Is it Possible to be Present and Absent Before God? Understanding “Presence”

The Ability to think categorically is what enables us to make cogent, rational, logical arguments. This is true in every field of thought. This is especially important in the Christian faith, which is rooted in biblical revelation.

Errors in Thought

Categorical errors occur when an individual(s) fail to take note of and carefully identify one category from another. I’m not sure if this is just an American idiom but the phrase “You’re comparing apples to oranges” is an example of categorical distinction. In this usage it is comparing an overarching category (fruit), with an underlying category beneath it (different types of fruit). Both apples and oranges are considered fruit, but they are not the same kind of fruit. There are noticeable differences between the two. If we look closer, we see that within their respective type there are deviations within their type. This is evident in color, shape, acidity, etc.

Confusing God with us…

One of the more popular questions posed against God as the Creator of the heavens and earth is “If God created everything, then who created him?” This question is nonsensical. Why? Because it fails to make necessary distinctions between the two categories. For example, God is identified in Scripture as the Eternal One (Deut 33.27), He has no beginning or end, rather He is the cause of beginning and end (Isa 46.9-10; also Isa 44.6; Rev 1.8, 17-18). Therefore, God is infinite, He is not a creature (Isa 43.10). Creatures on the other hand have a beginning and are therefore not eternal (Gen 1.1).

Smelling Color…

Perhaps a simpler illustration is necessary in order to draw out what is being stated thus far. Look at the following question: “What does red smell like?” Are you able to answer the question? Why not? Because red is a color not a smell. The question confuses two different types of sensory responses. We see red, we don’t smell red.


Sometimes this error of categorical distinction occurs when people equivocate on a particular word.[1] This is often done as a justification for evolutionary thought. One of the statements that can sometimes be found is “We know evolution is true, because we see evolution happening all around us.” Though the same word is used—evolution—the meaning or the sense in which the term is being used in the sentence is different. The person argues for evolution (from nothing something, from single cell to multiple cells, from dinosaurs to chickens) on the basis of seeing evolution (change within a particular kind; e.g., multiple breeds of dogs or cats, or finches and their beak size) through the process of natural selection. The first sense of the word “evolution” has Darwinian connotations, whereas the second use of the same word just means “change.”

On Eternal Destinations

Now since I am concerned about biblical thought, and the Christian worldview in particular, we are going to look at a couple of examples. In order to keep this post somewhat shorter than my previous ones, I will only deal with one today and then later we’ll look at another; maybe two. In the debate regarding the final state of mankind—eternal punishment or eternal life, you will find two ways that the term “presence” is used. Those that believe that Hell is a destination for the reprobate, a place founded in eternity where conscious torment will be a reality, often say that those who endure such a fate are “separated from the presence of God” (Rev 21.8, 15). Whereas, those who are found in Christ, have their names written down in heaven, will enjoy the presence of God forever in conscious delight (Rev 21.1-4).

The key term is “presence.” Those not in Christ will be cursed, condemned to outer darkness, separated from the glorious presence of God. On the contrary those in Christ will be blessed, embraced by the light of God, enjoying His holy presence without end. A key text in this debate is seen in 2Thessalonians 1:8-10a. God will,

“…[deal] out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day…” (NASB).

Presenting the Case for the Conditionalist/Annihilationist…

Edward Fudge states that “Paul tells the Thessalonians that God will punish the wicked—with everlasting destruction which proceeds from his presence and removes the wicked from his presence forever.”[2] Later in his debate with Robert Peterson, Fudge will further comment on this text cited above: “Some Traditionalists argue that the wicked are not really separated from God’s presence as this passage says, but are only separated from his grace…[Peterson] knows that if sinners were truly removed entirely from God’s presence, they would cease to exist.”[3]

Presuppositional Fragment…

Fudge’s conclusion regarding what “presence” (prosopon) means here in 2Thess 1:8-10a is telling. His conclusions are drawn from his Conditionalist/Annihilationist convictions. That is fine. He is entitled to his thoughts on this issue, as are others of his ilk. Doesn’t mean he’s accurate. And since he’s already passed and gone before the Lord, I’d imagine he has a better understanding now than he did then.

His comments though do raise in an interesting question. In what sense does Paul mean in his use of “presence.” Furthermore, in what way does Scripture speak of the “presence of God?” Is it possible to be in God’s presence and at the same time driven from it? I’ve touched on this issue before, but it bears repeating.

Back to the Beginning

Look at Genesis 4:16.[4] What does it say? It reads,

“Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”

If God is omnipresent is it possible to be driven from His presence? Well, according to Scripture it is possible. In fact, this is not the only time such language is used.

  • In Leviticus 22:3 we read, “Say to them, ‘If any one of all your offspring throughout your generations approaches the holy things that the people of Israel dedicate to the Lord, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the Lord” (ESV).—This is an example of being “cut off” from the presence of God due to uncleanliness (see for example vv. 4-5). The point here is that one is cut off from God’s presence, denied access to His holy gifts due to uncleanliness. This could only be remedied by them being declared “clean” (e.g. Lev 13.44-46; 14.1-32) In the gospels we see this reality when the leprous call out to Jesus to heal them—i.e., make them clean (see Luke 5.12; 17.12).
  • Jeremiah 52:3, “For because of the anger of the Lord it came to the point in Jerusalem and Judah that he cast them out from his presence. And Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon” (ESV; cf. Jer 15.1; 23.39). —This is an example of being removed from God’s presence in the sense of a condemning judgment (sentence). This is the type of sentence that Cain received from the Lord (Gen 4.10-12). Those in Jerusalem of Judea at the fall of mighty king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon were “cast out from the presence” of the Lord God, but as we see in the text not all were killed (see Jer 52.10-11). Some were taken as exiles (Jer 52.15); others were left in the land to work it as slaves of Babylon (Jer 52.16).
  • Jonah 1:3, “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord” (ESV). –This is an example when one of God’s creatures attempts to flee from His presence through an act of disobedience. Though one cannot truly get away from Gods presence (i.e., omnipresence), he/she may experience separation from the Lord’s presence through acts of disobedience. Of which, the prophet Jonah was most certainly guilty.

