This is a tricky question because, as I’ve already stated, for the New Testament writers, hell’s most important feature is that it is “outside” God’s kingdom – a place for those who set themselves up against the rule of God in the world. I am not sure that their point is to describe what hell is actually like, except to say that it is an unpleasant place to be when compared to God’s kingdom.
It is also a tricky question because, as I’ve indicated in previous posts, hell is always described in metaphor. No one ever lays out a systematic description of exactly what one can expect to experience in hell.
Nevertheless, the predominant voices in scripture seem to portray hell as a place of destruction. Matthew 10, discussed here talks about things being “destroyed” in hell. Likewise, in the Revelation, the description of the lake of fire as the “second death,” and the refernce to the destruction of Hades itself in the lake of fire, discussed here, is also consistent with this concept. A number of other parables that may describe hell in metaphor (such as those discussing chaff that is burned) also lean toward the concept of destruction.
Is there a way to reconcile the hell that “destroys body and soul” in Matthew 10 with the hell of “punishment” and “torment” in Luke and Matthew 25? Possibly. In a way, the next few posts will focus on exactly that question. But – in doing so – we should recognize from the beginning that we are asking questions to which there are no clear answers in scripture. As such, any answers that anyone offers, while they may be helpful, are also going to be more or less speculative. And their answers should not be thought of as central to the “good news” that God has come in the form of Jesus to restore goodness and order to his creation. In the end, we must trust that God is good without knowing, with full certainty, all of the answers.
One last issue…if the “place” that scripture refers to as Ghenna/Hades is a place of torment and punishment, is it punishment that (literally) has no end?
The only New Testament text that may directly state as much is Matthew 25. In that chapter, it says that those who are insensitvie to the plight of the oppressed and poor will go off to “eternal punishment.” [notice again how it isn’t just anyone who suffers this fate, nor is the fate tied to “non-Christians”]
Without going into issues about the original language – which I’m not qualified to discuss anyway – there is some controversy about whether the Greek phrase in question is properly understood in English as “eternal punishment.” In fact, there is an argument that it is referring to a quality or type of punishment, rather than a length and that the language may imply the opposite of “forever” – that it may be time limited. If you’re interested in the argument for a different translation of the only phrase in scripture that directly suggests “eternal punishment,” you can read about it here.
Up next – I will begin working on the principal question posted by universalists: for those who end up in hell, does hell get the “last word”?