Category Archives: Theology

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.”


Four Wrong Views Christians Have About Government

This is part of a series blogging through Professor Wayne Grudem‘s new book, ‘Politics According to the Bible‘. Sentences or paragraphs beginning with an ‘*’ are my own personal comments and evaluations.

In this post I will go through four wrong views that Christians have about civil government, based loosely on Chapter 1 of Wayne Grudem’s book. For this reason I will use only biblical and theological arguments against each position.

A) Government should compel religion. This first view contends that civil government should force people to follow a particular religion. It is a view which has, unfortunately, been a very popular one in Christendom historically and whilst hardly any Christians hold this view today, it is currently quite a popular one in other religions, particularly certain Islamic countries. Grudem actually gives  seven reasons for rejecting this view but I will just present the three most important arguments here.

  1.  Jesus distinguished the realms of God and of Caesar. In Matthew 22, the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”. Jesus’ remarkable answer shows that there are two different spheres of influence: one for the State and one for God’s people. The “things that are Caesar’s” refer to things that belong to the civil government, such as taxes, which implies that the church should not attempt to control these things. The “things that are God’s”, meanwhile, refers to things that belong to people’s religious life which implies that the civil government should not try to control those things.
    *There are, however, numerous competing interpretations of this famous passage and I don’t think that Grudem gives sufficient reason for us to disregard all other attempts at exegesis of this text, even though his account may be correct. Then again, I do think that the other two reasons below are enough to show this first view to be false, even if Grudem’s interpretation of this particular text is wrong.
  2.  Jesus refused to try to compel people to believe in him. Another passage, this time from Luke 9, shows how Jesus opposed the ‘compel religion’ view. When the disciples came up with the idea to bring instant punishment against those who rejected Jesus, “he turned and rebuked them” (v55). Grudem summarises, “Jesus directly refused any attempt to try to force people to believe in him or follow him.” (P.26)
  3.  Genuine faith cannot be forced. Another reason why governments should never try to compel religion is that true faith in God is always voluntary, and can never be coerced by force. There are countless examples in the New Testament of Jesus and the apostles teaching, reasoning and appealing to people to make a personal decision to follow Jesus, with just a few examples being Matt 11:28-30; Acts 28:23; Rom 10:9-10; Rev 22:17.  This conception of faith also fits with Jesus’ condemnation of any request for “fire from heaven” to compel people to follow him. But what about numerous examples in the Old Testament laws of religious activities being clearly compelled, such as Deut 13:6-11 which ordered severe punishments for anyone who tried to teach another religion? Grudem contends, and I’m pretty sure the vast majority of Old Testament scholars would agree, that these laws were “only for the nation of Israel for that particular time” and “were never imposed on any of the surrounding nations” (p.27). Whilst the ‘old covenant’ often consisted of a theocracy whereby God would directly rule over and govern the people of Israel, Jesus established a ‘new covenant’ for God’s people in the New Testament, where a distinction was made between the role of the “things that belonged to Caesar” and the “things that belonged to God”.
    *Something I would add is that this is one reason why today Christians and Muslims have such different views about the separation of Church/Mosque and State. That’s because whilst Islam is based on rituals and superficial good works which can be forced, Christianity is based on a personal relationship with our Saviour based on Gospel grace – the very opposite of works. This is why liberal democracy has thrived in Christendom but not in the Muslim world.

B) All government is evil and demonic.  This is definitely a minority view and of course for non-Christians this is a pretty bizarre view of politics but I do actually know a few people who hold to it . This view states that the realm of government power is the realm of Satan and his forces, and therefore all governmental use of power compromises the way of life Jesus taught. Greg Boyd is probably the main proponent of this view today, arguing in The Myth of a Christian Nation that civil government is “demonic” (P.21). The main (read:only) justification for this view is found in Luke 4, where the devil says that all the authority of all the kingdoms in the world “has been delivered to me” which Jesus doesn’t dispute in the following verses, according to Boyd. So what could possibly be wrong with this view?

  1. This is simply a false interpretation of Luke 4. Jesus tells us how to evaluate Satan’s claims in general in John 8 by saying, “there is no truth in him“. So should we believe Satan when he claims that he has all the authority of earthly kingdoms, or should we believe Jesus when he says that Satan is a liar and the father of lies? The answer seems clear that Satan wanted Jesus to believe the lie that he had all the earthly authority and he wants us to believe it, too.
  2. It directly contradicts biblical teaching on the authority of civil government. There are numerous passages in the Bible which very specifically tell us what to think about the authority of civil government. Romans 13 in particular is pretty much a knock-down passage against this view, saying things such as “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God”, “[f]or he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” and “for the same reason you pay taxes, for the authorities are the ministers of God“, whilst 1 Peter 2 also contradicts this view. Boyd frequently appeals to only Jesus’ teachings at the expense of the rest of the Bible, arguing that because just war theory was never taught by Jesus, it therefore isn’t legitimate. But as we have seen, there are numerous passages from around God’s Word which clearly state the authority of government among other thing things, and to just ignore them is to overlook the fact that all of scripture comes from God, not just Jesus’ teachings.

