Reconciling Hell and Omnipresence


As Christians, I think that we can be incredibly sloppy when seeking to articulate and defend the doctrine of hell, whether we actually believe in it or not. If I asked you to explain hell to me in just a few words, what would you say? I think almost everyone would say, “Hell is separation from God”. Indeed, there is scriptural basis for such a statement. For example, when speaking of the punishment that God will inflict on those who reject him, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Further examples include Isaiah 59:2 which says, “but your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” and the numerous instances in 2 Kings 17:18-25 where it repeatedly states that “God removed them [the Israelites] from his presence”.

So it seems clear that hell is separation from God, a place where God is not present. But wait a minute! If God is omnipresent, which is to say he is present everywhere, and hell is a place, then how can hell be devoid of God’s presence? It seems that either God is in hell after all, or else God is not truly omnipresent. Whilst we’ve already seen the justification used for disbelieving the former option, the latter also seems to contradict the Bible. There are innumerable passages in scripture which either assume or clearly teach God’s omnipresence.
1 Kings 8:27 says, “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!” Jeremiah 23:23 says, “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? 24 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.” In fact, Psalm 139, one of my favourites, goes even further when it says this-

7Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

Even in Sheol, God is present. So how can we solve our problem, our dilemma?

We must distinguish different meanings of the word, “presence”. Certainly God is spatially present everywhere, yet he is also especially present in the believer when the Holy Spirit dwells in him. God is especially present when “2 or 3 are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20), at the incarnation (John 1:14) and in other specific places (Genesis 28:16). In a relational way, God’s presence is made known to people, which they may not have known before. If God can sometimes be especially present, why can he not be especially absent? Hence we can be cut off from God and alienated from him in a relational sort of way, whilst at other times we can be especially close to him when we have a relationship with him. So whilst God can be especially present in a relational way, so can he be especially not present, or absent, in a relational way. God distances himself from those who reject him, in the way that Jesus implies that God distanced himself from his Son at the cross.

So God is certainly present in hell in a spatial sense, yet in a relational sense he is especially absent.

Yet there is a sense in which we can sometimes be caught attempting to soften the seeming harshness of hell by claiming that God simply lets allows people to go there and doesn’t really send people there. I think all too often we restrict our description of hell by only saying that people send themselves to a place where God is especially absent, because of their rejection of him (which is true as far as it goes). Whilst this doctrine often grieves me, we must be faithful to what his Word teaches, specifically that God administers his justice in a direct way: he is the one who undertakes the punishment for himself. 1 Thessalonians, from which I quoted earlier, speaks of the coming judgement in chapter 1, verses 5-12. Read that for yourself, in conjunction with the book of Revelation. See whether God is active or passive. Does only judge people indirectly, or his execution of judgement fair and just, yet active and direct?

Let us therefore be careful to approach the issue of hell with care and rigour, but also with D L Moody’s wise words in our minds; “I cannot preach on hell unless I preach with tears.”

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About Michael

I'm a full time follower of Jesus, who is studying for a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and loving university life. I blog about anything related to the first sentence! View all posts by Michael

15 responses to “Reconciling Hell and Omnipresence

  • Maria

    Michael – I never thought of how God is present with us in different ways and therefore one could apply that same relationship to being separated from us. Makes sense..like a mom being in the same house as her kids and they know it, but she’s not in their bedrooms.
    I’ve often had to walk through in my mind that ‘when 2 or 3 are gathered’ scenario. The way I think about it is – I have the HS in me and when I get with another believer who, by definition if he’s a believer has the HS in him, then Jesus is there because we are a mini-Church..which is the body of Jesus.

    • Michael

      Hi Maria, thanks a lot for the comment!
      I think you’re right about that…and that analogy is also helpful, thanks.
      I’ve also thought of it as when someone can be sitting next to you but still not really there in spirit. For example, if someone’s recently been through a bereavement they can be really subdued and so not really there in a relational sense. It’s not a perfect analogy but it helped me to get the idea of it.

