A Pew Research Center survey in 2014 found that 72% of Americans believe in heaven. The same survey found that only 58% of Americans believe in hell. When surveyed according to denominational affiliation, the percentages were significantly higher among evangelicals and mainstream Protestants. The highest percentages were registered by Mormons. Surprisingly, only about 40% of Jews surveyed said they believe in heaven, and only about 20% said they believe in hell.
It is not surprising that such a large majority of Americans believe in heaven. From the things they say it seems that nearly everyone expects to go there when they die. It is surprising, however, that such a large number of people choose not to believe in a corresponding place of eternal punishment. Even more surprising are the concepts that some have concerning hell. Some act as though hell is just an extension of life on earth, and if they go there they expect to just “tough it out.” Others make jokes about it as though it will be little more than an inconvenience. In an old Twilight Zone episode hell was portrayed as a place where a petty criminal was driven crazy because he could steal with impunity and have everything his heart desired without any threat of being caught or prosecuted. Of course the truth of scripture refutes such views.
Most people would be surprised to discover that our Lord Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament record. Of the twelve times the word “hell” is used in the New Testament, Jesus spoke it eleven times. His brother James used it the other time. In some of our English translations the word appears one more time, in 2 Pet. 2:4. However the Greek word in this verse is tartaros, which is actually the place where the unrighteous dead await final judgment.
When the Lord spoke about hell, He conveyed several truths about this place. First, He confirmed that it does indeed exist. He warned His disciples that they should put out their eye, or cut off their hand rather than to enter hell with their body intact (Mt. 5:29-30; 18:9; Mk. 9:45, 47). Second, He warned that some will indeed be sent there by God the Father. He told His disciples not to fear those who could kill the body, but rather they should fear the one who could send both body and soul into hell (Mt. 10:28; Lk. 12:5). Third, He depicted hell as a place of fire. In Mt. 18:9 He warned about being cast into “the fiery hell”.
In addition to these warnings, the Lord taught the reality of hell when he spoke of the judgment that will occur when He returns. In Mt. 25:31-46 the Lord said He will divide the sheep from the goats at that time. The sheep will be welcomed into the heavenly kingdom, but the goats will be turned away. They will be sent “into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41). In the parable of the talents, the Lord referred to the place of eternal punishment as “the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 25:30).
When the Lord gave the Revelation to John on the island of Patmos, He showed him a vision of what final judgment will be. In Rev. 20:11-15 John wrote that all the dead will be judged by what is written in the books. Those whose names are found in the book of life will enter heaven. The rest will be cast into the lake of fire, which is the second death (vs. 14-15). In the lake of fire they will be tormented day and night forever and ever, along with the devil himself (Rev. 20:10).
Hell is a real place. It, like heaven, is a prepared place (Mt. 25:41). It is prepared for those who chose to disobey God in life. It is a place of unspeakable anguish from which there is no escape, and in which there is no relief. Knowing the truth about hell, why would anyone choose to live in such a way that they will go there at judgment? Let us therefore resolve to always obey God’s will so we will not go to that horrible place.