HELL AS SEPARATION FROM GOD? THE MISERY PARADOX

hellOne of the most frequently invoked descriptions of the essence of hell is that it is separation from God.  It is the eternal misery that inevitably results when a person made in the image of God is cut off the very source of joy, the eternal fountain of truth, beauty and goodness.

But is this an accurate account of hell?  The answer, I think, is both yes and no.  To see why, let us reflect on the fact that Revelation 14:9-11 pictures the suffering of the damned as taking place “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (14:10).  What does this mean?  And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to the idea that hell is isolation from the presence of God?

In short, the question is how the suffering of hell can take place in the presence of Christ if the essence of hell is being separated from God.   Isn’t this contradictory?

Well, in response to this, I’d start with the observation of the Psalmist that there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff).  The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power.    Paul makes a similar point in his sermon at Mars Hill, where he reminds his listeners that God is “not far from each one of us.  For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

This latter text is particularly relevant, for Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him.  The point here, then, is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of a meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.

So the unhappy creatures described in Revelation 14 are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact.  However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.  They are close in terms of something like proximity, but far apart in terms of mutual love and intimacy.  As the song puts it, “so close, and yet so far away.”  That is the misery paradox.

It is easy to see how this uneasy situation causes misery.  Imagine a son, alienated from his father who deeply loves him.  He hates his father and resents the fact that he is dependent upon him, so he will not return his love, but is forced by unhappy circumstances to live under the same roof with him. The misery in his case would be palpable.

Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29).   But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.

Theologian David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement.”[i]  Our freedom to reject the love of God makes possible this perverse refusal to open ourselves to the happiness He wants to give us.

Perhaps we can take this a step further and suggest that this may explain why the frightful passage about the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8) appears right in the middle of the most glorious description of the holy city in the whole Bible.  And indeed, right after the beautiful picture of the spring of the water of life given to those who are thirsty (Revelation 21:6).  As New Testament scholar Robert Mulholland has pointed out: “If, as John says, those in hell are in fire in the presence of the Lamb (14:10), who in the vision is seated on the throne with God (7:17), and the Water of Life flows from the throne (22:1), then both the fire image and the water image are linked to the throne.”[ii]

Again, our freedom allows us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.”  If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst.

So as crazy and paradoxical as it is, we can choose the fire.  But I strongly recommend the water.

 


[i] David Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 399.

[ii] Personal correspondence with the author, in an email, January 18, 2014.  Mulholland made this observation in response to my asking whether the spring of life and the fire of hell might be contrasted as I have suggested.  See also Mulholland’s discussion of  Revelation 14 in his commentary on Revelation in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011).

8 responses

  1. This makes perfect sense! I believe it was Peter Kreeft who suggested that people are, in a sense, happy in hell. That is, they wanted to have their own way, and their wish was granted.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    In my last post I had illustrated the matter of God’s presence in Hell. Dr. Jerry Walls from HBU has recently shared his thoughts on the matter.

  3. It would seem that the “consuming fire” is the release unto glorification on the one hand and unto annihilation on the other – in a spiritual sense on both parts. It is for refinement in the former and destruction in the latter.

  4. I find the parallel of being drunk with the wine of Babylon vs. the ‘mixed/unmixed’, i.e., undeluded wine of God’s wrath poured into the cup of God’s anger, precludes masking God’s positive judicial judgment with that of his love. Hence the long tradition, mostly within Eastern Orthodoxy, is wrong.

  5. My husband and I recently held a similar conversation, after reading the chapter on The Consuming Fire from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. It begins to appear that “hell” is not so much a place to “punish sin,” as a place to heal and cure man of his malaise, those things that are taking him away from the whole (that perfect)man he is meant to be. And if God is a loving Father, concerned with the well being of his children (are not all created by Him?) then it would be most natural that God “hell” would not only not be removed from God, but in His presence, as like you said, everything is. And perhaps even more as well- here’s a small excerpt, but the whole chapter is excellent on this subject.

    “He will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakeable may remain, (Hebrews, verse 27): he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal. It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship. He will have purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus; yea, will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God. When evil, which alone is consumable, shall have passed away in his fire from the dwellers in the immovable kingdom, the nature of man shall look the nature of God in the face, and his fear shall then be pure; for an eternal, that is a holy fear, must spring from a knowledge of the nature, not from a sense of the power.”

    Excerpt From: MacDonald, George. “Unspoken Sermons: Series I., II., and III.”

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  7. How can your statement that “Revelation 14:9-11 pictures the suffering of the damned as taking place ‘in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb’” be true at the same time as Revelation 21:3-4?

    “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

    How is it true that there is no mourning or crying or pain in the presence of God while there is also suffering and torment day and night in the presence of God? That is the paradox of your position.

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