For the better part of my Christian life, I've had a visceral reaction--driven by internal disapproval--whenever I've heard someone describe the hardships he or she experienced in life in the following ways: "It was like hell on earth," or "I feel like I've been through hell." I am sure that part of this reaction is due, in large part, to the fact I was raised in a home in which the awful reality of eternal destruction was not joked about or diminished (as it ought not be!). Therefore, in my mind, to correlate the miseries of this life with eternal punishment always struck me as a trivializing of the worst kind. Then, I read the following in Thomas Brooks' The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod:
"Consider, that the trials and troubles, the calamities and miseries, the crosses and losses that you meet with in this world, are all the hell that you shall ever have: here you have your hell, hereafter you shall have your heaven; this is the worst of your condition, the best is to come. Lazarus had his hell first, his heaven last; but Dives (the rich man) had his heaven first, and his hell at last (Luke 16:19-31): you have all your pangs, and pains, and throes here that you shall ever have; your ease, and rest, and pleasure is to come: here you have all your bitter, your sweet is to come: here you have your sorrows, your joys are to come: here you have all your winter-nights, your summer-days are to come; here you have your passion-week, your ascension day is to come: here you have your evil things, your good things are to come: death will put a period to all your sins, and to all thy sufferings, and it will be an inlet to those joys, delights, and contents that shall never have an end; and therefore hold thy peace, and be silent before the Lord."1
There is a sense in which it is right and good for us to speak of the miseries of life as a "the only hell" a true Christian will ever have. Consider what the Westminster Shorter Catechism has to say about the miseries Adam brought into the world on account of his disobedience,
"Q. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever."
On one hand, everything we experience in this life, short of hell, is a mercy from God. Since the ultimate misery that we all deserve is "the pains of hell forever," we must conclude that we are the just recipients of every misery we experience, short of hell, in this life. This is not to say that ever trial, pain, hardship or affliction that we experience in this life is due to some particular personal sin. The Scriptures are clear that personal suffering is not necessarily correlated to any personal sin (Job 1; John 9:1-4). Some of the misery that we experience in this life is due to our personal sin (2 Samuel 12:10, 14; Psalm 119:71; James 5:14). However, all of the misery that we experience in this life is due to Adam's sin. Adam brought all men into a state of sin and misery. All mankind receives, by imputation, the guilt and the corruption of Adam's sin, as well as the experience of misery in this fallen world. All of us deserve, by nature, death and judgment because of Adam's sin. The good news for believers is that what Jesus did, as the last Adam, alters even the impact of the misery of Adam's sin for the true believer.
On the other hand, the Scriptures make clear that the Lord does not deal with believers "according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10). The Psalmist could say this because he prospectively anticipated that the Christ would come and that the Lord would deal with Him according to our sins and punish Him for our iniquities (Isaiah 53). Jesus takes away all of the sin of His people. He clothes us with His righteousness. He breaks the power of sin in the believer's life. He raises us up to newness of life in Him (Rom. 6:1-14). He endures hell on the cross for His people so that we, who are united to Him by faith, have already "passed from death into life and shall not enter into judgment" (John 5:25). There is no hell for believers--no judgment awaiting us on account of our sins since they have been atoned for by the death of Jesus. God' wrath has been fully propitiated when it fell on the Son at Calvary.
There is even a sense in which many of the sufferings of this life are suspended on account of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. The Psalmist declared, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me...Who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases (Psalm 103:1, 3). This doesn't mean that Jesus purchased complete physical healing for all his people in this life on the cross. The Apostle Paul suffered from irremediable physical pain (Gal. 4:15). Paul then told Timothy drink a little wine for his infirmities (1 Tim. 5:23). What it does mean is that He often heals us of our diseases in this life and will most certainly heal us of all our diseases in the resurrection on the last day.
All the miseries that believers are called by God to endure in this life are the only hell that they will ever endure because of the saving work of Jesus in his death and resurrection. This is one of the most comforting and soul strengthening thoughts upon which a believer may set his heart or mind in this life. The Lord may severely afflict, Satan may relentlessly attack, believers may incessantly hurt, the world may violently persecute, but it will all ultimately come to an end when the believer dies or when Christ comes again in glory. Then there will only be peace, rest, consolation, ecstasy and wholeness forever in the presence of the Lamb who was slain for his suffering people. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, whatever fiery trials you are called by God to endure in this life you can be assured that they are "all the hell you shall ever have."