  • Ben Mackay

    I think there are a few problems with what you are writing Michael:

    1. I think that this modern day reinterpretation of hell as simply separation of God can be considered an attempt at making hell seem less directly terrible than the Bible actually says it is. I mean who apart from some particularly strange Christians can say with a straight face “And you will burn in the fires of hell in a place of utter darkness for all eternity?” So, you remove the physicality and literalness of hell. However I don’t really think that if you are being literal to the Bible in most areas that you should do this. The Bible is very emphatic and mentions certain facts many times: fire, suffering, darkness.

    2. What does this separation entail? Often Christians say that this separation amounts to the kind of suffering that a traditional hell would bring. The flames and torture are a metaphor for a kind of spiritual and psychological anguish. Now, I think if this is what you are arguing you are in all sorts of problems. God becomes a sort of Big Brother figure who torments you for all eternity for what you believe and think. This just doesn’t seem right especially for any religion which claims to be ‘good’ or ‘just’ or ‘compassionate’.

    3. I also completely object to this – ‘Yet there is a sense in which we can try to soften the seeming harshness of hell by claiming that God simply lets allows people to go there and doesn’t really send people there. We can sometimes say that people send themselves to a place where God is especially absent, because of their hatred for him (which is certainly true in some ways).’ Look I’m an atheist, but it’s not because I hate God or am sending myself there. I look at the evidence and what life has taught me and it tells me there is no God and Christianity is not true. I don’t condemn you on questions of evidence and reason and I don’t expect God or you to do the same. It just ain’t right.

    • Michael

      Thanks a lot for visiting and leaving a comment, Ben- I appreciate it!

      Just a few thoughts in response,
      1) I don’t think that by saying that the fire, darkness etc is not literal means that I am trying to diminish hell in any sort of way. It’s not a modern twist to try to make it more palatable. That’s because even though the flames are almost certainly figurative, it actually ends up meaning that the real thing will be much worse than flames, if it does exist. I have lots of reasons to doubt that many of the descriptions of hell are literal, (i) because of the genres that many of the books/particular passages take the form of and (ii) because some of the descriptions would be conflicting if taken literally. Take (i), almost all of the passages talking about judgement are either apocalyptic or parabolic in nature, esp Revelation and Daniel for the former, which are basically imagery all over and Jesus’ teachings for the latter. But maybe more significantly, (ii) sometimes even in the same books, the descriptions of hell include fiery furnaces as well as complete darkness. Now if there is complete darkness, how can there be fire? It seems pretty clear to me from reading through all of the relevant passages that the fire, darkness, worms never dying etc etc are all figurative, but they are illustrating a more general principle, and it doesn’t diminish how bad it’s going to be.

      To 2+3, I have to say I’ve heard some quite powerful arguments for annhilationism so I’m not dead set on hell by any means, still got quite a bit of reading to get through before I make my decision on that. I’m not defending the doctrine of hell here per se, instead trying to seek a resolution between what seemed like a problem with the definition of hell if it exists, and the omnipresence of God. I’m not specifically interested in defending the doctrine of hell right now because I’m not even sure what I believe about it. At the moment I am leaning to the position that scripture teaches everlasting punishment for those who reject God, and since scripture is my authority for knowing things about God that seems to be the most likely option. I take no pleasure in it, believe me; it makes saddens me to the core.

      One question to finish on. If I could prove to you in some way that God exists, would you worship him? Would you long to be his child, and for he to be your Heavenly Father? If not, why would you want to spend eternity worshiping him?

  • Phil Duncalfe

    Hi Michael, good thoughts here, something I’ve been thinking about as well. Two things that came to my mind:
    1. Great point about God being especially present vs. especially absent. Something logical that I’d never really thought before.

    2. I’m not sure about softening hell’s harshness. If we soften it too much we could be watering down the gospel. Differing between “allow” and “send” could be seen as arguing semantics. I suppose if this was in a discussion I would focus on the problem of sin and where sin leads rather than discuss hell directly. As someone on the CAA facebook group said, the word ‘hell’ carries a lot of baggage and a lot of it isn’t biblical. Then you are right with your quote from Moody – if we do discuss hell we need to discuss it sensitively.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    Phil

    • Michael

      Hi Phil, thanks a lot for dropping by and leaving a comment!

