We often hear about hell having fire and darkness and falling and various other horrors. And while all these are certainly descriptive of hell, they are not at the core of what makes hell so hellish. Hell is essentially being separated from God forever. And for humans who were specifically designed to draw their life from Him and enjoy His presence forever, being eternally separated from Him Who is the ultimate blessing would be the ultimate curse.
If God is light, then to be separated from Him is to endure eternal darkness.
If God is the water of life, then to be separated from Him is to thirst forever.
If God is the God of all comfort, then to be separated from Him is all torment.
If He is the universal foundation by which all things are upheld, then separation from Him would be to fall forever.
In short, all the descriptions we’ve ever heard of hell are the natural chaos one would expect in an existence without God.
So when Jesus went to the cross, He suffered the darkness, the thirst, the torment. But when He cried out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? he suffered the essence of hell itself. And the ground shook, rocks brake, graves opened, the veil was rent, and hardened soldiers trembled and said, Surely this was the Son of God!
Now, some people think that it is very petty of God to make hell so unnecessarily torturous just to really stick it to people who didn’t believe in Him. But I think that when you understand what hell really is – being eternally cut off from God – you will see that hell’s very nature just cannot be improved.
And I think the eternal duration of hell is what makes it the worst of all. But that really cannot be taken out of the equation.
In the past, the groups which have taught annihilationism have typically been cults or modernists. Lately, some evangelical thinkers have discovered ways to justify this view to their own satisfaction. And I understand their desire behind it. The eternal torment of hell is a repugnant doctrine, and lost people object to it as the work of a cruel God. So there is a desire to make God look less cruel to His critics.
But I think it is a slippery slope to allow the world’s biases to influence our views of what the Bible teaches. I think pandering to the reactions of the lost is counter-productive to the gospel cause. I think they would be better served if we showed them the issue from God’s point of view.
From His perspective, His holiness is infinite. To sin against His infinite holiness is an infinite crime demanding infinite justice. But we finite mortals could never pay an infinite penalty – so the infinite Son of God paid it for us. But if we reject His redemption, then we will spend forever never being able to pay it ourselves.
As far as the concept of the human soul ceasing to exist at some point, I think that’s untenable. The soul of man comes from the breath of God Himself, and it really cannot be destroyed. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has placed eternity into the hearts of men.
Revelation 14:11 says that the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever, and they have no rest day nor night.
In Matthew 25:46, Jesus describes hell as a place of everlasting punishment.
I realize that Jehovah’s Witnesses and others try to reinterpret the phrase “everlasting punishment” and dismiss verses in Revelation as apocryphal, but I think they are playing with fire when they do that.
As a lost rebel nearly 50 years ago, the thing that frightened me most about hell was its eternal character. If some Mormon or modernist had told me back then that hell was just being annihilated, I would have been very relieved. I would have considered a life of sin very worth it if all that followed was nothingness. But that eternal threat haunted me, and I came to Christ trembling at the idea that modernists nowadays try to sooth away from the consciences of sinners.
I hope this helps you sort through your thoughts on this subject.