IS ETERNAL SEPARATION FROM GOD SCRIPTURAL?
It is not the eternal fires of hell that torment, we are told, as much as it is the deprivation of the presence of God. The fires certainly burn, but the separation of the lost from the presence of their maker is said to cause the real anguish. It is a commonly taught doctrine of the Christian Church.
Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire”. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. Wikipedia, Hell in Christianity, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell_in_Christianity, retrieved 2/21/22
“The only just punishment for high treason against our perfect Creator is eternal separation from Him.” Got Questions website, How can a loving God send someone to hell? https://www.gotquestions.org/loving-God-send-someone-hell.html, retrieved 9/12/21
Okay. So, let’s look at this – does it make sense? Is there anywhere in all of creation that is outside of the presence of our omnipresent God? The Psalmist asked rhetorically, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Psalm 139:7-8 NIV) Solomon said that the eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good (Proverbs 15:3 NIV).
Christ existed before all things and everything is cohesive in Him. He holds everything together (Colossians 1:17). He upholds all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) and not a creature exists that is concealed from His sight, but all things are open and exposed, naked and defenseless to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:13 AMPC)
To speak of separation from God is to assume that someone could exist without Him. These passages seem conclusive: in Christ all things exist and are held together – upheld by the word of His power. Not a creature exists outside of or separated from Him.
God inhabits eternity (Isaiah 57:15), so it seems unlikely that there could be anywhere the unbeliever can be sent in exile from the presence of God.
So, does the Bible support the doctrine of eternal separation?
The strongest passage in all the Bible that seems to suggest the wicked will be eternally separated from God is found in Paul’s second epistle to the church at Thessalonica:
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (2 Thessalonians 1:9 NIV)
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV)
They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thessalonians 1:9 RSV)
Most of the 61 English translations of the New Testament to which I have access read substantially like these three. They convey the thought that the punishment spoken of is exacted away from the presence of the Lord. However, it is important to note that the words in bold italic were added by the translators in these English versions. In other versions the translators/interpreters inserted “were banished” from the presence of the Lord or “kept far away” from the presence of the Lord. Other words inserted include “separated”, “exile”, “isolated”, “never see the glory”, “shut out”, and “taken away” from the presence of the Lord, all in an attempt to show that eternal punishment includes separation from God, but this is not the way the original Greek reads.
Consider the King James Version:
Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (2 Thessalonians 1:9 KJV)
Nothing has been added before the phrase, “from the presence of the Lord” and because of that, the passage can be seen to convey a completely different idea! The punishment of the lost is not being exacted away from the presence of the Lord but is coming from the presence of the Lord – it is coming from His power in much the same way that the “times of refreshing come from the presence of the Lord” in Acts 3:19.
This is the idea conveyed by 18 of the 61 English versions to which I have access. The Jubilee version, for instance, says that they “shall be punished with eternal destruction by the presence of the Lord and by the glory of his power.”
Young’s Literal Translation reads like this:
Who shall suffer justice — destruction age-during — from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength (2 Thessalonians 1:9 YLT)
The phrase at the end of the passage reinforces this alternative interpretation. Destruction will come from the Face of the Lord, [even] from the glory of His strength. The Greek, kai, translated “and” is also understood as “even”.
Note: The word destruction in this passage (from the Greek, olethros) seems to be referring to something other than a total annihilation. For instance, its use in1 Corinthians 5:5 refers to an action that is corrective.
Now, is there any passage of scripture that directly refutes the idea of eternal separation from God?
And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name. (Revelation 14:9-11 KJV)
Those that are cast into the lake of fire are tormented (from the Greek basanizo meaning to “test”) in the presence of Christ Himself. This is more evidence to support the assertion there is no punishment during which the lost are separated from the presence of God, but it also begs a question: How long will Christ preside over the testing of those cast into the lake of fire?
There doesn’t seem to be a separation from the presence of God, and it also seems unlikely Christ would spend eternity managing the torment of the unbelievers. As a matter of fact, the end comes soon after this when Christ delivers everything up to the Father so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:24-28)
At some point between the casting of the disobedient into the lake of fire, refiner’s fire, and the end of earth’s history (mentioned above), the corrective action of God is successful in producing repentance in those whose names were not found in the book of life. This is how every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord (Isaiah 45:23; Philippians 2:9-11).
The glory of God shines as it was His will that none should perish because all have come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). God has made peace through the blood of the cross of Christ and has reconciled all things to Himself (Colossians 1:15-20). It was His purpose and His good pleasure to gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth. (Ephesians 1:9-10) He was lifted up and drew everyone unto Himself. (John 12:32)
Say to God, “How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power Your enemies shall submit themselves to You. All the earth shall worship You And sing praises to You; They shall sing praises to Your name.” Selah. (Psalm 66:3-4 NKJV)
This is Christian Universalism.