Recently I saw an article about the nature of Heaven and Hell in which the author made this summary statement about the nature of Hell:
…the torment in the lake of fire will be physical, mental, and spiritual torment, but…all of it will be tolerable. None of it will be unbearable. See Matt 11:22, 24.
The Lord taught both degrees of joy in the kingdom and degrees of suffering in the lake of fire.
God is not going to give unbelievers an eternal experience that is unbearable. He could. He could set it up so people had level 10 suffering 24/7/365, with no breaks and no escape. But He will not do that. Such suffering could not be described as tolerable or more tolerable.…
The current experience of unbelievers in hell is bad, but bearable.
The eternal experience of unbelievers in the lake of fire will be bad, but tolerable.[My emphasis]
It is clear in Scripture that there will be degrees of suffering in Hell, just as there are degrees of reward in Heaven. But do those degrees of suffering suggest that the current suffering in Hell or the future suffering in the Lake of Fire will be tolerable?
I suppose it depends what one means by intolerable and unbearable. If unbearable means that Hell and the Lake of Fire will end in the annihilation of the sinner, then I agree that it will be “bearable” because Hell and the Lake of Fire are eternal (Mt. 18:8; 25:41; Jn. 3:36). There will be no destruction of souls in Hell — all will be able to “bear” God’s wrath in that they will endure it without final death for eternity.
But if “bearable” means (as I believe this author intends) that there is something less than utter hopelessness, diminishment of pain, and some kind of comfort, then no, there is no toleration in Hell. In no way will anything in Hell be tolerable, comforting, or less than the most excruciating pain and sorrow — both physical and spiritual. In Luke 16, the rich man complains of the agonies of Hell. This man would hardly be considered the worst of sinners: he was no “murderer” (i.e., he does not appear to be among the worst of sinners) and he and his family evidently had been exposed to the teachings of God in the Old Testament (v. 29 — did they attend Temple worship every Sabbath?); his great sin was the selfish consumption of his riches and his failure to use those riches to benevolently serve others (v. 25). Yet this “good” sinner experienced only intolerance, wrath, and agony in Hell (vv. 23-25).
The Scriptures repeatedly affirm the horridness of Hell — both physically and spiritually:
- Hell will be filled with endless physical pain (Lk. 16:24; 20:13-14). The rich man in Hell complained of an agony for which he desired even a single droplet of water and there was none to be found. And the pain of Hell will be such that the sufferers will weep and gnash their teeth (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The gnashing of teeth is indicative of the grinding of one’s teeth when he is in deep physical anguish; this is clearly the picture of a man in anguish and not one who is enduring something bearable.
- Hell will have a complete absence of truth and a complete fullness of evil (Jude 13; Rev. 9:1-11). And because there is an absence of truth there will be nothing good, nothing kind, nothing benevolent, and nothing gracious. There will only be manifestations of sin, rebellion, hatred, anger, hostility.
- Hell will be a place of solitude and loneliness (2 Pt. 2:4). Every sinner will reside in darkness that is both physical and spiritual. There will be no fellowship or friendship. Every sinner will be alone in Hell, even while surrounded by billions of other rebels, tormented not only by the pouring out of God’s wrath, but also by the unrelenting condemnation of his own conscience (Rom. 2:14-16). He will be alone in Hell but unable to escape the intolerable, tormenting guilt of his own soul — never mind the outpouring of God’s wrath and judicial condemnation.
- Hell will be a place of eternal restlessness (Rev. 14:11). Condemned sinners will be tormented forever (v. 11) and yet there will be an awareness of time as they experience that torment “day and night” and there will be no rest on any turning of the clock. Every 24-hour period will be as crushing as the previous and there will be no relenting of the suffering.
- Hell will be eternal separation from God (Lk. 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:5-10). There is no getting to God from Hell. There is no comfort to be found from God. There is no union with God and no fleeing to Him for peace and refuge. Those who trust Christ will receive relief from God’s wrath (2 Thess. 1:7), but there is no relief for those who do not trust Christ.
- In Hell there will be no separation from God’s presence (Rev. 14:10). Those who are in Hell will forever be in the “presence of the Lamb.” And specifically, they will experience the “full strength [of] the cup of His anger…and be tormented with fire and brimstone.” If the infinite Christ on the cross cried in agony as He endured the wrath of God, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” then what hope is there that finite man might find any relief and toleration of the infinite and full wrath of God? He will not be able to bear or tolerate that wrath. Moreover, the one thing every sinner wants is to escape the presence and knowledge of God, yet He will forever dwell in Hell and will forever be aware of and see the crucified and resurrected Lamb and never be able to appropriate the redemption provided by the Lamb. Thus, the sinner will experience extreme torment both physically and spiritually as he is unable to escape God’s presence.
None of these pictures of Hell indicate that it is tolerable. Are there degrees of suffering? Yes. Those who have known the special revelation of God in the Scriptures and rejected Christ and flaunted their rebellion against God will endure a greater wrath than those who have only known the general revelation of God in creation and were not openly rebellious against God. But everyone in Hell will still experience deep, intolerable anguish of body and soul in Hell.
We do well to remember the words from Spurgeon which echo the Scriptures above:
Shun all views of future punishment which would make it appear less terrible, and so take off the edge of your anxiety to save immortals from the quenchless flame…Arouse yourselves to the agonies of the occasion, and be ashamed at the bare suspicion of unconcern. [Lectures to My Students, 2: 156.]
There is nothing tolerable about Hell; it is more awful and longer than we can imagine. And those we know and love who are without Christ are going there. And that is why we must give them the saving message of Christ — so they can escape the wrath to come.