Question:

I’m having some trouble explaining how God’s presence works without conflicting scripture. Some would argue that it’s impossible to be away from God’s presence, understanding He is omnipresence, as taught in Psalms 139:7. However, when you take this verse - "Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the Glory of his power;" (II Thessalonians 1:9) it would appear that it is possible for us to be in a place where the Lord is not present. I'm about 90% sure 'from the presence of the Lord,' the way it’s written here, is to be taken in the sense of eternal separation from God, meaning that God isn't there with us. But ‘from the presence of the Lord’ also seems that it could be saying other things. For instance, ‘from the presence of the Lord’ could be taken to say that the torment and destruction there comes 'from God, who is the author of it,' for those that want destruction more that salvation and don’t believe … i.e., hell is still in God’s presence, but it’s in the presence of the part of God that dishes out evil and punishment. I'm not sure if this idea conflicts with anything, but when you throw in this verse: “If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). Here, it appears to indicate that even Hell is in God’s presence. But is that to say that God’s presence is in Hell? What’s the best way to parallel these two verses without getting God’s word twisted? Thanks!

Answer:

The problem is that the King James translators were quite loose with their use of "hell" and "hades." I've wondered over the years if they saw these two words as synonyms while we understand them to be two different places. Unfortunately, the New King James hasn't straighten out the confusion.

The New American Standard is more consistent in its translation: "If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there" (Psalms 139:8). The realm of the dead, sheol in the Hebrew and hades in the Greek, is a place where God's presence still abides.

One thing you should keep in mind is that God is described as light. "This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all" (I John 1:5). But hell is described as a place of darkness. "These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever" (Jude 13). Darkness is the absence of light. Hell is a place God made where even His presence will not be felt.

As the Psalmist points out, we have never been away from the presence of God. It has always been there. Even death doesn't separate us from God. But one of the awful facts about hell is that God won't be there. You will not be able to pray and ask for deliverance because there will not be anyone there to hear you.

Take a look at "What is Hell Like?" for more details.