The concept of hell is a difficult one to talk about. Because it is so difficult and controversial, we rarely like to discuss it, but because we don’t discuss it, we open the doors wide for false ideas and assumptions to creep in unchallenged.
I recently watched a video shared on Facebook which involved Christian apologist Frank Turek giving an answer to a student about hell during the Q&A. In this, he gives a very common description of hell, one in which many Christians embrace. It can be paraphrased like this,
“If you don’t want to be with God, He is not going to force you into His presence forever. Hell is simply just the absence of God. If you don’t want to be with God forever, He will give you His wish.“
I have some very serious concerns over this very popular presentation of hell.
There is a semi-truth to it all. It is true that those who go to hell chose it. The damned are those who hate Christ in this life, and continue to hate Him in the next forever. C.S. Lewis once said “the gates of Hell are locked from the inside.” God is, in one sense, giving people what they want in damnation.
Is it true that hell is the “absence of God?” The short answer is no. This is not true at all (see my reasoning below). However, this is suggesting something true about the nature of hell, depending on what we mean by “presence.”
God is omnipresent. To say that God is “not present in hell” is to deny an important attribute of God. However, sometimes we use the word presence in ways more specific. For example, we might say Moses’ face was changed because he was “in the presence” of God. Angels are so glorious because they are in the presence of God. Perhaps the best example is the Tabernacle. God’s presence dwelt there. His glory could filled that place. God’s presence was everywhere outside the tabernacle, but His presence and glory filled that place in a unique way.
There is, then, a sense where hell can be described as not having the presence of God. God will not be experienced, seen, or beheld by those in hell the way He will by those in heaven. His favor and love will not be there. Thus, this can be accurate.
However, this phrase requires so much explanation to be true, it does not seem to be a helpful way of explaining hell, especially to non-Christians who are not familiar with the nuances of our esoteric vocabulary.
All in all, this understanding of hell is not true and not helpful for a number of reasons, specifically because it presents a passive suffering of hell, ignores the purpose of hell, and because God has all authority everywhere.
Active vs. Passive Judgment
It is actually not biblical to present hell in this way because the Bible presents hell as being an active form of punishment, not a passive one. The concept that people go to hell to experience the consequences of living without God makes God’s wrath passive. It’s passive in that God has simply thrown His hands in the air and left men to their own devices.
Active punishment is much different. Active punishment is God bringing proper retribution of sin.
Suppose a child kept continually running around in the living room. Mom asks the child to stop. Mom knows the T.V. stand, the coffee table, and the bookshelf are all painful objects to run into, but her child continues to sprint through the living room, defying mom’s command to stop.
Mom has two forms of punishment at her disposal. She can passively punish her child. This would entail doing nothing. The child then inevitably hits his head on the corner of the T.V. stand, and that very painful experience serves as mom’s passive punishment. She knew it was coming, but she let it happen. She could have stopped it, but chose not to. That is passive punishment.
Active punishment would have been to stop the child in his tracks, take him to his room, and spank him; that is active punishment. Many try to portray hell as passive; but the Bible teaches it is active.
Matthew 10: 28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”
Jesus says that there is room for a healthy fear of the wrath of God. And Jesus says this because the Father is actively involved in justice. Jesus does not say “Fear hell where body and soul will inevitably find themselves destroyed.” Jesus says the Father will destroy body and soul in hell. This is active punishment.
The Purpose of Hell
The passive view of hell above ultimately misses the entire point of hell: punishment for sin. To present hell as if the suffering of that place is just the natural consequence of God not being there is to suggest God just needed a place to put people who didn’t want to go to heaven. Therefore, hell becomes a holding cell for people who rejected the mansion.
But this is not hell’s purpose. The purpose of hell is to punish sin.
John 8: 24, “I told you that you would die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins.”
When unbelievers die, they die in their sin. That is significant. This means that they are not simply just going to a place without Christ. It means that they will be held accountable for sin. In death, they stand before Jesus, the judge, and are sentenced. People do not go to hell because they rejected Christ. People go to hell because of their sin. Rejecting Christ is sinful, but that is not the only reason someone goes to hell, and subtly, the popular view of hell among many of us subtly implies that.
