Monday, April 27, 2009

Hell: Separation from God's presence?

R. A. Finlayson wrote:

Hell is eternity in the presence of God without a mediator.

Heaven is eternity in the presence of God, with a mediator.


The following article of mine was originally published in the Evangelical Magazine


Ask an evangelical Christian to define Hell and they may well say “Hell is separation from God.” What they may mean is that Hell is a place where God is not present. Ask them if Jesus was separated from his Father in the dark hours in which he suffered on the cross and they will say that he was separated from God, that his Father abandoned him and turned his face away from him. Hell means separation from God, and the cross, for Christ, meant separation from God.

However, ask them if Hell is a place, a part of creation, and they will agree that it is. Ask them if God is omnipresent, present in and to the whole creation, and they will want to affirm that too. So if Hell is a place, a part of creation, then God must be present in Hell. If he is present in Hell then how can we speak of Hell as separation from God? If we imagined Hell to be an isolated dumping ground, a far off corner of the universe where God is absent, where people have chosen to exist without him and been given over to those desires, then we are no longer thinking clearly of God as omnipresent.

The reason why we think of Hell as separation from God is, I suspect, because Jesus readily uses that language to describe the misery of eternal punishment. After all will he not say “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness,”? (Matt. 7:21-23). Will he not on the last day, as the enthroned King, say to those on his left “depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41). Are we not right to think of Hell as exclusion from God's presence, and therefore as a state of separation from him? Before giving a fuller answer to that question we ought to consider some of the strands that make up the biblical teaching about the presence of God.

God is omnipresent

The Bible affirms the omnipresence of God. God is infinite. With regard to space he is immense, having no “no-go” areas from which he is excluded. He is not contained in his creation, or limited by its dimensions in any way. Heaven and earth cannot contain him. This is what Solomon acknowledges at the dedication of the temple “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27). God testifies to this same truth through Jeremiah, saying “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD (Jer. 23:23-24). Psalm 139:7-10 is also relevant here:

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.

Amos makes the same point in the context of those seeking to escape God's judgment (Amos 9:1-4). Paul told even the idolatrous Athenians that God was not far from them, and that in him they lived, moved and had their being (Acts 17:24-28).

Sinners are said to depart from God's presence

Even though God's omnipresence is affirmed the Bible freely uses language about people departing from, or being sent away from God's presence. This is Cain's fear, as God's face will then be hidden from him (Gen. 4:14). Two verses later we are told that Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and lived in the land of Nod. It was to be Israel's experience to be sent away from God's presence for persistent disobedience and idolatry (Jer. 7:15; 15:1; 23:39). Jeremiah announces the climatic judgment against Jerusalem in this way (52:3-4):

It was because of the LORD's anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence...So in the ninth year of Zedekiah's reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. They camped outside the city and built siege works all around it.

Judah and Jerusalem suffer the same consequences as Israel previously had known. As 2 Kings 17:18-23 says, “the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence...he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence...the Israelites persisted in all the sins of Jeroboam and did not turn away from them until the LORD removed them from his presence.”

Conversely there are numerous references that speak of God's presence, many of them bound up with the tabernacle and temple, that speak of God's presence in distinctly local ways. It ought to be remembered that heaven is specifically God's dwelling place, and that he is especially said to be present there.

In addition to the language of being removed from God's presence we can add that of separation. Here we are confronted with Isaiah's famous words (Isa. 59:2), “but your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”

Given these distinct ways of speaking about God's presence in Scripture we should not make the mistake of playing them off against each other as if they were in conflict in any way. Furthermore, we ought to be careful about how we receive this language and not slip into wrong thinking because of certain connotations implied by the language of departing from God's presence, or being separated and sent away. In one sense God was as much present to Cain in Nod as he was to Adam in the Garden and as he is now to you as you read this. None of the exiles saw a sign that read “Welcome to Babylon, God ain't here!” I suspect that it is simply carelessness and imprecision of thought that leads us to think of Hell as separation from God in spatial terms.

