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I'm familiar with debates about the theological implications of the statement "Hell is the absence of God" (see here for instance), but I have not been able to find a source for the phrase nor in what context it has typically been used. Most references seem to assume the reader is already familiar with the concept, or simply refer to it as a common saying. Eg:

These days Christians rarely assert that hell is a place where people get burned alive. It’s become de rigueur for Christians to instead say that hell is “the absence of God.” We’ve all heard that a million times; Christians — especially of the emergent/leftist/progressive persuasion (my peeps!) — fairly love saying it.

Was there an observable shift as described here, and if so, among what groups? I have occasionally seen "separation from" instead of "absence of", but in general the wording is extremely consistent - when did this specific phrasing become prominent?

  • Is it the phrase itself that you are interested in, or the concept? I ask because there is some current teaching that is certainly related. I'll need to do some digging in my old notes, but if you want only the etymology of that phrase, I might not be able to help. – KorvinStarmast Nov 22 '18 at 15:55
  • @KorvinStarmast I've edited the title slightly in hopes it clarifies things. The etymology would be ideal, but I'll be happy with any information on where & when the supposed "shift" occurred and the idea gained prominence in the present day. I know there are some old (as in Church Fathers) antecedents but it's specifically this modern use I want to know more about. – Alan T. Nov 22 '18 at 16:12
  • Alan, I think I can be of some help from a Catholic perspective, but this is Thanksgiving and I need to do a little digging before I offer you an answer. Perhaps after the Turkey and football is over, and the others are all playing a board game later today. :) – KorvinStarmast Nov 22 '18 at 16:14
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    @AlanT. Why do you think this is a "modern use"? – Geremia Nov 23 '18 at 18:11
  • @Geremia Because of sentiments like the one quoted, treating it as an emerging trend. If it is, I want to know where it emerged in the modern day, as opposed to its older antecedents; if it isn't and the specific phrase has been in use for longer, I'd like to know that as well. – Alan T. Nov 23 '18 at 19:20
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+50

The Westminster Confession (1646) says this about hell:

"but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power." (Chapter XXXIII, Of the Last Judgment) (emphsis mine)

According to the Alliance Commission on Unity & Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE) the majority of Protestants have held that hell will be a place of unending conscious torment, both physical and spiritual,[24] although some recent writers such as Anglo-Catholic C. S. Lewis[78] and J.P. Moreland[79] have cast hell in terms of "eternal separation" from God. (emphasis mine)

[78] Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (2000). The Nature of Hell. Acute, Paternoster (London). [79] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, 2000 Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_Hell

As to when the expression “Hell is the absence of God” originated, that is much more difficult to pin down. Certainly, it precedes the publication of the 2001 fantasy novel by Ted Chiang. In the foreword to the book ‘Know the Truth’ (1982) by Bruce Milne, J.I. Packer made this observation:

since it is beyond the wit of man to invent a new heresy, it is a great help to know the old ones, so that one can spot them when they reappear in modern make-up (page 6).

Bruce Milne’s book makes no mention of the thought that Hell is the absence of God, but does discuss related heresies such as annihilation, universalism and conditional immortality (pages 274-276. It is probable that the modern-day concept that Hell is the absence of God stems from these earlier false teachings about the condition of the dead.

John Blanchard dedicated an entire book answering the question ‘Whatever Happened to Hell?’ but nowhere in all of those 298 pages does the expression “Hell is the absence of God” appear. However, in the foreword by J.I. Packer, mention is made that Charles H. Spurgeon opposed the late-Victorian sentimentalism, namely conditional annihilationism. Perhaps that is a clue as to when preachers started to tone down sermons on Hell.

Back to John Blanchard and chapter 10 – The Pains of Hell – and this startling comment:

We have seen that fire is the most pervasive element in hell; what then is the single greatest factor that makes hell to be hell? The answer is the presence of God. (Jeremiah 23:23-24; Psalm 139:7-8) Job says ‘Death is naked before God; Destruction lies uncovered’ (Job 26:6). Here, the word ‘Death’ is Sheol and ‘Destruction’ is the same word as ‘Abyss’ in Revelation. ... in John’s vision of the fate of the ungodly we are told that they “will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb (Revelation 14:10).(emphasis mine)

John is telling us that the Son of God, the Judge of all mankind, is present when the ungodly are being punished. Preachers often warn people about the danger of ‘eternal separation’ from God and describe hell in this way, but the Bible never uses the term... In a sermon delivered in 1742, Jonathan Edwards said that for the unrighteous and the righteous eternity would be spent “in the immediate presence of God... God will be the hell of the one and the heaven of the other.” [Sermon entitled ‘There is such a thing as eternity.] (See pages 159-156 Whatever Happened to Hell?)

