Is Hell the Absence of God

It is an inescapable fact of life that the people we interact with, the books we read, the things we listen to, and the places we go have dramatic influence in shaping us to be and think one way or another. It is an interesting exercise to chart the development of a person's beliefs, convictions, and questions up against the major people and things that have exerted force, in whatever fashion, on them.

It has always been a challenge for me to learn from others, but not become others, to develop and sort through my own convictions without simply taking on the convictions of others. My own non-exhaustive chronology of outside influences in Christian ministry and thought includes men such as: my parents, my Youth Pastor, Bill Hybels, John Ortberg, John Piper, Greg Boyd, Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, Rob Bell, Rick McKinley, Brian Tome, Ed Young, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler.

Here's an example:

I grew up believing and fearing the existence of hell as a literal state of being. Where exactly it was I didn't know and I didn't care as long as I didn't end up there. Then, as I was moving through my college years, I started talking and reading about the use of hell in the Bible as a more metaphoric way of describing an existence completely absent from God (Youth Pastor; McLaren). I was buying what others were selling and I started slanging it myself. But I'm not so sure I didn't stray too far from my roots. In fact, I am in the process of rethinking my rethinking (Driscoll; Piper; Chandler).

Today I came across this quote about hell being the absence of God in an old blog post I had earmarked a few months ago.

R.C. Sproul gives a masterful response to this common explanation:

It is common to say that hell is the absence of God. Such statements are motivated in large part by the dread of even contemplating what hell is like. We try often to soften that blow and find a euphimism to skirt around it.

We need to realize that those who are in hell desire nothing more than the absence of God. They didn't want to be in God's presence during their earthly lives, and they certainly don't want Him near when they're in hell. The worst thing about hell is the presence of God there.

When we use the imagery of the Old Testament in an attempt to understand the forsakenness of the lost, we are not speaking of the idea of the departure of God or the absence of God in the sense that He ceases to be omnipresent. Rather, it's a way of describing the withdrawal of God in terms of His redemptive blessing. It is the absence of the light of His countenance. It is the presence of the frown of His countenance. It is the absence of the blessedness of His unveiled glory that is a delight to the souls of those who love Him, but it is the presence of the darkness of judgment. Hell reflects the presence of God in His mode of judgment, in His exercise of wrath, and that's what everyone would like to escape.

I think that's why we get confused. There is withdrawal in terms of the blessing of the radical nearness of God. His benefits can be removed far from us, and that's what this language is calling attention to.

R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2007), pp. 157-158.

Very well articulated; makes me start to think I need to land somewhere on this one and plant myself for awhile.