Today’s question is from Clayton in St. Paul: “Pastor John, in your recent Look at the Book episode on Romans 9:22–23, you argued that the deepest answer to the question ‘Why doesn’t God save everyone?’ is that he is seeking to put the full panorama of his glory on display for the vessels of mercy. But — and here’s the kicker — how would you respond to the claim that the cross is already the fullest and most ultimate expression of God’s love, grace, justice, and wrath? In light of the cross, isn’t reprobation unnecessary for the full display of God’s glory?”
Excellent question. That is so good. So let me read the text that Clayton is referring to, so we all have it in our heads and then give a possible answer.
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory? (Romans 9:22–23)
And my argument was that the ultimate reason God shows his wrath and his power is to make known the fullness of his glory as gracious and just — including the justice of wrath and righteousness — on unrighteous and impenitent rebels and sinners.
Now Clayton’s question is: Does the death of Christ, who bears the wrath of God for all who believe and displays the grace of God supremely, doesn’t that event display God’s wrathful justice on Jesus in our place so supremely that hell would not be necessary as a display of God’s justice and wrath in order for God to be known for what he truly is?
Where the Text Starts
Now two observations: One is about method and then the other is an exegetical/theological answer to the question.
Methodologically, I work from what texts mean toward understanding what reality is, not from what reality is back to what texts mean — at least I try to; that is my goal. And as far as I can see, Romans 9:22–23 and other texts teach that wrath is coming on the world of unbelievers, and it will be eternal wrath for those who don’t repent and fly to Jesus.
Therefore, I don’t think I should start with the assumption that the cross makes hell redundant, and then come back and say, “Well, these texts can’t mean what they say.’ So that is my method.
Real, Coming Wrath
Now, this is more important. It may be that Clayton has posed the question differently than the apostle Paul would or did.
Clayton is asking: If the cross is the supreme demonstration of God’s grace and righteous wrath against sin, why do we need hell to demonstrate God’s righteousness and wrath against sin?
Paul seems to ask: How can we see the cross and the supreme demonstration of God’s grace and righteous wrath against sin, unless we see that he is thereby saving people from real, coming, eternal wrath?
In other words, the wrath that is coming is indispensable for understanding the very nature of what happened on the cross. For Paul, it is precisely the reality of the coming eternal wrath of God that makes the meaning of Jesus’s substitution supremely glorious in absorbing that wrath for all who believe. If there were no eternal wrath for us to see and to be frightened by, the glory of the death of Jesus in the removal of that wrath would be scarcely visible. I think Paul would say that.
If there were no future eternal wrath, we could say Jesus is amazing in absorbing wrath, but in Paul’s mind — and I think in God’s reckoning — this would not carry the day in amazing God’s people forever. There would never have been any future threat of eternal wrath that we could see, that we could taste, that anybody was ever enduring. It would be a nonexistent possibility that never came to be.
The Hell Jesus Bore
But is that idea biblical? Well, I think so, because of Romans 5:9–10:
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
For Paul, the glory of the death of Christ is seen precisely in the fact that wrath is coming, and, we, because of the cross, will escape it. That is how we are made to feel the wonder of what he achieved in saving us. We see it coming, and he is going to shield us from that and protect us. First Thessalonians 1:10 says that we “wait for [God’s] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
So Paul’s answer, I think, for Clayton, would be: Future, righteous, divine, everlasting wrath on unrepentant sinners does make the glory of the cross more wonderful; it doesn’t make it less wonderful. It makes it more visible. The existence of hell is, and always will be, a vivid reminder of the hell that Jesus bore for all who believe.