Whether you are a Christian or not, chances are that you have heard about the idea of hell. A place somewhere under the ground, where bad people who died and did not believe in God burn and suffer in the hellfire for eternity. This is a widely accepted teaching in the Christian world, but is this really what the Bible teaches?

It might surprise you, but to find the answers to this topic we need to go back to the garden of Eden. Here we find the introduction of death into the world. When we have laid that foundation, the rest will be much easier to understand.

“You shall surely die”

Free will for mankind

When God had created earth and made Adam and Eve, He told them not to eat of one specific tree in the garden. He warned them and said that if they would eat of it, they would die (Genesis 2:17). Well, Adam and Eve chose to eat of the tree anyway. And they would have died, but God, who did not wish for man to die, provided for them a second chance through a potential substitute. When Adam and Eve chose to sin, they made a choice to choose their own way over God’s way. God created man with a free will so that they would be able to make a choice to love God or not. He did not create them as robots, with a predetermined setting to love Him. The flipside of having a free will is that God then needs to honor man’s choice, whether the choice is good or bad. If He would not honor that and decide to overlook it, He would still force His way on man, meaning that man never had a free will after all. When Adam and Eve disregarded God’s command, they turned their backs on God, the only source of life. If you turn from life, where do you turn to? Death. This is the natural consequence of man’s choice to do it their own way.

According to God, there is a way in which man can and ‘shall surely die’. Satan opposed the word of God and said that man ‘shall not surely die’. The difference between these two statements is only one word: ’not’. That man cannot die, and therefore has immortality, was the first lie in human history. Sadly, many religions –including most of Christianity- still teach this ancient lie of the immortality of the soul in various forms and so go directly against God’s word.

A second chance provided

Because God loves mankind, Adam and Eve, you and me, He wants to give us a second chance to choose. In His mercy, He gives us time that we can change our minds. During our life, we have chosen many times to do it our way which should have led to our own deaths (this is called sinning, and sin leads to death, Romans 6:23), like pushing a self-destruct button. Even if we would change our mind at some point and want to turn back to God, we are still stuck with all the choices that we have made in the past. Plus the possible present and future times that we would slip up. God cannot simply ignore those choices, because then He would not honor our free will that we then exercised to make those particular choices. To honor our free will, what has been sown must be reaped. The only way we can take responsibility for those choices is to die. But if we die, we cannot live. You see the big problem we are in? God knew that it would be impossible for man to face the consequences of their own choices and still live. But then the good news of the gospel kicks in. God Himself offers you the possibility to place your sins on Him, Jesus Christ. He can take your place, to face the consequences of your sins, to honor your free will. This is called ‘grace’. John 3.16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”. You got to love a God like that!

Don’t take this lightly though, this wasn’t easily done. God went through a whole lot to make this possible for you today. Make sure you understand what He has gone through for you (read more here). If we understand what our sins have cost Him, we do not want anything to do with sin anymore. Romans 6:1-2 “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”. We embrace a loving God who gave everything for you and me, and we chose to change the course of our lives. We want to live in harmony with His perfect character and chose the way of love and life. And the standards for this life we find written in the ten commandments (Exodus 20). We will no longer see the law as a burden (1 John 5:3), but we will understand that these are ten promises that describe the life of love (Psalm 119:34-35)!

Wages of sin are death, not eternal suffering

God has provided a way to escape the consequences of sin, if we by faith allow Jesus to take our place. However, if we do not accept this gift from God, then who is going to face the consequences of sin? Each person faces the consequences of their own sins, which is death. An eternal separation from the source of life. This is what Paul is saying when he says too, just like God in the garden, “the wages of sin is death” Romans 6:23. If then those who did not accept this gift from God (called in the Bible, the wicked), would suffer forever in hell according to the popular belief, do they then die? No, in that case they would still have eternal life. Which would mean that God and Paul either lied when they said death is the result of sin, not eternal life, or God does not respect the free will of those people, and still forces His will on them -for them to live. No, the two options are clear: eternal life, or eternal death.

What happens to the wicked?

The Bible helps us understand what we are to expect when the time will come to an end. Sodom and Gomorrah are given as an example to what will happen to the wicked, those who have sinned and rejected the second chance given by God to turn from death to life.

These two cities were full of evil and their destruction is set to be an example for what will happen to the ungodly. Notice here that they suffered the vengeance of eternal fire, and have been reduced to ashes.

