WHO IS IN CONTROL OF HELL?

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from Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty: Recovering a Biblical Doctrine
by Peter Sammons

In many modern TV shows, cartoons, and movies, hell is depicted as a place in the center of the earth where the devil runs around in a red suit with a pitchfork. It is thought of as a place where bad people go and are tortured by the devil. This concept, however, is far from the biblical notion of the actual judge of hell. That idea borrows more from the pagan fiction of the Greek pantheon of gods, one of which rules the underworld whose name is Hades, or in other cultures, Mephisto, Hela, or Loki. However, these concepts are nothing less than a perversion of the truth and most certainly a denial of it.

According to Scripture, Satan will not be the chief of hell but its chief captive. “Satan has never been in Hell and does not control Hell.”[1] Because God is the one offended, because God alone is holy and perfectly just, only he is qualified to punish the wicked in hell. “That it is the cause, source, and rule of all punishments to be inflicted; for this is the right of God, ‘that those who commit sin are worthy of death.’ From this right of God it follows that ‘the wages of ’ every ‘sin is death.’”[2]

God’s judgments, however, are just in that they require evidence; that is why he weighs the heart and renders justice according to works (Prov. 24:12). There is no secret sin, or no offense that can be hidden, buried, or destroyed from his eyes. “For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:14). While the human justice system may be bribed, swayed, or even tampered with based on the presentation of evidence or lack thereof, the divine justice system cannot be. The human justice system can only judge, even if it does so rightly, the external evidence. Human justice cannot judge the most crucial or revealing testimony: the human heart. God knows the hearts and thoughts of men. “God is just in punishing the wicked, because He never punishes them but upon full proof of evidence.”[3] Therefore, there must be a day of judgment, and the just penalty for that judgment is eternal hell. “For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness” (Ps. 96:13). Anyone outside of Christ who does not have a substitute will be judged on their own accord. They will not be able to have another take their place on that day, but each will take his or her own place before the divine tribunal.

And because there is no one who has been perfect apart from the God-man Jesus Christ, all outside of him will reap their just reward. “Therefore, for vindicating the justice of God, there must be a day wherein there shall be a righteous distribution of punishments and rewards to men, according to their actions.”[4]

It is common to refer to this judgment as punishment, and it could be called thus rightly so, however this punishment must not be confused with the punishment or chastisement that comes as a result of being disobedient children. This is not a disciplinary action for their correction, but a judgment for his vindication. John Owen has a very precise way of referring to God’s justice executed on those in hell: “But this is that universal perfection of God, which, when He exercises [it]in punishment the transgressions of His creatures, is called vindicatory justice.”[5] Vindicatory justice is a correct way of referring to hell in relation to the attributes of God. His justice vindicates and clears the holiness of God for the patience with which he allowed sinners to disdain his name throughout their lives here on earth.

So it is right to note that the wrath of God is in hell, however, it may also be observed that each member of the Trinity, in his own personal way, is involved in this judgment.[6] The Spirit is involved indirectly, in that while in this life, he restrained the wicked, convicted them of sin, and caused them to withhold from being utterly depraved. The reason why no one has been as bad as they could have been is because of the restraining power of the Holy Spirit; in hell this will not be the case. His involvement can be seen in the parable of Jesus in Luke 16:25: “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.’” One thing that can be gleaned from this parable is that the wicked will remember things here on this earth while they are in hell. They will forever remember how things were. Yet it will be of no comfort to them. This recollecting in the mind of the good things they took for granted heightens their torment. This recollection will be a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.

The Father can be said to be the one who determines the verdict of hell. He determined who would go there before the foundations of the world. However, he is not the one who gives out the judgment, for he is not the judge of hell. The Father’s role then will be in the outpouring of wrath. The Scripture does not tell us the source of the wrath upon the wicked other than it is God’s. His wrath was what was poured out on Christ, and his wrath will be what is poured out on the defiant sinner in hell.

The clearest judge of hell given in Scripture is Jesus Christ. This right is given to him by the Father. “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). He is the one who will judge the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1; Acts 10:42). Acts 17:31 seems to indicate a that the agency through which the Father judges is the Son “because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” John 5:26–27 speaks this same truth: “This right to act as judge over the whole universe is something that the Father has given the Son.”[7] It has been prophesied from long ago that he would execute judgment. Daniel 7:10 has him as the one reading the books and sentencing judgment. “It is a great honor put upon Christ; He who was Himself judged, shall be Judge: He who once hung upon the cross, shall sit upon the throne of judgment.”[8] When men go to jail, or when they stand before a firing squad, they are always terrified. Men in ages past were frightened to speak to a king lest they be put to death. The demons shuddered, shrieked, and feared when Christ arrived because they knew he was their future judge. In Acts 24:25 Felix was frightened when Paul spoke of the “judgment to come”; how much more so will the wicked collapse under despair before Christ on that great day!

John Murray explains, “The exaltation bestowed upon Him is the highest exaltation conceivable and this exaltation will be verified and consummated in the judgment of the whole world.”[9] Revelation 6:16–17 describes, “and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’”

In Christ’s first coming he came meek and lowly, he was a humble servant, but in his second coming he will be a righteous judge. “The Lamb of God will then be turned into a lion, the sight of whom will strike terror into sinners.”[10] He will be blameless when he judges the world concerning sin (Job 21:14; Ps. 51:4; Matt. 25:41; Eph. 1:20–21; Phil. 2:10–11; Heb. 1:3; 1 Peter 3:22; Rev. 1:17–18; 6:16–17; 20:12).


[1] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity: Contained in Sermons upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 87.

[2] John Owen, “Divine Justice,” Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), 10:513.

[3] James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and Readable Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 173.

[4] Owen, “Divine Justice,” 10:515.

[5] Watson, Body of Divinity, 89.

[6] Watson, Body of Divinity, 311.

[7] Owen, “Divine Justice,” 10:513.

[8] Because God is Pure Act and Simple, the doctrine of Inseparable Operations is a vital conclusion to combat Social Trinitarianism. Inseparable Operations simplified means that when one member of the Trinity acts all three persons are also acting, since there is only one God. However, in the economy of God’s work (ad extra) we are able to appropriate specific work to each person. For a great treatment of this very important topic see Adonis Vidu, The Same God Who Works All Things: Inseparable Operations in Trinitarian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021).

[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 1142.

[10] Watson, Body of Divinity, 311.


This post is adapted from Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty: Recovering a Biblical Doctrine by Peter Sammons If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

God’s right to judge humanity is written on the very fabric of human existence

The doctrine of reprobation–that is, the eternal, unconditional decree of God for the non-elect–is frequently misconstrued in both pastoral and theological literature. In Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty, Peter Sammons reintroduces this oft-misunderstood doctrine, revealing its relationship to divine sovereignty. With Romans 9 as a guiding text, Sammons presents a thoroughly researched defense of reprobation as an essential part in a Reformed theology that magnifies God and encourages believers to trust in him.

Reprobation and God’s Sovereignty clearly defines and demonstrates from Scripture the foundational terms and doctrines required for properly understanding reprobation, such as:

  • God’s justice
  • Election
  • Compatibilism
  • Secondary causality
  • Preterition
  • Predamnation

Understanding these theological ideas proves vital to answering life’s all-important question, “Who is God?” Sammons shows how the doctrine of reprobation leads to a greater admiration for God, eliciting higher praise, reverence, and belief in him.

 

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About Author

Peter Sammons (PhD, The Master’s Seminary) is both director of academic publications at The Master’s Seminary and managing editor of The Master’s Seminary Journal. He is the author of Reprobation: From Augustine to the Synod of Dort.

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