Solving the Problem of Hell

Travel-Insurance-For-People-With-Health-ProblemOur ancestors’ rebellion in Eden has changed humanity from what God originally intended. Because of that rebellion, humanity has inherited a sinful inclination that devastates all our attempts at being good and doing good things. We are tainted with evil, depraved to the core. Legally, we stand condemned before God, so that even our obedience is never enough to justify us. We all sin in so many ways and so many times throughout our lives that destruction in Gehenna hell is almost the only solution for a just God to apply to the problem of us.


Every life so corrupted by the initial rebellion of Adam – so separated from God by its inherently selfish sinful inclination – deserves the punishment that God warns us of in the Bible. Unfortunately, there has been so much unbiblical tradition added to what the scripture says about that punishment that the term “hell” has ceased to be a helpful word to describe it. A better term – the one Jesus used – is Gehenna. Unlike the hell of tradition, this hell does not begin at death, but begins on judgment day at the end of the age. Also, unlike the hell of tradition, this hell is not a place for the torment of disembodied spirits, but is the place for the punishment and destruction of the whole person – body and spirit.

Originally designating a valley near Jerusalem where garbage was burned, Gehenna for Jesus is a place where every sin – no matter how small it might seem – counts. It is an event and a place for the punishment of every act of violence. It is also a place for the punishment of every careless thought and word of violence. Jesus said “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment … and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”[1] The reality of hell should make us careful about how we express our emotions.

Gehenna will also punish all those who have followed false teachers, and willfully passed on their deceptions. This idea makes modern humanity a little less comfortable, because it implies that humans are held accountable for the lies they are told as well as the lies they tell. But Jesus clearly taught that the religious leaders of his day were going to Gehenna, and taking with them all of their converts. He called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, because they “travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, (they) make him twice as much a child of hell as (them) selves.”[2] The reality of Gehenna should make us all wary of accepting any “new” doctrine.

The scribes and Pharisees were considered the super-spiritual of their day. If anyone envisioned what a holy man looked like, the appearance would be similar to that of a scribe (scripture expert) or Pharisee (law expert). Yet Jesus detected an inner spiritual defilement in these religious leaders. He said they “outwardly appear righteous to others, but within (they) are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”[3] He warned them by saying “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”[4] The reality of Gehenna should make us all yearn for genuineness in our relationship to God and obedience to his word.

The hell of tradition is a different matter. Rather than teaching that hell is a place where sin is dealt with ultimately by God, tradition teaches a hell that is a sort of repository where God puts all those pesky sinners that he could not cure. It is a place of punishment and confinement, but not destruction. Having bought into the Greek concept of the immortality of the human soul, tradition is not in a place where it can accept what Jesus literally says about Gehenna. For Jesus, the judgment will take place not during the intermediate state (between death and the resurrection), but “on the last day.”[5]

That “last day” will be truly the last day for all sinners, because they will be raised not for life but for condemnation,[6] punishment (including torment) appropriate for each of their personal sins,[7] and then destruction. Yes, destruction. God has not created anything that he cannot destroy. Jesus said that he “can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[8] Jesus compared the Day of Judgment to the day the world was destroyed by Noah’s flood,[9] and the day the people of Sodom were destroyed by fire.[10] In calling people to himself, he urged them to take the narrow gate which leads to life, not the broad gate, which leads to destruction.[11]

Gehenna is a place for that destruction of both soul and body. That is why Jesus said “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”[12]

Gehenna is not a place known for life, but death. Those who suffer on judgment day will suffer for only as long as it takes to punish them for their sins, and then they will experience the same reality as anything else that is thrown into fire: they will die. The redeemed who are not condemned to Gehenna are said to “enter life.” But those condemned to Gehenna have entered death. That is why Jesus said “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”[13]

Destruction in Gehenna hell is almost the only solution for a just God to apply to the problem of sinful us. Thankfully, there is another solution. Since sin is so pervasive, and its consequences in our lives so comprehensive – God has provided in salvation a solution which touches upon every problem that sin has caused for his creatures. That solution is the gospel, which explains what Christ did for us (substitutionary atonement), and what he will do (resurrection and glorification).

Substitutionary Atonement

The apostle Paul put forth an axiom which applies to every aspect of sin discussed. He said “the wages of sin is death.”[14] Carried to its logical conclusion, that axiom would place every human being who has ever lived in the fires of Gehenna for a just destruction. Fortunately, there is a “but” in Paul’s statement: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The gospel tells us that Christ’s death on the cross can serve as a substitute punishment for the personal sins of everyone who turns to him in faith.