A more recent article entitled ‘The Disappearance of Hell’ (February 2014) by John MacArthur made this observation about the modern trend to dumb-down hell:

Hell is described not as a place of eternal punishment but simply as a realm apart from God. In the reimagined eschatology of stylish evangelicals, no one is ever “sent” to hell; sinners actually choose to spend eternity apart from God—and the “hell” they suffer is merely an abundance of what they loved and desired the most. Hell is necessary only because God is reluctant to overrule anyone’s free will. Therefore, with a more or less benign acquiescence, He ultimately defers to the sinner’s choice. God’s righteous indignation has no meaningful place in such a scenario. Source: https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/disappearance-hell/

Another source of useful information on why preachers fail to preach about judgment and hell can be found here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-reasons-preachers-avoid-sermons-on-hell/

To conclude, although there does not seem to be any evidence to show when the expression “Hell is the absence of God” originated, and who said it, C.S. Lewis and J.P. Morland are possible culprits.

  • I'm picking yours because of the emphasis on recent sources and quotes that directly address the idea of a "shift" in preaching. Thanks for your effort and links. – Alan T. Nov 29 '18 at 18:19
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What is the modern origin of the phrase “hell is the absence of God”?

I do not believe that this phrase is a modern one. It has echoes that have come down to us throughout the centuries. But that said, I believe the modern phrase "hell is the absence of God" possibly became in a sense more common in popular culture due to the 2001 fantasy novelette by American writer Ted Chiang: "Hell Is the Absence of God" Ted Chiang certainly made this phrase popular.

The novelette is set in a world where the existence of God, souls, heaven, and hell are obvious and indisputable, and where miracles and angelic visitations are commonplace—albeit not necessarily benevolent. The wife of Neil, the main protagonist, is killed by the collateral damage of an angel's visitation. Knowing that his wife has ascended to heaven, the previously non-devout protagonist struggles to achieve the required love of God to join her.

The story also follows Janice, a woman born without legs who is made able-bodied in an angelic visitation, and Ethan, who cannot discern the meaning of an angelic encounter he experiences. - Hell Is the Absence of God

Prior to Ted Cheang's, Hell is the Absence of God, there appeared in February 1942 C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters

This could possibly be another source of the popularity of the phrase in question in the 1950's - 1980's. Back in the 1980's this book was quite popular reading in Catholic high schools. I remember reading it in high school myself. The idea that God is not in hell comes across quite well in The Screwtape Letters.

The separation from God is pivotal to C. S. Lewis' vision of hell:

Separation seems for Lewis to describe the essential idea of hell, capturing what is conveyed by the biblical imagery of torture, destruction, and privation. To be forever cut off from God’s presence, eternally unable to know God’s love and mercy, would be a torture best described by being burned ceaselessly by fire. To be totally separated from other creatures, to be wholly and increasingly self-absorbed, makes that self smaller and smaller, and ultimately will result in the person ceasing to be a self. To someone who has been wholly centered on self, having that self cease to exist would be the ultimate possible loss, a horror describable for us, Lewis says, only through images of physical destruction. The torture of separation and the terror of ceasing to exist are better seen not as punishments imposed by God, but as the natural and inevitable outcome of choices humans themselves make and attitudes they themselves develop. - Heaven and Hell Idea and Image in C. S. Lewis

Nevertheless, I still feel the need to show that concept of "hell being the absence of God" in a more historical sense. There are echoes of it throughout the ages.

When I was a lad, I was taught how to make a perfect Act of Contrition, so I could pray it when I went to confession to a priest. Here is the one that I learned as a child:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen. Perfect Contrition

One can see that I put the words the pains of hell in bold. This is done because one of the greatest pains one could possibly endure would be the fact that the damned are deprived of the presence of God.

”The pain of the damned,” says St. Thomas, ”is infinite, because it is the loss of an infinite good.” (1. 2, qu. 87, a. 4.) Such, too, is the doctrine of St. Bernard, who says, that the value of the loss of the damned is measured from the infinitude of God the supreme good.

Hence, hell does not consist in its devouring fire, nor in its intolerable stench, nor in the unceasing shrieks and bowlings of the damned, nor in the terrific sight of the devils, nor in the narrowness of that pit of torments, in which the damned are thrown one over the other: the pain which constitutes hell is the loss of God. In comparison of this pain, all the other torments of hell are trifling.

