Is God Present or Absent in Hell?
Serious Bible students ask sober questions about hard texts. That’s what I love about this podcast and our listeners. Sober questions about hard texts get asked and answered here. That will be especially true for the next two weeks as we narrow our attention to three hard Bible questions from you related to eschatology, questions on the first two chapters of 2 Thessalonians. We have three of them.
Namely, is God present or is he absent in his eternal judgment? Second Thessalonians 1:9 seems to say he’s absent. That’s today. Then many of you have asked about the man of lawlessness in chapter 2. Who is it? That’s on Friday in APJ 1803. And then a question about God sending strong delusions into the world. Does he do that today? How so? That’s a question on 2 Thessalonians 2:11. And that will be on the table two Fridays from now in APJ 1806.
So today, we have sober questions on the nature of God’s judgment. A listener named David writes us, “Pastor John, thank you for taking my question. It’s a serious one. Namely, is the presence of God in hell? Second Thessalonians 1:9 seems to say no. Is that right?” And Josiah writes us this: “Pastor John, hello. I read that hell includes the presence of God, per Revelation 14:10. Or is it away from the presence of God, per 2 Thessalonians 1:9? Can you help me understand which is right?”
Whenever I am asked a question about hell, I always feel the need to take a deep breath, so to speak, and step back and make sure that we are not handling this reality in a breezy, easy, superficial, cavalier way. So, let me say a few things by way of preface so that we can feel the appropriate weight of the question.
Thinking About Hell Too Little
It’s possible, I think, to think about hell too little and too much. To think about hell too little would mean that it rarely comes into your mind and therefore has little effect upon your life. But the Bible’s teaching on hell is not just for the sake of random, occasional curiosity. It’s for the sake of sober-mindedness, to keep us from thinking that distrusting God and disobeying God are matters of little consequence.
“The biblical teaching on hell is a reflection of the infinite worth of God and the outrage of scorning it.”
The knowledge of hell is intended to help us feel the moral outrage of preferring God’s creation over God, which is, I think, the essence of sin. The biblical teaching on hell is a reflection of the infinite worth of God and the outrage of scorning it.
The reason hell is eternal is not because the sin that sends us there was eternal, but because the offense against an infinitely worthy God is an infinite offense. So when we think of hell too little, we probably don’t tremble at the majesty and justice of God the way we should. Hell has a way of making life more serious, and thinking of hell too little will probably result in a moral and emotional life that is not in sync with the greatness, and the beauty, and the worth, and the justice, and the wisdom, and the grace of God.
Thinking About Hell Too Much
But it is also possible to think of hell, I think, too much. Hell really is a horrible reality. Consider the descriptions of it in the mouth of Jesus: “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51), a place “where their worm does not die” (Mark 9:48), a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30), a place of “anguish” (Luke 16:24), a place of “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).
Or as Paul calls it in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, a place of “eternal destruction,” with “wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8). Or as John describes it in Revelation 14:11, “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”
These descriptions are terrible beyond words. But some people try to soften the horror by saying, “Well, words like fire and darkness are symbols.” And I want to say that the problem with that is, if they are symbols, they’re symbols of something, and it’s not less. I mean, symbols are an effort to put into words the unspeakable. That’s what symbols are for. To call something a symbol of fire means it’s worse, not better. Realities correspond to symbols.
It is possible, however, to think about this reality too much. I don’t think the human mind and heart are equipped in this fallen world to think for long periods of time on the reality of hell. God has a mind and a heart that can keep this reality in focus and in proportion to other realities so that it has no ill effect on him. I don’t think our minds and our hearts, in this age, can properly ponder such horrors for very long. We need glimpses — yes, we do. We need reminders, yes, but we don’t need continual consciousness of sufferings too great to endure.
Is God Present or Absent?
Now, David and Josiah in their questions both asked, more or less, about the presence of God in hell. And they point to two very relevant texts. Revelation 14:10, which gives the impression that the Lamb of God may be present in hell, says that those who worship the beast “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” And the other text is 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
So, first, a word about Revelation 14:10. When it refers to the torments of hell in the presence of the Lamb, the term “in the presence of” means “in the sight of,” not “in the same space as.” The Greek word used literally is “before the Lamb”; they will be tormented “before the Lamb.” The same word is used in Revelation 3:2 like this: “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” That’s the same exact construction: “in the sight of my God,” “in the presence of my God.” He can see. It’s before him in that sense.
So when we say that something happens “in the sight of God” or “in the sight of the Lamb,” we don’t necessarily mean that God or the Lamb is in the same space of what they are seeing. So, I think Revelation 14:10 does not say that God or Jesus or the Lamb has some kind of ongoing residence in hell. But they can and do see hell.
Now, when 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says that the punishments of hell will be “away from the presence of the Lord,” the word for presence there is face, “away from the face of the Lord.” In other words, hell is a fulfillment of the threat in Ezekiel 7:22, for example, where God says, “I will turn my face from them.” It’s the exact opposite of the blessing in Numbers 6:24–26:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
“There is in hell an everlasting frown of disapproving justice.”
That’s the exact opposite of what happens in hell. That does not happen in hell. The gracious countenance of God does not shine upon them. And there is in hell an everlasting frown of disapproving justice.
Righteous Judgment Forever
So what shall we say, then, about the question whether God’s presence is in hell? I suppose you could say there are two senses in which God is “present.” First, he upholds everything by the word of his power through Jesus (Hebrews 1:3). So, hell would have no existence if God were not keeping it in existence. And second, hell is described as punishment and judgment — as not just consequence, but punishment. And so there will be an awareness of those in hell of God’s righteous disapproval present. His disapproval, his judgment, his punishment — that will be present to their minds forever.
But neither of those two ways of thinking about God’s presence suggests his personal presence. So, we can say that God is not present in this sense: His beauty will not be seen or known. His fellowship will not be enjoyed. His relief and his mercy will not be experienced. If there’s any sense in which God’s presence is felt as an upholding force, it will be the presence of his righteous judgment and wrath.
Hell is a reality to be avoided at all costs. And Jesus Christ, God’s Son, himself bore the greatest cost by becoming a curse for us on the cross (Galatians 3:13) — for everyone who would believe (John 3:16). Jesus became our deserved hell, and I urge everyone in the sound of my voice to fly to Jesus as your only hope of escaping these torments.