Ambassador of Reconciliation
3/17/12 at 04:30 PM 118 Comments

What Is Hellfire? Part 1

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Lake of Fire
Lake of Fire.

Do you believe in hell as a place of fire and brimstone? If so, where do you think it came from? Who created hell? When did it come into existence? Did God conceive and design and create hell? Did Satan have a hand in it? (It certainly sounds like an invention that he would be pleased with.) Did hell come into being at the time the rest of the universe was created? At the foundation of the world? Or even before that time, in anticipation of the fall of Satan and then humanity? If God looked at everything He made and proclaimed it “very good,” then is hell good? In what sense? Or was hell created after the fall, as a consequence of it? Does hell mean separation from God? If so, where could it possibly be? Where can one go to be out of the presence of God? And finally, how does hell fit into God’s eternal purposes, conceived in His mind before the world came into being?

Now reread the questions in the first paragraph and try to formulate answers to them. If you are having trouble coming up with sensible, biblical answers, maybe it is because we are asking the wrong questions. The idea of “hell” as a literal place of never-ending torment or as a state of eternal separation from God is fraught with logical and biblical problems, as you can see if you have tried to give coherent answers to the questions above. It is worth at least considering a different picture of what may happen to the unrepentant when they die. Let’s think about what we do know from Scripture, and then try to put it all together.

The Omnipresence of God

We know that it is impossible to escape from the presence of God. God is omnipresent—He is present everywhere, and everything is in His presence. David asked where He could go to get away from the Spirit of God. The answer is nowhere—neither in the heavens nor in the depths:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 139:7-8, ESV)

Fire as a Symbol of the Presence of God

We know that fire signifies the presence of God: He appeared to Moses in flames of fire from within the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). He accompanied His people in the pillar of fire during the wilderness wanderings (Exodus 13:21). He descended on Mount Sinai in fire to give the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:18). He revealed His presence in the fire that burned up the sacrifice of Elijah (1 Kings 18:38-39). He baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire, imparting His indwelling presence (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). His Holy Spirit was present in the tongues of fire that came down on Pentecost (Acts 2:3-4). Jesus will be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7). And God Himself is a fire:

The Lord your God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24a).

Let us . . . worship God acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28b-29).

Fire as a Symbol of Judgment

Fire is also a symbol of judgment: Isaiah said that those who rejected the Holy One and His word would be destroyed as fire destroys dry grass (5:24). He also said, “See, the Name of the Lord comes from afar, with burning anger and dense clouds of smoke; his lips are full of wrath, and his tongue is a consuming fire” (30:27). John the Baptist speaks of judgment when he says of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 are a statement of judgment against those who failed to show His compassion:

Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me (vv. 41-43).

Paul speaks of God’s judgment/punishment in 2 Thessalonians 1:

All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right. . . . God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels (5-7).

The writer of Hebrews says that those who rebel against God face “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (10:27). Jude warns of “the punishment of eternal fire” on the great day of judgment (Jude 9). Revelation is full of images of fire symbolizing judgment, and Peter speaks of the destruction of the heavens and earth by fire on the day of the Lord.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. . . . That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat (2 Peter 2:10, 12).

Fire Associated with Light

Fire is associated with light, both literal and metaphorical. The pillar of fire provided a literal light to guide the people of Israel and show them the way to take:

By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night (Exodus 13:21).

Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take (Nehemiah 9:19).

Metaphorically, God Himself is a light and a fire:

The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame (Isaiah 10:17a).

The “true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9) came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ:

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12)

And lamps blazing with light represent the seven-fold Spirit of God:

Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God (Revelation 4:5b).

Fire as a Symbol of Purification

Another purpose of fire is purification. The law required purification by fire:

Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing (Numbers 31:22-23).

God’s words are pure, like silver refined in a fiery furnace:

And the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times (Psalm 12:6).

Malachi says that God Himself is like a refiner’s fire:

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness (3:2-3).

There may be an element of purification in the winnowing that happens when Jesus burns up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12). The chaff may represent the sin in our lives; Jesus will purify us by getting rid of all that is worthless in our lives. This understanding is supported by Paul’s description of judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:

[A man’s work] will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (vv. 13-15).

Isaiah also speaks of purification by removing dross:

I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. . . . The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire (1:25; 4:4).

Peter gives the image of a furnace where we are refined by fire as gold is:

These [trials] have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:7).

This idea of purification is also in view in Revelation 3:18:

I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

The Character of God

What else do we know from Scripture that might give us insight into the nature and purpose of hell? We know that God can do nothing that would violate His own character. Since He is perfectly holy, righteous, loving, merciful, and true, He can do nothing that is unholy, unrighteous, unloving, unmerciful, or inconsistent with truth. Since He is good, we can be confident that all His purposes are good. He is the one to define what “good” is, and He helps us understand what He means by “good.” Whatever hell is, we can be confident that if God made it, then it is good and has a good purpose.


We might summarize these observations as follows:

  • Unless hell has existed since eternity past, it came or will come into being at some point in time.
  • It is unlikely that hell existed with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in eternity past.
  • If hell was created, it must have had a designer and creator.
  • Hell must have come into being before, during, or after the creation of the universe.
  • Since God is omnipresent, it is impossible to be out of the presence of God.
  • Hell is typically characterized by fire.
  • Fire can represent the presence of God.
  • Fire can be a symbol of judgment.
  • Fire is associated with light.
  • Fire can be for purification or refinement.
  • God never violates His own holiness, love, mercy, truth, or goodness.
  • If God is responsible for hell, then it has a good purpose, however God defines “good.”

Watch for Part 2, which describes various explanations that have been offered for the concept of hell, and for Parts 3 and 4, in which I try to present an understanding of hell that is most consistent with these observations from Scripture. In the meantime, let me know if any of the groundwork I have laid here is untrue. I would also be interested in your answers to the questions in the first paragraph.

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