Hell is in God’s Presence (Second in a series)

Second of two in a series.

I can’t even begin to guess how many times and in how many ways I’ve heard evangelicals describe hell as being “out of the presence of God for eternity.” I think this comes from an incomplete exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord.” Seems pretty straight forward; the threat is an eternity in hell away from God’s presence. But I don’t think that is exactly what the passage is talking about. Take it in its context and “the Lord” refers not to God the Father nor the Trinity but to Jesus Christ. The next verse speaks of His return and that can only be Jesus. In the pervious verse those who face such a judgment are those “who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” so, though God is in proximity, it is Jesus Himself who is the closest antecedent to “the Lord” in verse 9.

Furthermore, the rest of verse 9 and part of verse 10 read, “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints”. It seems clear that Jesus and not the Trinity or the Father are in mind in this context. All of this to say that “eternal destruction” is not restricted to the idea of it being only an absence from God’s presence. All 2 Thes 1:9 teaches us is that those who don’t obey the gospel will suffer destruction away from Jesus’ presence and his might, not necessarily away from Jesus personally or physically. Indeed, Revelation 14:9-11 would seem to indicate that the eternal punishment of the unrighteous is eternally before Jesus; “he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.”

A related question is if when we’re in heaven we will be aware of hell. I have heard people emphatically say that we couldn’t be filled with joy if we are aware of hell and those we knew who are now suffering there. Heaven would not be enjoyable if I am there seeing a close relative or friend suffering. The answer to this one is much more complicated. There is no clear verse of scripture we can go to to argue either side. The closest I can think of is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. My hesitancy to appeal to that passage is that it is a parable. The point of Jesus’ teaching there is not what heaven and hell will be like, but the urgency of listening to the witnesses available in this life. Still, I don’t think Jesus completely distorted the afterlife in order to teach this lesson so if we’re careful not to go too far we can learn something here. First, the rich man is in “Hades” and is in torment. Hades is probably not synonymous to hell but is probably much more like Sheol from the Old Testament, e.g. the place of the dead (see Acts 2:27, Rev 20:13-13). But in this parable whether the rich man is in Sheol or in hell is immaterial, he is in torment so hell is in view. There is a chasm between the unrighteous rich man and Lazarus and Abraham which cannot be crossed (Luke 16:26) but communication can apparently take place across it and the two sides can see each other. There is no changing of position after death but both sides are aware of each other. This seems to indicate that hell is not only visible to Jesus but also to us.

The question of our reaction when we see a sister or brother who rejected Christ suffering eternal punishment then abides. Again, I have no scripture to base this on but only some reflections on God’s nature, sin and our poor understanding. I think we will be sorry to see those we loved in this life suffering just as we will be happy to worship in heaven beside our spouse and children and parents. But hell is not cruel. It is not an expression of God’s injustice. Those in hell will receive exactly the measure of punishment they deserve, no more and no less. God is just. I think in some fashion our reaction will be sorrow that they did not accept the gospel when they had the chance, praising God for His justice in punishing sin, and worshipping Him because we know that we were no better nor smarter than those in hell and the only reason we are not with them is because of His mercy and grace.

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