What happens to an unbeliever when they die? Do they cease to exist? Are they purified through a restorative judgment and eventually accepted in heaven? Or do they endure eternal conscious judgment? These are three answers that, as we have seen, Christians throughout the almost two thousand year history of the Church have given. These historical answers give us food for thought, they help us take a step back and see the bigger picture; but they cannot be the basis of our doctrines. Our base, our foundation, has to be Scripture. To discover what Scripture has to say in response to this question, to discern Scripture’s testimony on the Doctrine of Hell, we have to weigh in the entire testimony of the Biblical canon; we must perform the second step of our theological investigation, engaging in the discipline of Biblical Theology.
The best way to get a broad picture of Scripture’s teaching on a subject is to examine it in a historical manner; to look at the progression of God’s revelation through the different books of the Bible and collect the raw data on how this doctrine has been revealed. This is not to say that we look at a later book in Scripture and supersede it over earlier revelation, but this process acknowledges that God revealed His truth in a completely inerrant and inspired way through human authors in history; God did not teach us everything in Scripture at one time, He unfurled his revelation over a span of 1500 or 1600 hundred years.
When it comes to the Doctrine of Hell the question we have to ask is; how has the doctrine of Hell been revealed throughout the progressive revelation of the Biblical cannon? Usually one would start with the Pentateuch, but when it comes to the Doctrine of Hell there is seemingly only one verse in the early books of the Old Testament that talks about Hell (Deut. 32:22). This doctrine really only starts to unfurl through the poetical and prophetic books, and then it becomes clear in the teachings of the New Testament, through the Synoptic Gospels, the epistles of Paul, John’s writings, and the rest of the NT literature.
Even in the Prophetic and Poetical books, references to hell are mostly vague at best. In the book of Proverbs there is an affirmation of a netherworld that exists for the wicked after death and the existence of a different path for the righteous than for the wicked. This first affirmation can be seen in Proverbs 9:13-18. In verse 18 it is written that the guest of the women of folly (the one who commits adultery with her) “does not know that the dead are there, That her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” In this passage Sheol would seem to point beyond merely the grave and imply not just death but existence in the netherworld. The latter affirmation, that there are different paths for the righteous and the wicked, is seen in Proverbs 15:24. In this passage a contrast is made between the path of life leading upward for the wise and the path, implied for those that are not wise, that leads to Sheol below. This connotes more than being spared an untimely death, it only makes sense if it is referring to a state after death. This passage seems to imply that the unwise are on the path to the netherworld, and the wise are on the path to the opposite, the very dwelling of God. Along with these verses, Proverbs 21:16 also may imply an afterlife, though it does not explicitly teach it. These verses are the few in the poetical books that seem to even possibly talk about afterlife of the wicked, but sometimes Annihilationist draw on the language of the Psalmists to support their views of the soul’s utter destruction after death. An example of a verse like this is Psalms 2:12, the Psalmist writes; “Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!” Some Annihilationists would argue that “perish” here and in other verses would imply a final and complete destruction. The word here translated “perish” is ‘ābad; when it is used in the Hebrew Qal stem it emphasizes mortality and when it is used in the rest of the verses cited by Annihilationists (Ps. 1:6; 37:20; 49:10; 73:27; Prov. 11:10; 28:28) it “sometimes denotes physical death and other times spiritual loss or ruin, but never extinction of being.” These are the verses that most clearly reference life after death for the wicked in the poetic books, looking at the prophetic books the picture becomes a little clearer.
In Isaiah 66, while talking about the new heavens and the new earth which the LORD will make (v.22-23), Isaiah writes that, “they [all mankind] will go forth and look On the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die And their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind” (v. 24). Then in Ezekiel 32, especially v. 17-32, Ezekiel prophecies over Egypt and describes it being brought down to the “nether world, with those who go down to the pit” (v. 18) and encountering the hordes of Assyria (v. 22) and Elam who have also descended to the pit (v. 24) and find themselves in the midst of the slain (v. 25). Daniel provides the most explicit reference to the fate of the wicked in the afterlife, he writes in 12:2 that, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” The last OT reference to the fate of the wicked after death seems to be Mal. 4:1-2. Talking about the terrifying day of the LORD, Malachi writes that “the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze” (v. 1). The OT does not provide much information on the nature of the afterlife, especially for the fate of the wicked, but in the New Testament the details of the afterlife are expounded in much greater detail.