If I test positive for cancer, and the doctors are convinced a few rounds of chemo will save me, but I refuse to take chemotherapy, what killed me? Cancer killed me. Not taking chemo didn’t kill me. Someone without cancer could not take chemo and not die. Cancer killed me.
Likewise, people go to hell because of sin. They do not just simply choose to go somewhere other than heaven. They are sentenced to hell by God. Hell is not passive because hell serves a purpose, and that purpose is to punish sin.
God Has All Authority Everywhere
A huge concern of mine with the concept of being “free from the presence of God in hell” is that it tends to either breed, or stem from, the false notion that hell is Satan’s domain. I do not know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but there is a clear correlation between subtracting the active wrath of God from hell, and the concept of Satan running the show there.
It is very easy to develop a cartoonish view of hell where Satan rules and tortures people. It resembles Greek mythology far more than biblical Christianity. When this notion is dissected, it is found to be illogical and unbiblical.
Logically, why would God’s greatest enemy, the very serpent whose head He came to crush (Genesis 3:15), the very antagonist He triumphed over (Colossians 2:15), the very foe He came to bind (Revelation 20: 1-3), why would He get to enjoy eternity forever, torturing people?
The worst creature to ever exist gets to chortle and sneer while sinful humanity weeps and gnashes their teeth? That hardly seems reasonable or just. Unsurprisingly, it is not the picture the Bible paints.
Revelation 20: 10, “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
The Bible clearly expresses that hell will be hell for Satan. Satan will not rule hell, Satan will be forcefully cast into it. Hell will be punishment for him too. It will be severe, eternal torment for Him. He will not be running around burning people and stabbing them with pitchforks; he will be judged.
That leads us to the true authority in hell. It’s not God’s wicked, fallen enemy, but it is God. God has authority under the earth. Satan is not the one to fear in hell; God is. It is the just and righteous wrath of God which ought to make us tremble at the thought of hell, not the wrath of Satan.
I want to tread carefully with this part. As I have said, there is a very real way in which hell can be spoken of as “the absence of God’s presence.” I do not know the heart and motivations of my readers, so I am not attempting to judge everyone with one broad stroke.
I do suspect though, for all of us, that we speak of hell this way not because it is the conclusion of serious exegesis, but because everyone can swallow it better.
This very passive, permissive view of Hell, one where God just allows people to go to the destiny of their choosing, is easier for us to say. It doesn’t taste as bad in our mouths.
The reality of the situation is that all human beings who experience natural affections have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the concept of divine torment as a means of just punishment. It is very difficult to tell a person we love that they are going to suffer consciously in hell. We cloak the final resting place of the damned in euphemism to sugarcoat this very difficult doctrine. The problem is, that if it tastes better in our mouths, it will sound better in their ears.
Perhaps that is part of the motivation too. Perhaps we are embarrassed to speak of hell in the way we know it to be. Regardless, it is not helpful to the unbeliever to soften hell. It is not loving or beneficial to them to at all dampen their fear of hell. They should be afraid; we all should be.
Matthew 11: 6, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
We will only bolster their unbelief and make them more comfortable in their rebellion if we hide the true nature of the consequences of their sin and unbelief. If we love them, we will tell them the whole truth about hell.
The aim of this post is not to turn everyone into fire and brimstone preachers. I am not asking you to bring hell up as often as you can. I am not asking you to hold signs on the street corner tomorrow of stick figures burning in flames. I am not requesting we start recreating medieval art of people boiling in pots.
This is simply an aim to love God and love people. We love God by thinking about hell what He thinks. We defy and demean His character if we hate something He considers necessary and just.
What did Jesus think and say about hell? What did His Apostles teach about hell? Whatever Jesus and the Apostles think and say about hell is what we want to think and say about hell. And we love our neighbor by doing this.
May we not be subjects who blindly follow God out of fear. God desires our faith and our love, not our reluctant obedience. However, may we never lose a healthy dose of reverent fear for the just power of God. May we never walk this Christian life out without fear and trembling. The wrath of God brought Jesus to His knees before the crucifixion. May we never make little of that.