What Does the Bible Say About Hell?: An Interview with Anthony DeStefano
C.S. Lewis imagined it as a grey, joyless city. The Italian poet, Dante Aligheri, wrote that it was a series of nine circles. You might have your own vision of it. But what do we really know about Hell? What does the Bible tell us about it, and what is speculation, myth, or even plain error? Is Hell a place or a state of being? What does Hell look like? What kind of suffering do people in Hell experience? What are the devil and demons really like?
What is the need for this book?
Anthony DeStefano: I wrote this book because people everywhere are fascinated by idea of hell, the devil and the demons, and yet there are very few good, persuasive books on subject. The reason, I think, is that evil is all around us—in fact it’s the one theological fact that doesn’t have to be “proven” with any arguments. All you have to do is read the papers or watch the nightly news and you’ll see horrific stories of every kind of evil imaginable.
People want to believe in justice and the idea that good eventually triumphs, but they have a very hard time accepting the fact that an all-good God who supposedly loves us could ever sentence anyone to everlasting punishment. They’re genuinely perplexed. Consequently many people don’t really, truly believe in Hell. That’s why I wrote this book: To give people an answer to this question they can understand—and thus help them to believe the whole gospel message of salvation and damnation.
[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Thinking Like An Atheist: An Interview with Anthony DeStefano]
Why do you begin the book with “the state of our own souls”?
Anthony DeStefano: Because believability is the key to this book. Many people—even good Christians—have a problem accepting how an all-good, loving, and merciful God could ever create such a hideous place as Hell, and how he could “force” people he loves to suffer there forever. They just can’t wrap their minds around the idea of a God who “sentences” anyone to eternal punishment. Most of the time, these folks are well-meaning, but the truth is they just don’t have a very good understanding of the Christian concept of Hell or the nature of evil.
To really grasp the depths of diabolical evil, you have to be prepared to engage in some honest self-reflection. You have to be able to humble yourself and search the inmost core of your being in order to discover your own capacity for evil. Everyone has a capacity for evil. And everyone—at some point in their lives—has made use of that capacity and acted in evil ways. In order to understand the kind of evil that characterizes the inhabitants of Hell, you must attempt to understand evil itself. And the only way to do that is to dig and probe deeply inside your own soul, despite any unpleasant things you might find.
Essentially you have to do what Dante did in his Inferno. You have to go down before you can go up. You have to pass through the darkness of your own soul—and even be immersed in it—in order to come out into the light. This involves radical self-honesty, which can be extremely uncomfortable and even painful. And yet it’s absolutely necessary if you want to visualize the torments of Hell in all their vivid reality and understand the kind of people who experience them.
How did Jesus speak of Hell?
Anthony DeStefano: Christ spoke about Hell 11 times in the Gospels and he described it in the strongest possible terms. He made it clear that Hell exists—not just figuratively, not just metaphorically, not just mythologically—but literally.
There are souls of human beings in Hell right now—as you read these very words. And someday, after what Christians call the “resurrection of the dead,” more people will be in Hell—not just spiritually but in bodily form, as well.
The Bible uses various Hebrew and Greek words which translate into the English word, “Hell.” These include Hades, Tartarus, and Sheol, for example—all of which have different meanings. But the Hell which my book discusses is the place Christ referred to as Gehenna—that abominable “lake of fire” and “second death” reserved for the damned; that place of eternal pain, punishment, “gnashing of teeth,” and sorrow.
The main point to understand about all this is that Christ spoke about that Hell—Gehenna—in terms that were deadly serious and unequivocal. He made it abundantly clear that Hell is real and everlasting, and that the suffering there is real too.
Is Hell a place or a state of being?
Anthony DeStefano: The short answer is “both.” Hell can be most simply defined as the state or place of definitive self-exclusion from God and the blessed in heaven. In addition to being inhabited by the fallen angels, Hell is reserved for those human beings who’ve knowingly, willfully, and categorically rejected God’s saving grace that comes to us through Jesus Christ.
For such people who die before the resurrection, Hell will be a spiritual state—for the simple reason that they’ll be temporarily existing as disembodied souls. However, after the resurrection, when souls are reunited with their bodies, Hell will necessarily take on more qualities of a place with physical as well spiritual components.
Why does Hell exist?