It is surprising for many to hear that the greatest volume of information on the Doctrine of Hell comes from the Synoptic Gospels, from the very words of Jesus himself. He talks about this Doctrine more than any of the writers of the books in the Old and New Testaments. Throughout the Synoptic Gospels a picture starts to form of the final judgment and the fate of the wicked. Jesus makes it clear that there are two paths in this life; the narrow one leading to life, and the broad road leading to destruction (Matthew 8:13-14). Demons as well as believers appear to face this judgment (Matt. 8:29). Some men will knock at the door of the kingdom of heaven to enter but will be told to depart, for Christ never knew them (Matt 7:23; Luke 13:28-30). Hell, Gehenna, is described in phenomenal language of “outer darkness,” “weeping,” and “gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:11-12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). Throughout the Gospels Jesus uses the language of trees not bearing fruit and tares to describe unbelievers and, speaking of the tares, writes; “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:41-42). Both Jesus and John the Baptist use the metaphor of trees bearing bad fruit to refer to hypocrites and false prophets, both write of these trees that they will be “cut down and thrown into fire” (Matt. 7:15-20; 3:10; Luke 3:17). In Matthew 12 John the Baptist also uses the picture of wheat being gathered by Jesus into His barn, and the chaff, those who are not Jesus’s, being burned with unquenchable fire (v.11-12). Writing of the final judgment Jesus tells His apostles that Sodom and Gomorrah will find the day of judgment more tolerable than the cities that reject the apostles (Matt. 10:13-15, cf. 11:22-24). Hell, this final judgment, is clearly seen as something to fear; Jesus told those listening to Him, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28, cf. Luke 12:4-5). In Matthew 25 Jesus explicitly contrasts the fate of the wicked with the fate of believers, He told His audience; “Then the king will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… 41“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… 46These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (vv. 34, 41, 46). Jesus is very clear that it is “He who has believed and has been baptized [who] shall be saved, but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). This judgment is done in accordance with each man’s deeds (Matt. 16:27). One last interesting verse that discusses the fate of the wicked after death is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. This parable is describing the intermediate state and paints a picture of real physical suffering by real flames; the rich man is actually hot and he is becoming actually thirsty. The Synoptic Gospels are full of references to the final judgment of the wicked and their destination, but these three books are not the only ones that discuss this doctrine. In the Pauline Epistles we also find significant references to the fate of unbelievers.
Paul, in his epistles, does not talk of Hell by name, but he does talk about the destruction of the wicked in the Day of Judgment. In Romans 2:5-8 Paul writes:
5But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: 7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.
According to Paul the unrepentant are storing up wrath for themselves and on the Day of judgment they will receive wrath and indignation according to their deeds. In his letter to the church in Philippi Paul writes that when the believers stand firm in the faith and are not alarmed by their opponents, it is a sign to these opponents of their coming destruction and of salvation for the believers (1:27-28). Also in Philippians Paul writes that for the enemies of the Cross of Christ their end is destruction (3:18-19). In his second letter to the church in Thessalonica Paul writes that when Christ comes again He will be revealed in glory and will come: “dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (1:8-9). The last clear reference to the final fate of the wicked in Paul’s letters is found in 1 Timothy, here Paul warns against various foolish and harmful desires which “plunge men into ruin and destruction” (6:9). After Paul’s letters the final body of Biblical writing that deals significantly with the topic of Hell is the writings of John, these were some of the last books of the Bible to be written and contain strong eschatological teachings.
