What is Hell like?

Hell is an interesting topic in Christianity. Sometimes it is over-emphasized and used to scare people into believing in God, and other times hell is completely ignored and never talked about because the pastors are afraid of discussing a negative topic. Many non-Christians dislike the attitude of "You're going to hell because..." when confronted by a religious person.

But often the actual idea of hell itself and what it may be like is not considered. Our popular culture has changed what most people think hell is like - often with red devils with pointy pitchforks, or as a big party with Satan in a hot underground cave. Instead, let's investigate what the Bible says about what hell will be like.

What is hell like now?

Currently, hell is not the "lake of fire" discussed in Revelation 20:14. However, there are some hints at what hell is currently like. One story that Jesus told was of a rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar. The rich man had the best things in life, but Lazarus was poor and sick. Both Lazarus and the rich man die, and Lazarus goes to the Bosom of Abraham (paradise, but not "heaven" - see this article) and the rich man goes to hell.

The rich man is suffering and says to Abraham "Have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and touch my tongue. I'm suffering terribly in this fire." (Luke 16:24). This seems to indicate that although the rich man is not currently in the "lake of fire" (which is only used after the judgements in Revelation), hell is currently still not a good place, and may have fire in it (or at least some type of suffering).

Other descriptions of hell in the Bible are:

  • "the fires of hell" (Matthew 5:22 and 18:9)
  • "The worms there never die, and the fire never stops burning." (Mark 9:48)
  • "But the ones who should have been in the kingdom will be thrown out into the dark. They will cry and grit their teeth in pain. (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30)
  • "Then those evil people will be thrown into a flaming furnace, where they will cry and grit their teeth in pain." (Matthew 13:50)

Near Death Experiences

There are reports of people who have near death experiences and see a glimpse of what hell is currently like. The descriptions vary, but most involve first going through a tunnel towards a light, which sometimes turns into a tunnel of fire, and then there are various negative descriptions of hell.

One description is of a lake of fire with some rocky land where it is crammed with people who move around aimlessly and scream [1, p.72]. Another is "The heat is a dry, dehydrating type. Your eyeballs are so dry they feel like red hot coals in their sockets. Your tongue and lips are parched and cracked with the intense heat. The breath from your nostrils as well as the air you breathe feels like a blast from a furnace. The exterior of your body feels as though it were encased within a white hot stove. The interior of your body has a sensation of scorching hot air being forced through it. The agony and loneliness of hell cannot be expressed clearly enough for proper understanding to the human soul; it has to be experienced" [1, p.75].

Another is "It is an extremely black, dismal, desolate, heavy, pressurized type of darkness. It gives the individual a crushing, despondent feeling of loneliness." [1, p.75]. A more interesting one is "I was in front of some type of conveyor belt which carried huge pieces of puzzle in weird colors that had to be fitted together rapidly under severe penalty from an unseen force. I knew it was hell, but there was no fire or heat or anything that I had expected." [1, p.79].

It is interesting that people never mention seeing Satan in hell, and this is explained in the next paragraph. If you are more interested about near death experiences, I would highly suggest you read source [1].

Is Satan in hell?

Most people have the concept that Satan runs hell and has his demons torture people forever. However, this is not supported by the Bible. In fact, God created hell specifically for Satan and the demons! Jesus described what he will say to people who are sent to hell: "Get away from me! You are under God's curse. Go into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41). But Satan is not yet in hell. Currently, the Bible says he is still in heaven, accusing Christians of sinning: "Satan accused our people in the presence of God day and night" (Revelation 12:10) or else on earth "Your enemy, the devil, is like a roaring lion, sneaking around to find someone to attack." (1 Peter 5:8).

Sometime during the Tribulation before Jesus returns, there will be war in heaven and Satan and the demons will be kicked out of heaven and restricted to earth (Revelation 12:7-12). Even after Jesus comes back and defeats Satan, the Antichrist and the False Prophet are thrown into the lake of fire before Satan is (Revelation 19:21). Satan is thrown into a pit (supernatural jail) for 1000 years (Revelation 10:1-3), will be let back out for one last try at deceiving people, and will be finally defeated and thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10). So, Satan will not be in the lake of fire for at least another thousand years.