Eternal fire

What does it mean to suffer the vengeance of eternal fire? Hell is often connected to fire, “the fire is not quenched”, “blazing furnace”, “the lake of fire”. The fire seems to be a bad thing. Please allow Isaiah to put your preconceived notions about this completely upside down.

Wait, what? Who will be in the everlasting fire? The wicked? No, the righteous! The picture that the wicked will forever burn in the fire is completely opposite to what these verses tell us. How can this be? The answer is rather simple: we have understood it the wrong way around. Is God eternal? Most certainly (Deuteronomy 33:27, 1 Timothy 1:17, Revelation 1:7, Isaiah 57:15). Is God like a fire? Again, yes (Hebrews 12:29, Exodus 24:17, Deuteronomy 4:24). God Himself is the eternal fire. Let me ask you, are Sodom and Gomorrah still burning today? No. Is the fire still burning? Absolutely. Can that fire of God be quenched? No, absolutely not. It is a glorious fire for those who love God, but the same is a consuming fire for the wicked.

Turned to ashes

The glory of God is described as a consuming fire. Sodom and Gomorrah were faced with the eternal fire, but instead of burning forever, they were reduced to ashes. And Peter says that this is what will happen to the ungodly. We find the same concept in the last book of the Old Testament.

Can you burn ashes? No. There is nothing that can be burned anymore. So if the wicked will be ashes, can they burn forever? No, they cannot. After the judgement those who have not put their faith in Christ, will face the consequences of their sins, their own free will, death. They will face destruction and will forever be separated from life and God (Revelation 20:9, Psalm 37:10; 37:20, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Matthew 25:46).

The burning oven

In Daniel 3 we find the story about the three Hebrew boys, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (better known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). A Babylonian law was made that required everyone to bow and worship the image of Nebuchadnezzar when the music played (Daniel 3:5-6). In the same way the book of Revelation tells us that an image will be made in the last days, and all who worship the image will receive the mark of the beast (Revelation 14:11) and eventually be destroyed in the same way as Sodom and Gomorrah, with fire and brimstone (Revelation 14:12). And those who did not worship the image will be delivered (Revelation 15:1-2). Learn more here about the future image that will be set up. The same happened in the story in Daniel. The three did not worship the image (Daniel 3:18) and were thrown in the fire, the burning oven. The fire killed the men who threw the three boys in the oven (Daniel 3:22). This represents the wicked to whom the fire is a consuming fire. But the three friends were not consumed. Rather, they were joined by the Son of God (Daniel 3:25) who walked with them in the midst of the fire. The story of Daniel 3 illustrates what will happen to the righteous and the wicked.

The character of God

Shifting gear a little bit. Think of the picture of God that this popular and widespread teaching of eternal suffering presents: “love me and do it My way, or suffer forever.” Does that sound right to you? And would it be justice, that a person who has lived wickedly for approximately 80 years, would need to pay for it for eternity? That is unthinkable and horrible. Yet this is the picture that the church has presented to the world. No wonder many people reject a god like that.

The Biblical teaching of hell however reveals a God of love and mercy. He upholds and honors the free will of man, that is love. He does not force. He gives us time, postponing our own chosen doom, to try to win back our hearts, so that we may turn to Him and live. He Himself came down to earth to take upon Himself the consequences, so that whosoever will can be saved. Though He wants all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), He still doesn’t force His own will on mankind. He does not save those who don’t want to be saved. And in His mercy He accepts the choice of those rejecting Him, even though He has tried everything to save them. With pain in His heart He will destroy part of His precious creation. Before the wicked are finally destroyed, all will experience hell for a certain amount of time in the “lake of fire”, each according to their own works from this life (Romans 2:6, Revelation 20:13,14). We don’t know how long this will be, but we know that it will be in proportion to their evil deeds in their lifetime. Never would God want anyone to suffer for eternity. He does not at all like to see His creation suffer for one second (Ezekiel 18:23; 18:32). And I am sure that He will weep over every single individual, because He had hoped that they would have changed their mind. We do not have a  bloodthirsty, angry or sadistic God, but one full of compassion, mercy and love.

The call to respond

God wants to get your attention. By giving you another day to live, and yet another, and another, He hopes that you will come to acknowledge that you’re on the wrong path. You have turned your back on God, and because of that have positioned yourself facing death. God will not force you to turn around and chose Him, but He has done everything He can to appeal to you to choose life instead. He will honor every single decision you have made in your life. So in order for you to be able to turn around and live, He Himself offers to take your place to face the consequences of the choices you have made that lead to death. Jesus Christ died on the cross, for your sins. It is up to you, make a decision today, who will face the consequences of your free will?