Many Christians will define hell as eternal separation from God, and I’ve used that terminology myself many times. The problem I’ve always had in the back of my mind is reconciling that with the omnipresence of God. Since hell is a real place and God is omnipresent, then how is hell separate from God? To be honest, if I hated God the idea of eternal separation from him doesn’t sound like that bad of a deal. I’m confident that if I lived forever apart from God on this earth I would be eternally, infinitely miserable, but is that all that we believe hell to be?
Some will point to the following text of 2Thessalonians 1:9-10.
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, 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, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
This is translated just about everywhere as “away from the presence of the Lord” but in the ESV there is a footnote that reads, “or destruction that comes from”. That’s a huge difference. In the first option there is eternal destruction but it does not necessarily come from the absence of God. In the second the very presence of the Lord causes the destruction.
The Greek just has the preposition apo usually translated ‘from’. It is true that this preposition can often imply separation or distance from, but it would usually accompany a verb implying movement. Here the verb is “suffer” or “pay as a penalty”, hardly denoting any travelling.
The preposition is used commonly and an example is Romans 1:7.
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I ask you, is Paul offering grace and peace to the Romans “away from” God the Father and Jesus Christ? Or is he offering the grace and peace that can only come from God and Christ?
The implication then from the first text then is that unbelievers will pay the penalty of eternal destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord in the fully revealed glory of his might. That is an unbelievably terrible thing to imagine.
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Calvin puts it this way:
Now, because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us….
As by such details we should be enabled in some degree to conceive the lot of the wicked, so we ought especially to fix our thoughts upon this: how wretched it is to be cut off from all fellowship with God. And not that only but so to feel his sovereign power against you that you cannot escape being pressed by it.
Being cut off from fellowship with God is not being cut off from his presence. Instead the idea is that the unbeliever will never again receive any common grace from God and will forever feel the sovereign power and presence of God in judgment. This is a much scarier thought in my mind.