      With regards to 2) I’m not sure I was very clear there, sorry about that. What I was trying to say was that sometimes as Christians we wrongly try to soften hell’s harshness and leave out language that the Bible uses, and it was precisely that which I was calling us to refrain from. So I agree with you completely 🙂

      Looking forward to interacting with you more in the future,
      Michael.

  • Ben Mackay

    Thanks for the response Michael.

    1. I’m not so sure – perhaps you are right that even without the physicality of hell it is still a terrible place however I think it is fair to say that if you say that hell is separation from God this is nicer sounding than hell is eternal pain and fire. Also as I said before it is less ridiculous sounding. I don’t think the contradiction of fire and darkness points to an reinterpreting hell but in fact points to the inherent silliness of hell as a concept – I mean there are other parts of the Bible that have physical events that contradict. Hell is a pre medieval idea dreamt up by people who wished that their enemies or those different to them could have some sort of dreadful punishment life would never bring. Now let’s look at the quotes you offer to support your interpretation of hell: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might”, “but your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear”, “God removed them [the Israelites] from his presence” –> I think the first quote is just an additional statement about hell. There is ‘eternal destruction’ which is ‘away’ from God. The other quotes seem to be people who have turned away from God and he will not listen to them. The repeated references to hell-fire throughout the Bible and even Jesus mentions it multiple times! (‘And shall cast them into a FURNACE OF FIRE: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’) If you reinterpret this part of the Bible and argue it is figurative why not the resurrection or heaven or the miracles?

    2 +3) I see my points may have moved away from the main thrust of the post, however I personally think people who put forward arguments that non-believers suffer for eternity need to be countered whether they are made explicitly or implicitly. This is a very divisive belief.

    I think your final question is a bit glib. You would have to explain what kind of God exists. The all good all loving all forgiving God – well if He exists I don’t think hell would anyway!

    • Michael

      Ben, thanks for coming back and sorry this is a bit late!

      If God is the source of all the good, the true and the beautiful in this universe, which is what Christianity contends, then hell as separation from God really will be the worst possible place, and it really will be torture. Questions over whether there will be physical flames or whether anyone will be ‘see’ anything because there will complete darkness ultimately become trivial in light of the larger meaning.
      With regards to the whole point of ‘if some things aren’t literal how do you know that the resurrection isn’t literal’, I would humbly ask you to read this classic post http://www.mandm.org.nz/2010/11/bovine-faeces-and-the-sexual-proclivities-of-rocks-why-were-all-selective-literalists.html
      If someone says ‘i’ll be back in one second’, just because they do not literally mean one second does not mean that therefore we cannot take anything they say literally. We select what to take literally in every day language. Most of the Bible is pretty straightforward when it comes to interpretation but for the tricky passages where it’s unclear, there are professional peer-review journals where top scholars do serious exegesis and hermeneutics. This then gets put into study bibles which goes out to the lay reader, and practically every Christian I know has a study bible which they use when they are unsure of a certain passage.

      You said, “Hell is a pre medieval idea dreamt up by people who wished that their enemies or those different to them could have some sort of dreadful punishment life would never bring.” That’s a nice assertion, but where is any of the evidence for that?

      Finally, going back to something you said just before, “I don’t think the contradiction of fire and darkness points to an reinterpreting hell but in fact points to the inherent silliness of hell as a concept – I mean there are other parts of the Bible that have physical events that contradict.”
      So you honestly think Matthew contradicts himself within two chapters of his own book? Because it’s in Matthew that I referenced earlier in one description that hell was supposedly fire but then 2 chapters later it was complete darkness. And of course if you want to make the claim that the Bible contradicts itself with ‘physical events’ then the onus is on you to establish your claim.

  • Ben Mackay

    Thanks for the response response Michael haha.

    Well my point is that this new interpretation of hell can be dressed up as nicer than the hell flames. As you say, in reality it probably is not, and this once again points to barbarity of hell.

