John Milton was a 17th century English poet whose masterwork, Paradise Lost, has become a classic in Christian-inspired literature.
Book 1, line 263 is perhaps its most famous excerpt, in which Satan reasons that it is
“better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
A few lines earlier, the twisted tempter boasts that he could “make a heaven of hell” and “a hell of heaven” (1:255).
Perhaps these sentiments are so memorable because they are so relatable. No doubt, it is tempting to think of hell as a place where sinful pleasures are widely accessible — a veritable party paradise — since hell is the residence of those who pursue such things (cf. Rev. 21.8; Eph. 5.5). With no God at hand, hell’s inhabitants may think they’ve got the run of the mill.
It is equally tempting to think of heaven as a place of un-fun drudgery, whose inhabitants are enslaved to God interminably.
Of course, these sentiments are grossly ill-founded, as Milton’s Satan himself eventually realizes.
Service In Heaven
It is true that, in heaven, God’s servants shall “serve him day and night in his temple” (Rev. 7.15; cf. 22.3). For some, this paints a bleak picture of heaven, rather than one to be desired.
But what so many fail to appreciate is that service, especially to a cause that is both virtuous and greater than oneself, gives us a sense of purpose, usefulness, and meaning. And with these things comes a sense of belonging and home, which, in turn, produces both gladness and joy (Ps. 100.2; 16.11; 35.27-28).
In that light, keeping God’s commandments should not be regarded as a “burdensome” task (1 Jn. 5.3). Rather, the law of God should be a source of infinite delight (cf. Ps. 119.97-104)!
Hence, those who will find joy in heaven will have joyously served God on earth (cf. Jn. 15.10-11; Ps. 37.4). Whereas those who believe that serving God is demeaning and unpleasant can never find joy in heaven.
In heaven, serving God will be unaccompanied by the “curse” of sweat, pain, or death (cf. Rev. 22.3; 21.4; Gen. 3.17-19). Our efforts there will not induce “hunger” or “thirst,” as they do here (Rev. 7.16-17). Thus, service in heaven is best described as a “rest” (i.e., a means of refreshment; Rev. 14.13; Heb. 4.9-10; 2 Thess. 1.7).
Besides, the inhabitants of heaven “shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22.5; cf. Rm. 5.17; 2 Tim. 2.12). If Satan wished to exercise dominion, he should have stayed loyal to the Lord in heaven, for service and reigning are not incompatible features where God is involved.
Reigning In Hell
By contrast, there will be no reigning in hell. Nor will there be any serving whatsoever; for, contrary to the notion presented in Dante’s Inferno, hell’s human occupants will not be there to amuse the Devil and his angels, for even the wicked angels themselves shall be “tormented” (Rev. 20.10); nor shall hell’s occupants be there to serve their fellow human beings (or vice-versa); nor shall there be any way for man to serve himself.
Since “joy” and “pleasures” can only be found in the presence of God (Ps. 16.11), and since hell is a place utterly devoid both of “the presence of the Lord and the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1.9), there can be no activities from which to derive pleasure or glory in that wretched place.
Why, then, if God is the source of pleasure, is sin so enjoyable? The Lord’s parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15.11-32) may furnish the answer.
There, he explained that God’s mercy is so rich that its blessedness continues even when a wayward child has left to live in a “far country” — i.e., in sin (v. 13; cf. Mt. 5.45). That is, sin is only pleasurable for the moment because God remains “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2.4).
But that blessedness can only last for so long. While sin certainly offers us some degree of “pleasure” in this world, it is only “passing” in duration (Heb. 11.25). Eventually, there will come a time when the sinner will have “spent all” of his father’s generous “inheritance” (i.e., wasted the mercy of God), after which the man’s sins will have reduced him to utter hopelessness and spiritual poverty (cf. Num. 32.23; Lk. 15.14-16).
Thus, on earth, sinners may find some modicum of temporary joy, since, here, God’s influence has not totally vanished. However, his mercy will not be extended to the precincts of hell. There, no one will feel the pleasantness of his presence.
Whereas the prodigal son still had the hope of returning home while yet alive on earth, in hell, there will be no chance of escaping sin’s impoverished “far country” (cf. Lk. 16.26; Mt. 25.46). Hence, “when a wicked man dies,” all “hope” and “expectation” “will perish” with him (Prov. 11.7).
Instead, hell can only offer its inhabitants “shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12.2), “fear” (Mt. 10.28), “torment day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20.10; cf. 14.9-11), “weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13.50), “suffering” (Jude 7), and “gloom” (Jude 13). It is a place totally bereft of “rest” (Rev. 14.11).
Where Is It Really “Better?”
Milton’s Satan, like so many today, falsely believed that happiness can be obtained through a life of selfish debauchery. But those who live only to please themselves will eventually sink into a deep depression (cf. Gen. 4.6-14; 1 Sam. 16.14ff), for a finite being can only carry a limited amount of joy within himself. If he cuts himself off from God — the ultimate source of all joy (2 Cor. 1.3ff; Jn. 15.11; Rm. 15.13; Gal. 5.22) — he deprives himself of the only source from which joy is distributed in infinite supply.
In that light, isn’t it “far better” to reign in heavenly service with the Lord (Phil. 1.23) than to suffer in hellish selfishness with “the Devil and his angels” (Mt. 25.41)?
Take delight in the Lord, that you may obtain delight for yourself!
“If you…shall honor him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa. 58.13-14).