R.W. Dale said that D.L. Moody (1837–1899) was the only man he ever heard who had a right to preach on hell, for the simple reason that Moody could not preach it without shedding tears. Thus, Moody sets the precedent that no one has the right to talk, teach, or preach about hell without tears in his/her eyes. That being said, I post this having a small understanding of the eternal reality of hell, knowing that many people I love are experiencing such and/or will if they do not repentant and trust Jesus Christ as their complete righteousness.
Not only is the doctrine of Hell discussed hardly ever in the United States today, but I believe it has significantly been skewed and misunderstood in light of the Biblical evidence. As offensive as Hell is, is a reality that must be preached and proclaimed accurately. Failure to do both—in my experience—has resulted in the magnificence of God’s holiness to be diminished and placated, with the true Gospel of Jesus in turn devalued and many times jettisoned.
In the groups that I’ve rubbed shoulders in, if Hell was even mentioned it was defined solely as, “separation from God.” The implication being that Hell was a place in which God’s presence was completely removed. Thus, as a corollary, the conception that God’s active wrath meted out for an eternity on persons was considered awkward at best, and an anathema at worst.
So is the idea that Hell is just a separation from God, Biblically sound?
The verse used to support this idea generally is 2 Thess. 1:8-9 (NIV):
He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power
Now it would seem that this verse gives explicit credence to the notion that Hell is basically a “separation from God” in terms of his presence and power.
However, as Peter Bolt makes note in his great book The Cross From A Distance: Atonement In Mark’s Gospel that the NIV renders the Greek incorrectly. He comments on this verse:
… the underlying Greek prepositional phrase ought to be taken as providing, not a further definition of eternal punishment, but the source from which this justice comes, namely ‘from the face of God.’ Far form implying the absence of God in punishment, this verse therefore speaks of the active presence of God in punishment. (134)
Thus, probably a more accurate translation can be found in the ESV margin for verse 9:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…
As horrible it is may seem, we have to face the reality that Hell is not an absence of God’s presence but the complete and unadulterated pouring forth of God’s wrath (i.e. hatred of sin) for an eternity.
This is corroborated graphically in Revelation 14:9-11:
9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Hell is a very difficult concept to receive and then proclaim. But it must be understood correctly because the very holiness of God is at stake. The reason we all basically hate Hell is that we have no idea how holy God is and how much He hates sin.
God’s holiness obliterates the conception that Hell is a place just where there is no presence of God. His holiness and justice demands sin to be punished accordingly. That can only be done by an eternity of God actively showing forth His wrath in full strength.
If we lose this understanding of God’s holiness and Hell, then we lose the Gospel! Christ and His work will be not seen as the magnificent and glorious realities of accomplishment that they are. In light of our sin and God’s holiness, the options are: we experience God’s wrath for an eternity or Christ does for us. The former is the definition of Hell; the latter is the Gospel.
We should proclaim Hell accurately with deep tears in our eyes because we love people and because we love God, particularly His holiness and what He accomplished on the Cross. Anything less is evil.