The Bible indicates there is no real pain or punishment that one will experience “in hell” because the person does not exist. It is similar to what we experience when we are asleep. The question makes a couple assumptions that address several different aspects of hell, so let’s go through each one and then go back to the question.
ASSUMPTION: Hell is a place where real pain and punishment are doled out for eternity.
In order to really grasp the meaning of “hell”, we need to go back to the original Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible. We want to understand the exact meaning that the writers intended, not the interpretations of the translators. In the Old Testament, whenever we see the English word “hell”, it comes from the Hebrew word “sheol” (found 65 times). Sometimes, “sheol” is translated “grave” (31 times) or “pit” (3 times). Hell, grave, and pit have very different meanings, but the Hebrew word sheol is consistently used to convey the thought of “being dead”.
In the New Testament, whenever we see “hell” in English, it comes from three Greek words: “hades”, “tartarus”, and “Gehenna”. We know that sheol means the exact same thing as hades because when the Bible translates Psa 16:10 in Acts 2:31, sheol is translated as hades. Therefore, whenever we see hades, we can think sheol.
“Gehenna” was a reference to the Valley of Gehenna, also known as the Valley of Hinnom, one of the valleys that surrounded Jerusalem. In this valley, there was a constant fire going, and people would throw their trash in there to incinerate it. Even though there was a continuous fire, the trash that went in didn’t burn forever; it was completely destroyed by the flames and you could never get it back. This is what gehenna indicates, something destroyed so that you can’t ever recover it. Gehenna has a different meaning than hades and sheol, because you can be recovered from hades and sheol: 1 Sam 2:6 says: “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” (ESV). And Psa 49:15 says: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” (ESV)
Tartarus is used once in 2 Pet 2:4 and applies to angels, not humans, so we will not go into it.
The doctrine of a hell of everlasting torment stems primarily from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in Luke 16:19-31, most notably verse 23 which reads: “In hades, where he was in torment…” (NIV). This is a parable, meant for the Pharisees (the rich man was the rich Jewish nation in covenant relationship with God). Later, when Jesus actually raised his friend named Lazarus, the story should have really hit home with the Pharisees. The story was an illustration, and not a literal glimpse into hades.
The torture idea also comes from Jude 1:7, which says: “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” (NIV) Sodom and Gomorrah no longer exist because they were destroyed by fire (Gen 19:24-25). But since Sodom and Gomorrah are no longer burning today, and the cities have never been rebuilt, we can conclude that this scripture uses “eternal fire” to symbolically describe permanent destruction.
So what is it like in hell? Ecc 9:10 says: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (ESV) Hell is simply the state of being dead. This will become clearer as we continue.
ASSUMPTION: Only bad people go to Hell.
This is an interesting concept that not many Christians realize. Everyone goes to Hell. Psa 89:48 says: “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” Everyone goes to sheol. Here are some examples:
Jacob, later renamed Israel, the father of God’s chosen people, surely wouldn’t go to a burning place of torment for all eternity. However, in Gen 37:35, after he believes to have lost his favorite son, he expresses his complete expectation of going to sheol: “All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.” (ESV)
Job lost all his sons and daughters, his wealth, and his health. He had boils all over his skin and couldn’t do anything besides lay down on the ground and scrape the pus off (Job 2:7-8). And yet, Job wished to be in sheol: “Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!” (Job 14:13 ESV) Sheol can’t be worse than what Job experienced if he wished he could be there instead. With the idea that sheol is a state of “being dead”, this scripture makes a lot of sense: he was thinking “I wish I were dead.”
King David, quoted as a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22), expected to go to sheol: “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.” (Psa 88:3 ESV)
Sheol is apparently filled with righteous men that God loved! In the context of a hell of torture, this doesn’t make sense. But if we realize that sheol is simply the state of being dead, then it all fits together. Everyone dies and goes to the same place: “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not…” (Ecc 9:2 NIV)
ASSUMPTION: In addition to our physical body that can die, we have a spiritual existence that cannot die.
The punishment for sin is death: “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Gen 2:17 NIV) Notice that it doesn’t say just your body will die but not your “soul”. It says “you”; everything that makes “you” will die. Keep in mind that when Adam was created, he was made “a living soul”: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Gen 2:7 KJV). This implies that there is such a thing as a dead soul, namely, when that person dies, he is a dead soul. And this is explicitly taught in Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul that sinter, it shall die.”
Back to the question.
Since “hell” is a place of non-existence (no spiritual body, no physical body, nothing), there can be no pain. Remember: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (Ecc 9:10 ESV) We can be brought back from Sheol, and after we are, that is, after the resurrection of the dead, those that sin again and lose the privilege to live forever will go to “second death” (see Rev 20:13-15). This second death, very much like the first death the human race is currently experiencing, will again be a state of non-existence. But, this time, it will be permanent.