Where will unbelievers go at death?

(image public domain)

By Spencer D Gear

Among evangelical Christians there is a tendency to move away from the orthodox teaching of the eternal punishment / torment of unbelievers in hell. Dr. S. Lewis Johnson Jr. stated that “we have vast numbers of people, even evangelicals, who deny eternal punishment”.

The late Clark Pinnock[1] wrote:

We are asked to believe that God endlessly tortures sinners by the million, sinners who perish because the Father has decided not to elect them to salvation [while they were alive on earth], though he could have done so, and whose torments are supposed to gladden the hearts of believers in heaven. The problems with this doctrine are both extensive and profound.

Not surprisingly, the traditional view of the nature of hell has been a stumbling block for believers and an effective weapon in the hands of skeptics for use against the faith (1992:136).

On the popular level, the questioning of the orthodox doctrine of hell is seen in threads posted to Christian forums on the www.[2] If there is no heaven or hell, would you serve the Lord? That was the question pursued in that www thread.

The New York Times made this comment about Rob Bell’s new book:

In a book to be published this month[3], the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better”.[4]

This report in The New York Times claimed that

the furor was touched off last Saturday by a widely read Christian blogger, Justin Taylor, based on promotional summaries of the book and a video produced by Mr. Bell. In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Mr. Taylor said that the pastor “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”

It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine,” wrote Mr. Taylor, who is vice president of Crossway, a Christian publisher in Wheaton, Ill.[5]

What were the responses of other evangelical leaders to Rob Bell’s[6] comments?

One leading evangelical, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, wrote, “Farewell Rob Bell.” R. Albert Mohler Jr.[7], president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a blog post that by suggesting that people who do not embrace Jesus may still be saved, Mr. Bell was at best toying with heresy. He called the promotional video, in which Mr. Bell pointedly asks whether it can be true that Gandhi, a non-Christian, is burning in hell, “the sad equivalent of a theological striptease”.[8]

Who is Rob Bell anyway? The website of his church, Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, Michigan, says that “Rob Bell is the Founding Pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. He graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California”.

How do we respond to this rejection of the orthodox doctrine of eternal torment, even among those who claim to be evangelical?

What is the orthodox doctrine of hell?

While explaining the differences among the OT word for hell (sheol), the NT words for hell (hades, gehenna & tartarus), Geisler (2005:337-338) explains that

the nature of hell is a horrifying reality [for unbelievers]. Hell is like being left outside in the dark forever. Hell is like a wandering star, a waterless cloud, a perpetually burning dump, a bottomless pit, and everlasting prison. Hell is a place of anguish and regret.

Tartarus is used in 2 Peter 2:4 to refer to angels and where they were cast. He was using a word that in Greek literature meant a place of conscious torment in the netherworld. It did not mean non-existence, but referred to their being reserved in the place of mental anguish and terror until the day of judgment (Morey 1984:135).

Wayne Grudem (1994:1148) explains the orthodox doctrine: ‘Hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked’.

We know this from the Scriptures of the New Testament that after death, unbelievers are:

  • Conscious and in torment (Luke 16:23);
  • “Under punishment until the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9);
  • Matt. 25:41, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels'”.
  • Mark 9:43-44, “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell [gehenna], to the unquenchable fire”.
  • Rev. 20:15, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”.

A common argument to reject the teaching of Luke 16:23 is that it forms part of a parable and is not meant to teach a literal experience of torment in hell for unbelievers. Is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus a parable or something else? Geldenhuys assumes it is a parable with the heading, ‘Parable of the rich man and Lazarus” (1979:424). I. Howard Marshall (1978:632) also accepted that it is a parable. Norman Geisler rejects the label of parable, saying Luke 16:19-31 is ‘a stunningly vivid story that speaks for itself and, unlike parables, uses a person’s actual name (Lazarus)’ and ‘Jesus tells of a man in hell’ (2005:331).

I agree that this is a parable and has ONE main point and that is what happens after death for the righteous and the unrighteous. For the unbeliever there are anguish and torment. For the believers there is comfort. There is a great gulf between the final destiny of believer and unbeliever.

As an exegete and expositor of God’s word, I make every attempt to read a verse in context. In addition to the actual Greek word that Peter used in 2 Peter 2:9 for the punishment of the unrighteous, the tense of the participle used is the present tense, meaning continuous action. The ESV enforces this understanding with its translation, “to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment”. “To keep … under punishment” is better understood in a present continuing action than a future connotation (as with the KJV). J. N. D. Kelly rightly states regarding the present participle of punishment that “we cannot easily attribute a future tense”.[9]

This continuing punishment of the unbelievers in the intermediate state[10], after death and before the resurrection, is supported in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) by the fact that Jesus teaches that for the ungodly there is suffering after death while they await the day of final judgment.

