The Bible Says Hell Glorifies God?
In previous blog essays, I’ve expressed my disdain for the belief that hell glorifies God. Those who advance this idea, however, say it has biblical support.
The ninth chapter of Romans is most often marshaled as evidence for the claim that hell glorifies God. The key passages are verses 22-24, but a quick overview of the chapter seems necessary.
Romans 9 can be interpreted as saying God sovereignly predestines all that occurs. Those who interpret it in this way point to verses that speak of God loving Jacob but hating Esau, God hardening Pharoah’s heart, and a potter (God) determining the clay’s use. Although Paul’s overall arguments in the book of Romans appeal to creaturely freedom to choose salvation, predestinarians of this stripe think God alone decides the fates of everyone.
The point of Romans 9, however, is not the predestination of each person. It’s an argument for why God includes those outside Israel.
God uses negative actions – Esau’s, Pharaoh’s, or those who reject Paul’s message – to bring about something positive. God is squeezing good from the bad God didn’t want in the first place. As God wrings something right from what was wrong, argues Paul, God invites those outside Israel to a loving relationship.
Who are we to limit God’s inclusive love?
In this context we find Romans 9:22-24, the passage often used to claim hell glorifies God. I’ll cite the New International Version translation:
What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Paul is asking a series of rhetorical questions to make an argument. The key line allegedly related to hell is this: “bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction.” Those who think hell glorifies God interpret this to mean God prepared some for damnation. But those “whom he prepared in advance for glory” are predestined for heaven.
The key to making sense of this passage is to see the differences between the verbs translated “prepared” in verses 22 and 23. The first (katartizo) is passive. This passive verb has no subject, which means it does not say God does the preparing. Katartizo is better understood as referring to natural negative consequences. Paul says that sin by definition is destructive; it reaps negative consequences.
The second verb translated “prepared” (proetoimazo) is active. This is something God does. Because of everlasting mercy, God prepares in advance the glory that comes from love. References to divine glory in this passage, therefore, refer to God’s mercy in calling both Jews and Gentiles, not to God’s predestining some for hell.
The main point: divine glory is revealed when God “bore with great patience” the harm caused by sin.
The “wrath” Paul mentions in this passage refers to God’s anger, not divine punishment. God gets angry when we hurt ourselves, one another, and the earth. Sin destroys. Despite being angry at sin’s destructiveness, says Paul, God is patient.
God’s glory is revealed in merciful patience.
The Verses Retranslated
Paul’s convoluted sentences muddy our interpretive waters. If I were translating the passage, I would render it something like this:
What if God, although showing anger at the destruction sin causes and although powerful, is patient? What if God is patient even though angry at this destructiveness? And what if this patience displays the riches of divine glory, the glory of God’s everlasting love for everyone God calls, which is all of us, Jew and Gentile?
Paul refers to divine glory by saying God’s loving patience should amaze us. Despite sin, evil, and destruction, God patiently and mercifully calls all to love.
That’s what’s glorious!
For How Long is God Patient?
“Okay, the passage is saying God is patient,” I can hear a reader say. “But for how long is God patient? Maybe hell is evidence that God’s patience has limits.”
“What if God’s patience is everlasting?” I respond. “What if God’s nature of love means divine patience is limitless?”
“Interesting,” the reader might say. “What would everlasting patience look like?”
“I’ll explain in a moment,” I might say. “But first let me ask a question, Which do you find more glorious?
1. The idea God sends some to hell and others to heaven.
2. The idea God patiently woos everyone to embrace eternal happiness?”
“That’s easy,” the reader might reply. “I’m more in awe of a God who works patiently for the happiness of all!”
“Welcome to the logic of love,” I respond.
 “Predestination” can be understood in various ways. In this essay, I’ll use the word to refer to a Calvinist view that says God predestines some to damnation.
 For what I call this “didactic” dimension to solving the problem of evil, see Thomas Jay Oord, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (Grasmere, Id.: SacraSage, 2019), ch. 4, and Pluriform Love: An Open and Relational Theology of Well-Being (Grasmere, Id.: SacraSage, 2019), ch. 6.
 On the importance of the two Greek verbs and their tenses, see Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 258.
Great essay! Wonderful interpretation of the Romans passge.
I go with what all that you articulated. Having recently read David Bentley Hart’s “That All Shall Be Saved” I have become a little more belligerent in refuting there is really a realm of eternal ongoing torment. It amazes me how many evangelicals have no problem with that. Although Jonathan Edwards and fellow Calvinists had no problems, I would fall down in utter weeping despair if that truly represented God’s justice.
I don’t read this passage as a reflection on “hell”. Firstly, there are words for hell that might have been used. Secondly, ‘orge’ merely means ‘anger’ as Jay points out. Reading this word ‘wrath’ to mean eternal punishment is over-interpreting it, and can’t mean what Paul is intending to argue. Thirdly, it seems to me that the original-language points towards God’s mercy and patience rather than eternal punishment. And in the fourth place, exegetically, it is problematic to argue an entire doctrine on the basis of a pericope consisting of three verses. It smacks of interpreting the text to mean more than what it seems to suggest.
I’m more and more convinced that C.S. Lewis was right when he wrote that the doors of hell are locked on the inside, though that may very well be a metaphorical statement. Still it seems to refer to a deep truth: we create our own hell. He also had a statement saying (quoting from memory) “All will get what they want, not all will like it”. I guess some still rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.
I don’t know about what will happen in the end. It’s at least interesting that in Revelation, after the chapter on judgement
and the lake of fire, there is still a New Jerusalem with gates that are open for those who are outside. Always liked the title of one of Brian McLaren’s books: “The Last Word, And The Word After That”. There is some openness regarding the future and I guess that’s just as well.
I like the way you think, Hans!
Good points, Craig.