Anthony DeStefano: Hell exists, quite simply, because some fallen angels and reprobate human beings want it to exist. That may seem to be a provocative statement, but it’s not.
Angels and human beings were created with free will, and by definition that means it’s possible to exercise that will and freely choose evil over good—to choose Hell over Heaven.
How could anyone choose Hell to Heaven? In a sense we do it all the time. Countless human beings have made a decision to reject good and embrace evil throughout history. Think of the Nazis and Stalin and the medical experiments on children and serial killers and rapists and child molesters and terrorists and people who engage in every imaginable kind of cruelty. Think of all the times in your own life when you made choices that were selfish and evil. And recall those times when you preferred to stew in resentment and self-pity, rather than reverse your behavior in humility and repentance. We’ve all done that before, to one degree or another.
As long as we have free will, it’s possible to will evil. It’s even possible to prefer suffering to being happy—if happiness means having to repent first. Well, Hell exists for those who have freely, knowingly, and permanently made the choice to reject God. In other words, Hell is a state and place whose creation was made necessary not by God, but by those who choose to embrace evil.
What is the origin (and future) of Hell?
Anthony DeStefano: Hell originated with the fall of Satan and the demons. These creatures, who were originally angels—pure spiritual beings with an intellect and free will and great power—were created by God to be good. But Scripture teaches us that they chose to freely reject God out of pride; more specifically, out of a desire to have the power of God; to be “like” God, or equal to God.
In rejecting God, Satan rejected truth—because God is truth—and in so doing he became a “liar and the father of all lies.”
In rejecting God, Satan and the other fallen angels rejected goodness—because God is goodness—and in so doing, they embraced all that was evil and hurtful and painful in creation.
In rejecting God, Satan and the demons rejected light and life—because God is light and life—and in so doing, they sank into the abyss of darkness and eternal death of the spirit that we call Hell. Because the decision to reject God was irrevocable (a difficult point to understand but one I discuss fully in the book), Hell will always exist.
Since human beings have also been given the power of free will, and since some of them have chosen (and no doubt will continue to choose) to reject God, they, too have the power to join the demons in Hell. At the moment of their death, when their souls are severed from their bodies, their free will decision “for” or “against” God becomes fixed and immutable—just like the decisions of the fallen angels. Before the resurrection, these human reprobates who have chosen evil will experience Hell in a purely spiritual way. But after they’re reunited with their bodies, they’ll experience it in a physical way as well.
What are the devil and demons really like?
Anthony DeStefano: The devil and the demons are fallen angels. They’re pure spiritual beings of great power who freely chose to reject God and God’s will for them. In rejecting God, they rejected everything that God is. They rejected all goodness, and thus they embraced evil.
Though they’re miserably unhappy, they don’t regret their decision to rebel against God. In fact, they’d rather be in Hell than anywhere else in creation. Not that they’re “happy” or “joyful” in any way, but in a certain sense they do “like” being where they are—at least in terms of preferring it to the alternative: being with God in Heaven.
The fact that life in Hell entails great suffering only adds to their resentment of God. It only adds to their prideful indignation. It only adds fuel to their bitterness and hatred. It only makes them want to offend God more. Of course the problem is that they can’t hurt God, because God is all-powerful.
Therefore they do the next best thing. They try to hurt those creatures who bear God’s image—human beings. Defeated by God, Satan and his fellow demons endeavor to fight, defeat, and subject God’s followers. Starting with our first parents, Adam and Eve, and right up to the present times, demons have attempted to enslave human beings by enticing them to obey their will rather than God’s. And their will is for humans to sin, to turn away from God too, and in the process, lose their souls. That’s the best way they can offend God—who loves us.
Moreover, this very same dynamic of oppression will continue in Hell after the resurrection. The demons will exercise their hatred of God by tormenting the damned. They’ll use their greater power to inflict as much suffering as they can on those whose fleshy form—though decrepit—still bears some resemblance to that of Christ’s. And though they won’t experience any true “pleasure” from this enslavement, in the sense of feeling a positive joy or thrill, they’ll certainly experience a gratification of their desire, and in that twisted way will come as close as they ever can to pleasure.
What does Hell look like?
Anthony DeStefano: After the resurrection, Hell must have a physical component as well as a spiritual component. Why? Because if you have a body, it follows that you’ll be able to move that body. And if your body can move, there obviously must be somewhere it can turn, and some direction it can go. All of this points to the existence of a physical locale. If there’s a physical body, there has to be a physical environment in which that body can operate. This is just common sense.
