Is Satan the Ruler of Hell?

Modern folklore presents Satan as the ruler of the underworld. He stands on a high cliff bathed in the red light of infernal flames and oversees the torments of the damned. He sends his demons out into the world to accomplish his abominable purposes. He is the lord of the underworld. Or is he? What does the Bible say is the current role of Satan?

Satan does not rule hell. Hell is not a kingdom. Hell is a prison. Satan is not the warden of the underworld, like a Christian version of the Greek god Hades. Nor is Satan the top dog in hell, like a gang leader running a prison from the inside. Satan’s relationship to hell is that of a convict out on bail waiting for sentencing.

Satan is not yet in hell. At this time he is free and roams the earth. “Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8).

Satan does not rule in hell, but he does have great authority. Satan is the chief of the fallen angels. Jesus speaks of “The devil and his angels”. Revelation 12 speaks of Satan being cast out of heaven “and his angels were cast out with him.” Satan is represented as the greatest of the rebellious angels. The Bible hints at a hierarchy of leadership among fallen angels (Ephesians 6:10; Colossians 1:16), but it is silent on how Satan exercises his supremacy over the other fallen angels.

Satan is also called “the prince of the power of the air”. (Ephesians 2:2) Satan has a significant power over the affairs of men. Satan’s rule is not limited to Satanists or those who have sold their soul to the devil. All the unsaved are described as under the kingdom of darkness with Satan as the spirit actively at work in them. Because of mankind’s sin, Satan exercises holds great authority and influence in this earth.

Despite his great power Satan is not the ultimate ruler of the affairs of earth. God remains sovereign over all things- including Satan. The devil does no more than he is allowed to do. Though Satan is a rebel bent on opposing God he is, in fact, accomplishing God’s purposes. Satan is the enemy of God who is still subject to God.

Satan is not God’s equal or opposite. Satan is the first of sinners, the chief of rebels and the father of lies. He is a vicious, powerful creature, but creature he remains. How can the creature become as great as the Creator? Satan is greatly inferior to God and must yield to the commands of God.

Though Satan is not in hell he will one day be cast into the lake of fire. “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10) The Lake of Fire is not his domain of rule but his place of punishment. Satan’s end will be an eternity of suffering the unending wrath of God.

Are there degrees of punishment in hell?

Dante’s Inferno describes hell as nine circles that descend ever lower into more terrible torments. In Inferno offenders are punished with judgments the author saw as suitable for their their crimes. The condemned are imagined as bearing a punishment consistent with the wrongs they have done. Does the Bible teach degrees of punishment in hell? Do the worst sinners suffer the worst fates?

The Bible does not describe the structure of the Lake of Fire. We don’t know it is a series of circles, a celestial version of a concrete and barb wire penitentiary, a lake of flaming lava, or some other unimagined design. If there is a difference in punishment the Bible does not say how it is different. The Bible teaches that all in hell will suffer eternal torment. Everyone in hell will endure intense physical, emotional and spiritual agony.

At least two passages in the New Testament hint at differing levels of eternal punishment.

In Matthew 11 Jesus rebuked two cities for their rejection of Him. “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.”

The city of Sodom is infamous for its destruction by fire and brimstone. Tyre and Sidon fell under the wrath of God for their idolatry and pride. Yet these cities that were destroyed by God’s wrath will find the day of judgment easier than the cities which saw Jesus and rejected Him.

In Hebrews 10 those who reject salvation are compared with those who committed capital crimes under the Old Testament law. “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?”

The punishment of a murderer will not be as severe as that of one who knew and rejected the truths of salvation. Taking a human life is horrific but far more despicable is scorning God the Son and insulting the Holy Spirit. Which brings out a crucial point.

Any difference in punishment in hell will not be measured by the typical human understanding of the worst sins or by the popular cultural understanding of the worst sins. God is the righteous judge who will execute condemnation based upon His holy standard. Consequently, those who saw Jesus and rejected Him will suffer more than those who were incorrigible homosexuals.

It seems that eternal punishment, though terrible for all, will in some way be worse for some. Those who had greater opportunity to believe will receive greater condemnation.

How is an eternal hell just?

Some view eternal suffering in the lake of fire to be as reasonable as shooting a puppy for wetting the carpet. A good, loving God would never be party to such an extreme injustice. Yet Christian teaching declares that eternal hell is just, good and necessary. How can eternal punishment in torments of flames and darkness be justice?

Justice is the legal response to wrong that brings punishment in proportion with the severity of the crime committed. Contrary to justice is revenge. Revenge is the personal, illegal act of making another endure the same pain that the injured person feels. Justice is not motivated by a desire to get even but by a recognition of the true damage done by a crime. The Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye” was not a prescription for personal revenge but a description of legitimate justice which responded to wrong based upon the extent of harm done. Similar principles of justice are still seen in courts today. The accidental causing of another’s death is treated differently from negligently contributing to the death of a person which is treated differently from suddenly striking down a person which is treated differently from planning and executing the murder of another. Premeditated murder of an adult is treated differently from the intentional murder of an infant. The intent of the crime and the innocence of the victim legitimately affect the response to that crime. Along with murder treason usually brings the severest of punishments. Though treason does not always take another’s life, such a harsh response is generally recognized as just because treason offends the dignity of the ruling power and it threatens the safety of many others within the country. Treason is a repudiation of one’s former allegiances that seeks the harm of ones own country, including friends and neighbors, and thus merits stern penalties.

What does treason have to do with the justice of hell? To understand the justice of hell one must understand the true horribleness of sin. Sin is no mere accident. Sin is first and foremost a willful act of rebellion against the God of heaven. God is Creator of all things and sole Ruler over all creation. Sin is therefore an act of treason far greater than any national treachery. Sin is mutiny against the perfect Creator. Sin is a repudiation of God, self and fellow man. Disobedience against God is an act of treason that wrongs God, injures self and wounds others. Disobedience against God is worse than mere treason. Disobedience against God is the attempt to overthrow God as ruler of your life and to inaugurate your own self as lord of your own destiny. This treachery is not only treason it is attempt to seize power from the Divine.

Since sin is the rejection of God as God and rebellion against His rule sin causes uncalculable harm to the individual and others around. Sin has wreaked havoc across the world. Sin is responsible for the death of billions and for the anguish felt in every part of creation. Every person born on the planet is complicit with sin. How can such evil against one’s Creator, Sovereign and God not require the greatest of punishments? Because sin is the rebellion of creature against the infinite, eternal Creator the scope of sin is limitless. A just response is measured to be appropriate to the scope of crime committed. A limitless crime requires a limitless payment. No finite creature is able to satisfy justice through any punishment of limited duration. The only appropriate judgment for a crime of infinite severity is an infinite punishment. Hell is just.