Even when young, I was an avid student of the Bible. The fiery descriptions of God’s judgment activated my imagination. Early on, I embarked on a pilgrimage to reread every verse of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation while contemplating just one question: What is the meaning of the fiery language in Scripture? That is, what is John describing at the end of the Bible when he speaks about a fiery judgment? I considered that fire has various components and that the Bible repeatedly describes its use. This was a revolutionary discovery in my reading of Revelation.
The notion of an eternally burning hellfire, based primarily on the imagery and symbols in the last book of the Bible, is frequently misunderstood. I think there’s a better way to read these depictions, which can help us to understand why God’s judgment is so fiery. We find that God’s victory over evil stands in stark contrast to the violent ways of worldly conquest, so that in the end, God inaugurates life and eternal peace without diminishing our freedom to love and worship Him. Initiating eternal violence to end evil and make lasting peace defies the very principles of human dignity and freedom. Devising a campaign against His enemies, whom He does not even allow to die, is inconsistent with God hating suffering and desiring to reinstate His presence, which pulsates vibrant life. The final experience must convey that God heals every part of creation.
So, what of the images of hellfire and eternal torment? Is such fiery punishment orchestrated by God? At the close of history, does God damn people to burn alive in an eternal torturous existence? Would you judge me harshly if I suggest damning these views to hell?
Is such punishment really a part of God’s plan? God’s character, as revealed in the faithful witness of Jesus, must influence how we interpret the final picture. God’s love is portrayed as the Lamb suffering for the entire world, not a divine tormentor. When we think of God’s final justice, we often think that He will use the force of punishment as His “true power” to achieve a just outcome. I suggest that the tradition of hell’s suffering and torment is largely driven by the desire for revenge—at best, it reflects the human need to see perpetrators of evil held accountable. However, an underlying theological undercurrent often missed in the study of Revelation is that people do not respond to punishment and torture. In the final analysis, God can’t be seen as an obstacle to one’s repentance and exclusion from eternal life. The vision of the end must be built upon a revelation of God’s character, which does not violate human freedom and dignity. Yet, why would God resurrect the lost to inflict more suffering? Worse still, why would He release Satan, the instigator of evil, after he’s been bound? Why not let sleeping dogs lie? While I believe God will not force a cruel or arbitrary act, His love cannot permit leaving this world in a condition that jeopardizes a flourishing life of peace.
God’s extended invitation for reunion lies at the heart of Revelation. He unveils hope for the universe. While this is God’s call, we realize that not everyone will delight in following Him. It’s not hard to image missed opportunities and mindsets held hostage by evil forces that remain opposed to the kingdom. God will always allow us freedom to collude with evil if we choose, but in the end, every individual must have a final choice; everyone can thus get what they want. God’s judgment will make that clear as it brings finality and closure to our choices. Yet, what is the destiny of those who disregard God’s invitation for fellowship and life? Will God cut them off in mercy, bringing a quick end to evil, or must He burn them alive in the punishing fires of hell, inflicting unending pain?
The book of Revelation is filled with imagery rooted in the rich soil of the Old Testament, so we should learn to read it literately rather than literally. Its images should not be pressed into literal features like pools of molten lava or chains that confine Satan. It is interesting to note that the imagery of fire in the book of Revelation is fluid, not constant. The book describes both satanic-based fires of hostility and destruction and fires of divine judgment and presence.
Its final scene speaks of books being opened. The judgment is based upon written records and evidence, yet the heavenly court goes beyond a judicial verdict. According to both Daniel 7 and Ezekiel’s opening vision, God’s throne is both blazing with fire and illuminated with light. This scene presents God’s ability to render a just account of all things because nothing is omitted. God renders a true judgment by putting everything on display. It’s a cosmic way of saying that all the world’s evil and injustice are accounted for as well as all the love and goodness that flow through human channels. God will reveal His character and expose the evil that must be removed. Eyes will be opened, and choices will be made self-evident.
