Once or twice in my life I have been told to "go to hell." To my regret, in less spiritual moments of my life, I have also blurted the command at others. In everyday language we use expressions like this easily and angrily -- "there'll be hell to pay", "hell yeah", "that's a hell of a thing to say..." You get the point. As an emotive expression we embrace the word, but as a real destination place -- not so much.
Is Hell a barbarous realm of torture where the Devil lives or just a word to express anger and elation -- or something else? A friend told me he wouldn't become a Christian because of the cruel concept of hell -- which he believed to be a fiery, painful place of suffering and torture. In our conversations I gathered that most of his information and descriptions of hell were what he was taught as a child or had seen in a movie -- not the Bible. It was apparent that he had never actually studied what is said in the Bible about Hell.
He didn't believe it was logical, justified, or equitable -- there was no acceptable reason that, in his words, "God could be so inhuman." He didn't have a framework for an objective standard for morality other than using the word "Universe" as a God replacement, and clinging to the random odds that some unknown forces would work in his favor -- if he lived as good as he thought he should be.
Even though many Christians differ on this interpretation, I like what Christian philosopher William Lane Craig says about hell: "I don't think hell is what is depicted in medieval paintings of torture wracks, pinchers, and red hot irons. It seems to me that the essence of hell is what Paul describes in I Thessalonians. 1:5 "they shall suffer the punishment of *exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might. I think that is the anguish of hell -- the separation from God from all that is good and beautiful and lovely -- to be left with one's crabbed and selfish heart forever."
*"destruction": ὄλεθρος/ólethros does not imply "extinction" (annihilation). Rather it emphasizes the consequent loss that goes with the complete "undoing."
Hell is a fire, but not in any sense that we're aware of. The Bible describes the reality of hell in forceful figures of speech. It is said to be a place of darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13), which is “outside” [the gate of the heavenly city] (Rev. 22:14-15). Hell is away from the “presence of the Lord” (Matt. 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:7-9). Of course, these are relational, not necessarily spatial, terms. God is “up” and hell is “down.” God is “inside” and hell is “outside.” Hell is the other direction from God. The nature of hell is a horrifying reality. It is like being left outside in the dark forever (Matt. 8:12). It is like a wandering star (Jude 13), a waterless cloud (Jude 12), a perpetually burning dump (Mark 9:43-48), a bottomless pit (Rev. 20:1, 3), a prison (1 Peter 3:19), and a place of anguish and regret (Luke 16:28). To borrow the title of the book by Lewis, hell is the “great divorce”—an eternal separation from God (2 Thess. 1:7-9). There is, in biblical language, a great gulf fixed” between hell and heaven (Luke 16:26) so that no one can pass from one side to the other (Geisler).
Nowhere does the Bible describe it as a “torture chamber” where people are forced against their will to be tortured. This is a caricature created by unbelievers to justify their reaction that the God who sends people to hell is cruel. This does not mean that hell is not a place of torment. Jesus said it was (Luke 16:24). But unlike torture which is inflicted from without against one’s will, torment is self-inflicted. Even atheists have suggested that the door of hell is locked from the inside. We are condemned to our own freedom from God. Heaven’s presence of the divine would be the torture to one who has irretrievably rejected him. Torment is living with the consequences of our own bad choices. It is the weeping and gnashing of teeth that results from the realization that we blew it and deserve the consequences. Just as a football player may pound on the ground in agony after missing a play that loses the Super Bowl, so those in hell know that the pain they suffer is self-induced. Hell is also depicted as a place of eternal fire. This fire is real but not necessarily physical (as we know it), because people will have imperishable physical bodies (John 5:28-29; Rev. 20:13-15), so normal fire would not affect them. Further, the figures of speech that describe hell are contradictory if taken in a physical sense. It has flames, yet is outer darkness. It is a dump (with a bottom), yet a bottomless pit. While everything in the Bible is literally true, not everything is true literally (Geisler).
Norman Geisler offers some good theological and philosophical arguments for the existence of Hell. First, the Bible, Jesus, and Apostle Paul taught it. Secondly, God's sovereignty, love, justice, human dignity, and Christ death on the cross demands a Hell. Third, God cannot force free people to love him if they choose to ignore or disbelieve. Also, there would not be real justice were there no place of punishment for the likes of Stalin and Hitler, who initiated the merciless slaughter of multimillions. As C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done”’ (Screwtape Letters, 69).
Want to get some funny looks -- next time your angry or elated just yell, "Heaven Yeah!"