That’s the OT perspective on the presence of God, and Paul almost certainly thought in these terms. But there’s another way of looking at God’s presence — equally valid. Just think of what it means for God to be present in this world.
(Heb. 1:3a ESV) 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
(Col. 1:16-17 ESV) 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Jesus is everywhere making the world work, holding things together. His will causes the laws of nature to be true. And yet the world, because of sin, is a mess. (This is, I believe, also part of the meaning of Jesus being the Logos in John chapter 1.)
Imagine how ugly the world would be if God and Jesus abandoned it? They are busy doing good for both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). The world is actually, on the whole, good. Evil people don’t want to leave it. They fear death because death will separate them from the pleasures of the world God has made, despite all its imperfections.
Under Torah, if someone committed a particularly severe sin, they were to be “cut off.” Commentators debate the meaning of the term. Some say it means executed (Gen 9:11; Exo 17:14-15, etc.). Other say it means being exiled from the camp as Israel traveled through a dangerous and bleak wilderness to the Promised Land (Num 19:20). Either way, to be cut off was to be separated from the presence of God as well as God’s people. And few would survive alone in the desert. So it was a death sentence however you read the text. The point is that safety and security are only found in the presence of God, which is among God’s people. If you aren’t part of the people of God, you will die.
Just so, to be cast out of the presence of God means not to participate in the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE) promised by Isaiah in chapters 65 and 66 and by John in Rev 21-22 — because God will fill the universe in the NHNE.
(Isa. 11:7-9 ESV) 7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
It’s not surprising that Paul routinely refers to damnation as “death.” But rather than work through those verses (there are many such verses), let’s look at the “second death” verses —
(Rev. 2:11 ESV) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
(Rev. 20:6 ESV) Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
(Rev. 20:14 ESV) Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
(Rev. 21:8 ESV) But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
The saved die and are resurrected (made alive again) to participate in eternal life (or life in the next age, which never ends).
The damned die, are brought to judgment, are punished by being separated from the presence of God, and once they’ve been punished fairly and justly by God, they die again — the second death — which is forever. They die never to live again — forever. The second death is an eternal or unending death.
Now, the fate of the damned is plainly described as “death,” and “death” does not mean “live forever in conscious torment.” It’s as though the authors of the NT deliberately chose words that cannot mean “live forever in conscious torment” to describe the fate of the damned.
There are several passages that suggest degrees of punishment for the damned. Most plain is —
(Lk. 12:42-48 NIV) 42 The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43 It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45 But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.
47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
“Few blows” and “many blows” plainly imply degrees of punishment. Clearly, to be just, the punishment has to fit the crime. If both the utterly evil and those who are good but never heard the gospel are punished the same, then God is not just — even by his own standards.
Therefore, it seems that God will punish all who are not saved, but their punishment may be slight or severe, depending on their knowledge of God’s will. The one who “does not know” “the master’s will” will be beaten with few blows. He is not punished as though he were Hitler or Pol Pot. He is punished with perfect justice — no more than he truly deserves — taking into account his knowledge of right and wrong. (See Rom 1 – 3 for an explanation for how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.) It may be hardly any punishment at all.
Part of this punishment is being cast out of God’s presence — maybe for a moment or two or maybe for a very long time — depending on the sinfulness of the deceased. We are promised justice, and so Hitler will suffer more than most. But how many days or millennia someone must be separated from God to suffer a just punishment for millions of deaths, only God knows. I dare not speculate. The Bible just doesn’t say.
But the punishment will be finite because the sin, although great, is also finite.
The lost person will then cease to exist. He or she will die the Second Death, as plainly promised in Revelation (and Isaiah and the Gospels and many other passages), such as —
(Rom. 6:23 ESV) 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(I couldn’t resist: all die a physical death (the first death). Only the saved avoid the second death. The death that Paul is speaking of is contrasted with “eternal life,” and so Paul is speaking of the second or a spiritual death.)
Therefore, the Available Light theory is not needed to provide a fair and just result for those who’ve never heard of Jesus. They will not be saved — but salvation is a matter of grace. It is, by definition, more than we deserve. Therefore, no one can claim to be unfairly treated for being denied what they did not earn.
The saved often suffer a form of “survivor’s guilt,” that is, feeling guilty for being saved when people just as good as them, perhaps even much better, will be damned and cast from God’s presence. It feels wrong. Which is why the scriptures urge us to send missionaries to preach the gospel.
But we live in an age when it’s very difficult to imagine the damned being, well, you know, damned. Therefore, we feel little guilt at our pitiful efforts to do personal evangelism or even to work with our congregations to seek and save the lost. And so when the subject of the salvation of those who don’t know Jesus comes up, we seek a solution that provides no survivor’s guilt — a solution that declares those who’ve never heard the gospel saved — at least if they’re good people. But there is no such doctrine in the Bible.
In fact, the more deeply you stare into the scriptures, the more plain is the teaching that those outside the Kingdom, being those without faith in Jesus, are certainly lost and need to hear the gospel to be saved. And so Paul lived the life he lived. And so Jesus lived the life he lived and died the death he did. And the other apostles laid down their lives to bring salvation to the lost. None of which makes the least sense if their converts were going to be saved anyway.