Home / Tough Topics Explained / What is Hell? The Eternal Punishment and The Lake of Fire
Hell is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Bible, in part due to loss of meaning in translation.
The New Testament uses no less than six different terms that describe negative and/or neutral places in the afterlife which people can experience that are clearly not the New Heaven and the New Earth. These six terms often are mistakenly conflated and lumped together as “hell.”
The six terms the New Testament uses to describe consequences that are often associated with the common use/understanding of the word “hell” include:
This article will provide a brief summary of each, then explain in detail the final two terms on this list: The Lake of Fire and The Eternal Punishment.
To learn more about Hades or Tartarus please read: “What is Hell? Hades and Tartarus in the Bible ”.
To learn more about the Gehenna and the Outer Darkness, please read: “What is Hell? Gehenna and the Outer Darkness .”
Hades is a temporary holding place of the dead until the final judgment. Within Hades are two separated regions: a place of coolness and comfort for the good people which is called, “Abraham’s Bosom”; and a place of agony for the wicked. This region of agony within Hades may be the same place as “Tartarus.” Hades is a Greek word, used in the New Testament. The Old Testament Hebrew word “Sheol” is sometimes used to reflect the concept of Hades; Acts 2:27 translates “Sheol” as “Hades” when quoting Psalm 16:10.
Tartarus is a dark holding place for the fallen angels and possibly is the region of Hades where the unrighteous are held in agony and torture as they await their final judgment. “Tartarus” is a Greek word that appears only once in the New Testament, in 2 Peter 2:4; it is there translated as “hell.”
Gehenna and the Outer Darkness are cultural illustrations that describe the shame-filled, bitter, sorrowful experience that a believer in Jesus can experience at his judgment if he is unfaithful. The tragic situations they describe are the worst thing a believer who has the Gift of Eternal Life can experience. Gehenna is Hebrew “Hinnom Valley” transliterated to Greek, and refers to a valley adjoining Jerusalem, that is used as an illustration. Gehenna is most often translated “hell.” Outer Darkness describes being excluded from a celebration, such as an honor banquet. Neither terms usually (if ever) describe the final end for unfaithful believers; both usually refer to negative consequences for poor choices.
The Lake of Fire is the final destination for the devil and his angels. It is also where humans whose names are not written in the Book of Life shall be cast (Revelation 20:15).
The Eternal Punishment (which is likely the same place as the Lake of Fire) is where unbelievers in Jesus will be condemned to spend eternity.
DETAILED EXPLANATION OF “LAKE OF FIRE” AND “THE ETERNAL PUNISHMENT”
The term, “Lake of Fire” is explicitly mentioned or described six times in five verses in the Bible. All of them are found in Book of Revelation.
“And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.”
“And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
“Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.”
“And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
These passages from Revelation are similar to how Jesus describes the Eternal Punishment in His Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
The term, “Eternal Punishment” is described in Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46).
“These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The expression, “Eternal Punishment” is the English translation of the Greek phrase “aionion kolasin.” Matthew 25:46 is the only time it appears in the Bible, where Jesus describes “The Parable of the Sheep and Goats.” It seems to be used as a synonym with “eternal fire”:
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The first word, translated as “eternal”, is the Greek word “Aionios.” The English word “eon” comes from it. It means “unto the ages,” “ageless,” “eternal,” or “everlasting.” Aionios is used over seventy times in the New Testament. Its meaning depends on the context (as in Romans 16:25, when aionios is translated “long ages past”). In this context it likely describes either the “forever-ness” of eternity, or an age that is like eternity.
The second word, translated as “punishment,” comes from the Greek word “Kolasin.” It means “penalty” or “punishment.” This Greek word is used only twice in the New Testament: in this parable and again in 1 John 4:18.
To repeat, Matthew 25:46 is the only time these Greek words (“aiownion kolasin” – Eternal Punishment) are paired together. This pairing appears to describe the worst possible punishment a human can experience. Since the term “eternal fire” is used as a synonym in the immediate context (Matthew 25:41) it seems to follow that “The Eternal Punishment” will take place in “The Lake of Fire.”
The Eternal Punishment of a permanent relational separation of living in harmony with God that unbelievers will forever endure. It is completely different from any shame or bitter loss that unfaithful believers will suffer at the Son of Man’s return, as different as the punishment of life in prison for a murderer (from a judge) is from being put in time out for a child (by a parent).