Let’s look at some facts about the final location of the ungodly at judgment before God himself: Gehenna[11] (see also Matt. 5:22, 29, 20; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6) is derived from Ge-Hinnom (John. 15:8; 18:6) which is abbreviated as Geben-Hinnom (Josh. 15:8), and means the valley of the son or of Hinnom sons (2 Kings 23:10). It was situated south of Jerusalem and was known as a place of fire because it was there, in the time of Ahaz and Manasseh, that children were roasted to death as sacrifices to Moloch (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6). The godly King Josiah declared this place unclean (2 Kings 23:10) and Jeremiah pronounced terrible threats over it (Jer. 7:32; 19:6). It also was a place where the garbage of the city burned. These are the reasons why Ge-Hinnom or Gehenna became a designation for the final hell.

In Mark 9:43, Gehenna is designated as the place of “unquenchable fire”[12], meaning that the punishment for unbelievers who enter it will never end; it is everlasting, eternal, as is confirmed in Matt. 25:46, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (ESV).

Gehenna always means hell in the NT.  Commentator William Hendriksen (1975:366) states that “Gehenna receives both body and soul of the wicked after the final judgment”. When the NT speaks of Gehenna as a place of “unquenchable fire”, the point is not that there is a fire burning in the Gehenna rubbish dump, but that unbelievers, the wicked, will have to endure torment forever. There they will experience the wrath of God.

The phrase “lake of fire” only occurs in the Book of Revelation – 6 times [19:20; 20:10, 14 (twice), 15: 21:8]. John tells us that this is the “second death” (20:14). This is the place for everyone whose name is not written in the book of life – it is the place for ALL unbelievers in Christ. They are separated from the living God and suffer torment eternally.

How are we to understand “Death and Hades” in Rev. 20:14?[13] Death is a state and Hades is a place. Of course death and Hades are connected. In Rev. 6:8, we have the fourth seal opened where the rider on the pale horse is Death, and Hades follows closely behind. Hades is the place where the souls of unbelievers are kept in the intermediate state. It is not to be identified with the grave. Rather, Hades is the place where both believers and unbelievers repose until Christ’s second coming.

By contrast, Gehenna (hell) is the final place of endless suffering/punishment for unbelievers. According to Rev. 20:14-15, when Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire, the authority of the state of Death and the place of Hades is ended. The temporary power of Death and Hades becomes permanent in the lake of fire for unbelievers who are suffering permanently and continuously in hell. (See my article, Eternal torment for unbelievers when they die‘).

John 3:16 provides us with the motivation that we should be proclaiming the Gospel so that believers can come to eternal life in Christ and unbelievers warned of what happens at death (perishing, eternal torment): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (ESV).

Some want to teach the annihilation of unbelievers at death. CARM[14] states that:

Annihilationism is the teaching that the unbeliever, after death, will eventually be annihilated. Annihilation is the teaching that the non-Christian ceases to exist after death. Within this view are two main categories.  First, that the unredeemed will automatically be annihilated.  Second, that the unredeemed, after an appropriate amount of time of suffering, will be annihilated.

I highly recommend the CARM article, ‘Is annihilation true?‘ For a brief refutation of the annihilation doctrine as taught by the SDAs, see my article, “Refutation of the Seventh Day Adventist doctrine of what happens at death“.

Annihilation of the wicked at death is false teaching for the reasons given above.

What should be our understanding of death?

  1. God told the man in Genesis 2:17, “For in the day that you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die” and “he ate” (Gen. 3:6). But he did not die physically. He and his wife continued to live on. So death, from God’s perspective, does not mean extinction. Death by annihilation / extinction is not how God understands the end of human life on earth.
  2. The length of time of punishment at the final judgement given to those on Christ’s left (the damned) will be “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). The length of time for those on His right (the righteous) will be “eternal life”. The duration of time for each is exactly the same –aiwnios – eternal. It goes on forever and ever and ever. There is no extinction, conditional immortality or annihilation here.
  3. Some want to labour Rom. 6:23, “the wages of sin is death”. It is good that we consider this Scripture, but what does this say in the Greek? It does not say, “The wages of our sins is death”. It states, “the wages of the sin (singular with definite article) is death”.[15] So, it is referring to the power of sin, which entered the entire human race when Adam committed that one act of sin and brought the slavery of sin to all. The redeemed have had this slavery to sin broken at the cross of Christ. So the wages of sin is death does not mean that an unbeliever receives the wages of extinction, annihilation, conditional immortality. The death which the sin brought and which will be the final destination for the unbeliever is eternal, permanent separation from God and enduring God’s punishment. That’s how I understand the Bible!

No matter how hard people try to squeeze the texts, we can’t change the meaning of death for Adam, Eve and the entire, unredeemed human race. We can’t change the length of time for the punishing of the damned – eternal.

In the above information, I have tried to be faithful to the biblical texts.

