I recently had a fascinating theological conversation, and the topic of Hell arose. The person I was chatting with suggested that Hell is a place that is absent of the presence of God. In other words, Hell is a place where God is not.

I asked, how can an omnipresent being not be everywhere? How can an all-pervading, ever-present God be removed from any location?

I won’t go into detail here about the nature of Hell, whether it is eternal or temporal or whether the fires are punishing or restorative. I have written about these things here. And discussed them here and here.

What About This Verse?

In his second letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul wrote, “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (emphasis added). Notice that? Hell is a place that is shut out of God’s presence, a place where God is not.

But Revelation 14:10 appears to contradict Paul, “They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.” The Lamb is a metaphor for Jesus.

Which one is it? Is there a place where God is not, and if so, how? How does an omnipresent being not be, well, everywhere?

“Presence” in 2 Thessalonians refers to a person’s face. The inference is the face is not smiling. Imagine the times you’ve been with someone who was unhappy with you. How did you feel? That’s what Paul is communicating here. He is not suggesting there’s a place where God is not. The picture is of a place that is absent of joy.

But what if the expression on God’s face is like the look of displeasure a parent gives to their disobedient child? The glare lacks joy, but it never lacks love. 

God is Everywhere

In Acts 17, Paul quotes a sixth-century BC philosopher named Epimenides, who wrote, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Paul then quotes Aratus, a Greek poet from the third century BC. Aratus wrote in his tribute to the god Zeus, ‘We are his offspring.’ Paul applies both of these statements to the people he spoke to in Athens. His message? God is everywhere. All people are his children. There is not one place where God is not.

David the songwriter penned some stunning words about God’s omnipresence:

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

The depths (Hebrew: Sheol) refer to where people descend at death. It was later named Hades after the Greek god of the underworld. David states that God is there even if he made his bed in Sheol.

Personal Experience

I am so grateful for the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God that has relentlessly chased me down over the years. I am thankful for my first encounter with God’s love when I was a 19-year-old atheist. Even then, I looked back and could see the work of an omnipresent deity in my life. For the next two years, I did everything possible to escape God. But that’s easier said than done. Where can I go from your Spirit?

And so, at 21, I relented and came home to the Father. Since then, I have seen his persistent presence reaching out to people in all sorts of places. A friend of mine, David, came to faith in Jesus when he chatted with a Christian girl in a gay bar. Gede and Phoebe both had encounters with Jesus in a Hindu Temple. Jesus came to Arif in a dream while he was in prison.

Big God

I hope you embrace my intended message of this blog: God is bigger than you ever imagined. You cannot limit, exclude, or restrict an almighty, all-wise, and omnipresent spiritual being. I’ve heard this preached negatively. Maybe you have too. You know, “God is watching so you’d better be extra careful how you behave.” Instead, let’s turn this into a positive. The God who “is love” is with us wherever we are. There is no escaping his grace. Like Paul said, “nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Be encouraged!

It’s one of the oldest life truths known to the human race. Jesus taught it, but it predates him by almost two thousand years and is found in every world religion.  It’s the ultimate key to a fruitful and satisfying life.  Of course, I’m speaking of The Golden Rule (TGR); the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated.

TGR is first found about 2000 BC in ancient Egypt in The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.”  In 1440 BC The Hebrew Scriptures stated, “Don’t oppress a foreigner, for you well know how it feels to be a foreigner, since you were foreigners yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9) and “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  Over three millennia later that statement would be a good one for Aussies to get a hold of in our treatment of refugees!

Various philosophers then picked up TGR.  In 5th century BC Greece, Socrates wrote “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.”  Plato said, “May I do to others as I would that they should do to me.”   Aristotle, Seneca and Philo also wrote about TGR.

The twelve classical world religions all contain TGR.  Judaism is the oldest religion to embrace it: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).  Buddhism: “a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” (Samyutta Nikaya v. 353).  Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you” (Mahabharata 5:1517).  Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths).  Imagine the impact in the world right now if the pseudo-Islamic groups like the so-called Islamic State, the Taliban and Al Qaeda got a hold of this truth!

Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Baha’i, Jainism and Sikhism all state the golden rule in various ways.

What has been known, taught and practised for thousands of years in various religions and philosophies has now been embraced by modern social psychology as stated in The Law of Reciprocity.  When someone does something nice for you, you will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice in return.  One psychology website asked the question: “Have you ever noticed that you feel compelled to do something for people who have helped you along the way – even if they haven’t asked you to?  There’s something very powerful at play that causes this phenomenon.”  This site also taught about intent: “If your intent is to give so you get something back then your motive is wrong.”

Jesus put it like this, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). In other words, living by this one rule of life is like living up to the entire Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians refer to as The Old Testament).

Inbuilt into this law of life is what I call the golden question and the golden answer.  The question is, “how do I want to be treated?”  And the answer, “that’s how I’m going to live!”  Jesus taught some practical ways of living out TGR in everyday life (note the progression):

  • Do not judge others, so that others will not judge you.

The word “judge” here means, “to pick out by separating.”  In other words, Christian people – or anyone who chooses to live by TGR – will never single out a particular people group and treat them differently to the way they would treat others.

  • Do not condemn others, and others will not condemn you.

“Condemn” means “to pass sentence upon.”  If you live by TGR you won’t pronounce a punishment on those who are different or who have a differing opinion.

  • Forgive others, and others will forgive you.

Forgiveness is the opposite of condemnation.  Instead of passing judgment you choose to pardon, to release others and to set them free.

  • Give to others, and others will give to you.

The implication here is that instead of giving judgement, condemnation and unforgiveness, TGR encourages us to give the opposite and to give it generously. “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

While I certainly don’t always get it right, I do believe TGR is the best way to live.  It’s also a good thing to bear in mind as we interact with others in society and could be a good gauge in helping us do the right thing when we face various ethical debates and dilemmas.  Instead of wanting everything “my way” what would be the best way to act for the benefit of others?  How can I treat others as I would like to be treated?  After all, it’s how God has chosen to treat each of us in Jesus.  Jesus died for us “while we were yet sinners” and has given us his undeserved, sacrificial, no-strings-attached, self-giving love.  How should this truth impact the way we treat those who haven’t yet come to Christ?

With growth come many benefits.  With the benefits come countless responsibilities and complexities.  And it is these things that sometimes make us look back with longing for the simpler, less complex days.  And here lies the challenge as we grow to Christian adulthood – what was once simple and uncluttered becomes complex and chaotic.

It was this dilemma that the apostle Paul addressed when he wrote these words to the Corinthian Christians who had complicated their faith: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).  I love those words: “the simplicity that is in Christ.”  The simple message that even a child can understand.

That’s why, when Jesus was asked by His disciples, “who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus’ disciples were jostling for position – grown men acting in a childish way.  Jesus reminds them that even as they grow into maturity they are never lose their childlike qualities.

I have been studying the Bible for over 30 years.  It’s an amazing and life-changing book but it’s not all easy to understand. One of Jesus’ disciples acknowledged this in his second epistle referring to the writings of Paul, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand…” (2 Peter 3:16)

I love the story of Karl Barth who is often regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century.  His prolific theological studies and writings shaped a century and were instrumental in combating liberal theology.  His commentary, “The epistle to the Romans” is considered by many to be one of the most important theological treatises of all time.  Barth’s theology found its most sustained and compelling expression through his thirteen-volume magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics that is widely regarded as one of the most important theological works of the century. The Church Dogmatics runs to over six million words and 8,000 pages and is one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written.

And yet when Karl Barth was at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago during his lecture tour of the U.S. in 1962, after his lecture, during the Q & A time, a student asked him if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth responded, “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Karl Barth, a man of great learning, understanding and maturity had not lost touch with the simple gospel – a message so simple that even a child can understand it.