Describing this locale is much more difficult. We know that Heaven will be full of new joys, new activities, new relationships, and new life. Hell, on the other hand, will be the opposite. It’ll contain the “remains” of life after most of the good has been drained away. As Christ said: “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
We know that those in Hell have turned away from God—the source of all goodness, truth, love, joy, justice, and beauty. Therefore, the environment of Hell must somehow consist in the reverse of those things: evil, lies, isolation, pain, injustice, and ugliness. But it’s very hard to understand these terms in a practical way. The Bible can help us because it uses two very concrete terms to illustrate the general “topography” of Hell: “darkness” and “fire.”
In regard to darkness (aside from its metaphorical meaning), we know that color is one of the great goods in the visible word. But if color is a positive good, then there can be practically no color at all in Hell. There can be no reds or yellows or greens, oranges or purples or blues or pinks. God is the source of those colors, and God will be absent. So, in Hell those colors must be absent as well—or more precisely, they must be at an absolute minimum. This absence of color might be thought of as “darkness” or “blackness” or some kind of drab “black and white” combination, or some shadowy “remnant” of earthly colors—or it might be something completely beyond our ability to imagine. Only one thing is certain: whatever Hell looks like, it’ll be gloomy. For a world without a genuine variety of real, vivid colors is a depressing world indeed.
In regard to hellfire, many have asserted that the word “fire” is used strictly as a metaphor, since it’s the most painful thing we can imagine on Earth. They even think this symbolic usage applies to fire after the resurrection, when there’ll certainly be physical bodies present that are capable of being “burned.” But this purely symbolic understanding can’t be accurate. The word “fire” is just used too many times in the Bible and in too dramatic and unequivocal a fashion for it to simply be dismissed as a literary device. It must also apply to the atmosphere of Hell.
If the calm, clear, balmy, and fragrant air that we breathe on Earth feels good to us, then the air and environment of Hell cannot resemble it in any way. Indeed, it must have the opposite qualities and the opposite effect. It must be foul and putrid and even painful. Whether the fire spoken of in the Bible is meant to have an additional metaphorical component is almost irrelevant. If the very air you breathe is painful—it’s painful.
Of course even the most orthodox theologians have never believed that the nature of hellfire is the same as that of earthly fire. It must be different—just as everything in the next world will be somewhat different than it is now. The critical point to understand is that it won’t just be a purely spiritual fire.
The fire of Hell can’t just be equated with the spiritual pain of loss or the spiritual pain of loneliness or the spiritual pain of hate. It’ll be something totally different and added onto these other pains. It’ll be corporeal in character. There’ll be something physically agonizing about the very air surrounding the reprobates—which will somehow be akin to real fire.
And doesn’t that make sense? If you’ve removed yourself from the source of all pleasure (God), then you’re going to experience pain both on the inside and on the outside; both spiritually and physically. In fact, you’ll literally be engulfed in pain—just as someone can be engulfed in flames. That’s how the fire of Hell should be understood.
What kind of suffering do people in Hell experience and how do we make sense of it (especially in terms of God’s love)?
Anthony DeStefano: The greatest spiritual writers of all time and from every tradition in Christianity agree on one essential point regarding Hell: the most intense pain and the chief punishment suffered by the damned is their eternal separation and self-exclusion from God.
God made human beings in his image, and only in union with God can humans possess the kind of happiness they truly desire. If a person freely chooses to forego union with God, he or she essentially loses everything. How can that be?
Unlike a person who might possess good qualities or a place that might have good things about it, God is good, itself. He’s the source of all good things. Christianity teaches that the good things we see and experience on Earth are merely “reflections” of different aspects of God—sort of like photographs of God from different angles.
The same can be said about everything in life that’s beautiful and true. God is beauty. He’s truth. He’s the source of those things. Anything beautiful or true that we see on Earth or in other human beings is really a reflection of the beauty and truth that’s part of God’s very identity.