While John’s Gospel is organized quite differently than the Synoptic Gospels, he likewise records the sayings of Jesus which often discuss Hell. Probably the most known verse from the Bible is John 3:16, this verse, while delivering a beautiful promise and displaying the amazing love of the Father, contains a powerful warning. In this verse Jesus tells Nicodemus; “whoever believes in Him [The only begotten Son of the Father] shall not perish, but have eternal life.” If those who believe shall not perish, then it is implied that those who do not believe will perish. Later in this Gospel Jesus tells his audience that an hour is coming when those in the tomb will come forth, “those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (5:29). Here we see, as we saw throughout the rest of Scripture, a declaration of one end for the evil and different one for the good, both involving a resurrection. The last verse in this Gospel that talks about the final fate of the wicked is in John 15; here John records a metaphor of a vine and the vinedresser used by Jesus. Those that do not abide in Jesus are thrown away like dried up branches disposed of by a vinedresser, they are gathered together and cast “into the fire and they are burned” (v. 6).
The three epistles of John do not seem to speak of hell, but in Revelation, the last book of the Bible written, John records a lot about the final judgment of the wicked. In the second chapter of Revelation he writes that those who overcome will not be hurt by the “second death” (v. 11). This term, the “second death,” is used once more in this book before being explained. In chapter 20 John records that those who are resurrected with Christ at the beginning of the millennium will not experience the “second death” (v. 6). In 21:8 John records God saying; “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murders 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.” In chapter 11 John writes that a time came for the dead to be judged and the saints, bond-servants, and prophets of God to be rewarded (v. 18). Elsewhere in Revelation we read that those who receive the mark of the beast will receive the wrath of God (14:9) and “he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (v. 10). This torment is said to go one forever (v.11). In 19:20 we are told that the “beast was seized, and with him the false prophet…; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.” In chapter 20 John describes the final judgment, he saw a great white throne with Him who sat upon it judging; “the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (v. 12). All the dead were judged and “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire,” all those whose name was not in the book of life were likewise thrown in the lake of fire (v. 14). The last verse in John’s writings that discusses Hell is Rev. 22:14-15; here the righteous are said to inhabit the New Jerusalem, but outside the city, outside this eternal fellowship with God, are the sinners. After the Synoptic Gospels and Paul and John’s writings there are only a few more references to Hell in the NT that need to be looked at.
Hebrews 9:27 speaks of it being appointed for men to die once, and then after this face judgment. Then in Hebrews 10:26-27 the author provides a terrifying message to those who hear the truth but continue living in sin, all that remains for them is “a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES” (v. 27). Two verses later the author discusses how much more severe the punishment will be for he who “has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace” (v. 29). Lastly, in Jude we find references to the coming judgment of the wicked. In v. 6 Jude writes that angels who did not keep their own domain are kept in bonds in darkness until the final judgment. In the 7th verse Jude writes that the fiery end received by Sodom and Gomorrah exhibited an example of the future punishment for the apostates in eternal flames. In v. 13 Jude writes that the black darkness has been reserved forever for the apostates he first talks about in v. 4. The last reference in Jude to final judgment, and the last reference we have in these remaining NT books, is found in v.15; he writes of Christ coming with angels and/or believers to execute judgment upon all, to convict “the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds.”
Looking at the progressing revelation of the doctrine of Hell in Scripture reveals a doctrine that is slowly unfurled throughout the entirety of the Biblical canon. A look at any single book does not give a clear picture as to what the fate of the wicked after death looks like. In the Old Testament vague references are found throughout the poetical books and some concrete declarations of God’s final judgment are seen in the writings of the prophets, but it is not until the New Testament that we see a vivid picture of what will happen to those who do not come to the Son for forgiveness of sins. In the New Testament we see the doctrine of Hell most clearly taught from the mouth of Jesus himself. Having looked at the testimony of Scripture on the doctrine of Hell we are now in a position to move into the third step of our theological investigation; to answer our questions as to the Biblical teaching of Hell we need to take the data we have collected from Scripture and bring it together into a cohesive statement of doctrine. This third step which we now must pursue is known as Systematic Theology.
All Scriptures in this chapter, unless otherwise stated, are from the NASB; New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).
 Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 221.
 Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2004), 634.634
 Longman III, Proverbs, 321.
 Charles A. (Charles Augustus) Whitaker, Richard; Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R. (Samuel Rolles); Briggs, The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament: From A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles Briggs, Based on the Lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius (Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906), אָבַד.
 Gordon Russell Lewis and Bruce A Demarest, Integrative theology : historical, biblical, systematic, apologetic, practical : three volumes in one (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 459.