The reward of God’s faithful servants in heaven is, as he said to Abraham, God himself. ”I am thy reward, exceeding great.” (Gen. xv. 1.) Hence, as God is the reward of the blessed in heaven, so the loss of God is the punishment of the damned in hell.

Hence, St. Bruno has truly said, that how great soever the torments which may be inflicted on the damned, they never can equal the great pain of being deprived of God. Add torments to torments, but do not deprive them of God. ”Addantur tormenta tormentis, et Deo non priventur.” (Serm. de Jud. Fin.) According to St. Chrysostom, a thousand hells are not equal to this pain. Speaking of the loss of God, he said: ”Si mille dixeris gehennas, nihil par dices illius doloris.” (Hom, xlix., ad Pop.) God is so lovely that he deserves infinite love.

The sinner, drowned in sensual pleasures, scarcely knows God: he sees him only in the dark, and therefore he disregards the loss of God. But in hell he shall know God, and shall be tormented for ever by the thought of having voluntarily lost his infinite good. A certain Parisian doctor appeared after death to his bishop, and said that he was damned. His bishop asked him if he remembered the sciences in which he was so well versed in this life. He answered, that in hell the damned think only of the pain of having lost God.

”Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire. ” (Matt. xxv. 41.) “Depart from me.” This command constitutes the hell of the damned. Begone from me; you shall be no longer mine, and I shall be no longer yours. ”You are not my people, and I will not be yours.” (Osee i. 9.)

St. Augustine says, that if the damned saw the beauty of God, “they should feel no pain, and hell itself would be converted into a Paradise.” (Lib. de Trip. Hab.) But the damned shall never see God. When David forbade his son Absalom to appear in his presence, the sorrow of Absalom was so great, that he entreated Joab to tell his father that he would rather be put to death than never more be permitted to see his face. ”I beseech thee, therefore, that I may see the face of the king; and if he be mindful of my iniquity, let him kill me.” (2 Kings xiv. <32.) - ON THE PAIN OF LOSS WHICH THE DAMNED SUFFER IN HELL – St. Alphonsus

In hell there is no love. God is love. The damned hate and curse all the angels and saints. They curse particularly their guardian angels their special advocates and above all, the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus. They hate the wounds of Jesus Christ, the blood of Jesus Christ, and the death of Jesus Christ. They hate the living of this world, especially those in the state of grace. Moreover they hate one another and themselves. How can God be present amongst such emptiness. The reprobates are thus left to themselves without God!

For those who are more into private revelation, here is something to ponder:

Our greatest torment consists in knowing with certainty that we will never see God. How greatly we are tortured by that which we were indifferent to while on earth! - Letter from a Soul in Hell

St. Augustine said, “The separation from God is a torment as great as God." Cf. Houdry, Bibliotheca concionatorum (Venice, 1786), vol 2, “Infernus,” No. 4, p. 427.

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    I appreciate your thoroughness here, but this would be an example of the theology behind the phrase, rather than a history of the phrase itself. Do Catholics tend to use this specific wording? The catechism (1035) states "eternal separation from God" - are there other documents that specifically say "hell is the absence of god" or a close variant? – Alan T. Nov 23 '18 at 19:24
  • That short story is actually one of the reasons I want to investigate this further. I don't think he could have possibly written that story without the concept already firmly established in the culture, and the ngrams mentioned by disciple above show a strong peak in the 1960s with a resurgence over the 80s and 90s, and only a very small increase after 2001 and Ted Chiang's story. It's not a plausible explanation to me, unfortunately. – Alan T. Nov 26 '18 at 12:45
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    You had me until "...and above all, the Virgin Mary". Wouldn't they curse above all Jesus Christ who became a curse for them? +1 for not letting an opportunity for maryolitry slip by! – Andrew Nov 28 '18 at 15:20
  • @Andrew It would be natural that they would curse Our Lord, but Mary is the means by which God brought forth the Incarnation. She has been made, in a sense, greater, than the angels by her co-operation with Divine Grace. Their hatred of Our Lady is supreme. – Ken Graham Nov 28 '18 at 16:43
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  1. St. Augustine said that the death of the soul (i.e., lack of sanctifying grace, as by not being baptized or by mortal sin) is the separation of the soul from God (Super Sent., lib. 2 d. 43 q. 1 a. 2 arg. 5: "mors animae est, ut Augustinus dicit separatio animae a Deo").

  2. Those in hell lack sanctifying grace.

  3. Therefore, those in hell are in a state of separation from God (i.e., they do not behold the beatific vision).

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