As much as our image of Heaven is troubled by our narrow definition of worship and our too-literal understanding of its general construction, so, too, our image of Hell is skewed toward our limited understanding.
We have this image of Hell as fire and brimstone, a constant fire where things are burned, but somehow, not destroyed. Every cartoon we have ever seen of Hell depicts a little red devil with a little red pitchfork, and a bunch of souls walking around in a fire that doesn't even seem to bother them. They laugh and make jokes about their situation, but the fire itself....eh.
But here's the thing - there are two fires in Scripture that rage but do not singe, that burn but do not burn up. ...and both of those fires were holy. There's the burning bush in Exodus, which called Moses to sacred ground where he discovered the plan that God had for him. And there's the fiery furnace in Daniel, into which three men were thrown, but four were seen walking around, which revealed the present nature of the Lord for those who trust in Him. So if we're going to talk about a literal fire that burns, but does not burn up, we're going to have to reconstruct our image of Hell and somehow make it holy. Or at least, sacred. And I'm not sure that's where God was really going with this whole "punishment" thing.
There has been some discussion, particularly of late, about reimagining Hell in terms of the separation that is characteristic of it. It is a place where we are far-removed from God, where we can no longer get to Him, where we can no longer cry out to Him with any hope at all. It is the natural consequence of a life that rejects God - it is the sorrowful turning away of the God who has been rejected.
Then what of the fire? What of the lake of burning fire?
The fire in Hell is the one that burns inside the heart of every man. At the very moment when he understands his state, when he comes face-to-face with his finitude and his createdness, but he knows he has chosen against both, his heart begins to burn with this longing for God. It physically aches. Jeremiah put good words to this, even as a faithful man, when he said it "burns within me like a fire. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot." But for the man condemned to Hell, this fire burns with no mercy.
Everything inside of the man that for this life had no want of God now burns with longing need of Him, but it is too late. And this, this is a holy kind of fire, the kind that burns but does not burn up, that rages but does not singe, that consumes but does not devour.
And this is the true terror of Hell. It's not that it's hot. Or dark. It's that this little spark of holy fire that was in you all along, the one you spent your whole life either ignoring or extinguishing, suddenly rages, but it's too late. There's no longer anything to do with it. You've made your decision, turned your back, and God, in His heartbroken mercy, has let you go. And now...now what?