    With the Bible, a work which contains a lot of highly fantastical events, the door is opened as soon as you say one major concept such as hell is actually metaphorical or at least it’s representation is. The point I kept making about the repeated references to hell and the similiar depiction of hell throughout the Bible is important. This is not just some small event that can passed over or compared to the phrase ‘i’ll be back in one second’. Hell is mentioned in this way more than some of the miracles Jesus has said to have produced. Considering what we now know about the natural world and how one of his miracles – removing demons from someone and putting them into a load of animals which run of a cliff – is simply an ancient misunderstanding of mental illness this casts into doubt the rest of the miracles. If we are reinterpreting hell simply because there is darkness and fire at the same time shouldn’t we reinterpret the miracles which have been cast into huge doubt? Also if there are problems with darkness and fire then why not simply just say that the darkness is metaphorical but there are flames and burning and ‘gnashing of teeth’. And my point about physical events which seem inherently implausible try man walking on water, people coming back to life, healing etc. Also, people have aimed to reconcile darkness and fire – one person claims the fire is so strong and hot it burns black, or that we might not have any experience of it, but that it just happens. We don’t have any experience of minds without brains but this is a major belief of Christianity. Why not another non-empirical counter intuitive event?

    I think that if you look at the history of religion hell is a concept that keeps the flock faithful and also acts a powerful tool to convert others. Furthermore, a lot of Christians I have talked too cannot believe that atheists think there is no afterlife balancing of deeds in life – how can the wicked get away with what they’ve done? I can imagine this common psychological desire for revenge and justice is a part of the concept of hell. The theme of physical torture would also make sense in a social world where punishment WAS physical torture.

  • Michael

    Ben, I think we might be going round in cirlces here. I don’t see what your last paragraph was trying to prove. Again, I don’t think you provided any evidence that hell was the primary tool used by people to keep others in line, and even if you did, to show that the doctrine is false by showing how it originated commits the genetic fallacy.

    To the bulk of the comment, you said this, “you say one major concept such as hell is actually metaphorical or at least it’s representation is”. I don’t think hell is metaphorical and I think the representations of it were accurate and were referring to something real that will take place, just that little details used to describe it are referring to something more significant than just fire or lack of light. When I say, “I’m boiling!”, I don’t mean that my blood has literally reached 100C. That doesn’t diminish the fact that I am referring to something factual, namely that I’m my skin might be burning and I am covered in sweat. I’m not using that as a comparison to hell, I’m just illustrating the broader point that when we describe things we may use certain details which are actually referring to something greater. Again, I think we’re losing perspective a bit here, it was just a little comment which I personally think about hell and it wasn’t meant to be a 100% certain fixed principle.

    Also, I would contend that making dualistic dichotomies would be simplistic and fallacious. Just because some of Jesus’ teachings may have used earthly imagery so that the audience could understand what he meant does not mean that suddenly we have cast doubt on whether Jesus really did heal people or not. It’s not all or nothing. I think each passage should be judged on its mertis, looked at in its proper context and then decided whether the imagery used is referring concrete things or if it’s describing something more significant than that.

    My friend just wrote this which seems like it’s more relevant to what you’re saying, given that I was only answering a very specific problem in this post. Definitely worth checking out imo http://dovetheology.wordpress.com/apologetics/eternal-punishment/

  • michou

    I find discussions of hell, interesting in the same way discussions of the beginnings of the universe and earth are interesting… but I think answers to neither one of these discussions will be certain until we are in God’s presence. I realize that some people don’t accept God as being.
    I just wanted to comment on the mention of fire and darkness… in Isiah, God is described as brillant, Moses face having seen God, couldn’t be looked at directly for the purity of light reflectedout of it. Couldn’t then it be both dark and have fire if the light around God is that bright? I am not a Biblical scholar, but that thought came to me while reading this.
    Also you may like this lecture/sermon from Greg Boyd…
    http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon/tormented-by-the-flames … it deals with many of these questions based upon the parabole of Abraham, the rich man and Lazarus the beggar.
    And finally to Ben, please take this question as respectful, but I don’t know how to ask this question any way other than bluntly… you state that can’t believe in a God that has a hell… my question is what do you do with say a Hitler or a Mussolini that doesn’t ever admit that he ( or she) was wrong? Can a God of love ever be loving and not hold some one accountantable for their actions and choices? Think of good parents, they have two children an older child and a youger child, do they never exact any consequences for the actions or choices of these children towards each other, their parents or others>? How about a society, can’t a society decide through it’s laws how to deal with people that don’t respect the laws in that society? Then why can’t a loving God as our father/ mother/parent allow us our choices and the consequences that go with those choices? That is long and is said “lovingly” also hopefully that through your thinking about that God reaches you… but I respect your choice for your own life. Great discussion and very nice to see such a respectful discussion from two people that believe very different things! God bless…

