June 21, 2012

Hell in the Presence of the Lamb?

Hell is always a hot topic. And in studying Revelation in recent weeks, I've come across a passage that challenges the way I've commonly thought about the reality of eternal punishment. Like many, I suspect, I've tended to think of hell as unending removal from the presence of Christ. Add whatever imagery you care to that; nothing significantly increases the horror of banishment from the presence of the glorious beauty of the resurrected and conquering king of all. But the Apocalypse of John is challenging my thoughts about this to some degree. Consider these words:
"...they will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever" (14:10).
What? Did you catch that? They will be tormented forever in the presence of the Lamb? John seems to be suggesting that those who oppose Jesus in the present life by worshipping the beast (14:9) exist forever in some proximity to Jesus. Stunning. Simply stunning. There go my preconceived notions about hell. But how could this be? And what could it mean? Here are some helpful thoughts on this passage from Robert Mulholland, one of my own teachers, in his most recent commentary on Revelation:
"This seems an uncharacteristically cruel picture of heaven, where the Lamb is seated on the throne surrounded by the holy angels (7:11, 17). The operative term here is "holy." An noted above, the holiness of God burns against all that is unholy, not in a vindictive, retributive, vengeful, punitive manner, but simply as the reality of holiness. John seems to have seen that those who are unholy spend eternity in the presence of the holiness of heaven. To spend eternity in the presence of holiness when one is, to the core of one's being, unholy, would be an endless torment. The same image of fallen Babylon in proximity to New Jerusalem is seen by John in chapters 21-22. There John sees that the gates of New Jerusalem are never closed (21:25), that outside is fallen Babylon (22:15), but nothing unclean is allowed to enter (21:27). It seems that fallen Babylon exists forever in the presence of the holiness of New Jerusalem. Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is another image of heaven and hell being in close proximity to one another, but nothing of hell could enter heaven (cf. 1 Enoch 48:9, which says, 'as straw in the fire so shall they [the wicked] burn before the face of the holy')" (543-534).
So, the idea in Revelation that those who experience the unending torment of hell exist in proximity to the presence of Christ in heaven is not an isolated and unique text. Jesus himself seemed to work with a similar idea and apparently assumed that his audience did as well. Perhaps the concept could be summarized by saying that those who despise Christ in the present life will be unable to enjoy his presence in the next. For those who hate him, his presence is a torment. This is certainly one place where the text is pressing me to rethink some things I've traditionally thought.

What do you think? Does this passage in Revelation cause you to reconsider the way you think about hell? What do you think about Mulholland's comments? About the idea that those who despise Christ in the present will be unable to enjoy him in eternity?

3 comments:

Luke Stamps said...

Interesting points, Matt. "Where can I flee from your presence?" Even in hell, the Son of God is present in judgment. But we do have to balance this image with another biblical portrait of hell: "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(2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ESV). There is a sense in which the wicked are banished away from God's presence, that is, his presence manifested in mercy and forgiveness.

Daniel said...

The reasons this article didn't change my perspective on hell are:
1. because I never bought into the mamby-pamby delusion that...

"hell is just eternal separation from God"

2. Because - as yourself - I actually read the document we say we're supposed to believe in.

3. When ever I got in trouble with my step-dad, I was never as tormented as when he was in the room with me; as long as we were separated, I couldn't be whipped - but, as soon as he was in the room, I knew what I had coming: people AWAY from God have nothing to worry about; but, His "Arm is not short, that it cannot reach", and "there is no escape from His Presence" (as David says), so from where this delusion...

"hell is just being away from God"...

...arose, I have no clue.

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Interesting discussion; it seems to me the picture of hell or (as our doctrinal documents put it, based on John 5) "endless condemnation" is a very unclear one. We get images of both fire and of darkness (while in the natural/material world fire produces light). As you note here we see torments in the presence of the Lamb, yet this is assuming the torments of Rev. 14 are eternal and are synonymous with hell; the general resurrection and the Last Judgment does not occur until chapter 20. Psalm 139:8 does say (in the KJV) that "if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou (God) art there." But this is an example of the KJV's conflation of "hell" (Gehenna) with Sheol/Hades "the grave/abode of the dead" and I contend that they are not quite the same thing, as newer translations also acknowledge.
The concept of "hell" as separation from God's presence also has Scriptural support: 2 Thess. 1:9 could be read so that "separated from the presence of the Lord and from his glory" is simply a restatement and explanation of the phrase "These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction." There are also the parables and images used by Jesus to support a "hell=separation" view: Matt. 7:23 "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers." and Matt. 22:13 (the one who does not conform himself to what it means to be at the wedding banquet is thrown out into "the outer darkness" away from the King's presence. Jesus uses similar images of separation from the wedding feast and the Lord and of outer darkness in Matt. 23:12; 30.
No doubt some liberal thinkers would say "You can't have it both ways: some places say hell is in his presence, others say in his absence; some places say hell is fire, others say darkness; this is all a bunch of contradictory nonsense..." This is a very flat-footed overly literal way of approaching the text (in this instance the liberal is far closer to the fundamentalist than he may know). I am not concerned by the apparent contradiction: it seems clear to me that, while we will all gravitate towards some images of what "hell" means (I find the 'outer darkness' image a potent one), we are talking about a spiritual reality that our language cannot fully contain or capture, and at best what we are given is a series of images and pictures that point to the deeper reality, but fail to fully describe it.
I'm left with the belief that "endless condemnation" is something very real, something that should evoke my fear, something that means being completely out of fellowship with him for whom I was created and, as Rev. 14:12 makes clear, should primarily be a motivate me not to fall away from faith in Christ, but to hold fast to it, lest I should find myself in or become this spiritual horror that all the images point to.