I recently perused a popular church‘s doctrinal statement, in which the article on “Eternity” read:
“Man was created to exist forever. He will exist either eternally separated from God by sin or in union with God through forgiveness and salvation. To be eternally separated from God is Hell. To be eternally in union with Him is Heaven. Heaven and Hell are places of eternal existence.”
I also found this confession to quite popular (word-for-word so) among churches influenced by this particular ministry. Therefore, it’s not an irrelevant confession but one with substantial influence. With the resurgence of attention on hell from Rob Bell and the like, we do well to consider what hell is or if it is at all.
This confession about eternity should be commended where credit is due. It certainly is brief and demands expounding but it is concisely helpful in two ways. One, God did create man to live forever in either one of two places: heaven or hell. And, two, they are indeed places of eternal existence. Thankfully, this confession says far more than many churches are willing to say. But does it go far enough?
Again, the confession does not go into much detail about the nature of heaven or hell. Therefore, I’ll not take issue with what it does not say. What it does say particularly about hell is that “To be eternally separated from God is Hell.” In other words, Hell is the eternal absence of God or Hell is where God is eternally not.
At first blush, perhaps we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much with this definition of hell. Being one for hair-splitting, I hope not to cast any aspersion on those who wrote it or now espouse it. I simply want to interact with it at face value. Is Hell eternal separation from God or is it the eternal vengeance of God? Again, if the latter is indeed meant then I simply apologize but ask that we be clearer in our language.
Hell is not the eternal absence of God or eternal separation from God. Rather, God is very present in hell but present in the entirety of his wrath. In other words, God will not eternally leave the unbelieving in Jesus to their own devices, but will for eternity pour out his contempt on them for their rebellion against the universe’s Risen King. This is to say, and perhaps contrary to mainstream opinion, Satan does not rule hell. God rules hell as surely as he rules heaven.
We have hints of this in the Old Testament. David confessed that no matter where he went he could not escape God’s presence (Ps 139.7-12). Whatever one decides about the nature of Sheol (v8) we know in David’s mind (1) it stood opposite of heaven and (2) God was there, too, just as he was in heaven.
Contrasting the eternal state, God spoke through Isaiah about a new heavens and earth where God unleashes his blessing (Is 66.22-23). This over against an unnamed place where those who have transgressed against God will suffer eternal fire, unsatiated worms, and hatred forever (v24). Hell is not a party where Satan is the master of ceremonies. Hell is the place where God pours out his unmitigated wrath on all who have transgressed him.
As we come to the New Testament, hell comes into sharper focus. Jesus clears some of the fog that rested on the OT authors in regards to the eternal state. In Matthew 10.28, Jesus warned:
“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.”
While an argument could be made the “him” who is able to destroy body and soul in hell is Satan, the context clearly suggests God is to be feared over men. Don’t fear what men can do to you for confessing Christ, but fear what God will do to those who don’t.
At the cross, Jesus did not endure the Father’s absence. He endured the fullness of the Father’s wrath. We see this in one sense by the imagery of the “cup” Jesus drank. The OT speaks of those who suffer God’s wrath as drinking his cup of anger (e.g. Is 51.17, 22).
Correcting the Sons of Thunder, Jesus assured James and John they were not able to drink the cup Jesus was soon to drink (Mt 20.22). The cup of the Father’s wrath came with only one straw. And there was only one who could down that gall to its dregs.
The reality of the Father’s forsaking Jesus wasn’t merely that Jesus was separated from the Father. He was forsaken in that Jesus became before the Father all that He despised, hated and cursed. He wasn’t forsaken in that he was left alone, but that he left devoid of all mercy and subject to all wrath. God’s face, so brightly shining at the Son’s baptism, became a dark, frown as the Son became sin for us. Jesus went through hell in that he endured the fullness of the Father’s wrath on all sin and sinners for all time for all those who would believe.
The author of Hebrew described the fate of those whose sins are not covered by Christ (Heb 10.26-31). Those with no sacrifice for their sins can only expect “THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES” (v27; cf. Is 26.11). He then argues that if disregard for Moses’ Law merited a merciless eternity then how much more severe an eternity awaits those who disregard Christ’s gospel (v29). God’s vengeance is sure (v30) and it is a “terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (v31). In other words, if you die without Christ you die with no sacrifice in your place. That doesn’t mean you slip into a Godless eternity, but into a eternity where God repays his vengeance on those who, by their unbelief, “trampled under foot the Son of God” and “regarded the blood of the [new] covenant unclean” and “insulted the Spirit of grace.” God will be as present in hell in his wrath as he is present in heaven in his blessing.
God let the Apostle John in on the clearest vision of the nature of hell. He saw the beast and false prophet “thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone” (Rev 19.20). He then saw the devil himself (Satan) “thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20.10; emphasis mine). He then saw all those whose names were not written “in the book of life” were “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20.15). Drawing images together, John earlier saw those dying in Satan’s kingdom as eternally “drink[ing] of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of his anger.”
Oh, friend, consider that God will treat unbelievers just like he will Satan for all eternity! Oh, dear Christian, that means that God will treat all believers just like Jesus for all eternity!
Hell is not the unbeliever’s eternal party where Satan bartends and deejays. It is where God serves up the cup of wrath (drank by Jesus at the cross for all believers) for eternity. Satan is not in charge of torment in hell. He himself is suffering torment and that from the hand of God himself.
Again, Satan is not in charge of hell. God is. And God takes out his full, unmitigated wrath on all unbelievers along with Satan himself. God does not leave hell in the hands of Satan to do what he wills with those there. Hell is God’s hell and where he unleashes his eternal punishment on rebellious sinners who refused to worship Jesus.
Eternal separation from God would be a relief. But such is not the case when speaking of hell. Hell is not eternal separation from God. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It is eternal suffering from the hand of God.
Hear, in closing, the Belgic Confession (1619):
Finally we believe, according to God’s Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it.
Then all human creatures will appear in person before the great judge – men, women, and children, who have lived from the beginning until the end of the world.
They will be summoned there by the voice of the archangel and by the sound of the divine trumpet.
For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived. And as for those who are still alive, they will not die like the others but will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” from “corruptible to incorruptible.”
Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.
Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.
The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal – but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
In contrast, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor. The Son of God will “confess their names” before God his Father and the holy and elect angels; all tears will be “wiped from their eyes”; and their cause – at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers – will be acknowledged as the “cause of the Son of God.”
And as a gracious reward the Lord will make them possess a glory such as the heart of man could never imagine.
So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.