Heaven without God is Hell

Exodus 32 contains the infamous Golden Calf incident. While Moses was atop Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the Israelites grew concerned that Moses had either died or abandoned them, that God had forsaken them, and so they fashioned a golden calf to worship. This blatant idolatry enrages God who vows to destroy Israel for their disobedience, but Moses successfully intercedes for the Israelites, saving them from the wrath of God, and here is what the Lord says to Israel in response:

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “To your offspring I will give it.” I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Exodus 33:1-3).

Notice what God is saying: despite their idolatry, God is still going to be faithful to give Israel:

  1. His promises – v.1 “Depart, go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.”
  2. His protection – v.2 “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”
  3. His paradise – v.3a “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Sounds like a great deal, right? But also notice what God withholds, because this makes all the difference

“…but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (v. 3b).

So God told Israel, “you still have my promises, you still have my protection, and you’ll still enter my paradise, but you will not have my presence.”

How did the people react to this news? Look at verse 4:

“When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned.”

The people of Israel considered this a disastrous word. They received what God had said to them not as a blessing but as a curse. This is simply astounding. They were going to receive God’s promise, they were going to receive His protection, they were going to receive the promised land, but they knew that without His presence that promised land wouldn’t be paradise, it would be hell. They recognized their ruin. Their sin had resulted in God withdrawing His presence from them and they wept in mourning.

Now, the sad thing is that for many of us, we would be totally content with this deal. We would be completely fine with having God’s promises, having God’s protection, and entering into paradise, even if we didn’t have the presence of God with us. In fact, that’s probably the Christian life that many of us are living right now and we’re perfectly content with it.

I think if we all evaluated our lives, we’d see that we are a little too comfortable with claiming God’s promises, protection, and expecting paradise, but we are ignoring His presence here and now. There are many reasons why we do this, but in keeping with the context of the passage and what we learn from Chapter 32, the biggest reason why we do this is because we have given the privilege of God’s presence away to idols. We’ve shoved God out of our hearts, our minds, and our lives, and we’re expecting Him to be okay with that.

And what God told Israel, and what He’s telling us is that if we don’t want Him, then we won’t get Him. And if we don’t get Him, then we don’t get Heaven.

You know what makes Heaven “heaven?” Ezekiel 48:35, in speaking of heaven, says, “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, ‘the Lord is there..” The very appeal of heaven is not that we get to see our loved ones, it’s not that we get to live forever, it’s not even that we get to be free from sin. What makes heaven “heaven” is that God is there, His presence! In all of His unmitigated glory! We will get to soak it in for all eternity! The essence of the Gospel is not that you get forgiveness of sins, it’s not that you get heaven, it’s that you get God!

This is why the Israelites received God’s word as disastrous. You can have everything this world has to offer, but if you don’t have God and you don’t have His presence, then the Promised Land is no longer paradise, it might as well be hell. Because that’s exactly what hell is. And an exploration of hell is what I’ll cover in another coming post.

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