To get at the way that hell glorifies God, we need to see hell in light of the Bible’s big story, its point of view, and its characterization of God and man.
THE BIBLE’S BIG STORY
The Bible’s plot, like all plots, has a beginning, middle, and end.
God creates a perfect place and puts an innocent man and woman in it. God sets the terms and clearly states the consequence of transgressing his terms. An enemy lies to the innocent woman. She believes the lie, breaks God’s terms, and the man sins with her. God curses the enemy and initiates the consequences of transgression, cursing the land also. In the curse on the enemy, God states that the seed of the woman would strike the enemy’s head, while the enemy would strike the seed’s heel. The man and woman are then banished from the perfect place.
Humanity has been divided into two groups: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, the righteous and the wicked. The seed of the woman are initially a subset of the nation of Israel, a line of descent that God has chosen to bless. They experience a re-do of the plot’s beginning. God puts them in a land of promise and sets the terms. They transgress the terms and are banished from that land, but God continues to promise that the enemy will be defeated even though it will be through a painful purging of the seed of the woman.
Then Jesus comes as the promised seed of the woman. He crushes the enemy’s head, with the enemy striking his heel—he dies on the cross. Because he is innocent and has resisted all temptation, death cannot hold him. He triumphantly overcomes death, satisfying God’s wrath against sin and opening the way of salvation for all who will trust him.
Creation will be like a woman in childbirth suffering labor pains, with the wicked viciously attacking the righteous, who trust God and testify to God’s truth until they are killed. This will continue until Jesus comes again. When Jesus comes again, he will judge the wicked and consign them to everlasting punishment, and he will take those who believed the word of God and the testimony of Jesus into a new, better, perfect place.
THE BIBLE GIVES US GOD’S POINT OF VIEW…
This plot is not merely a story: it presents God’s point of view on the world. Think with me about the Bible’s point of view, the biblical authors’ perspective.
Their point of view is that God set the terms and God is in the right. Those who reject God’s terms are in the wrong and face the consequences God stated when he set the terms. Moreover, the Bible not only represents the point of view of the biblical authors, it claims to speak for God. That is, the Bible claims to present God’s point of view on the matter.
…ABOUT GOD, MAN, AND OUR STATE BEFORE GOD
How are the characters in the Bible presented? They are mainly presented by means of their words and actions, but the Bible also evaluates its characters. Let’s think briefly of how the Bible characterizes God, humans, and Jesus.
The Bible teaches that God always does and says what is right. He always keeps his word. Nothing can thwart his purpose. He is free and good. The Bible always justifies God. That is, the Bible always shows that God is just. Paradoxically, the Bible also shows that God is merciful.
Conversely, all humans do and say what is wrong, what betrays a lack of faith in God. By word and deed humans transgress God’s commands. Humans have defiled God’s good creation, perverted his good gifts, and in every way attacked God, who gave them life and every good thing. For this, all humans deserve condemnation.
As stated above, there are two groups of humans. One group is characterized by trusting God, agreeing to his terms, confessing that they have broken the terms, turning away from their transgressions, and seeking to believe God’s promises so that they can live by his terms. The other group rejects God and his terms, refuses to admit their guilt, refuses to turn away from evil, and joins the side of the enemy.
Jesus shows by his words and deeds that he is fully human and fully God. Jesus never transgressed God’s commands. He is the hero. He saves the day. He gave himself for others. Anyone who opposes or rejects him is opposing and rejecting goodness and love. Anyone who opposes and rejects him deserves condemnation. Those who receive and join him, however, do so on his terms, which are God’s terms, and which entail confession of sin, repentance, and trust in Jesus.
HOW THEN DOES HELL GLORIFY GOD?
How does all this help us see how hell glorifies God?
This world is God’s story. He spoke it into being, and it keeps going because he keeps speaking. The universe is sustained by the word of his power. It’s his plot. He is the Author whose point of view is communicated in the Bible and whose characterizations define the participants in the drama.
Hell is about God keeping his word. That God sends the wicked to hell shows God to be faithful and just. If God does not enforce the terms he has set, he does not keep his word and he is unfaithful. If he does not send the wicked to hell, he has not upheld his own righteous standard and he has not been just. If he does not punish rebels in hell, the righteous are not vindicated. In fact, if there is no hell, we might conclude that the righteous were wrong for having trusted God.
But there is hell, and the righteous are wise to trust God. Hell shows the glory of God’s justice. Hell vindicates those who obey God’s terms, even if they suffered terribly for doing so. Hell vindicates the righteous who were persecuted by the wicked. Hell glorifies God.
Do you object to this? You might as well join with Shere Khan against Rudyard Kipling. Or again, you have about as much chance of altering the plot, point of view, or characterization as Sauron does of changing Tolkien’s mind. It isn’t going to happen. You are a creature in the Creator’s work of art. Accept it. He is the Creator, not you. How seriously should we take those who object to hell or try to rewrite the story so that hell isn’t part of it? As seriously as we would we take Hamlet critiquing Shakespeare’s work. Hamlet has no independent existence. He can only critique Shakespeare if the author decides to write that scene.
God has created a universe in which his mercy has meaning precisely because it does not nullify his justice. In order for God to be just and extend mercy, he must keep his promise to punish transgression. In the Bible’s presentation of the true story of the world, God upholds justice at the cross and in hell. Jesus died on the cross to establish God’s justice and ensure that those who repent of sin and trust in Christ receive mercy that is also just. God punishes the wicked in hell to uphold justice against all who refuse to repent of sin, glorify him as God, and give thanks to him.
In sum, hell glorifies God because
- it shows that he keeps his word;
- it shows his infinite worth, lasting forever;
- it demonstrates his power to subdue all who rebel against him;
- it shows how unspeakably merciful he is to those who trust him;
- it upholds the reality of love by visiting justice against those who reject God, who is love;
- it vindicates all who suffered to hear or proclaim the truth of God’s word;
- and it shows the enormity of what Jesus accomplished when he died to save all who would trust him from the hell they deserved. If there were no hell, there would be no need for the cross.
James M. Hamilton, Jr. is Associate Professor of Biblical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and is preaching pastor of Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author, most recently, of God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2010).
My thoughts on plot, point of view, and characterization have been stimulated by A. Philip Brown II, Hope Amidst Ruin: A Literary and Theological Analysis of Ezra (Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 2009).For the notes I took on Brown’s description of the way literature works, see my post, “Literary Notes from Brown’s Hope Amidst Ruin,” on my blog: http://jimhamilton.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/literary-notes-from-browns-hope-amidst-ruin/.
 See esp. N. D. Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
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