Rather than debate if Hell is a real place, a temporary place, a punishment of degrees, or a place we make for ourselves on earth, I’d like to invite you to consider … is Hell a place where sinners get to be free of God forever?
Hell is not a top ten topic for churches. I suspect that if religion weren’t already a taboo discussion topic, along with sex and religion, it would most certainly be the subject to clear a room in a hurry!
The pastor at Evergreen Church in Lakeville preached on it Sunday, acknowledging that it was a “hot potato.” Most people’s knee-jerk reaction to the concept of Hell is that a loving God wouldn’t send the people He loves to eternal torment.
This leads into a great discussion of our personal goodness before a holy and just God and the true nature of love … all of which Mark Bowen addressed wonderfully. Here’s a link to Evergreen’s web site where you can listen to the sermon under the Questioning Jesus series (once it is posted, which it hasn’t been as of this writing).
What I want to dive into is the notion that gets floated around that “Hell is eternal separation from God.” Some will paint this as the ultimate horror (which it would be) and the very essence of Hell.
For a second, I’ll grant that the intent there is to point out that for those who have rejected God’s love in the form of Jesus and His sacrifice on each person’s behalf, this world is the most heaven they will ever enjoy. Just think about that. We’ve got riots in the street. We have family hurt, emotional pain, physical torture, mental torture, struggles and shattered dreams. Nobody gets too old before realizing that this world is a mean and nasty place with a few pleasant islands, if we’re fortunate. Vanity of vanities! Emptiness!
And that’s the most heaven an unrepentant sinner will enjoy.
The flip side is that for those who have answered God’s call for repentance and been redeemed, this earth is the most hell they will endure.
Being separated from God, then, is to be severed from any form of his grace or mercy. Without a doubt there are wicked men who have committed horrors that even we, sinful people will rightly condemn. And yet, they enjoy those little islands of pleasure here on earth. They enjoy–despite their sin–some of God’s grace and mercy.
Let’s look at a passage in Revelation that talks about those who have taken the mark of the Beast (i.e. have embraced the world’s love of sinfulness and rebellion against God):
“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 they have no rest, day or night…” Revelation 14:9-11
The cup of God’s wrath! Nobody likes wrath. But, we’ve all experienced it from someone, righteous or not. We’ve all given it, too, in some form or another. If we’re honest, our wrath is seldom unmixed or righteous. Rather, it is mingled with our own sin and often conflicted with other emotions.
Remember there was a passage where Jesus pleaded with the Father about the cup he was to drink? The cup was of God’s wrath. Jesus did “drink” that cup. He endured the full suffering, pain and anguish of being separated from God on the Cross, when God could no longer look. He suffered for each one who would repent, trembling at their grievous sin, and enthrone Jesus, the meek servant who loved so tenderly to endure so much on their behalf.
In the crucifixion account, Jesus was separated from God in the sense that God looked away. Jesus was enduring the full, unmixed cup of God’s wrath so that God’s loving gaze could no longer look. To pour out that cauterizing treatment upon the cancer of sin, God had to withhold all mercy and grace. It would be as if ny mixture that included it, would leave trace amounts of it, allowing it to re-grow.
Since Hell will be the sinner dying as a martyr for the sin he so dearly devoted himself, the fire and torment of Hell will be the payment each sinner chooses to perform instead of accepting Jesus’ payment for them. Because of this, they will have to endure the full, unmingled cup of God’s wrath–completely apart from any of His loving, merciful qualities.
But, what do we make of the part where it says that the fire and torment will be in the presence of the angels and of the Lamb?
Take a look at 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…”
The two passages appear to be in contradiction to one another. No other passage about Hell specifically addresses God’s presence. We hear about sinners being “cast out” or sent to “outer darkness,” or told to “depart from Me.” Hell is described as a place of darkness and of weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is a place of agony. And it’s eternal.
But, is God present, or is that the one place to which the omnipresence of God does not reach? Is the rebel against God finally granted his wish to be rid of God altogether, even if it is to his utter torment?
I don’t know. I suspect that this is an instance where the Bible is telling us the truth in a paradox. Both are true, but they appear to be conflicting.
I notice that in 2 Thessalonians, it is “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might…” Perhaps this denotes that they will not be in the presence of God’s glory … but as we see in Revelation, they will be in the presence of His wrath.
So, while the unrepentant sinner has maligned God’s character while enjoying the pleasant aspects of His presence as shown in mercy and grace in this life, they will be separated from any form of that glory, only to behold His presence in His total wrath and judgment.
This paradox might also be harmonized by looking at the purpose of the text. While the purpose of 2 Thessalonians might be positive, to focus on the benefits of being in the presence of God’s love and goodness, Revelation is written as a stark warning regarding those who have embraced the world’s false religion of the self god.
The realization that God’s presence will preside over the judgment and execution of punishment should send shivers of terror through any sinner and terror of gratitude from those who have been saved from that fate.