A helpful article from The Gospel Coalition blog, written by Christopher Morgan. I appreciate this article because I think Morgan does justice to what the essence of heaven and hell are. The essence of heaven is the recreation, or restoration. God's people, along with creation, are restored to their glorious, natural state, for which we were meant to live. We are restored to worship God as we were created to. We are no longer inhibited by sin. We are restored to our full humanity. Hell is eternally being on the outside of this restoration.
Editor’s note: It has become increasingly common to describe hell as the experience being on the outside. This is indeed an important way Scriptures testifies to this awful judgment. However, Christopher Morgan explains several others ways the Bible describes hell and why we must account for all of them in our teaching.
The biblical story begins with God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, and it ends with God’s creation of a new heavens and a new earth. The story begins with the goodness of creation, and it ends with the goodness of the new creation. The story begins with God dwelling with his people in a garden-temple, and it ends with God dwelling with his covenant people in heaven, a new earth-city-garden-temple (Gen 1-2; Rev 21-22).
Once and for all, God’s victory is consummated. God’s judgment is final, sin has been vanquished, justice prevails, holiness predominates, God’s glory is unobstructed, and the kingdom is realized. God’s eternal plan of cosmic reconciliation in Christ is actualized, and Christ is “all in all.”
But the story does not end quite as we might expect. God casts the devil and his demons into the lake of fire. But instead of being consumed, they are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10). So Satan and the demons are not restored, but go to hell.
Then we find that God judges everyone—those whom the world deems important, those whom the world never notices, and everyone in between. “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:15). So not only does God send the ruthless Roman emperors to hell (which we might expect), but he consigns to hell all who are not a part of the people of Jesus (cf. Dan 12:1; Rev 13:8; 21:27).
We then learn that the new heavens and new earth arrive, God dwells with his covenant people (note the covenant formulas of 21:3, 7), brings comfort to his people (no more pain, death, etc. in 21:4), makes all things new (21:5), and proclaims, “It is done!” (21:6). But a striking contrast is added in Revelation 21:8—that those who are not the people of God have a portion—but not in the inheritance, but in the lake of fire!
Heaven is then depicted as a perfect temple, glorious, multinational, and holy (21:9-27). The people of God will bear God’s image rightly—serving him, reigning with him, encountering him directly, and worshiping him (22:1-5).
What a scene! God is receiving the worship he is due, and humans are blessed beyond description, finally living out the full realities of being created in his image. Yet Revelation 22:15 adds that sinners still exist—outside of heaven, outside the kingdom, outside the temple. It is important not to miss that they exist on the outside, after being cast into the lake of fire (20:14-14; 21:8).
Here is one picture of hell that is horrifying—hell is being on the outside. This is a frequent biblical portrait of hell.
In Matthew, Jesus sometimes likens hell to not entering the kingdom (5:20), being excluded from his presence (7:21-23), thrown into outer darkness (8:12; 25:30), shut outside (25:10-12), and banished from the kingdom (“depart from me” in 25:41). In Luke, the Pharisees are often left outside. Particularly noteworthy for hell is Luke 16:19-31, where the rich man experiences an eschatological reversal and ends up on the outside of heaven. Paul likewise teaches that the wicked will be shut out from (or by) the presence of Christ (2 Thess 1:9-10). Peter and Jude portray hell as a place of utter darkness reserved for the wicked forever (2 Pet 2:17; Jude 13). John’s Gospel also likens hell to being “cut off” from Christ (15:1).
Hell as being on the outside is an aspect of a frequent theme related to hell—banishment or exclusion. Being on the outside shows the horror of hell by highlighting what a person misses. Through this picture, the Scriptures are demonstrating that Christ eternally excludes the unrighteous from the kingdom. The wicked never experience unhindered fellowship with God. They are forever banished from the majestic covenantal presence of God (not from his omnipresence). They completely miss out on the reason for their existence—to glorify and know their Creator.
Being on the outside is an important picture of hell. But like so many other truths of the Bible, it does not tell the whole story or give the full portrait.
In fact, even in the very same passages that speak of hell as being outside, other truths about hell emerge. The corresponding passages in Matthew describe the “fire of hell” (5:22), hell as a just punishment for sin (which is deemed as serious and not trivial), worse than earthly suffering (5:29-30), a place people are “thrown” by God (5:29), a place of destruction (7:13), the end of a broad road (7:13), a place where people are “cut down and thrown into the fire” (7:19), a genuine danger for people who think they are in the covenant (7:21-23; 8:12; 22:13), like a house that comes crashing down (7:24-27), a place of suffering, depicted as “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12; cf. 13:42; 50; 22:13; 24:51, 25:30). Hell is punishment for disobedience to the master (three times in 24—25), as being “cut into pieces” (24:51), where people are placed “with the hypocrites” (24:51), “accursed” (25:41), a place of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41; cf. 18:8 “eternal fire”), and eternal punishment for those who do not display their love for Christ in their love for others (25:46). And that is just a portion of Jesus’ teaching on hell from the Gospel of Matthew!
Thus, while hell as being on the outside is a biblical teaching, it does not exhaust the biblical doctrine of hell. No one picture can. Hell is a frequent theme in the New Testament, addressed in some way by every New Testament author, and woven into whole fabric of Christian theology. As such, it has been portrayed in numerous ways, each telling something important about its reality and nature: punishment, judgment, death, destruction, fire, pain, darkness, and yes, banishment—being on the outside.