Sometimes you hear it said that the most horrible thing about sin is that it separates you from God. Along the same trajectory, the most horrible thing about hell is that it is eternal separation from God. It makes sense if hell is the eternal consequence of sin, the ultimate punishment for sin. But is it true? Does the Bible actually teach that sin separates the sinner from God?
You could be tempted to think it doesn’t. After all, God is omnipresent. In Jeremiah 23:23-24, God says, “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.” If God is present everywhere, how could sin separate you from him? Moreover, doesn’t David say in Psalm 139:7, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” If God is inescapable, then how can you ever be separated from him?
Moreover, when it comes to hell, there too we’re confronted with God’s inescapable presence. Christians are saved by Jesus from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9). That wrath is expressed with unbearable fury in hell. God is present in hell to punish unrepentant sinners. So, how can anyone say that hell is eternal separation from God? The worst thing about hell is that God is present confronting sinners with his justice.
It might seem like an open and shut case. However, we do have to reckon with everything the Bible teaches on such things. As it happens, the Bible does teach that sin separates the sinner from God. It also clearly tells us in what sense this is true.
First, Isaiah 59:2 says:
…your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.
The language of separation here is unambiguous. Now there is a feature of Hebrew poetry that helps us in discerning what it means: parallelism. The first part of the verse is explained by the second. “Separation” means the hiding of God’s face in such a way that he does not listen to the prayers of the sinner.
Second Thessalonians 1:9 speaks about hell and the punishment awaiting unrepentant sinners:
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…
This passage links hell with separation from the Lord. However, it too qualifies this separation by adding, “and from the glory of his might.” In the following verse, the Holy Spirit speaks about the glorification of the saints. Witnessing “the glory of his might” in this context is meant to be a positive thing, a blessing. That blessing will be missed by those in hell.
Obviously Scripture teaches that there is some real sense in which sin does separate sinners from God. That sense is this: sin separates you from friendly fellowship with God. Sin separates you from a relationship with God whereby he will listen to your prayers and bless you. The ultimate expression of that separation is indeed in the eternal fires of hell. There unrepentant sinners are permanently separated from any positive relationship to God. Sin separates by alienating and creating hostility. That said, sin will never separate the unrepentant sinner from God as Judge. Sin will never separate such a person from God’s justice or his wrath.
The gospel addresses this problem of separation caused by sin. It does so with the reconciliation worked by Jesus Christ. Reconciliation brings the alienated and hostile back together into a harmonious relationship. Through Christ, our separation is bridged and we’re brought back to God in fellowship. It was all because he endured the separation we deserved – he bore our hell on the cross. God hid his face from Jesus. He ignored his cries. Jesus was “away from the glory of his might” – all blessings were snatched from him. Since that happened in their place, Christians can be confident that absolutely nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39)!