13: The Presence And Absence Of God

I often wondered how I will be able to enjoy heaven knowing that some of my loved ones are roasting in hell.  After reviewing this section I think I better understand.  The thought occurred to me that when my hand is met with fire, I pull it away.  Similarly, when my eyes see my loved one in the agony of hell, I will simply shut my eyes.  I will turn away.  

If they learn of this on this side of heaven and hell, then on that day in hell and in that moment in torment when they see me do this, they will have this awful memory of me saying that I would do this.  No doubt, this will compound their misery.  But I say this not intentionally, but only to amplify their stupidity and stubbornness.  It is only natural for me to shut my eyes isn't it?  It is only right for me to turn away isn't it?  It is what they would do if they saw me isn't it?  Oh how I wish they would hear my plea!  Why won't you love justice and hate evil?  Why won't you trust the One who created you?
  This is a review of Sinners in the Hands of a Good God by David Clotfelter with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith.  Its goal is the fulfillment of Gal 5:16...

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.   

I’ve set these studies in a specific order so that all may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to help us in this building project (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Sinners in the Hands of a Good God) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  1 Thess 5:23


One twentieth-century author who was not afraid to write about hell was C. S. Lewis. His book The Great Divorce is an imaginative and powerful refutation of the common notion that all people desire heaven. In the course of a fantastic visit to heaven he watches numerous people deciding that hell is the place for them. One man is too proud to enter heaven in the presence of a former murderer. A modernist theologian thinks that hell offers a greater scope for the exercise of his intellectual creativity. Other inhabitants of hell, offered the opportunity to relocate to heaven, cannot give up their greed, their unhappiness with God’s management of the universe, or their concern for the opinions of others. In each case, the choice to reject joy is made by the person himself or herself.

Lewis’s portraits are convincingly drawn and help us to grasp the truth that all who are lost will have only themselves to blame for their damnation.[1] J. I. Packer expresses this same doctrine when he writes that:

God’s wrath in the Bible is something which men choose for themselves. Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which man himself opts, by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to Himself…. In the last analysis, all that God does subsequently in judicial action towards the unbeliever, whether in this life or beyond it, is to show him, and lead him into, the full implications of the choice he has made.[2]

A Person’s Choice

This is a very biblical and important truth, and one that every person who speaks about divine judgment needs to understand. We must not think of hell as a punishment arbitrarily imposed by God. We must learn to see it as the natural outgrowth of the person’s own choices and of his or her inborn distaste for God. Paul tells us in Romans 8:7 that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” What this means in practice is that left to themselves, human beings inevitably reject God’s authority over their lives, even if the result is that they must ultimately miss His greatest blessings. Indeed, they are not capable of seeing His blessings as blessings. A heaven characterized by praise of God and complete devotion to His will cannot possibly appeal to the person who still wishes to live life on her own terms, without God’s interference.

Because this is so, I believe that Lewis’s The Great Divorce deserves careful and repeated study. We need to learn to recognize in ourselves and in others those choices that lead to damnation. Preachers, especially, need to have the courage to show their hearers that anytime they reject either the authority or the mercy of God they are in effect choosing to live in hell rather than heaven; and that if that pattern of choosing is not changed, it will lead eventually to a damnation for which the person will have only himself to blame. Hell is self-punishment, the natural outgrowth of the decision not to acknowledge God and receive His grace.

Not Self-Punishment Alone

Nevertheless, this is only one side of the truth, and we must be careful that we do not overemphasize it. As much as I have benefited from Lewis’s views on heaven and hell, I find them troubling in some ways. In The Great Divorce hell is presented less as a place of punishment than as a place where God simply leaves people alone. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in Lewis’s view, God’s determination to leave people to their own sins is their punishment. As he writes, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.”‘[3] In the first case the person is choosing everlasting joy; in the second, God is respecting his or her freedom to be unhappy.

While there is much truth in this presentation, it does not do full justice to the biblical teaching. When the New Testament speaks of judgment, it places less emphasis on the role of human choice than on God’s role as the holy and righteous judge.[4] Consider a few of Jesus’ statements about hell in the gospel of Matthew, and pay particular attention to the verbs I have emphasized:

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:19)

… while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:12)

“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:41-42)

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. (Matthew 18:8)

Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:13)

‘”And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”‘ (Matthew 25:30)

What we need to notice in these statements is that Jesus is not the least bit nervous about portraying God, the angels, or Himself as taking a very active role in consigning the wicked to hell. The image is not that of a God who sadly stands by, helplessly shaking His head with grief as His creatures insist upon damning themselves. On the contrary, God actively condemns the wicked to everlasting punishment. He throws them into hell.

Not only is this so, but in Luke 13:24-28 Jesus pictures the wicked as wanting to enter the kingdom but being unable to:

Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us,” then he will answer you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!” In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.”

Certainly it is true that all who are condemned have only themselves to blame for their destruction. They have chosen to sin; they have chosen to turn away from whatever degree of light they have been given; they may well have ignored or scorned God’s offer of mercy in the gospel. The emphasis, on the voluntary nature of damnation is a biblical emphasis, and it has its place. But it must not be allowed to cancel out the equally biblical emphasis on hell as a place where the wicked are actively punished by God. It is true that they have turned their backs on God. It is true that they would experience no joy in heaven. But it is not true that in hell they are simply left to themselves, nor is it true that God is a helpless observer of their damnation.[5] God sends them to hell, and He does so in order that He may punish them.

