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?