I sometimes suspect the emphasis of evangelicals who still believe in hell* when they say, “Hell is separation from God.” I accept that hell is in one sense separation, and believe it, but wonder if this is a way of not talking about the eternal punishment part of it. We are so familiar with the characteristic fundamentalist preachers who spoke of hell in that “manipulative” way that we are now too sophisticated for any talk about hell. That, and hell is quite out of fashion today. As Martin Marty said, “Hell disappeared. No one noticed.”** When did you last hear a sermon on eternal punishment?
To be sure, the worst part of hell is the separation, or as Christopher Morgan helpfully corrected the notion, banishment from God.*** Hell is more than mere separation; it is separation of an utterly negative kind. We can experience all sorts of separations–a soldier is away from his family, grandparents long for their grandchildren, a family is kept from the cold. But hell is a finally closed door of complete alienation and loss. Moreover, separation implies passivity on God’s part; banishment speaks of God’s active condemnation.
What could be worse than having God’s displeasure directed at you for all eternity? Who could bear finally to hear the words of the Lord, only to have him say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt 25:41) Hell is much worse than mere separation from God. It is the eternal receiving of the outpouring of all God’s wrath and fury. Oh, what a dreadful day of wrath it will be when the Lord Jesus judges the world! This is what Paul describes in 2 Thess 1:6-10:
Indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 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.
And so may we, when we teach and preach about hell, speak of not mere separation from God, but of banishment from God, of his actively judging mankind there. I close with Augustine, who used this idea of the active condemnation of God to reply to those who believed the torture of hell lessened throughout time:
It is in vain, then, that some, indeed very many, make moan over the eternal punishment, and perpetual, unintermitted torments of the lost, and say they do not believe it shall be so; not, indeed, that they directly oppose themselves to Holy Scripture, but, at the suggestion of their own feelings, they soften down everything that seems hard, and give a milder turn to statements which they think are rather designed to terrify than to be received as literally true. For “Hath God,” they say, “forgotten to be gracious ? hath He in anger shut up His tender mercies?” Now, they read this in one of the holy psalms. But without doubt we are to understand it as spoken of those who are elsewhere called “vessels of mercy,” because even they are freed from misery not on account of any merit of their own, but solely through the pity of God. Or, if the men we speak of insist that this passage applies to all mankind, there is no reason why they should therefore suppose that there will be an end to the punishment of those of whom it is said, “These shall go away into everlasting punishment;” for this shall end in the same manner and at the same time as the happiness of those of whom it is said, “but the righteous unto life eternal.” But let them suppose, if the thought gives them pleasure, that the pains of the damned are, at certain intervals, in some degree assuaged. For even in this case the wrath of God, that is, their condemnation (for it is this, and not any disturbed feeling in the mind of God that is called His wrath), abideth upon them; that is, His wrath, though it still remains, does not shut up His tender mercies; though His tender mercies are exhibited, not in putting an end to their eternal punishment, but in mitigating, or in granting them a respite from, their torments; for the psalm does not say, “to put an end to His anger,” or, “when His anger is passed by,” but “in His anger.” Now, if this anger stood alone, or if it existed in the smallest conceivable degree, yet to be lost out of the kingdom of God, to be an exile from the city of God, to be alienated from the life of God, to have no share in that great goodness which God hath laid up for them that fear Him, and hath wrought out for them that trust in Him, would be a punishment so great, that, supposing it to be eternal, no torments that we know of, continued through as many ages as man s imagination can conceive, could be compared with it.****
*By “hell,” I do not mean hades as much as gehenna, or the eternal lake of fire.
**Martin E. Marty, “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed. A Civic Argument.” HTR 78 (1985): 381-98, quoted in R. Albert Mohler, Jr. “Modern Theology: The Disappearance of Hell” in Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 16.
***Christopher Morgan, “Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell,” in Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 147-48.
****Enchiridion 112, in The Works of Aurelius Augustine (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1873), 9:253-54.