When I say that God was not evangelically present outside the camp, I mean that God was working for the good of the people only inside the camp. To be sure, God was working outside the camp, but He was not working for the good of the people who were there, because they were not His people, and He was not their God. Romans 8:28 is a glorious promise that every Christian ought to hold dear. But it only applies to Christians, or as Paul says, to “those who love God” and “are called according to his purpose.” It does not apply to those who are not God’s people. And the same basic idea can be used in reference to those who were living inside and outside the camp. God was present inside the camp for the good of His people but not so outside the camp. God was present outside the camp only in judgment and wrath.
According to the Bible, there is only one place that is ultimately outside of God’s covenantal and evangelical presence forevermore, and that is hell. It is the one place about whose citizens it can truly and permanently be said that God is not their God, and they are not His people. It is the one place in which God is present only in judgment and wrath (remember that God’s omnipresence means that He is present even in hell) and never for blessing. It is, therefore, no surprise that Jesus repeatedly refers to hell as the place of “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (e.g., Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). It is the place outside of God’s covenantal and evangelical presence. It is outside the camp.
This interpretation would seem to be supported by the fact that the Jews were required to take the bodies of the animals (that had become sin by imputation) outside the camp and to burn them up in fire, because the New Testament repeatedly refers to hell in terms of fire. It is the “fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:42, 50), the “eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41), the “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), and “the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). And those who escape hell are said to escape “as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15) or to have been snatched “out of the fire” (Jude 23).
Once we understand this, we can see that the Old Testament sacrificial system symbolically required that the bodies of the animals (which had become sin by way of imputation) be taken to hell and wholly consumed in fire. And it is in this light that Hebrews 13:12 is so significant, because it says: “So [or, perhaps better, therefore] Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” The point should be clear: there is a direct connection between Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross—which was outside the city gates of Jerusalem—and the practice of burning the animal sacrifices outside the camp in the Old Testament. Just as the animal sacrifices were credited with the sins of the people, killed, and sent outside the camp to hell to be wholly consumed in fire, so Christ was credited with the sins of His people (2 Cor. 5:21), killed, and sent “outside the camp” to hell to be wholly consumed.
And the idea is that all this took place on the cross. Jesus went to hell—the place outside of God’s covenantal and evangelical presence—as our sin bearer, and He was wholly consumed in wrath and judgment. It was then that He uttered the well-known cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). At that moment, God was treating Him as though He was sin—the sin of all who would ever believe in Him, past, present, and future. Jesus was wholly consumed in fire as the sin-bearing sacrifice, and we are told that this took place “outside the gate.”
According to Hebrews 13:11–12, Jesus did descend into hell. He did so on the cross as He bore an eternity of hell for all the sins of all His people who would ever live. He was wholly consumed. That means that there is no hell left for those who are in Christ. He descended into hell so that we would never have to. He stood in our place and took the judgment and wrath of God poured out against our sins. And He rose again from the dead on the third day to confirm that His sacrifice was in fact accepted by the God of the universe. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!