This substitutionary atonement is God’s idea. It is a free gift from a loving God who is determined to destroy all sin, but does not want to depopulate his universe in doing so. It is a manifestation of God’s attribute of grace. It is also a manifestation of his attribute of justice, since the punishment and death due us for our sins has been meted out on the substitute. The lesson Abraham learned on Mt. Moriah was that God will provide.[15] In that case, he provided a ram, whose head was caught in thorns. That ram served as a substitute for Abraham’s son, Isaac. The event prefigured another substitute God provided, when he allowed his own son to wear a crown of thorns, suffer punishment he did not deserve, and die. The wages of our sin was his death on the cross.


Since the wages of sin is death, the countryside of every country on this planet is littered with cemeteries. The sin imputed to all humanity as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion has resulted in just what God predicted: mortality and eventual – inevitable death. God offers a solution to this problem as well. He cannot simply reverse the curse and make it so that human beings will never die. He will not undo his just penalty. Instead, he offers a resurrection unto eternal life at Christ’s return.

This solution is once again a miraculous combination of God’s justice and his grace. His just punishment of mortality and eventual death still reigns. The cemeteries are still being filled. But the free gift of God is eternal life. This life will begin with a resurrection unto eternal, immortal life. It is the believer’s inheritance.[16] Peter says that God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”[17] Resurrection life is God’s solution to the problem of imputed sin, which keeps us heading to the grave.


The axiom “the wages of sin is death” is also true spiritually. Our inherited sin has resulted in spiritual death. We not only experience death because of God’s justice, we also have died to his justice (and his grace too). Paul described this dilemma well: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”[18] As much as we might want to do the right thing, spiritual death causes us to continue to sin.

God has provided a solution for this sin-reality as well. For every believer who trusts in Christ for his justification, God initiates through his Holy Spirit a process that will eventually lead to glorification – a complete restoration to a sinless state. This is a work of God from start to finish. Paul says “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”[19] He speaks of glorification as a past tense event because he is emphasizing that it is a work of God.

In the present, however, most of us do not feel all that glorified yet. Our lives are a struggle where we keep getting in the way of the Holy Spirit as he seeks to sanctify us more and more. In fact, if anyone ever starts boasting that she has arrived and no longer sins, she is calling God a liar, and his word is not in her.[20] But we can look forward to more and more victories over sin as we yield to the Holy Spirit. He is the seal and guarantee of the glorified life that awaits us.[21]

In this life, believers do not have to experience the wages of spiritual death. This is true because “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh (sinful inclination) with its passions and desires.”[22] We have been spiritually resurrected. Our baptism symbolizes this truth. Paul says “we were buried … with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”[23] Our death to sin allows Christ to live his resurrected life through us. This allows us to experience a glimpse of the glorified life now – in victory over sin.

The only way to solve the problem of the hell of destruction we all deserve is to trust in Christ for salvation now. All who do so will receive forgiveness from sins now, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives leading to their resurrection and glorification at Christ’s return. All others will face hell, which the Bible calls the second death. That hell is permanent. There will be no coming back, and no second chance. For sinners today, Christ is the only way to avoid destruction in hell tomorrow.

Recently, pastor Rob Bell has suggested that God’s love will eventually restore even those who are thrown into hell itself. In his bestselling book, Love Wins, Bell speaks of “a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody”[24] – even those he has thrown into hell. That long standing tradition was the belief in purgatory. It was based on another long tradition in the church – the doctrine of the immortality of souls. The reasoning was that since souls burning in hell will be alive for eternity, there is a chance that God’s mercy might eventually restore them. Bell suggests that this is God’s plan – to eventually restore all to himself and through that restoration his love will win over his wrath.

Bell’s solution to the problem of hell has much appeal to today’s society, just as the invented doctrine of purgatory did in the dark ages. It allows humanity to continue to reject Christ – the only solution God offers – and still come out alive. Bell’s problem with the traditional hell is that in it God never gets what he wants. He points out two conflicting facts: “ ‘that God is mighty, powerful, and “in control” and that billions of people will spend forever apart from this God, who is their creator, even though it’s written in the Bible that “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2). So does God get what God wants?”[25] Bell’s solution is to suggest what pagan Christianity did: that Hell is not permanent.

But everything the Bible says about hell suggests otherwise. Hell is a second death from which there is no resurrection. The first death is temporary, because all will be raised from it to stand before God on Judgment Day. Only those whose names are on the Lamb’s book of life will be rescued from that second death.[26] Those who are not listed as having been saved will perish,[27] be destroyed,[28] and be burned up.[29]

This destruction is permanent. The New Testament had many ways of describing something that is permanent. It could talk about things that remain after other things disintegrate. In such cases it would use the Greek verb meno. Paul said that the new covenant has more glory than the old, because the new covenant remains (meno), while the old covenant was being brought to an end.[30]

Sometimes a word indicating the impossibility of destruction would be used of permanent things. Examples include the adjective afthartos (imperishable)[31] and the noun athanasia (immortality).[32] These words are never used to describe the people in hell. They are only used of God, and of those who come to Christ and so never see hell.

