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.”