This revelatory reality, emanating with IMAX-level precision, works to unveil the truth. It unmasks sinful motives and all the investments of evil. The light of truth will burst into people’s lives as everyone is judged “according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:12, ESV). It is hard for us to grasp the awesomeness of this scene, but we are told that the experience will not be the same for everyone. In fairness, God will not judge all people at the same level. Jesus tells us that it will be more unbearable for some than others (Matthew 11:23–24). Judgment will be experienced at varying degrees of intensity—because some will have more to account for when exposed to God’s self-disclosure. Millard J. Erickson offers some helpful insight in this regard: “To some extent, the different degrees of punishment reflect the fact that hell is God’s leaving a sinful human with the particular character that one person fashioned for himself or herself in this life. The misery one will experience from having to live with ones wicked self eternally will be proportionate to one’s degree of awareness of precisely what one was doing when choosing evil” (Christian Theology, 2013, p. 1248).
This experience will last only as long as it takes each individual to come to the moment of truth. Sin will be revealed in burning clarity, and those who have given allegiance to the power of evil will have no place to hide. The lies they have banked on will be gone. They will see that they do not fit within God’s reality. The glimmerings of heaven’s true light will become increasingly unbearable for them as they continue to drive themselves further into isolation, burning away as if by the fire of God’s judgment. They find the inescapable brilliance of God’s heaven a searing misery and will seek to hide from it. This is no arbitrary decree on the part of God to exclude them. While the ultimate fate of the lost remains a mystery in his version of hell, C. S. Lewis astutely notes, “the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end . . . the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” (The Problem of Pain, 1986, p. 127).
God does not send anyone to hellish torment. Rather, the love of the Lamb reveals the sinful motives, power, and pretense of evil, unmasking its futility. The real hell is to be alone and completely separated. Gerald Vann states: “hell is essentially a state of being which we fashion for ourselves; a state of final separateness from God which is the result not of God’s repudiation of man, but of man’s repudiation of God, and a repudiation which is eternal precisely because it has become, in itself, immovable.” (The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God, 1947, p. 54-55.)
How do the lost emotionally respond to the missed opportunity for a life with a God who only desires their joy? The images of judgment are harmonious with images of grief and suffering. The judgment provokes an anguish expressed as “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in response to what they have lost (Matthew 13:42). They will experience the wrath expressed in Jesus’ own suffering and anguish. I imagine it as intense mental anguish rather than literal immersion in liquid fire. Ultimately, sin is self-destructive. The fires of malice, hatred and revenge have already been unleashed against Jesus. He knows the power and deception of evil. Hosea speaks of the hearts of sinners burning like an oven, their anger smoldering until they burst into violence (Hosea 7:4, 6). Left to their own devices they stand engulfed in the fire they have kindled for themselves (Isaiah 1:2). The book describes an implosion of anger and violence outside the city, as sinners rage against one another, turning upon their fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, friends, and foes (Luke 12:49-53). Like an unstoppable raging fire, they erupt against those they feel have deceived or derided them. Their own wickedness, turning into a fire of indignation bringing about their own profound destruction. “I will summon the sword against Gog in all my mountains, says the Lord God; the swords of all will be against their comrades” (Ezekiel 38:21 NRSV).
Revelation speaks of a final battle marshaled against God and His city. It clearly portrays a posture for war. Humanity led by Satan is hostile toward God, surrounding the beautiful city in assault. Many scriptural texts use fire as an expression of hatred, war, or destruction. An image of fire devouring people, for example, is presented in Judges 9, where cruel Abimelech usurps leadership over the people and wages war. In the end, he brings ruin upon himself and his followers. Abimelech’s hatred and violence are described as fiery self-destruction coming from his own midst to consume him (9:20). Interestingly, Revelation uses this same imagery to describe the ultimate destiny and judgment of Babylon turning on itself (18:8). What happens to Satan, the animating influence or inspiration of evil? He is destroyed by fire, but the fire does not come from without (Ezekiel 28:18). The fire emerging from his evil ranks is punishment unleashed by unmasking human action and demonic forces, which can’t be left out of the equation.