These three will be sufficient to prove the point that I am making, though many more might be cited (e.g., Psa 78.60-61; Ezek 10-11; Hos 9.12-17).  To be cut off from the presence of the Lord does not entail annihilation as Fudge and others of his tribe argues. To be driven from the presence of the Lord means to be denied fellowship. Often this is referred to in biblical language as death. Sometimes it is spoken of in the sense of physical death (I would argue that this is a primary emphasis in the O.T.).  However, as these text reveal this is not always the case, death is used in a figurative sense as well.

Now a wise one might point to Jonah and say, but that does not seem to be the case with him. His fleeing from the presence of the Lord…how can you understand that figuratively as death? Two reasons: 1) He attempted to separate himself from God by fleeing His presence (an act of disobedience; sin), 2) God demonstrated to Jonah what a continued state of fleeing would bring—death. When Jonah was cast into the waters, he experienced death (figuratively) and was granted life (graciously) only when he cried out to the Lord for mercy (see Jon 1.15-2.9).[5]

Again, to be driven from the presence of the Lord as Paul most definitely speaks of in 2Thess 1:8-10a nowhere insinuates annihilation. You can be cast out from God’s immediate presence, and yet at the same time be in His infinite presence. To argue that this word can only be conveyed in one sense is to ignore other senses in which the word is used in the Bible. It seems to me that Paul would have been well aware of the varying senses in which the concept of “presence” was used in regards to the Lord in light of Holy Scripture.

What might we say of words like “know” or “fire”? Are they always used in a “one size fits all” way? Are there variances in which the Bible uses such terms? What do we say of death?

My Thoughts so Far

There are three types of death that occur in Scripture as the result of sin. And as it pertains to righteousness in Jesus Christ, there is one. The first three are a result of sin. The last one is a result of Christ’s sacrifice. Sometime next week, I will begin to unpack this. Until then, try to have a good weekend in the Lord. Enjoy His blessings. Enjoy your family and draw strength from Him to fight any fears that might be seeking to dominate your heart during this time.


[1] “When debating on any topic, it is very important that we pay close attention to the meaning of words and how they are being used in a debate. Most words have a range of possible meanings, but only one of those meanings will properly fit the given context. When someone shifts from one meaning of a word to another within an argument, he or she has committed the fallacy of equivocation.” Jason Lisle, Discerning Truth (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2010), 11, Adobe Digital Editions.

[2] Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 60.

[3] Ibid., 200.

Understanding Fudge… (No, not the delectable treat)

On the surface it certainly appears as if Fudge is speaking of the term “presence” in the same way. But as I read his writings, I see that what he means by presence is really to be completely done away with, to not exist anymore. For example, in referring to Psalm 1 he says, “This psalm speaks of exclusion from God’s presence, a principal theme of Jesus’ teaching and that of the apostles” (p. 30). Again, at first glance this appears straightforward enough, but the question is “What does Fudge mean by being excluded from God’s presence?” As he works through the O.T. he ends his study with two prominent passages in Isa 66:24 and Dan 12:2. In reference to both he identifies the central point of the writers as “The shame and contempt here are ‘everlasting’ because the loathsome disintegration of the wicked will never be reversed” (p. 33). What Fudge earlier identified as “annihilation” (p. 30; in ref. to Rev 20.14).  This is seen in an even later reference by Fudge when he writes, “Just as the indescribable light of God’s presence identifies eternal life for the immortal saved, so absolute, unending darkness portrays the everlasting destruction of those who perish in the second death” (p. 72; in ref. to Jude’s letter)[3] After Fudge finishes his walk through the Bible he gives his readers the following conclusion as to what it means to be removed from God’s presence:

“At the conclusion of [God’s] judgment he will banish them from his presence forever [meaning what?], to a place Jesus compares both to fire and to deepest darkness. The lost will see the saved going with God to eternal reward. They will weep and grind their teeth in anger, but God’s sentence will be carried out. They will be destroyed, both body and soul, forever. That punishment will never be reversed, and it will be as everlasting as will be the life of the saved with God [i.e., annihilation]” (p. 81).

[4] This text is one among many cited by reference works like the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge.

[5] I am not here arguing for or against Jonah’s elected state. I believe in divine election, and I believe that Jonah is amongst that number. That is not to say that the elect does not sin, obviously they do. And there are times when those sins bring a hefty price. Sometimes that price is clearly laid out in the Bible, but at other times it is not. The point here is that Jonah did experience death in terms of separation from blessing in that He received a negative reward from the Lord (i.e., a curse) until he repented. God disciplines His children because His children respond appropriately to a spanking. Sometimes the spanking seems rather harsh, and sometimes we seem to enjoy getting our butts whipped, but the point is that Jonah experienced a temporary event that demonstrates an eternal reality for those who refuse to humble themselves before the Lord above.