  • Ben Mackay

    Hi Michou.
    This is what I’d say in response – firstly I think you’d agree that Hitler and Mussolini are very different to non-Christians, so it would make no sense for a hell for them as well? Your point seems to be pertaining to those who commit evil actions. There is definitely a base instinct within us which wants revenge for these people. When I think about what Hitler has done I feel like he deserves some sort of hideous punishment and for as long as possible. But when I think about it rationally I don’t see why punishing him for eternity is really rational, especially as it won’t help his victims in anyway. It’s just pure revenge and serves no purpose. It’s not going to reverse what he’s done. That’s why countries don’t have corporal punishment anymore – because governments believe it is not civilised to inflict torture on someone in revenge.

  • michou

    Hi Ben… i guess I wasn’t clear enough… I am not seeking revenge for Hitler, nor for anyone else. I was thinking about a verse that comes to us from the often misunderstood Old Testament. THe verse says revenge is mine sayth the lord…. where it is, you’ll have to ask some one who is better at memorizing things like that than I am. My point isn’t about revenge, but more in reaction to your comment about a good God being able to eternally tormenting some one for their deeds. My point is, how could a God who is perfectly good ignore evil? And by evil I mean any kind of evil, anything that goes against His will for his creation? Now I realize that you do not accept that God exists, which God gave you every right to choose, and so I respect your right to ignore or say that God doesn’t exist ( as long as you are also honest and accept my right to believe in Him, which from your attitude here in your comments, i think you do, so is that clear? These are my opinions, you have yours, neither of us has to be right right now, because neither one of us can absolutely prove it), so i am not trying to convert you, but I am telling you what I believe.
    I have spent most of life terrified of hell, and the question of it’s existance… because it is awful. DId you check out the link I put up? The pastor at that church has a really interesting viewpoint on hell, on the burning, plus the thought that popped into my head, i think I am less afraid of hell, not because I am so perfect as to avoid it, but because i accept that God chose Christ’s punishment on the cross so that I can avoid it. I too would exchange myself for my children, and for those that I love…fortunately that choice has been done for us, so we- every single living thing on the planet and in the spiritual realm, universe, creation whichever- just need to surrender to rules that govern a creation that God the Father created, and things will go better for all involved, for those who chose not to follow nor surrender, God will judge each of those persons according to His will. All I can do is pray and talk ( sorry that is redundant) to God about what happens. Personally, I don’t hink God wants anyone to go to hell, unfortunately He understands that some people just won’t surrender their will to any God, other than themselves… and that is what is evil? Not too sure that that is any clearer than what I wrote before. Sorry I am really tired, it’s really late, and I am not even sure where a lot of this came from…
    On a political note, why is it considered revenge for a society to decide that some one can’t be a part of the society, or decide that they have so disrespected everything about a society that they shouldn’t be allowed something that that person arbitrarily took away from another person, the something being their life? Do you really think that a society that has a death penalty enacts that death penalty only to equal things out? Why must that society continue to pay monetarily and emotionally ( do you honestly think being a prison guard is a cake walk?) to support some one who refuses to respect the rights of others- and please explain to me in what way honoring “the rights” for someone that repeatedly refuses to see others as important in the bigger picture, is being civilized? Does a deer sacrifice itself to the lion or a wolf because that is the nature of a lion/ wolf? No it runs, it protects itself, it reacts and acts according to nature’s laws… some where, at some point in time our western civilizationations decided to step over into a no man’s land of an imaginary definition of civilization. The real definition of civilized is recognition of a greater law… an every society has the right to decide what laws will govern over them. But that is absolutely enough, because I don’t want to seem to be arguing. If you are interested in further thoughts, feel free to ask, I am not closing the disscussion, just pointing this out. However I do excuse going way, way, way hors sujet, or off subject. God bless!

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