God’s Immanence in Hell
One of our readers asked the following question: “How can God, being immanent, still be in hell, which is a place of total separation from Himself?”
Perhaps the brother is thinking of Job 26:6: “Hell is naked before him, and destruction hath no covering.” He may especially be recalling Psalm 139:8: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”
The last verse deserves to be quoted in its context: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” (7-10).
First, notice where Jehovah is present: land and sea (even the most far-flung regions), and heaven and hell. Second, observe that God is present everywhere in all His Persons, including the Holy Spirit (7) and so He is present spiritually and invisibly. Third, let us embrace the comfort this brings to Jehovah’s people for our God is present with us everywhere in His covenantal goodness. This evoked the Psalmist David’s awe and amazement expressed in the form of a rhetorical question: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (7).
But let us return to the question, this time proceeding more theologically.
God’s immanence is the same as His omnipresence. Jehovah is everywhere present in the entire earthly and heavenly creation. God’s immanence is intrinsically related to His works of creation and providence.
God’s work of creation, according to Scripture, is that divine operation whereby He gave existence to all creatures in heaven and on earth in such a way that He remained separate in essence from them, while the creature was and remains dependent on Him for its existence.
To deny that God created all things is that dastardly heresy of evolutionism, which thrusts God out of His own creation. To deny that all creatures are dependent on God for their continued existence is Deism, a heresy born in England that has become the handmaiden of theistic evolutionism. Pantheism, on the other hand, teaches that all the creation is an outflowing of God’s divine Being. The timid violet and the mighty oak are God Himself, His very Being, according to this devilish doctrine.
Scripture teaches that God created all things by the word of His power (Heb. 11:3) and that He continues to speak the word that brought the creation into existence so that it always owes its existence to God’s word (1:3).
Once having brought man into existence, God continues to speak the word “man.” If He should stop speaking that word, man would cease to exist. This is true of every man, both wicked and righteous—as well as the man, Jesus Christ in His human nature. After all, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-14).
Providence means that the God who gives existence to all things also upholds and directs all the activities of every creature in such a way that each is His instrument to reveal His greatness, power, majesty and sovereignty. Anything less than this would give power to the creature independent of God’s power.
The Scriptures are clear on the fact that the hosts of darkness are also under Jehovah’s sovereign control. Satan could bring evil on Job only with God’s permission (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6). The demon who was a lying spirit in Ahab’s prophets was sent by God (II Chron. 18:18-22). Christ, as our exalted Lord, has supreme authority at God’s right hand also over the wicked (Ps. 2).
Since God is immanent in the wicked and sovereign over their lives, it is not difficult to understand that He is immanent in hell as well. We must, however, be careful as to how we understand this.
The Scriptures speak of God’s omnipresence as regards rational, moral creatures in two senses. God can be, and is, present with the wicked and the righteous in fundamentally different ways. He is present with the wicked to uphold them by His sovereign power—also in hell—but He is present with the righteous in His favour, love and merciful care of them. Or, to put it differently, God is present with the wicked in His fierce wrath against them, while He loves His people in Jesus Christ and takes them into His own covenant fellowship.
I am inclined to think that hell would not be such a terrible place if God were not there. But God is there and that makes it so awful.
Is not that true even in earthly relationships? If I am living five thousand miles away from my father, when I in some way incurred his wrath, it would, I think, be tolerable if he told me of his anger by a letter. But if he were in the same room with me and I could see the blazing fury that filled his eyes—if I could hear the cold, measured words that conveyed his utter wrath—if every bodily movement spoke of his determination to disown me as his son and to have nothing more to do with me, that would be unbearable. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
This brings us to a misconception in the brother’s question. The idea of hell as “a place of total separation from [God]” is, at best, incomplete. Hell is a place of total separation from all the pleasant things God sends in His providence but never from the omnipresent One Himself. God is in hell as the holy, avenging punisher of all impenitent sinners!
One more point: If God created and upholds the wicked, He does so for a purpose. That purpose is defined in Belgic Confession 16, which speaks of God’s goal in election as being to reveal His mercy, adding that He is also “just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.” God’s purpose in reprobation is to reveal His attribute of justice. Prof. Hanko
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