Irresponsible speculation about hell has made discussing the doctrine considerably more difficult over the years. Whether it is vivid descriptions of Dante’s Inferno or revivalist “hellfire and brimstone” sermons, the impression is too often given that we must go beyond biblical description to alert people to avoid such a dreadful place.

The problem here is that hell, rather than God, becomes the object of fear. But consider Jesus’s sober warning:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)

Hell is not horrible due to alleged implements of torture or its temperature. (After all, it is described variously in Scripture as “outer darkness” and a “lake of fire.”) Whatever the exact nature of this everlasting judgment, it is horrible ultimately for one reason only: God is present.

Presence of God

This sounds strange to those of us familiar with the definition of hell as “separation from God,” and heaven as a place for those who have a “personal relationship with God.” But Scripture does not speak in these terms. Quite the contrary: If we read the Bible carefully, we conclude that everyone, as a creature made in God’s image, has a personal relationship with him. Therefore, God is, after the fall, either in the relationship of a judge or a father to his creatures.

And God, who is present everywhere at all times, will be forever present in hell as the judge.

Hell is not ultimately about fire, but about God.

And just as heaven is not purely future, but is breaking in on the present through the kingdom of God, hell, too, is breaking in on the present:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Rom. 1:18–19)

But unrepentant humanity is without excuse (v. 20). Their tortured consciences drive them to expel the thought of God entirely from their horizon, but they cannot evade the revelation of his wrath.

Hell is not ultimately about fire, but about God. Whatever the exact nature of the physical punishments, the real terror awaiting the unrepentant is God himself and his inescapable presence forever with his face turned against them.

Paul does speak of being cast away “from the presence of the Lord” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. At the same time, we are told in Revelation 14:10 that anyone who receives the beast’s image “will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” These verses are best reconciled, in my view, by recognizing that judgment consists in being excluded from God’s presence as the source of all blessedness, but not from God’s omnipresent lordship.

Beauty of Justice

A measure of our own ongoing sinfulness is that we just don’t understand the beauty of God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice—and the equal ultimacy of these attributes with his love. But one day we will not have a problem with eternal punishment. It will make perfect sense. We have no right, in our present condition, to defend the doctrine of eternal punishment in ways that either exceed Scripture or reflect a perverse delight in damnation.

One day we will not have a problem with eternal punishment. It will make perfect sense.

Since God does not delight in the death of the wicked, neither can we. Hell is both the vindication of God’s justice and the prerequisite for his creation’s restoration. But it is also a tragedy that will forever memorialize the horror of human rebellion.

Wonder of Justification

God justifies the wicked: This is the astonishing, counterintuitive claim that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion. In any defense of the traditional doctrine, we must let our conversation partner know that, unlike the terrorist’s “Allah,” God “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” for the salvation of every believer. Islam has no concept of the fall, original sin, or the impossibility of attaining righteousness by good works, and, consequently, knows nothing of justification, sanctification, and redemptive mediation.

For Islam, it’s simple: Good people go to heaven; bad people go to hell. It’s self-salvation from beginning to end. In sub-Christian versions, the “good news” is that sinners can be partly saved and partly condemned; they can atone for at least some of their sins by their own suffering. But the good news that rings from the pages of Scripture is that God justifies the wicked who place their trust in Christ—and find God to be a reconciled friend now and forever, world without end.

Editors’ note: 

A version of this article appeared at Core Christianity.