Can Images of Fire & Darkness be Literal?

Flames

Photo by Jekkone

The most well-known imagery used to describe hell is fire.  Jesus, for instance, describes hell as the “fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:42), the “eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8-9), and the place where the “fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).  Likewise, John, in the book of Revelation, depicts hell as a “lake of fire” where the “burning sulfur” torments forever (Revelation 14:10-11; Revelation 20:10, Revelation 15).  Are we to understand these images of fire literally?  Will unbelievers literally burn forever, yet never full be consumed?

Most evangelical Christians who believe that hell is a literal place and that its duration is forever do not interpret the fire imagery literally.  Well-known figures such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, Bill Graham, D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, and Sinclair Ferguson all understand the fire images non literally. Other conservative commentators and theologians, such as Charles Hodge, Carl Henry, F.F. Bruce, Roger Nicole, Leon Morris, and Robert Patterson agree. These scholars note that fire imagery is used in many other places in the Bible-not just in passages relating to hell-in obviously nonliteral ways.

Jesus says that He “came to cast fire on the earth” (Luke 12:49), which in the context symbolizes judgment.  Our Lord didn’t literally gather sticks and leaves to set the planet ablaze.  John describes Jesus’ eyes as like “a flame of fire” (Revelation 1:14); for James, the tongue is a “fire” (James 3:6); and according to Paul, our mundane works will be burned with fire on judgment day (1 Corinthians 3:15).  Fire is used metaphorically throughout Scripture, and I agree with the host of evangelical scholars above that fire is probably not to be taken literally when it’s used to describe hell.

This is supported by several passages in which a literal fire would conflict with what the author says elsewhere.  Jude, for instance, describes hell as an “eternal fire” (Jude 7), while six verses later he calls hell the “blackest darkness” (Jude 13).  Jesus and John the Baptist both describe hell with images of “fire” (Matthew 3:10, Matthew 12, Matthew 25:41) and “darkness” (Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 25:30).  These metaphors of fire and darkness are clearly mixed-where there’s fire, there cannot be complete darkness.  The mixing of metaphors suggest that these images are just that: metaphors.  This is further supported by Jesus’ statement that hell was created for the Devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), who are spirit beings.  If fire imagery is taken literally, one wonders how fire would work on such nonphysical creatures.

Of course God could make all this work.  He could prevent fire from penetrating darkness and enable spirits to feel the pain of the flame.  But given the widespread use of fire as a metaphor in Scripture, I find it best to take these images nonliterally.

The same probably goes for other images, such as thick darkness (Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 25:30; Luke 13:28), undying worms (Mark 9:43-48), and the gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12, Matthew 13:42; Matthew 50, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 24:51; Matthew 25:30; Luke 13:28).  On one occasion, Jesus even says that the unbeliever will be cut into pieces (Matthew 24:51).  With such images, I find it best to view them all as powerful ways of conveying the inexplicable notions of punishment that will occur in hell.  Fire and the gnashing of teeth depict intense pain and suffering; darkness conveys separation from God; worms that don’t die (Isaiah 66:24) probably emphasize the shame of eternal death, if not its never-ending duration.

So while the passages examined in this book are clear about hell as a real place where the wicked will be tormented, the Bible does not seem to tell us exactly what that torment will entail.

-Francis Chan, Erasing Hell

Here are other Frequently Asked Questions and how the Bible answers them.

Saved by Grace through Faith. In love with Jesus, His Glory, and obviously my beautiful wife Joelle, daughter Peyton, and son Matthew! Seeking Him in everything to glorify Him and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pastor at Austin Life Church.

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