Understanding God's spatial and relational presence

So how should we understand the language of departing from God's presence? Not in spatial, but in relational terms. Or, to put it another way, it is a spiritual separation that we experience because of our sin, not a strictly local separation. Although the church in its infancy did experience God's presence in connection with holy places this experience is abrogated by the coming of Christ (John 4:20-24. That is not to deny the present dwelling of the covenant God among his people by the Spirit, but it is to say that this dwelling is not associated with geographic places. Even so this was well understood by Solomon, who knew full well that event though God would dwell in the temple even the highest heavens could not contain him (1 Kings 8:27; cf. Isa. 66:1-2, Acts 7:47-50). So the language of drawing near and departing from God's presence isn't a matter of physical distance but of his relationship to us. Our sin creates an ethical distance not a geographical one. We know in a limited way from our own experience that we can be in the same room as someone physically, but if we have fallen out with them it is like we are a million miles apart. So Isaiah says that on account of Israel's sins God had hidden his face from them (Isa. 59:2; cf. Num. 6:25).

God's presence in relation to Hell and the atonement

Is God present in Hell? We have to say that he is. Firstly, because Scripture affirms that he is. In Hell there is torment day and night in the presence of the holy angels and the in the presence of the Lamb (Rev. 14:9-11). Secondly, to deny that he is present in all of his creation is to deny that God is infinite and immense. Was God present at the cross when Christ was forsaken? He was spatially as present in Jerusalem then as he is today. Nevertheless in a way that we cannot comprehend but which is the cause of all our hope in time and eternity, we believe that the Son of God knew all the torments of a condemned sinner, and all the relational distance that guilty sinners will receive. His experience of being forsaken was not imagined (Mark 15:33-34). In that cry of dereliction he knew abandonment, as Christ the only true and perfect covenant keeper, bore the full weight of the covenant curses in the place of his people (Gal. 3:10-14).

When we turn to the Westminster Larger Catechism question 29, which deals with the subject of God's relationship to those who will experience future judgement in Hell, we find a precision of thought on these matters that is often lacking today:

Q. 29. What are the punishments of sin in the world to come?

A. The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire forever. (emphasis added)

Hell is not spatial separation from God, it cannot be because God is omnipresent. No, Hell is separation from the comfortable presence of God. It is the unshielded experience of the presence of God in his holiness and just wrath, and the absence of his mercy and grace.

20 comments:

Nicholas T. Batzig said...

Martin,

Thanks for posting this. It is right on. I had a mentor who taught me that heaven is a world of God's love, and hell is a world of God's righteous hatred. Heaven is God in all His love, and hell is God in all His righteous anger.

Martin Downes said...

Thanks Nick.

Anonymous said...

Too many people interpret this in relation to time and place; in death, this no longer applies. Think of it this way: Have you ever been separated from someone you truly loved? Most of us have; it's agonizing. But in our crude material form, we can "hide" from the pain, just as we can hide from or avoid God's guidance - by distraction of worldly things, etc. In death, we have no such comforts. The agony of true separation will be something which you cannot avoid - Knowing you created it yourself.

Anonymous said...

I must slightly disagree with you on this topic. While, I do believe that God is certainly present in hell, indeed everywhere, sin is not God's problem, so our sin does not cause God to become wrathful and angry with us. Sin is a sickness on the human race, and if so, how could God possibly be angry or wrathful towards us if we are sick? Are we angry at others when they are suffering because of a disease? God's love for us is constant and unwavering, and rather than hell being a place where God's righteous anger is doled out, it is a place where God's love is felt as pain; the same pain that one feels when they sin against a friend, spouse, or neighbor, in that that person still loves you but the love hurts. Take that same pain from another person and multiply it by the infinite love of God, and you essentially have hell...

Edwin Kim said...

