This is the fourth of a series of posts exploring what the New Testament says about hell. See my introduction for a brief overview of my plans for this series.
Note: I am not a scholar. The following represents my current understanding, based on my own studies which are not comprehensive. I welcome further insights and corrections.
So far in this series I have looked at the New Testament's use of the words gehenna
, Hades, and perishing. Now I'm going to examine the NT's use of the word fire. I won't repeat the references that appeared in my gehenna
post, and I won't include references to physical, earthly fire.
The first reference comes from John the Baptist:
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
- Matthew 3:10-12
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
- Luke 3:9-17
Luke expands this passage to turn it into a dialogue, but the same basic teachings about fire appear in both gospels. The word fire is used three times. In the first and third, the fire represents judgment or destruction, but in the second it appears to represent purification. When the Holy Spirit first appears in Acts, the Spirit is represented by tongues of flame.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes part of John the Baptist's words:
You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
- Matthew 7:16-20
Later in Matthew, Jesus speaks of fire in his explanation of a parable:
The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
- Matthew 13:37-43
As we've seen before, in Matthew judgment is based on actions, not beliefs. In this parable, those who do evil will be thrown into the fire, like "weeds [that] are collected and burned up."
And speaking of judgment based on actions, Jesus's most vivid teaching about judgment day is also found in Matthew. I'll quote the second half, since it deals with the evildoers:
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
- Matthew 25:41-46
Unless I've missed it somewhere, this is the only place in the Bible where the phrase "eternal punishment" appears, and it is applied exclusively to those who don't take care of the needy.
Moving on to Luke:
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!
- Luke 12:49-50
This may be an echo of John the Baptist's teaching, that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Even though Jesus speaks of division in the verses following these two, fire is apparently being used in a positive sense here.
John's gospel has one brief mention of fire in relation to judgment:
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
- John 15:5-6
John's theology focuses less on action than the other gospels. Though he uses the same metaphor of branches burned in the fire that John the Baptist used, this John puts it in a different context.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
- Acts 2:1-4
This could be seen as the fulfillment of John the Baptist's teaching about the baptism of "the Holy Spirit and fire". This is another example of the positive use of the word fire in the New Testament.
Paul mentions fire a couple times in his letters:
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
- 1 Corinthians 3:12-15
Here is the clearest reference in the New Testament to fire as a purifier. If I'm not mistaken, the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is largely based on this verse.
For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10
This passage shows Paul's theology that connects judgment with belief rather than actions, and describes the punishment as "eternal destruction." There's a touch of arrogance in this passage, an attitude of, "God will smite my enemies," that I personally find a little off-putting.
But to the point of today's post: Fire here is associated with Jesus and the angels, not with judgment or purification, but heavenly majesty.
The same theme can be found in Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
- Hebrews 12:28-29
Here God does use the fire for judgment or for purification; here God is
Another use of the fire can be found in 1 Peter:
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
- 1 Peter 1:6-7
Faith is compared with gold refined in the fire. This is similar to the usage in the 1 Corinthains passage.
In 2 Peter, fire as judgment is given a new twist. A future judgment by fire is seen as a parallel to the judgment by water in the days of Noah.
They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.
- 2 Peter 3:5-7
Jude mentions fire twice within its 25 verses. In verse 7, "eternal fire" refers to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
In verse 23, fire refers to impending judgment:
And have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.
The book of Revelation contains 25 references to fire, one third of all the references in the New Testament. I'll summarize most of them and look specifically at a couple that are relevant to the topic at hand.
- Seven times in Revelation, fire represents judgment: 8:7, 8:8, 9:17, 14:10, 17:16, 18:8, and 20:9.
- Twice, Revelation describes fires that will ravage the earth: 9:18 and 16:8.
- Three times, Jesus's eyes are said to be "like a flame of fire": 1:14, 2:18, and 19:12.
- Five times, Revelation mentions fires in heaven: 4:5, 8:5, 11:5, 13:13, and 14:18.
- In 3:18, Jesus tells the church at Laodicea to buy from him, "gold refined by fire."
- In 10:1, an angel's legs are said to be "like pillars of fire."
- 15:2 mentions a "sea of glass mixed with fire."
The remaining five verses are the ones that are relevant to the topic at hand. Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:14, 20:15, and 21:8 mention a "lake of fire."
Chapter 19 describes a final battle of the beast and its army against Christ and his army. The result:
And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.
- Revelation 19:20
In chapter 20, Satan himself musters an army against Christ, with the same end result:
And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
- Revelation 20:10
It is notable that Revelation 20:10 is the only verse in the entire Bible that even mentions eternal torment, and it is reserved for "the devil... the beast and the false prophet."
A different fate awaits others who are thrown into this lake of fire:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
- Revelation 20:12-15
But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
- Revelation 21:8
For the unholy trinity of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet, the lake of fire is a place to be tormented forever, but for others it is "the second death." Here, like in the rest of Revelation, James, and the Synoptic Gospels, judgment is based on actions, not beliefs.
And that's what the New Testament has to say about fire. If the picture was muddled before, this has not helped to clarify it.
clear, I think, is that the standard fundamentalist/evangelical line that "everyone who does not accept Jesus as personal savior will be punished forever in hell," has absolutely no biblical support. The two main ideas about judgment that run throughout the New Testament are 1) punishment for wicked actions, and 2) death for lack of faith. Paul and John hold the latter view, and the rest of the NT writers (including the John of Revelation) tend toward the former (though elements of the latter can be found in them as well).
I don't see any way to bring this to a tidy conclusion, so I won't try. I had originally planned to end this last post with my own opinion, but I find that my opinion has been shaken by this study. I'm not sure I can say anything with confidence, beyond the bare facts I've just outlined.
Labels: hell, scripture