The word the New Testament uses of hell that causes the most confusion is the adjective aionios, usually translated eternal. The English word eternal suggests a process that goes on forever. The way the New Testament uses the word, it usually depicts something that is permanent in contrast with things that are temporary.

Notice, for example how the New Testament uses aionios to compare some things that were permanent with some things that were temporary:

• the permanent sin which can never be forgiven (Mark 3:29).

• the permanent weight of glory compared with our slight momentary affliction (2 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Peter 5:10).

• the permanent things that are unseen compared to the transient things that are seen (2 Corinthians 4:18).

• the permanent house (body) in the heavens compared to our temporary tent (body) on earth (2 Corinthians 5:1).

• the permanent destruction the lost will face at Christ’s return (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

• the permanent comfort and good hope we have through God’s grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16).

• the permanent glory that accompanies salvation in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10).

• Philemon’s permanent return to Colossae, after being parted from them for a while (Philemon 1:15).

• The permanent salvation made possible by Jesus, our great high priest (Hebrews 5:9).

• The permanent judgment that will take place after the resurrection of the dead (Hebrews 6:2).

• The permanent redemption secured by Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:12).

• the permanent covenant made possible by the shedding of the blood of Christ (Hebrews 13:20).

• entrance into the permanent kingdom provided for all those who make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10-11).

Use of this adjective was never intended to negate the concepts of destruction and coming to an end already inherent in the idea of hell. The adjective aionios was used to show that the event of hell could not be reversed. Sadly, this reversal is exactly what Bell is suggesting. He attempts to solve the problem of hell by making it a temporary phenomenon.

God’s justice demands a hell that is hot enough to destroy, and to do so permanently. The problem of hell cannot be solved until hell itself is destroyed. Paul envisioned a reign of Christ which would destroy all his enemies, including death itself. Death would be the last enemy destroyed.[33] That means all other enemies will be destroyed – not punished for a while and then restored. Sadly, there will probably be billions in that number. Jesus said “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”[34] That is a terrible tragedy, but pretending that it will not be so is not going to help.

We should question the traditional view of hell (that of unending torment), because it is wrong. But suggesting that God is not serious when he warns people of their impending destruction is also wrong. Those who know about God’s grace, and his limited time offer of eternal life through Christ should be finding fresh new ways of proclaiming that truth to this generation on its way to hell. The gospel is the only solution to the problem of hell.

[1] Matt. 5:22.

[2] Matt. 23:15.

[3] Matt. 23:28.

[4] Matt. 23:33.

[5] John 12:48.

[6] Matt. 12:37; Mark 12:40; 16:16; Luke 20:47; James 5:12; 2 Pet. 2:3.

[7] Rev. 20:13.

[8] Matt. 10:28.

[9] Luke 17:27.

[10] Luke 17:29.

[11] Matt. 7:13-14.

[12] Matt. 5:29-30.

[13] Matt. 18:9.

[14] Rom. 6:23.

[15] Gen. 22.

[16] Gal. 3:18; Eph. 1:11,14,18; 5:5; Col. 1:12; 3:24; Heb. 9:15.

[17] 1 Pet. 1:3-5.

[18] Rom. 7:22-24.

[19] Rom. 8:30.

[20] 1 John 1:10.

[21] 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14.

[22] Gal. 5:24.

[23] Rom. 6:4.

[24] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition, 2011), 107.

[25] Bell, 97.

[26] Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27.

[27] Luke 13:3, 5; John 3:16; 10:28; Acts 8:20; 13:41; Romans 2:12; 2 Pet. 3:9.

[28] Matthew 7:13; 22:7; Luke 17:27, 29; Acts 3:23; Romans 9:22; 1 Cor. 8:11; 10:9f; 15:26; Philippians 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:9; Heb. 10:39; 2 Pet. 2:12; 3:7.

[29] Malachi 4:1, 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7.

[30] 2 Cor. 3:11.

[31] Mark 16:8; Rom. 1:23; 1 Cor. 9:25; 15:52; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 Pet. 1:4, 23; 3:4.

[32] 1 Cor. 15:53f; 1 Tim. 6:16.

[33] 1 Cor. 15:26.

[34] Matthew 7:13.

Author: Jefferson Vann

Jefferson Vann is pastor of Piney Grove Advent Christian Church in Delco, North Carolina. You can contact him at -- !

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