Question: Is hell literal or figurative? If it is literal, is it really eternal?
Our word “hell” comes from the New Testament Greek ge÷enna (pronounced “gehenna”). Jesus taught about hell as a very real place:
Matt. 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
To be “destroyed” in hell does not mean the person ceases to exist. “Destroyed” in the New Testament Greek means “ruined” or “lost.” God created human beings for eternal existence both physically and spiritually. “Death” is the temporary separation of the body from the soul caused by sin:
Rom. 5:12 …sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men…
But eventually every human being will be physically and spiritually raised from death:
John 5:28-29 Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
Hell is the final destination of those who die without having been rescued (saved) by Jesus Christ (Lk. 19:10). Jesus described this fearful place of physical as well as spiritual torment:
Matt. 5:30 …It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Mark 9:43 …It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.
Unfortunately, translators have sometimes supplied the word “hell” in our English Bibles inappropriately. When Peter writes about certain angels already in “hell” (2Pet. 2:4), he’s actually referring to a place called “Tartarus” (tartarw¿saß) where these angels are imprisoned until the Final Judgment.
The same is true of Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man, where “hell” should be translated “hades” (Gk. aˆ‚dhØ), referring to the realm of the dead who are awaiting the Final Judgment (Lk. 16:23).
Hell was designed for Satan and the angels who rebelled with Him against God (Matt. 25:41). Nevertheless, through Adam and Eve humanity fell into that same rebellion. Sin has contaminated the human race ever since, locking all of us into both the contamination of sin and sinful behavior:
Ps. 51:5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
God—because He is just, holy and all-powerful—cannot abide sinfulness and rebellion in His creation forever. Evil will be purged one day at the Final Judgment, and all sin and unrepentant sinners rendered powerless in hell. As sinful human beings then, our condition is hopeless, except for the way out provided by God alone:
John 11:25-26 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”