Absence Is True Punishment

When you’re a Cleveland Browns fan, you understand torment. You empathize with a group of people who have dealt with mediocrity over the course of 20-plus years of mostly losing football. This was a tradition handed down to me by my father. Every week of the season, I would watch the Browns play, then call my father at halftime to discuss how we would have coached the game up to that point. It should be noted that we had very high opinions of our high opinions of our ability to coach an NFL team. This was our thing. We did it every game. It was our tradition.

After my father had passed away in 2009, the next game the Browns would play was against the hated Baltimore Ravens. I remember the score being 0-0 at halftime and thinking maybe we could pull off a win. Without thinking, I picked up my phone to call Dad. That’s when it hit me. He’s not there. I knew he had passed away, but it never really set in until I tried to call him at halftime. For the first time in my life, I was separated from my father. It was miserable. I remember having to find a place to sit by myself as I cried uncontrollably in sorrow. I knew where my father was going after this life, but he wasn’t here anymore. I couldn’t jump on a call with him. I could text him. I couldn’t be in his presence, and it was the worst feeling in the world. 

So often, we look at the concept of hell and think of the devil dressed in red with pointy horns and a pitchfork poking a bunch of people walking around with fire everywhere. Some people think hell will be a big debaucherous party where they don’t have to worry about what’s wrong or right. Obviously, those people are buying into a false narrative of hell that has been portrayed in modern society. 

Hell is much worse. Many people see hell as a giant lake of fire where people are screaming in pain as they burn for eternity. Scripture even backs that up to a point, but what if it’s far worse than that? What if hell has a punishment that is so terrible and so incredibly brutal that we can’t even fathom what that would be like or even feel like?  What if hell’s greatest punishment isn’t the presence of something, but it’s actually the lack of something?

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
2 Thessalonians 1:5–9

As we read that section of scripture, we see the things that we’ve always associated with hell; destruction, vengeance, and flaming fire. It’s the last verse that we always seem to gloss over, but it’s in that verse where we see the truest punishment of heaven. It’s there that Paul says, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might”. The kicker here is that we suffer destruction away from the presence of the Lord. The single greatest part of Heaven will be the physical presence of God. Hell is the polar opposite. There is no presence of God.

To understand just how incredibly terrible this is, we can look to scripture to see what the attributes of God are. In my opinion, the fruit of the Spirit is probably the most well-defined place in the Bible to show us all the things that naturally flow from God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Galatians 5:22–23

This is what Heaven will be like. All of these things will be the norm. We will enjoy not only the presence of God but also all the others who will be there with us. It will be complete bliss. If we read the verse just before that, however, we something completely different.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:19–21

These works are the antithesis of the fruit of the Spirit. While we will be enjoying those fruits in Heaven, those in hell will be suffering through the works of the flesh. Without the presence of God, only the things that are not of God will exist. If you’ve ever been in a dark place in your life where you couldn’t find happiness or where you were just walking around in a fit of rage for days, months, or even years, ramp that up to 11, and you still aren’t experiencing the true evil of hell. For even while you were going through this dark place in your life, the presence of God was still available. In hell, that will be removed, and that darkness will continue for eternity. A lake of fire seems like child’s play compared to the complete lack of the presence of God. 

Thankfully, we don’t have to experience that. We have a bright future.

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Revelation 21:3–4

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