“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. – Matthew 25:41
Last Sunday evening I got into a conversation where the question arose as to whether God is in hell or if hell is the place of separation from God. It may seem from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:41 and 7:23 that hell is the place where God is not. Many assume hell is the place of separation from God’s presence, but the Bible speaks of God being present in different ways in different locations.
“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” – Matthew 18:19-20
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. – John 14:16-17
“Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD. – Jeremiah 23:23-24
I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. – Psalm 123:1
You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. – Romans 8:9
God is present in the heavenly realm in a different way than he is present in the world, or his presence with his people when we meet together in the name of Jesus. And just because we’re told that God comes by his Spirit and lives with those who believe in Jesus Christ, we’re not to think that non-Christians are somehow out of God’s presence. But clearly, God is present with his people in a very different way to those outside of Christ.
Jeremiah 23:23-24 is clear there is nowhere in all of creation we can escape from the presence of the Almighty God. He’s not limited by space and time – he created both and therefore there is nowhere he is not. He is omnipresent.
The words of the Psalmist help us in thinking about this.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol (place of the dead / hell), you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. – Psalm 139:7-10
The Psalmist seems to think God is present in hell, so how do we match that up with what Jesus says in Matthew 7 and 25. The answer lies in the fact that God is present in hell in a different manner to being present elsewhere. When Jesus says “Depart from me,” he’s not saying “Go out of my presence completely,” as that is impossible for us to do.
So how are we to think of God’s presence in hell?
Just as we can’t imagine anything better than being in God’s presence if we’re in a right relationship with him in Jesus Christ because we’re the objects of his grace and love, so there is nothing worse than to be in God’s presence and be the object of his displeasure.
As God himself in his love and grace and mercy, will be the object of the praise and love of his people for all eternity, so God himself in his glorious righteousness will be the eternal punishment of those who have continued in their rebellion against him.
Indeed it is the presence of the righteous, glorious, just, and holy God that makes hell, hell to those who reside there. Jonathan Edwards said, “God himself is the fire of hell.” (Hebrews 12:29)
For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Hebrew 10:30-31
Our sin against God is a personal thing. We don’t just break an impersonal law, we sin against a personal God. Therefore the punishment of the unrepentant will be a personal punishment from God himself.
Hell is a fearful place and we should not talk about hell lightly or without concern for those who refuse to repent. We cannot escape our Creator God, but through his grace towards us in Christ we can flee from his righteous wrath and find refuge in his everlasting arms. (Deut. 33:27)