The Lake of Fire

The first time the lake of fire is mentioned as a place where people will go is in Matthew 25:41. Matthew 25:31-46 seems to be a description of a judgement for the people left on earth after Jesus returns while he is setting up the Millennial kingdom (where Jesus rules on earth for 1000 years). These people seem to be judged based on how they treated the Tribulation Saints and Jews who followed God during that time. The ones who did not treat them well will be thrown into the lake of fire.

However, this judgment occurs after the Antichrist and the False Prophet have already been thrown into the lake of fire, as described in the previous section. The next time that the lake of fire is mentioned is at the Great White Throne Judgement, in Revelation 20:11-15. This judgement is for all the rest of the dead people. Some of these people get eternal life (some names are written in the Book of Life), others are thrown into the lake of fire. It also says that death and its kingdom are thrown into the lake of fire. Death's kingdom here may refer to the place where the rich man was tormented in Luke 16:19-41.

Will people have bodies in hell?

One verse which seems to indicate that people will have bodies in hell is "Instead, you should fear God who can destroy both your body and your soul in hell." (Matthew 10:28). Also, the near death experiences of some people in [1] also describe having bodies. The Antichrist and False Prophet are described as being "thrown alive into the lake of fire" (Revelation 19:20). So probably people will have some sort of body in order to experience the lake of fire.

Another hint that people may have bodies in hell is "I also saw the dead people standing in front of the throne" (Revelation 20:12) - the people could not be "standing" if they didn't have some sort of body. There is much more description of what the Christians' eternal bodies will be like than of the bodies people in hell may have - see my article on heaven here.

Will people be tormented forever or only destroyed forever?

Naturally, Christians don't like the idea of people suffering forever. I know I don't like the idea of people I love being burned alive forever, and the option of simply being destroyed once and then gone forever seems much more humane. There are some verses which some people interpret as meaning that people will not be alive and tortured forever, but are instead just destroyed forever (i.e they are permanently gone and will never come back).

There are occasions where the lake of fire is called "the second death" (Revelation 2:11, 20:6, and 20:14), and some believe that this is like physical death, where the body is destroyed and the person no longer exists. Other verses which seem to indicate permanent destruction are: "Their punishment will be eternal destruction, and they will be kept far from the presence of our Lord..." (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

However, there are verses which indicate that punishment is forever, such as: "Those people will be punished forever." (Matthew 25:46). Also, Revelation 20:13 says "Then the devil who fooled them will be thrown into the lake of fire and burning sulphur. He will be there with the beast and the false prophet, and they will be in pain day and night forever and ever.". There are various other verses that indicate either permanent destruction or permanent torture, but there are disagreements over the original Greek text and interpretation.

A very good article that goes more in depth on this topic is here [2]. However, we can have faith that God will be just, and whatever happens to the people in hell will be fair, whether it is permanent destruction or not.

Are there different levels of punishment in hell?

There are some verses which seem to indicate that the punishment in hell will be relative. "I tell you that on the day of judgement the people of Tyre and Sidon will get off easier than you will."(Matthew 11:22). So perhaps when God judges and assigns punishment, it will be different for each person. But when it describes people being thrown into a lake of fire, this is somewhat hard to understand how there can be levels of punishment there. If you think of a huge lava pit, the things thrown in at the edges burn just as much as those in the center. So I don't know exactly what this verse means - perhaps there are different types or intensities of punishment, but that is up to God to decide.


So this shows that the Bible certainly shows hell as a real place, and that it is certainly not a place that anyone would want to go to. When comparing this with heaven, it is unbelievable that there are people out there who don't care where they will spend eternity.

As Christians, we need to remember that those who don't know Jesus are at risk of being thrown into the lake of fire at the last judgement. This should motivate us to try to reach everyone we can with the message of God's love and Jesus' sacrifice so that they might make it to heaven instead. Although the idea of a hell where people may be punished and tortured forever is hard to understand, we can have faith that God will be the ultimate fair judge, and that his ways are not our ways. But while people are still alive, there is still hope, so pray that those who don't know God will learn about him and avoid spending eternity in hell.


[1] Rawlings, Maurice S. (1993) "To Hell and Back". Thomas Nelson Inc. Publishers. Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
[2] http://www.layhands.com/WillSinnersBurnForever.htm