On the orthodox doctrine of hell, I’m in good company with…

J. I. Packer

Albert Mohler

N. T. Wright

C. H. Spurgeon

John Piper

R. C. Sproul

The Westminster Confession of Faith




No matter how much we want to get rid of eternal torment of the ungodly in eternal hell (Gehenna) after Christ’s second coming and the judgment of all people, the Scriptures teach that all people go to Sheol (OT) and Hades (NT) in the intermediate state. At the final judgment, unbelievers will be sent to Gehenna where they will be tormented forever, experiencing the wrath of God.

So, is leading evangelical pastor, Rob Bell, promoting truth or falsehood in his view that Christians are “misguided and toxic” in their belief that a few Christians will spend forever in the peaceful, joyous place of heaven, while the rest of humanity spends eternity in the punishing torment of hell with no second chance? From the exposition above, it is Rob Bell who is promoting what is “misguided and toxic” by denying the eternal damnation of hell when unbelievers will experience the wrath of God – forever and ever.

This is why all Christians should be actively engaged in evangelism to take the Gospel to the lost and to warn unbelievers of their eternal damnation. See, “The content of the Gospel” for an overview of what should be included in Gospel presentations.


Geisler, N. 2005. Systematic Theology (vol. 4). Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse.

Geldenhuys, N. 1979. Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament series). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Grudem, W. 1994. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Hendriksen, W. 1975. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Kistemaker, S. J. 1986, 1987. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of James, Epistles of John, Peter, and Jude. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Kistemaker, S. J. 2001. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Lenski, R. C. H. 1936. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers.

Lenski, R. C. H. 1946. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers.

Marshall, I. H. 1978. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text (The New International Greek Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Morey, R. A. 1984. Death and the Afterlife. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers.

Pinnock 1992. ‘The conditional view’, in William Crockett (ed), Four Views on Hell, pp. 135-166. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.


[1] Christianity Today reported that Pinnock died of a heart attack at the age of 73 on 15 August 2010, “Clark Pinnock dies at 73” (Accessed 18 September 2011).

[2] One example is in two Christian Forums threads. In “Imagine there is no heaven or hell. Now tell me why you are a Christian”. In this thread, one seeker said, “There is no hell” (post #25). In another thread, “Hell doesn’t seem fair to me”, a Pentecostal wrote that hell-fire preachers “make wisdom foolishness, turn eternal love into exasperated hate, make omnipotence helplessness, and make the justice of God the grossest injustice in the universe” (post #212). Is this the biblical truth or not? Read on!

[3] Rob Bell’s book is titled, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne 2011).

[4] Erik Eckholm, “Pastor stirs wrath with his views on old questions”, The New York Times, 4 March 2011, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/05/us/05bell.html (Accessed 23 August 2011).

[5] Ibid.

[6] The New York Times reported that “Rob Bell addressed the issue of heaven and hell in a video about his book, “A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived”, ibid.

[7] Albert Mohler Jr’s brief critique of Rob Bell’s theology is titled, “Universalism as a lure. The emerging case of Rob Bell“.

[8] The New York Times, loc. cit.

[9] J. N. D. Kelly 1969/1981. A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and John (Thornapple Commentaries series). Grand Rapids: Baker, p. 335, from Kistemaker (1975:294).

[10] There are passages of Scripture that indicate an intermediate state following death and before the resurrection. It is a state in which the soul of the individual continues to live in conscious existence. For an indication of what happens to believers, see Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:1-9, esp. v8; Phil. 1:23 and Heb. 12:23. For unbelievers, see Luke 16:24-26 and Heb. 9:27. Bible.org has an article by Greg Herrick which states that ‘the intermediate state for unbelievers, i.e., what happens to them after death, seems to involve conscious punishment in Hades where they await a future, bodily resurrection to eternal punishment in Hell, the final place of the Devil, his angels, and the wicked (Matthew 25:41; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Thess 1:8-9)’.

[11] The following information is from Hendriksen (1975:365-366).

[12] The New International Version 1984 translates “unquenchable fire” as “where the fire never goes out”. Lenski (1946:407) makes a wise comment: ‘A fire that is “unquenchable” is by that very fact eternal. It is fruitless to dispute about the kind of fire that this is: all that we can say is what Jesus here says of it. We have no eternal or unquenchable fire here on earth, and when Jesus tells us of such a fire in the other world, we must remember that everything in that world is really beyond our comprehension. Let no man quibble about the kind of fire, let him make sure that he will escape that fire’.

[13] The information in this paragraph is from Kistemaker (2001: 548-549).

[14] CARM is the acronym for the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, PO BOX 995, Meridian, ID 83680, USA. Email: [email protected].

[15] This was drawn to my attention by R. C. H. Lenski (1936:435).


Copyright (c) 2012 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at Date: 9 June 2016.