Thank you very much for being very biblical and not arrogant. I understand that many people, when having attained knowledge of biblical truth, feel they have a right to flaunt it. We must always be humble people. What good is knowledge if it does not exalt Christ? We must always remember to be servants. This blog has been very encouraging and refreshing for me. Thank you! =)

Edwin Kim said...

ps. it's funny how everybody that disagrees with you is anonymous =)

D said...

Is it possible that you are limiting God with an "if-then" conclusion, i.e., if God is omnipresent then He MUST be everywhere? That God has the power to be anywhere and everywhere isn't debatable but does it follow that God is required to do so or does He have the power to purposely withdraw His presence from anywhere He chooses?

Revelation 20 says that the lake of fire is the second death. All of us will face the first death but because Jesus suffered our just punishment on the cross, i.e., the second death, those who accept him as their savior have been redeemed from it.

What do we know of that experience on the cross when Jesus took the sin of mankind upon himself and paid the price for it, i.e., the second death? We know that darkness fell upon the earth to symbolize the total darkness that exists apart from God and can surmise that the punishment Jesus took upon himself for us includes abandonment by and separation from God. Jesus cried out to his Father; "why hast thou forsaken me". Why would Jesus make such a passionate plea if the Father's presence could indeed be felt in that place of eternal punishment?

God has the ability to be in hell but I believe the evidence shows He purposely withdraws his presence from it. Those whose eternal destiny is the lake of fire will face eternal separation from God.

D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
new paradigm thinkers said...

I can only reiterate what Edwin Kim said;
Thank you very much for being very biblical and not arrogant. I understand that many people, when having attained knowledge of biblical truth, feel they have a right to flaunt it. We must always be humble people. What good is knowledge if it does not exalt Christ? We must always remember to be servants. This blog has been very encouraging and refreshing for me. Thank you! =)
And add my own Thank you!

Ian said...

I've always struggled with a being who hates - I know I've had it explained to me that it is righteous hate - I guess that means hate with a cause - but imagine torturing someone for ever. At least here our penal system is set to incarcerate someone for the maximum of their life but in reality the majority of sentences are for a period of time and incarceration is a means to an end not an end in itself.

The other about the court system is that a witness cannot testimony if they are under duress / threat. This is what I find difficult also - not so much the threat of annihilation but threat of unending torture - and yet all of this is inverted and we are told that it is a loving action.

Thank goodness our earthly mothers have more love in their hearts.

Diane said...

Excellent article! Thank you!

Joe said...

I agree with D - And I am not anonymous. God will be among us like He was in the garden of Eden, according to Rev. 21. He will dwell among us and will be our light, wiping away every tear. And you want us to believe that while doing this, He is also "pouring out His wrath" because He is omnipresent and just?

Joe said...

Is it really a heresy to think that God's presence will be removed from those He throws in the lake of fire? I would say it is more heretical to call someone a heretic in an area where we cannot fully comprehend.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article! I found it on Google after I read Psalm 139:7-8 and was confused because I always assumed Hell was separation from God (so how then can that verse be true?)
Anyway, you really helped me understand this issue.

To "D" and "Joe", who say, "God has the ability to be in hell but I believe the evidence shows He purposely withdraws his presence from it."
Please read Psalm 139:7-8 below:
"Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there."

Anonymous said...

One of problems with people who don't understand hell (where the righteousness of Gods justice and wrath is poured out on the sinner) is that they don't understand Gods attributes. People most always tend to exalt His love above all the others. His love does not hender is righteous judgement nor does His righteous judgement effect His immense love. All are equal by His holiness. To know that God is omnipresent then say He can choose to be completely absence (meaning not there at all) defies the very meaning and attribute of omnipresent. Therefore making that attribute false and Making a falseness of God.
The Gospel of Christ is all you have to look to. The relationship between the Godhead Father, Son, and Holy spirit was perfect. Jesus was perfect in every way always pleasing and glorifying to the Father. Not once did Jesus not love the Father with all his heart, soul, and mind. But when it came time and Christ bore the sins of his people, the Father withdrew His loving presence and crushed His Son with the fullness of His wrath and justice. It's all about Christ and what He did for the sinner.

