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Aug 14

Is Hell simply separation from God?

Dave Grohl as the Devil in Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny

There is something called the Problem of Hell. It goes a bit like this:
 
1. Hell is a place of eternal punishment and torture.
2. God is all-loving and all-good.
3. A God that has these properties (from 2) would not send people to Hell.
4. Therefore, either Hell does not exist or God does not exist.
 
This is a pretty strong emotional argument against God, and even Christians have a hard time with it. Possibly because of this difficulty, there is an alternate, non-physical account of Hell used by some. It is sometimes downgraded from a lake of fire to eternal “separation” from God. It’s not clear to me what this separation really entails, but I want to consider it and the problems I think it poses for certain theistic arguments.
 
What is separation from God?
Let’s first dismiss a naive account of separation that simply says God doesn’t answer your prayers or play an active role in your life. As an atheist, I don’t think God is doing those things in my life now, so it wouldn’t be a very apt punishment. It seems like the implication is that there is some separate realm that is devoid of God’s presence. We might turn to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which says, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
 
But then what does it mean to be away from the Lord? I can see it meaning a lot of things, but I want to focus on some negative implications for theists that lie down a few paths of interpretation.
 
Negative Implications
There are certain ways we could define separation from God that I think raise problems with certain theistic arguments. If Hell is truly some other realm of existence devoid of the presence of God, then that has serious implications for the Modal Ontological Argument. This argument says that, since God is defined as a necessary being, if God exists in some possible world, the God exists in the actual world. In other words, if God is possible, then God is necessary. Now, consider that we’ve said there is a way to exist without God. It could use clarification, to be sure, but this could be admitting there is a possible world without God. Via the aforementioned Ontological Argument, if there is a possible world without God, then God does not exist since a necessary being would exist in all possible worlds.
 
Or how about certain Transcendental Arguments for God? These generally argue that God accounts for our ability to know things, have scientific discovery, use logic, etc. God is the grounding of all of this, so without God, logic would not exist. Now, if Hell is devoid of God, then it seems like it ought to be devoid of those things that naturally emanate from God, like love. People who use Transcendental Arguments think of logic in the same way or the orderly state of affairs that account for the success of science. Think of a Hell that didn’t contain these things. It would not be effective punishment because we wouldn’t even know we were being punished. We wouldn’t be able to connect events or make sense of them. If you think those things remain without God, then it seems like you have to abandon the original arguments.
 
Conclusion
The idea of separation from God is in desperate need of definition if theists who use it want us to take it seriously. As I’ve laid out, though, such a path might just cause more problems than it’s worth where other arguments are concerned. In addition, it’s difficult to reconcile the notion with certain verses of the Christian Bible. Hell as separation seems to be more of an ad hoc escape route from the Problem of Hell. If so, then we’re back to facing the problem of reconciling Hell with God’s love. Philosophers and theologians have proposed answers for this, the most popular of which is probably that Hell is a free choice, but that will have to be the subject of another post.

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  1. Mike

    After thinking about it, I now realize I can make an even stronger claim. This argument doesn’t just affect those who claim absence of God is the primary or only feature of Hell. It actually works against any description of Hell that even includes absence, which is almost any of them.

  2. fester60613

    Mike – we went over this question of hell being separation from God back in situational ethics class at my church in the late 60s or early 70s.
    We were all in our late teens and were having serious doubts about ourselves, our nation (civil rights, Viet Nam, etc.) and concluded thusly:
    If God was interested in having a personal relationship with us – as we were taught – then he wasn’t doing a very good job of of being God.
    And since we were so full of doubt despite our earnest prayers, we figured we were pretty much separated from God already – hence we were all already in hell.
    It was a very interesting discussion – and there was very little contribution from the non-doubters side of the aisle, as it were.
    We concluded, finally, that our doubt was legitimate and only faith kept us believing. The Sunday School teacher was appalled when some of us questioned whether faith was enough – but it took him only a few years after he taught that class to abandon his faith. I wonder how many of us in that class, like I, abandoned it too.
    And now – 40 years after the fact – I’m quite sure that separation from God is a very good thing.