After a time, Jesus will wipe away the tears of the unfaithful believers, who go through difficulty and loss in order to be conformed to His image (Revelation 21:4, Romans 11:29). “Time Out” only lasts for a season. But there will be no consolation for unbelievers who suffer The Eternal Punishment in the Lake of Fire; their destiny is like a life sentence.
While these two scriptures (Jesus’s “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats”, Matthew 25:31-46 and Revelation 19-21) are the two most extensive teachings that detail The Eternal Punishment, less extensive passages about this terrible place can be found.
One less extensive passage about The Eternal Punishment is from the book of Jude:
“Angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”
In this instance, The Eternal Punishment is suffered by disobedient angels (demons) in “fire” that is “eternal” (“aonios”).
Other possible passages that may describe The Eternal Punishment could be found in Jesus’s Parables of “The Wheat and the Tares” and the “Dragnet” where He mentions a “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42; 13:50) as being where “the sons of the evil one” and “the bad fish” will be thrown. The phrase “the eternal fire” appears to support The Eternal Punishment as taking place in the Lake of Fire.
Some discussion of these parables from Matthew 13 is provided below:
God likely created this Eternal Fire sometime between the rebellion of Lucifer (Ezekiel 28:15-16) and his angels against God and His arrangement of the present universe that we physically inhabit (Genesis 1:3-31).
Throughout scripture fire is often used as a symbol of judgment. Sometimes this judgment fire is refining as in the fire that tests each man’s works mentioned in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. Sometimes this judgment fire is punitive as it was at Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-25). Sometimes this judgment fire may even be both refining and punitive, depending on the application, as appears to be the case with Gehenna where the fire never dies and the worm never sleeps (Mark 9:47-49). This particular judgment fire was a special one designated for the devil and his angels.
Men and women were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), and were created a little lower (with less capabilities) than the angels, but crowned with majesty (dominion). Men and women were made to be creatures who would silence the avenger and put Satan to shame by doing what he refused to do (see commentary on Psalm 8 ). Men and women were created for kingdoms within the New Heaven and the New Earth that were prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Due to the Fall, it appears that the Lake of Fire was expanded to include humans who rejected God’s free gift of grace.
The Lord is patient, “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God does not desire any to go into the Lake of Fire. He loved the world so that He sent His son to pay for the sins of the entire world (John 3:16). Every sin was nailed to the cross upon which Jesus died (Colossians 2:14). However, God made humans in His image, to have a choice. Although there is more than ample evidence of God in creation, He masks Himself sufficiently to allow a genuine choice for each person to decide.
Those who make the choice to prefer an eternal destiny apart from intimate relationship with God shall have it. Those who never believe in Jesus as the Divine King will go away to a place never prepared for human beings. This inhospitable place is the Eternal Lake of Fire, prepared for the devil and his fallen angels.
Death means separation.
We typically think of human death in the “first” way, which is the loss of physical life. The first death describes what happens when we physically die. When we die, our immaterial spirit and soul are mysteriously separated from our physical body. They are no longer connected. This separation will prevent us from interacting with the physical world in the way that we experience now. But we ourselves will still exist through our spirit.
The second death is far worse. It is a spiritual death. It is a separation from God. It is a severance from the purpose and meaning for which we were created. It is a disconnection from our true desires. It is a disintegration of our heart, mind, soul, and spirit.
God warned Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that they would die on the day they ate of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:16-17). Adam and Eve did not physically die that day. They did not experience the first death. But they experienced a lesser form of the second death—that is, their spirits died. And they experienced several types of separation as well, as a result of their choice to live apart from intimacy with God and His ways, and to rather seek their own way.
Each of these separations was a type of second death. Sin always leads to death of some kind (Romans 3:23).
Those who dwell in the Eternal Fire will experience the ultimate separation, which will be their choice. They will be forever cut off from the possibility of having harmony with God and experiencing their divine destiny of serving with the King in His kingdom. This is likely a reason why the Eternal Fire is called “The second death.”
The first death is an abnormal twisting of God’s very good creation that occurred due to human choice. People instinctively seek to avoid their physical death. But because of sin and the fall, the first death is unavoidable (Hebrews 9:27). The death we should most seek to avoid is the second death. The only way we can escape the second death is through faith (Genesis 15:6). In the New Testament age, that means believing in Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
Physical death and corruption will one day go away and be no more. And this day will be after the judgment when death itself will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. Hades is a holding place of the dead (Luke 16:23). It is possibly where the dead remain now awaiting the Day of Judgment. This holding place of Hades will also perish, having been cast into the eternal lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).
