Standing in God’s Presence: Heaven and Hell 


 The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken.” (Isaiah 8:13-15)


There are several passages in the Bible which present to us the mystery of experiencing God. While God is one, people have very difference experiences of God. In the above passage, God can be a sanctuary to protect us or a stumbling rock over which we fall or which can fall on us and crush us. God is sometimes presented as being both fire and light, or either, the experience of God  depends on who we are. St Paul, referencing the above quote from Isaiah, reminds us that what we experience in an encounter with God can depend on our own faith.


Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:32-33)

If we pursue God, not in faith, but for some other purpose, we might experience God as a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29) rather than as light. The Third Century biblical commentator Origen wrote:

… the God of the Universe himself is said to be both light and fire. To sinners our God is fire, devouring all wickedness (Deuteronomy 4:24; 9: 3; Hebrews 12:29). But to the just God is no longer fire, but light, ‘for God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him‘ (1 John 1:5).  (HOMILIES ON THE PSALMS, p 152)


Our experience of God can be determined by the state of our heart and faith. Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement notes:

At the Second Coming, God will be altogether in us, the uncreated light will transform the universe, and human nature will be healed and illuminated: or rather, the whole of life will make manifest the glorious Body of the resurrected Christ.


God can only give his love. But those who, closed in on themselves, cannot freely accept this divine love on the day of judgment, will experience God’s love as unbearable fire. The uncreated light is total awareness.  . . .   Hell is not eternity: it is nonexistence that refuses eternity. ‘It is not correct to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God  . . .  But love acts in two different ways. To the outcasts it becomes suffering and to the blessed it becomes joy’ (St Isaac the Syrian, Spiritual Homilies XI PG 34).  (TRANSFIGURING TIME, p 169)


We all will experience the same God, but our experiences might be quite different, joyful or dreadful. In this sense, heaven and hell are not different locations, rather they both are our experiences of being in God’s presence. It is the exact same God, but for those who love God being eternally in God’s presence will be heaven/paradise. For those who hate God, an eternity in God’s presence will be hell. Heaven and hell are not locations, but how we encounter God and experience being in God’s presence. What we experience when in God’s presence are determined by the spiritual condition of our heart and mind.