Balancing Two Truths About Hell

These two truths—that human beings both choose hell and are cast there by a wrathful God—are not easy to keep in proper balance. I suggest, though, that of the two the second truth is the one that needs to be emphasized today. Hell is a place of punishment, a place of misery, a place from which the lost wish desperately to escape. They may be said to have chosen hell in the sense that they have rejected God’s authority and grace, but they have not chosen the torment they experience there. In hell they are not just left to their own devices; instead, they are forced, moment by moment, to face the consequences of their own sin. It is true enough that if they were offered heaven they would still reject it, because in their hearts they hate God. But if heaven is unattractive to them, so is hell. God does not leave them to nurture their grudges and hatreds and conceits in peace. He punishes them for those sins.

As we live our lives on this earth and make our moral and spiritual choices, we are not merely to fear our own bad decisions. We are to fear God, the One who, after the killing of the body, has the power to throw us into hell (Luke 12:5).

Indeed, for a preacher, these two truths should be complementary emphases that help the sinner to recognize the perilous position in which he stands. The sinner must first be shown that his own choices are hellish choices, that day by day he is becoming a creature more suited to hell than to heaven. But then, because in his pride and vanity he may decide that he would rather be damned on his own terms than to submit to God’s, he must also be shown that God plans to repay his rebellion with unending, pitiless punishment.


This leads us to the question of God’s role in eternal punishment. In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul writes that those who do not believe the gospel will be punished with eternal destruction “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” On the basis of this text it is often said that what characterizes hell is the absence of God. Probably nobody who makes such a statement intends to deny the doctrine of God’s omnipresence. God is not subject to the limitations of space. Obviously He is in some sense present in hell. But what is often meant when people speak of God’s absence from hell is that God withdraws Himself from that place; He shields His eyes from the misery of the lost. He ordains their misery, yet He does not wish to be present to witness it.

For many people, the idea that God is absent from hell serves both to highlight the misery of the lost and to safeguard the character of God from the charge that He takes delight in human torment.

These are difficult matters. The Bible does indeed insist that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather in their repentance (Ezek. 18:23). Nevertheless, while we surely are not to believe that God rejoices in the suffering of the wicked for its own sake, we must believe that He rejoices in their punishment as an expression of His justice.[6] And the vast number of texts that speak of God as directly involved in punishing the wicked require us to think of Him as very much present in hell. God does not merely send fire upon the lost; He Himself is the consuming fire with which they must dwell eternally (Heb. 12:29; Isa. 33:14). He does not merely consign them to punishment; He punishes them.

If this is so, then what are we to make of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which speaks of those who do not believe as being banished from God’s presence? We are to understand from this that they are banished from His blessings and from all enjoyment of His glory. God eternally smiles upon the redeemed, but He eternally frowns upon the wicked. He is the witness and the cause of their misery, but He is not moved by it. He does not relent or sympathize. He never swerves from His intention to glorify His justice through their punishment.

Another way of expressing this is to say that God is the eternal, implacable enemy of the lost. In this life they showed their enmity to Him by their disobedience to His Law and their hostility to His grace; now they must experience the consequences of their choices in the form of unrelenting wrath. On the Day of Judgment, says Paul, “there will be wrath and fury” for those who reject the truth and follow evil (Rom. 2:8). The writer of the Revelation sees the mighty of the earth hiding in caves and under rocks and calling out to the mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:16-17). The author of Psalm 21 foresaw a time when God would lay hold of all His enemies and swallow them up in His wrath (vv. 8-9). And Moses, in Psalm 90:11, shrank from the thought of God’s indignation toward the wicked: “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?”

Notice that the Bible does not support the popular idea of hell as a place where the lost are tormented by gleeful devils. The New Testament makes it clear that the devils themselves will be in torment (Matt. 8:29; Luke 8:31), but it never directly suggests that they will play a role in punishing lost men and women. Even Jonathan Edwards, who normally hewed very closely to the actual statements of Scripture, seems to me to have overstepped in his assumption that many of the torments in hell will be administered by demons or by other lost human beings.[7] We cannot say that this is impossible. It may well be that the damned are allowed to torment one another. But the Bible never presents this idea to us as a doctrine to be believed. Sartre was wrong; hell is not “other people.” Nor is hell the abandonment of human beings to a demonic power that is not itself subject to suffering. What is truly terrible about hell is that there God Himself is the tormenter of the damned. There God, the “Light of Israel,” becomes a consuming flame (lsa. 10:17) to destroy all who have opposed Him.

Questions & Notes

  1. All who are lost will have only _________ to blame for their damnation.

  2. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill.: lnterVarsity, 1973), 138.

  3. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Simon&: Schuster, 1996), 72.

  4. When the New Testament speaks of judgment, it places _________ emphasis on the role of human choice than on God’s role as the holy and righteous judge.

  5. True or False: In hell sinners are left to themselves.

  6. We should believe that God rejoices in the punishment of the wicked as an expression of His _________.

  7. Edwards suggests that just as Lazarus in Jesus’ parable was carried by the angels to the bosom of Abraham, it is reasonable to suppose that when a wicked man dies, evil spirits pounce upon his soul and carry it off to hell to torment it. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, rev. Edward Hickman (1834; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), 881.

   Click on the "Sinners in the Hands of a Good God" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here. 

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