THE ETERNAL FIRE AND GEHENNA
The Eternal Fire and the Lake of Fire detailed in these passages most likely describe a spiritual reality, whereas the term Gehenna describes a physical place. Gehenna is a Greek term most often translated as “hell” in the New Testament. Gehenna literally means “Hinnom Valley” and is a physical valley bordering Jerusalem. It still has this name to this day. Jesus frequently referred to Gehenna in His teachings to explain the negative consequences believers can experience either in this life, due to the negative consequences of sin (Romans 1:24, 26, 28) or in the afterlife, due to the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:13-15; Matthew 5:22; 5:29; 5:30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33; Mark 9:43; 9:45; 9:47; Luke 12:5).
Gehenna is described as a terrible place of death, where the fire never dies and the worm is never quenched. We are told there will be weeping (sadness) and gnashing of teeth (anger) in Gehenna. (See “What is Hell: Gehenna and the Outer Darkness” ). It is important to note that fire applies both to the judgment of believers (1 Corinthians 3:13-15) as well as unbelievers. Judgment refines believers, conforming them to the image of Christ, whereas judgment fire consumes unbelievers.
When we look at the context of how Gehenna is used, it becomes apparent that Gehenna and Hades are not the same place. For one, Gehenna is a physical location on the current earth, while Hades is a spiritual location. It appears that each time the New Testament uses the term Gehenna it serves as a visceral illustration to describe what a believer can experience in this life, as a negative consequence of sin, and/or at the Bema (Judgment) of Christ. To the extent any believer was unfaithful, there is a fire of judgment (1 Corinthians 3:11-17). Gehenna never occurs as a descriptor of eternal damnation in the Lake of Fire.
Therefore, the Eternal Fire and what is represented by Gehenna (the Hinnom Valley) are two different things. Ironically then, the word Gehenna that is often translated as “hell” does not actually represent the Lake of Fire, which is what is typically associated with that word. Neither is “Hades ” which is usually thought of as a synonym for hell, but Hades is a temporary place that will be consumed in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14). What people most often picture as “hell” is the Lake of Fire prepared for the devil and his angels, which is the more biblically accurate understanding.
The Eternal Fire/Lake of Fire prepared for the devil and his angels is the place of everlasting torment, damnation, and separation from relational harmony with God and the destiny He prepared for humans. It is the place where all those whose names were not written in the Book of Life will go (Revelation 20:15). Even though this Lake of Fire was not originally created as a dwelling place for unbelievers (because it was never created for people), tragically, it is a place where all unbelievers will be eternally banished. It is a place they choose to go, because they rejected the free Gift of Eternal Life (John 3:18).
Gehenna (Hinnom Valley) differs from Hades or the Lake of Fire. It is usually used to represent exclusion from blessing, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, due to loss. It is the place that represents the temporary exclusion and loss from the celebrations (the Messianic Feast, the Wedding Feast, etc.) as a consequence for poor stewardship. Missing out on the festivities of inaugurating the New Heaven and the New Earth will be a regrettable experience for unfaithful members of God’s family. Similar pictures are used for missing out on participating in the reign of Christ in His Kingdom (Matthew 25:14-30).
The Hinnom Valley (Gehenna) was the location of the “city dump” of Jerusalem. The picture it paints is that the consequence of living in the death of sin is the equivalent of being in the city dump where trash burns and carcasses rot, instead of being honored by sitting next to the King of kings at the banquet of all banquets.
Gehenna also applies to this life, where sin warps our ability to function properly. Sin brings a progressive deterioration of functionality, as described in Romans 1:24,26,28. We can end up “living in the dump” of life, because of the negative consequences of sin.
In summation: the Lake of Fire/Eternal Punishment pictures eternity for unbelievers. Alternatively, Gehenna (usually translated “hell”) represents the adverse consequences of sin, which can apply to anyone, but most often appears in contexts where Jesus is speaking to disciples. Therefore, it likely is used primarily to describe the worst consequence that a believer who has the Gift of Eternal Life can experience, both in this life as well as the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Scripture exhorts believers to be faithful witnesses, not fearing loss or rejection, and thus avoid the deeply regretful sense of failure and shame they will suffer if they are judged to be unworthy. Unfaithful believers will be saved, but so as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:15).