Therefore if we reject God permanently—as those in Hell have—we turn away from all that God is. It’s not that God is purposely torturing the damned. It’s that they’ve used their free will to reject him. Such people reject all that’s good in existence—and so they’re left with nothing but evil. They reject all that’s true in existence—and so are left with nothing but lies. They reject all that’s beautiful in existence—and so are left with nothing but ugliness. And of course they turn away from the source of all love—so they’re left with nothing but hatred. Thus the suffering of people in Hell is characterized mainly by loss.
There are however, positive forms of suffering as well. What are these, specifically? Naturally some of what I say in my book is speculation—but not idle speculation. It’s based on Scripture, the unbroken teaching tradition of Christianity for 2,000 years, and common sense.
For instance, I believe that after the resurrection, those in Hell will suffer because of the wretched condition of their bodies, their desolate and hopeless surroundings, the oppressive presence of their fellow reprobates (whom they’ll hate), the toxic atmosphere of hellfire, and the abuse of the demons, who’ll inflict pain on human beings principally by putting them through unique “punishments”—punishments which are actually an expression of the very sins these men and women committed in life. In other words, people on Earth who remain obstinate and impenitent in their pride, their faithlessness, their anger, their lust, their greed, their envy, their sloth, and their gluttony—will be driven by the demons (and by their own wills) to “act out” these same desires forever in Hell—only without the corresponding pleasure that accompanied the sinful behavior on Earth. Thus, the crimes themselves become the punishments.
Why don’t people take Hell seriously?
Anthony DeStefano: People have a very hard time accepting the fact that an all-good God who loves us could ever sentence anyone to everlasting punishment. That’s why many people don’t really take Hell seriously. Deep down, they just can’t bring themselves to believe it.
The truth is, these people don’t have an accurate understanding of what God’s mercy is really like. They think of mercy as a sort of “get-out-of-jail-free card.” But it’s not. It’s not merciful to force someone to do your will forever.
The reprobates in Hell don’t want to follow God’s will. They don’t want to be with God at all. They don’t want to be in Heaven, or with the blessed in Heaven. Their free-will choice is to reject all that. They choose Hell. They choose evil. It wouldn’t be an act of mercy to disregard their wishes.
C.S. Lewis famously said: “In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of Hell is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.”
I think if people really understood this tragic but very logical idea of Hell being the fulfillment of what some people actually want, they’d take it much more seriously.
How do you respond to alternative views of Hell, such as universalism and annihilation?
Anthony DeStefano: The problem with Christians who teach that Hell exists in theory but that in practice no one ever goes there (universalism), or that anyone who might go there is destroyed by God and isn’t alive anymore (annihilationism)—is that they flatly contradict the teaching of Jesus Christ. They attempt to whitewash the Gospels.
Christ never said: “And the unrighteous will enter the house of God and be happy forever,” or “the impenitent will be destroyed and exist no longer.” Rather he said explicitly that there is a place called Hell (Gehenna); that people go there, and that it’s forever. In speaking about the suffering in Hell, he described it as: “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46); “everlasting fire” (Matthew 25:41); “the fire that will never be quenched” (Mark 9:43-46); “the worm that never dies” (Mark 9:44). Of course, many of the things Jesus said during his earthly ministry can be construed in different ways. But not all of them. Certain statements he made simply preclude misinterpretation. Those having to do with Hell are in that category.
That’s why the apostles echoed Christ’s teaching perfectly, by characterizing Hell as: “a flaming fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10); “everlasting chains” (Jude 6); “eternal fire” (Jude 7), “the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13); “the smoke of…torment” ascending “forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11); “the lake of fire and brimstone, in which the devil, the beast, and the false prophet ‘shall be tormented day and night, forever and ever’” (Revelation 20:10).
And there are even more passages in the Old and New Testament which presuppose the eternal nature of Hell. There’s just no getting away from this fact. You can try to invent your own religion and omit the notion of everlasting Hell, but you can’t very well claim Christ as the founder of your faith and then change the meaning of one of Christ’s central teachings.
The truth is that Christ couldn’t have been more clear when it came to either the existence of Hell or its eternal duration. When so-called Christian theologians write books and articles that attempt to inject more “mercy” into the words of Christ, they invariably end up going through all kinds of linguistic and intellectual gymnastics to prove their point. But in their efforts to somersault over Christ’s unequivocal statements they only reveal their own misunderstanding of God’s mercy.
How do you want readers of your book to be impacted by it?