Anonymous said...

This makes a lot of sense when I think back to when I was a child, my greatest fear if I did something wrong was the disapointment of my parents rather than any punishment, and if the relationship between God and humans is understood as one of parental love then the subsequent conception of hell follows.

Alan said...

Good post. After 35 plus years studying the Bible (five years in seminary) this topic has an ever increasing pull on me .. probably because my own time on earth is coming to a close. Today I heard the phrase once again from the pulpit: "death is separation from God." Ultimately yes. But there is a time for those who have rejected Christ where they will suuffer "eternal torment" in the lake of fire. According to The testimony of Christ this torment will have a termination point for each individual or else the word "destroyed" must be redefined. cf. "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).

Anonymous said...

Jesus was not forsaken by God. Psalm 22:1, 24 are crystal clear about this.

Neither was Jesus punished by God for our sins. The Bible never uses this language. We already are being punished for our own sin. We are dead and we are dying. We are condemned.

Jesus rescues us from sin, death and the devil when he dies on our behalf on the cross. It is truly amazing that we persist in stating that God forsook Jesus when the Bible never states this.

Anonymous said...

Nowhere in the Bible does it state that God poured out his wrath on Jesus. This concept is pure eisegesis. You read this concept into the text. It does not flow from the text.

It was the Father and the Son in perfect unity that condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3-4). There was no separation at the cross. God did not withdraw his presence from Jesus. All throughout the crucifixion, Jesus was in communion with his Father. To say otherwise is to read into Scripture what is not there.

Gary said...

Talk about a "seared conscience". The level of brain-washing among conservative Christians is truly shocking. It nauseates me every time I discuss the concept of Hell with a conservative Christian and must listen to his or her pathetic justifications for why it is just, fair, moral, and even good for a "loving Heavenly Father" to burn alive millions of human beings in his eternal torture pit. The same people who decry Muslim fundamentalist terrorists for burning alive their captives, turn around and justify their own God's thousands of years old habit of burning alive millions upon millions of people who dared to commit a "thought crime" against him.

Conservative Christians will protest this characterization: "People don't go to Hell for thought crimes. They go to Hell for their evil sins against their Creator."

Really? Let's look at that:

General X is a brutal warlord. He has slaughtered innocent men, women, and children by the tens of thousands. He has raped and pillaged. He has committed genocide. However, on the day he is to be executed for his crimes against humanity, a Christian pastor comes to his jail cell and preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ to him. The general begins to cry, "I am so sorry for all the horrible things I have done. Please forgive me, Jesus. Please be my Lord and Savior." Five minutes later he is executed. Immediately upon his death, his soul ascends to heaven where he enjoys eternal happiness, peace, and untold riches with Jesus, the angels, and the other saints.

Mrs. Wong is your neighbor. She lives three houses down from you. The children on the block call her the "Nice Cookie Lady" as she is always very kind to them and always has a plate of cookies set out for them. She has been a volunteer in the local homeless shelter for more than 30 years, where she cooks, cleans filthy indigent clothing, and scrubs the toilets and floors...for no monetary compensation. She says she does it because she loves people and enjoys helping the needy. Mrs. Wong has heard the "gospel" story of Jesus many times, however, she prefers to retain her childhood belief system. Mrs. Wong is a Buddhist.

Mrs.Wong died last week, and at this very moment, is writhing in horrific agony in the flames of Hell...and she will continue to scream and writhe in horrific agony for all eternity.

Now, dear conservative Christian friend: Can you really tell me that the above scenario is just, fair, moral, and good? How can General X commit horrific crimes his entire life and still get into heaven at the last minute simply by a change in belief, but Mrs. Wong is going to be burned alive forever, despite her exemplary life of service and kindness to others, just because she made a mistake in which supernatural belief system to believe?

If the Christian concept of Hell is true, then we should all tremble in utter terror before the Christian God. But, to call it just, fair, moral, and good is simply delusional, friend. Let's be honest and call it what it is: Evil.