Atheists and skeptics often refer to “the irrationality of hell.” The main problem with this challenge is that they fail to study what the Bible actually says and take it literally. The simple truth is that hell is not a physical place but a condition. Therefore, we must understand the biblical descriptions as showing us what hell is like but not understanding it in physical terms. Furthermore, the description should convince us that we want to avoid hell’s “eternal punishment.”
Much of the biblical language concerning hell is a metaphor of the Valley of Ben Hinnom—ben hinnom in Hebrew and gehenna in Greek. It was a deep and narrow ravine south of Jerusalem that had a long and sordid history. In that valley, parents sacrificed their children as burnt offerings to the pagan god Molech (2 Kings 23:10). It was also known as “the valley of slaughter” because of human sacrifice carried on there (Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:2,6; 32:35). The valley became the Jerusalem garbage dump where people incinerated waste materials and dead animals, and the fires continually smoldered. The New Testament refers to it 12 times as a place of wickedness. That includes eleven times by Jesus and once by James. Modern translations render it as “hell.” (See Matthew 5:22, Mark 9:43-47, Luke 12:5, and James 3:6.)
The biblical references describing hell use the worst descriptions humans can imagine. It is called “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41), “a lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Revelation 19:20; 20:10-15; 21:8), and “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13). Brimstone is sulfur that produces toxic “rotten egg” fumes as it burns. In Mark 9:46-48, Jesus said that in hell, “their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” The word used for worm here refers to a maggot that feeds on dead things. When Jesus described hell, He said that those in hell will be “gnashing their teeth” (Matthew 13:42 and 50). This is not a reference to pain but an expression of anger. (See Acts 7:54 and Job 16:9.)
Hell is essentially God’s garbage dump, and like any garbage dump, it is a place of destruction. The destruction in hell is eternal and everlasting, as you can see in passages such as Matthew 10:28 and 2 Thessalonians 1:9. The irrationality of hell is why anyone would choose to go there.
–John N. Clayton © 2021
For more see “A Traveler’s Guide to the Afterlife” by Dr. Timothy Gordon pages 109-122. ISBN 9781082882593. Read our review HERE.