Anthony DeStefano: My hope is that this book will answer most of the questions people have about Hell, as well as strengthen their faith in Christ, and inspire them to work even harder to spread that faith so that fewer people will end up going to this horrible place.
I also want readers to understand that Hell is real—and people really go there. Not because of any lack of mercy on God’s part, but because some people want to go there. The main point of this book is that it’s not only possible for human beings to choose Hell over Heaven, but it’s possible for them to actually prefer Hell to Heaven. This idea has frightening implications, since everyone has potential to choose evil over good. Thus this book should result in serious self-reflection and soul searching.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Anthony DeStefano: In times of trouble, suffering, and stress, I take greatest comfort in the many Bible passages commanding us not to be afraid. The Bible says in over 100 places either to “Fear not” or “Be not afraid.” Scripture doesn’t ever say “Try to be brave,” or “Try not to be stressed.” It always gives us a command not to be fearful. This is very comforting to me because God doesn’t give us a command to do anything unless he also gives us the power to carry out that command.
With that in mind, one of my very favorite passages is Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Another translation of this text reads: “Dismiss all anxiety from your mind.” That always makes me think of a judge in a courtroom. When he hits the gavel it means no more witnesses, no more cross examinations, no more questions, no more going round and round, no more thinking—case DISMISSED! And that’s exactly what we have to do when worry, stress, and anxiety start to overwhelm us. We have to make the firm decision to not be afraid.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Anthony DeStefano: Bible Gateway is quite simply the most important and effective tool there is to read, study, and access the Bible. I’ve used it every day for almost a decade. It’s my primary “go-to” site when researching Scripture for my books. Indeed I’ve used it in writing all 20 of my Christian books for adults and children.
I love how quick and easy it is to navigate the site, and how extraordinarily effective the search engine is. Because I travel frequently, the Bible Gateway App has been very helpful to me, too. I use it for my daily Bible reading, as well as for fast access to Scripture references when I’m on the go, at meetings, waiting for people, etc.
Besides all these practical uses, it’s just so tremendously comforting to me to have all the wisdom and grace of the whole Bible, right in my pocket, all the time.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Anthony DeStefano: Yes. I’d like to say that, even though on the face of it, it might seem that the topic of Hell would make for a negative or depressing book, that’s not the case at all. I think if this book accomplishes anything at all, it’s to show God’s infinite patience with us and unfathomable mercy.
Despite all our faults and falls and shortcomings and sins, God is always ready to welcome us back with his love. Indeed, he’s set the bar very low when it comes to salvation. Christ has already done all the heavy lifting for us. All we have to do is get back up when we fall; to faithfully repent when we sin.
God’s name is mercy. One drop of Christ’s blood is enough to make up for the sins of a billion universes. I think my book on Hell makes this point again and again. Therefore, I hope that anyone who really reads it will not feel depressed in the slightest, but rather, will be inspired to live an even better, more faith-filled, more joyful life.
Hell: A Guide is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Anthony DeStefano is the bestselling author of A Travel Guide to Heaven, Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To, Angels All Around Us, and A Travel Guide To Life: Transforming Yourself From Head To Soul.
Anthony has also written several bestselling children’s books, including: Little Star (winner of the 2011 Mom’s Choice Award), The Donkey That No One Could Ride, The Puppy That No One Wanted, Roxy the Ritzy Camel, This Little Prayer of Mine, A Travel Guide to Heaven for Kids, and The Sheep that No One Could Find.
Anthony has received many awards and honors from religious communities throughout the world. In 2002, he was given an honorary Doctorate from the Joint Academic Commission of the National Clergy Council and the Methodist Episcopal Church for “the advancement of Christian beliefs in modern culture.” The commission is made up of outstanding Evangelical, Orthodox, and Protestant theologians and educators.
Anthony is a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. He is an avid pilot, a successful businessman, and a longtime pro-life activist. He has appeared on many national television and radio programs, including Fox’s America’s Newsroom, Fox and Friends, CNN, The 700 Club, Focus on the Family, and Janet Parshall’s In the Market. His books have been endorsed by Dr. James Dobson, Pastor Jack Hayford, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Renato Martino, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, Regis Philbin, Quincy Jones, Delilah, Pat Boone, Mark Taylor, William Bennett, Lee Iacocca, Dr. Paul Cedar, Dr. Dick Eastman, Bernice King—daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others.
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May 14, 2021