Amy, a daily podcast listener from Omaha, Nebraska — my own hometown — writes in to ask this: “I understand hell to be the absence of God, but of course God is omnipresent. If God is everywhere, is he also in hell?” What do you say, Pastor John?
There are at least two important responses to Amy’s question. One is to say that yes, hell is that. Hell is the absence of God, and we need to answer in what sense is he absent or present. But the other response is to say that hell is, as it is described in the Bible, terribly more than the absence of God. So, let me deal with each of those just a little bit.
Without God’s Joy
Yes, hell is the absence of God. Here is 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9:
When the Lord is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
“Hell is terribly more than the absence of God.”
So yes, hell is away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. The promise of Psalm 16:11 will not come true in hell: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” No, because his presence like that won’t be there.
Or the prayer of Jesus in John 17:24, 26 is not going to be answered in hell:
“I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. . . . That the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
That is not going to happen in hell. In hell, the all-satisfying beauty of God for which our hearts were made will not be seen. The love that flows from it will not be known, and the pleasure forevermore and the fullness of joy won’t be experienced. All that will be absent.
With God’s Judgment
So, the meaning of “away from the presence of the Lord” does not mean that God is absent in every sense, but in those senses. God will be terribly present in another sense. All reality continues to say, “In him we live and move and have our being.” And it is still in hell that no one can hide from the Lord or escape the terrible countenance of his anger. So God’s power is present in hell as the one who sustains our being and the one who enforces justice and the one who maintains suffering. He is present in all the ways men do not want him to be present and none of the ways that believers enjoy his presence.
Which brings us to this second thing just briefly. Hell is more than the absence of God. And I feel the need to say that. I don’t know whether Amy meant to imply that. I hope not. But some people do. Some people want to say we are annihilated and, of course, there is no presence of God since we don’t exist, and nobody exists. Or that it is just some kind of deprivation and nothing positive by way of suffering. That just won’t work.
Horrible and Fearful
In Matthew 10:28, Jesus said, “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” So the body is going to be tormented, and the soul is going to be tormented.
Matthew 25:46 says, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“In hell, God is present in all the ways people do not want him to be.”
Revelation 14:9–11 says, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and there is no rest, day or night.” So, it is a present torment with fire and restlessness.
Or Mark 9:43 says, “It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”
And Mark 9:47 says, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
So, Amy, hell is a horrible and fearful thing, which teaches us that our sin is a horrible and fearful thing. And God’s holiness is a horrible and fearful thing if opposed, and the cross of Christ, who endured hell for all his people for all time, is the most precious event in the history of the world.