In this article, I would like to stress two things about hell. First, it is the final exile for those who remain in rebellion against God and refuse to repent. Second, what will be consummated in hell has its origins in time.
Admittedly, to speak of hell as an exile can be a little confusing, because to be exiled means to be banished. We tend to think of hell as being banished from the presence of God. This has been reinforced in the language that depicts sinners as “going to the Devil.” From this we have the further depiction of heaven as the place for God and the saints, and hell as the place for Satan and sinners. In our twisted folklore, we even have Satan in charge of hell making life miserable for condemned sinners. The problem with that scenario (apart from the fact that it is unbiblical) is that it fails to take into consideration that God is omnipresent, which means there is no place where He is not. As David expresses in Psalm 139:7–12, God’s presence is inescapable.
Furthermore, if Satan were the tormentor in hell, it would seem to be a reward for him because he delights in making men miserable. On the contrary, all who are banished to hell will suffer eternal torment. Satan will be in hell for sure. Matthew 25:41 says that “the eternal fire” of hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” It is therefore clear that this fire was prepared for torment and not for their enjoyment.
Somewhat ironically, the definition offered for the word exile in Webster’s New World Dictionary is more consistent with the biblical concept of hell: “a prolonged living away from one’s country.” To flesh this out, we must go to the first two chapters of the book of Genesis. There we have record of God’s creation of the world. In chapter 3, a seminal passage in the progressive unfolding of redemptive history, Eve was tempted by Satan. Subsequently, she and Adam ate from the forbidden tree and were plunged into a state of sin. In verses 16–17 we see the manifold effects of their rebellion, which is now shared by all of their progeny.
In this grim and dismal scene, two bright spots stand out. First, the protevangelium (“first gospel”) declared in verse 15 casts a shadowy forecast of the person and work of a coming Messiah who would be the solution to man’s fallen condition. And then, in verse 21, the Lord makes a deposit on that promise of verse 15 by covering Adam and Eve in the skins of an animal, thereby initiating the concept of substitutionary sacrifice that will be systematized in the Mosaic law and realized in the coming Messiah. However, in verses 23–24 we read of man’s initial exile — which is culminated and consummated in hell. In the wearing of skins provided by God, Adam is given tangible proof of a promise that his broken fellowship with God and the created order will be restored and that he will be returned to the garden from which he was evicted. But in the meantime, he will labor outside the garden. Because of his sin, his children therefore will be born in a state of alienation from their Creator, subservient to His sovereign rule but alienated from intimate continual fellowship with Him save for the means of mediation He supplies.
Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:12 to Gentile Christians captures this sense of exile that is the fruit of our fallen condition. He says, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” This is the present state of every unbeliever, and it is for this reason that the New Testament speaks of God’s wrath presently upon unbelievers (John 3:18; Eph. 2:1–3; Rom. 1:18). The point is this — all unbelievers are presently exiled from the place of proper fellowship with God. We often speak of the tension between the already and the not yet in terms of the grace of God in Christ and all of the promises that are fulfilled in Him. But there is also a tension between the already and the not yet of God’s judgment and condemnation. Unbelievers are in exile and are therefore under condemnation. Their lives reflect their status, as they fail to glorify, worship, and serve God. Hell is the consummation of the wrath they are presently under; it is the culmination of the rebel status that made them exiles in the first place. They have no desire to live for Him, and in hell they will live without His peace, joy, and love.
We therefore preach the reality of hell to sinners so that the reality of grace in the cross of Christ will be clearly seen as their only hope. Therefore, knowing the terror of God, we seek to persuade men.