C) Do evangelism, not politics. This is a view which held by many Christians, and it essential says that Christians/the church is only called to “preach the Gospel”, not to preach about politics.  Grudem doesn’t write this, but I think there are two sub-views within this view. The first is more of a general argument that anything that isn’t evangelism is a waste of both time and money and we shouldn’t be doing it. The second is a specific argument about politics, namely that other things aside from evangelism can be valuable but politics is not one of them.

  1. Too narrow an understanding of the Gospel and the kingdom of God. The first view basically presents a reductionist Gospel, which is to say that proponents of this view seem to think that the Gospel only says, “repent and believe in Jesus”. Whilst that statement is certainly central to the Gospel, isn’t the Gospel God’s good news about all of life? This kind of dualistic separation of ‘spiritual’ (evangelism) on the one hand, and ‘physical/earthly’ (politics) on the other stems from a Platonic, Gnostic view of the world and not from scripture. *All of creation is God’s realm and everything is spiritual. Grudem cites Tom Minnery who gives the example of Jesus’ life. Jesus was not only concerned with forgiving people’s sin; he was also concerned with meeting their physical needs.
    *Jesus often did miracles not for the purpose of showing his power, for he told those whom he had healed not to tell anyone about what had happened! No, instead Jesus often did miracles because healing people’s physical bodies was simply a spiritually good thing to do- it pleased the Father. And our eternity will be spent not in some non-physical, Platonic heaven, but in a physical New Creation! Physical healing and societal transformation are both spiritually good, and both are a part of God’s ultimate will.
  2. It requires us not to preach on certain parts of the Bible. In the Great Commision in Matthew 28 Jesus said, “Go there and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” and it says in 2 Timothy 3 that all scripture is useful for teaching. This means that we must preach on the passages that speak specifically about Christian engagement in politics, such as Romans 13, 1 Peter 2, Genesis 9:5-6 and Daniel’s influence on the government of Babylon, among other examples. The Bible commands to teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), do “good works” (Eph. 2:10) and love our neighbours as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). That means trying to influence government for good.
  3. *Political engagement aides evangelism. This argument is not Grudem’s but my own, and it seems clear to me that presenting a Christian view on politics would allow for more opportunities for evangelism. For example I recently watched a debate on the topic of abortion where Scott Klusendorf literally presented the Gospel as a part of his opening remarks! I know of people who would not go to an explicit Gospel presentation or even a debate on it, but who would go to a debate on abortion. If such a debate had not happened, people like these may never have had the opportunity to hear a Gospel presentation. And it was not a tenuous link; it was perfectly relevant to what he was saying (watch it if you don’t believe me!), and that’s because the Gospel encompasses political engagement.  Furthermore, if Christians and Christian perspectives on political issues are never heard by the public, then it’s simply too easy for the attitude of ‘out of sight, out of mind‘ to flourish for unbelievers. Politics is not a barrier to evangelism- it can often be an aide.

D) Do politics, not evangelism. This fifth view says that the church should only try to transform the political and cultural environments and should not engage in evangelism. Whilst Grudem claims that there are no prominent Christian groups who hold to this view, I think that people in the camp of Brian McLaren and sometimes Rob Bell give this message. It was also a primary emphasis of the 19th/20th Century Social Gospels and liberation theology. The causes they supported were often good ones, but they completely neglected the need for a personal trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Grudem doesn’t give any point by point refutations of this but I have some of my own.

  1. Jesus commanded mission and evangelism. In the Great Commission cited earlier, Jesus clearly commands all of his disciples (including us) to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Not to engage in evangelism is really to misunderstand the whole point of Jesus’ teaching, as well as the Bible as a whole.
  2. True justice and love are found in God himself; not to preach his name is to not preach love. The Bible says that love is defined as, “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). If we do not preach that, then we do not preach true love. Social engagement without love or justice is null and void.

Thus we have seen 4 wrong views that many Christians have today about government. In the next post in this series I will look at a better and more biblical position. Later in the series I will also bring arguments against militant secularism which aims to exclude religion from the public square, but that will have to wait for now.

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