore it probably is in the NT, too. So even in Hell, the wicked will still be in rebellion against God.
That answers one of the common objections to the idea of Hell: “What is fair about eternal punishment for finite sin?” But that objection assumes people stop sinning in Hell. “A filthy, vile person on earth will exist eternally as a filthy, vile person.”1 In the end, God will let people be who they are, who they have wanted to be. As Lewis says:
“In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They [do not want to be] forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.”2
Is all the talk about fire, darkness, and worms metaphorical? Probably. If so, they’re metaphors for things that are worse, simply bringing it down to language we can understand. Whatever Hell will really be like, it is something so terrible that Christ died to keep people from going there.
Will Hell be the same for everyone? No. Despite popular misconception, Jesus actually taught that some sins are worse than others (eg, John 19:11), and Jesus made it clear that the day of judgment would be worse for some than for others (eg, Matt 11:21-24). We do not need to fear that God will treat everyone like a mass murderer. Everyone will receive a just sentence.
Can we really be happy knowing some people are being punished? We can, and we must. Some people simply do not want God, not on his terms. God must deal with sin. “Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”3
Will Hell really last forever? There are an increasing number of evangelicals, even some surprising ones, who believe Hell will be finite. I would love to believe that, but I can’t find that in the scriptures. But infinite or finite, it is something to be avoided at any cost (Matt 5:29-30), and we should do all we can to help as many as we can avoid it.
For more on Hell, I highly recommend The Great Divorce by CS Lewis.
1 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On
2 CS Lewis, The Problem of Evil
3 CS Lewis, The Great Divorce
Part of Christianity 101