I conclude that the formulation of Hell being eternal separation from God needs a bit of tweaking. Hell is eternal separation from the grace and mercy of God. It is not eternal separation from God entirely. I believe that people will fervently wish that they could escape the judging presence of God! Hell is a place where God is present only to judge and punish. Heaven is the place where God is present only to love and cherish.
Many Christians define Hell as eternal separation from God. However, I wonder if this is born out by Scripture. It seems that a lot of people go to Jesus Christ’s cry on the cross to prove this point: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” If Christ experienced Hell on the cross, as most Reformed believers rightly believe, then Hell seems to be defined here as being forsaken by God.
Another argument that seems to point in this direction is the relationship of Revelation 20 to Revelation 21. In Revelation 20, the dragon and the two beasts are thrown into the lake of fire, along with Death, Hades, and everyone whose name is not written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 20:15). When one reads on into Revelation 21, it says that God will dwell with His people, which seems to suggest that He is not dwelling with those who are in the lake of fire.
To answer the first argument, it is not true that God the Father abandoned God the Son at the cross. The cross did not result in a rift in the Trinity. The abandonment consists of the God-man suffering the full wrath of God the Father. It is a giving up of Jesus to the judicial wrath, not an ontological abandonment. This becomes clear when the judgment context of Psalm 22 is taken into account, from which Jesus’ cry comes.
To answer the second argument, I wonder Who keeps the lake of fire hot? Who throws Satan into it? Who torments Satan day and night forever? Are these not divine passive constructions? Who can administer the justice but God alone? How would we ever trust that the punishment fits the crime perfectly unless it is God who punishes?
A passage that gives a bit more light on this is Revelation 14:6-13. In this passage, those who worship the beast, and receive the mark of the beast will drink the cup of the wrath of God, poured full strength (verse 10). This torment is eternal (verse 11). Therefore, John is talking about eternal punishment in Hell in these verses, not a temporal punishment. The key phrase, then, for our purposes, is the last part of verse 10: “in the presence of the holy angels and the presence of the Lamb.” It is the torment that will happen in the presence of the Lamb and of the angels, a torment that lasts forever. It is, therefore, true that the torment will last eternally in the presence of the angels and of the Lamb.
Another argument can be deduced from the principle of God’s omnipresence. If God is everywhere (see Psalm 139 for an extensive proof of God’s omnipresence), then God is present in Hell as well. Some of us might be uncomfortable saying that, as if God shouldn’t be involved in the punishment of Hell, as if it would dirty His holy hands. I would counter by saying that I wouldn’t want anyone BUT an omniscient God administering punishment for eternity! How else could permanent justice be assured?
I conclude that the formulation of Hell being eternal separation from God needs a bit of tweaking. Hell is eternal separation from the grace and mercy ofGod. It is not eternal separation from God entirely. I believe that people will fervently wish that they could escape the judging presence of God! Hell is a place where God is present only to judge and punish. Heaven is the place where God is present only to love and cherish.
Lane Keister is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.