  3. Mike

    Thanks for the comment, fester. That’s interesting that you were having such an open conversation where doubts could be expressed. I know at least one outspoken atheist that was in church with me when I was younger, but we were surprised to find that out about each other as adults. No one dared whisper something resembling a doubt!

    I’ve been thinking about this idea of a personal relationship with God. I read an apologist the other day talking about how if he doesn’t read his Bible enough, then his faith suffers. And then a young relative said something on Facebook about needing church to maintain her relationship with God.

    What seems odd to me is that God is supposed to be everywhere and you are actually supposed to be able to communicate through prayer. Why would you need to go to a particular building or read a particular book? That isn’t what I would expect of something truly immanent. But it is what I would expect of something that was only bolstered by the beliefs of others and the pretend authority of a book.

  4. James

    It seems to me that all descriptions of Hell are metaphorical. For instance we dont actually think Heaven is actually paved with streets of Gold…but we we do understand there will be no suffering, no pain, and eternal goodness.
    One passage says “outer darkness” and “shut out from the presence of the Lord”.
    I think what many people dont consider is that if the presence of god’s influence was removed from this world we’d probably all be dead. Ever wonder how it could be that no nuclear bomb has been used since 1945? Seems highly unlikely. Ever wonder how a world and its conscious brains, that are suppose to be random collections of particle groupings, have established Justice systems in every single solitary culture in the world?

    Evolutionarily speaking–how can that make any sense with all the other random possibilities that could have been? We see what happens when these systems are removed for a short time. It may be that hell is simply a world with God;s influence completely withheld so those humans who rejected the God who gave them existence and everything else receive what they believe they wanted. It may be that when his presence is removed that defiance will be forever set in stone because without God’s pull…any inkling or contemplation of God will be gone. As they say…the doors to hell are looked from the inside.

    But it would be a mistake to think there is actually a place “located” outside God. As we sustain the dream world every night..God sustains all reality. The saying goes if God wanted you dead he need not drop a stone on your head..he can simply stop thinking of you. We all must have a place in God’s thought. Him being the only one who truly exists. I think, for many, God is too small. They somehow imagine him as having his mind “constructed ” like ours instead of being the grounding of Thought itself–the foundation upon which all reality must sit upon. They see god as being In the world or adjacent to it. As Paul says..We live, move and have our being IN God.

    I think the words of Christ are the power that identifies those who are *For God and who are against God. The real God…not some individuals dream of who god is. In other words we dont get to make our own God. The ones who accept the real God turn to him through Christs beautiful words, deeds, and life. Those who are unmoved by the power of that message are left, without coercion, to reveal themselves. Hell is not a threat..its simply a statement of fact of where unbelievers go. Think, if it were a threat..logic would say that humans would follow the devil into heaven to avoid punishment.

    By allowing a balance of doubt and proof through creation, testimony and a simple act of turning to God so he can reveal to your mind that Christ was exactly who he said he was(its a fact in my mind now)—we are left with only those who want to search for God and leave everyone else who is unmoved by the Gospel to just say its all a fairy tale. I know of not a single real christian who turned to God out of fear of hell. There simply is not enough evidence to justify that fear–thats why no one is coerced. There is plenty of logic that shows there is a Creator–but Who that creator IS only comes when God puts it in your mind as a fact. The faith is moving to God and believing he does what is right by knowing the heart of Christ through his message…love your enemies.

    I personally believe God will not leave a single person who desires the love Christ demonstrated in darkness. So somehow, someway, it is completely and solely on those who reject Him. I also believe the Bible leaves room for God to love those who are not only his enemies..but wont even acknowledge He exists.
    I dont see how this would be done as coercion comes into play once God is fully revealed. But I pray no one suffers and Christ also prayed to the father to forgive those who killed him. I think the problem modern man has is he has heard the power of Christs message more than any other generation and those who have never heard–unless they were placed before Christ lifetime by Gods foreknowledge of their denial of him in any era–may also have some provision made for them.

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  1. Blog Post: “Is Hell Simply Separation from God?” | Always Question Authority

    […] 2) would not send people to Hell. 4. Therefore, either Hell does not exist or God does not exist. http://wp.me/p1GRG6-sC Share this:PrintEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in […]

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