Yet, do these forces of evil come to grief and a final end in this display of self-destruction? Is it enough to say that their destruction is merely self imposed? We can be sure that a God of love will not stand idly by as sinners cause their own destruction. He will not ignore the cries of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters as they turn on one another in despairing rage. A neglectful parent is barely better than an abusive one. God is not insensitive to human woe. The loss of any created being is a tragedy to Him. The heart of infinite love will be crushed with intense sorrow and emotion as reflected in Jesus’ tears over Jerusalem’s fate (Luke19:41-44). We can be confident that He will do the best thing that a compassionate God can do for those terminally lost. God’s attitude toward the sinner in the end will still be dictated by His love and compassion. He will do the most merciful and just thing He can do for His hopeless, dying children, by cutting their suffering short. In a scene of strife, the sinners cause sweeping conflict, but God intervenes in the carnage by unveiling His majestic presence. What happens when He does?
Perhaps the fire most remembered is the one God sends from heaven. God’s presence is associated with consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29). Perhaps this is why God tells Moses that no mortal can see His face and live (Exodus 33:20). We may recount the burning bush, God’s manifestation as fire on Mount Sinai, Elijah’s fiery chariot, and the cloud-encased fire of God’s presence above the Ark in the Holy of Holies. So, who can stand to witness the unveiling of the dazzling brightness of God’s glory? According to Isaiah:
The sinners in Zion are afraid;
Fearfulness has seized the hypocrites:
“Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire?
Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?”
He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,
He who despises the gain of oppressions,
Who gestures with his hands, refusing bribes,
Who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed,
And shuts his eyes from seeing evil . . .
Your eyes will see the King in His beauty;
They will see the land that is very far off.33:14-17, NKJV
Christian tradition tends to interpret the eternal nature of this fire to mean conscious punishment that has no end. Such terms, however, are not necessarily quantitative but qualitative. While the consequences of the fire are eternal, the lives of the lost consumed by it are not. Scripture does not portray the continued existence of those who reject God, choosing to be cut off from the source of life. The eternal splendor of God’s consuming majesty reflects the wonder of the world to come, not everlasting torture.
Ideally, the fire on Israel’s altar includes the fire of God Himself that will never go out (Leviticus 9:24). Like the burning coal of Isaiah taken from the altar, the point of God’s holy fire is to remove sin, so He can purge the earth and create a new heaven and earth. As an image of God’s presence, fire is about the removal of evil and everything that opposes new creation (Zephaniah 3:8–9). Purification in God’s presence is the ultimate end. It is a cleansing fire, not a punishing one. Through God’s flourishing life and divine majesty, it eliminates evil and everything that stands in contradiction to His peaceful purposes. The fire God pours out consumes the “chaff” while refining the good for God’s new creation (Malachi 4:1–3). Evil, chaos, sin, and death—all these will be no more. I imagine a whole new heaven and earth will then emerge from the beautiful light of God’s immortality. Everything good in this world will be enhanced, and everything that has no place in it will cease to exist. God will make all things new, and whatever can’t be transformed to life in God’s presence will be removed by the manifestation of His glory. This fiery and eternal description of God’s presence becomes the final word as to what creation is meant to look like.
The source of God’s luminous flame is none other than the passion of His holy sacrificial love, which becomes the light in our heaven as it shines brightly throughout the eternal ages. In this new world of eternal flourishing, we are to share in the endless life of intimate relationship with God, for we shall then see His face and live. To see His face is to know Him and the internal joy of fellowship with His wonderful and intimate presence throughout days of unending happiness. You just can’t imagine a better world for the people of God than that!
Craig Ashton Jr.