“And they will be tormented with fire and burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb. The smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever, and they will have no relief day or night…”Revelation 14:10-11, NLT
God loves everybody and seeks the highest good for all, yet He also warns of serious consequences for failing to live up to our responsibilities. I can understand consequences, but why must there be an eternal lake of “fire and sulfur” at history’s end? Should we take this imagery of retribution literally, as an absolute reality? It sounds a bit extreme.
That’s not what a Bible teacher I met at a Christian conference thought. I found myself being challenged. He sat next to me with an authoritative stance, arguing that God was much more severe than I had suggested in one of my presentations that morning. In his mission to prove me wrong, he attempted to discredit my ideas. He did not stop his rant until one of his colleagues pulled him back.
When it comes to hell and the fate of non-believers, many Christians say God should punish violators to make them pay. It’s not enough that believers be given rewards while all others are excluded. No, they insist that violators must also pay an infinite penalty—the torment of fire and burning sulfur. How repugnant to human love and decency! Surely then, a most important question is whether our loving God orchestrates such a fate.
I find it difficult to accept a divine being who sends people to hell—an eternal conscious torment—to uphold a cosmic scale of law and order. Scripture does describe the certainty of judgment—but in some surprising ways. In the last book of the Bible, John uses the phrase “fire and burning sulfur” to describe the final day of reckoning. Though no less sobering, this passage includes an allusion to Deuteronomy 29 that may change your mind about the nature of this fire.
Deuteronomy 29 describes a type of person who thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,” but the text goes on, stating that “they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry” (vs. 19). God further states that this scorched earth of salt and sulfur “will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” (vs. 23). Wait a minute! The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is not an everlasting punishment. The fire and sulfur in that story do not burn forever. The consequences are eternal but not the burning itself.
The lasting consequences and judgment is final. We see the result through the eyes of Abraham when “he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace” (Genesis 19:27-28, ESV). This stresses the question the nations ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?” (Deuteronomy 29:23–24). It’s a fair question, and the book of Revelation raises it too. Why does God do this? “And the answer will be: ‘It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord’” (Deuteronomy 29:25, NIV).
Okay, fair enough, but why does God tell us that others are staring wide-eyed as they witness the calamity of a scorched earth? Revelation portrays a similar sobering scene as “the Lamb and his angels” watch the “fire and sulfur” work destruction (Revelation 14:10). To uncover the reason for this questioning witness, Deuteronomy sends us back to Genesis, to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which begins with God revealing to Abraham what He is going to do (18:16–33). There, instead of remaining inscrutable, God is willing to subject His ways to Abraham’s judgment and protest. God is interested in letting mankind know His intentions, inviting Abraham to share in this experience by asking authentic questions about accountability. Abraham does so not from a prohibitory stance heavy on retribution but from the stance of mercy and blessing. Abraham is not an indifferent spectator but compassionately concerned about saving others. That’s what God’s justice and righteousness look like.
Deuteronomy shows us another reason for witnessing the Sodom and Gomorrah event. Instead of looking approvingly with an unpitying eye, we are invited to see what injustice looks like and how not to live. The story is a warning that wickedness will run its course to completion—this is the result of what takes place when God acts (2 Peter 2:6), but we should not forget Abraham’s reflection in its aftermath (Genesis 19:27–-29). For many, Deuteronomy suggests punitive retribution, but Abraham’s story should erase any terror caused by this thought. The lake of fire and sulfur evokes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which teaches us that punishment is not forever and that God is more merciful than we imagine Him to be. Taken too literally, images of divine retribution are not workable in the larger context of the Bible, but they do provide definite theological meaning to the nature of judgment (see Richard Baukham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation,1993, p. 21). Sigve K. Tonstad’s commentary in Revelation (2019, p. 208) further explains that the images of fire and sulfur are signature signs of demonic activity (Revelation 9:17–18). The idea that God tortures people for a period of time in fire and sulfur is a distortion of Biblical imagery that colors the language with the cruelty of satanic action (Revelation 9:4-5).
Christians who see a judgmental God tend to focus on punishing disobedient sinners through endless torture. God does not threaten to burn people for failing to take Him seriously, however; instead, Biblical stories of judgment are warnings and reminders of what life apart from a loving God looks like. The Deuteronomic curse should not be conceptualized as God being bent on punishing us with “every curse written in the book”; we simply reap the consequence of our actions. There will be judgment, but it’s not God’s choice. He fundamentally loves you. God doesn’t choose a scorched earth, but due to people’s choices, it’s an unavoidable destiny.
What is the origin of earth’s destruction? We are the authors of hell’s fire—the anarchy and wickedness that scorch the earth. God knows the penalties, which belong to Him, but He does not create the hell we enter; we do. We are invited to participate with Abraham in seeking understanding and by walking obediently in God’s way of love to fulfill His intended blessing. What then, is the theology of Abraham, which seeks blessing and salvation for the nations? It is righteousness. It also exemplifies faith and trust—trust that God will do the right thing (Genesis 18:25). What matters is God’s righteousness which comes to light in the faithfulness of Jesus (Revelation 14:12). While some may think they are safe to follow their own willful hearts, God promises that those who choose to go their own way will meet a bad end. Rather than a theology of divine retribution, however, this view emphasizes people’s rejection of grace and blessing. God delays judgment, first seeking our participation in blessing others. God will be there. It will occur in His presence, but He does not will it to happen—that’s up to us. The presence of the Lamb allows that to become clear. The curse does not come as an arbitrary exaction from God; the negative consequences are found in the curse—the consequence of our sin (Deuteronomy 31:17–18; Hosea 11:8–9).
How can we wonder why so few have faith in God, when we take Biblical descriptions of punishment to mean that God saves only Christians and sends everyone else to hell. I cannot believe, however, that people will be sentenced to “hell” just because they don’t follow the traditional profession of faith. We must emulate Abraham’s pursuit to save others—a pursuit to which God wholeheartedly says “yes!” Some people have a theology different from ours or know nothing about salvation theories but nonetheless cherish a spirit of kindness and love, thus showing that they respond to God’s summons. John learned this way of love from Jesus, writing that anyone who practices what is right is born of God and that everyone who lives the way of love knows Him (1 John 2:29; 4:7). Peter too eventually learned that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone” who chooses “what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34–35, ESV). The theology of righteousness by faith considers justice quite different from the traditional view of hell. Abraham’s quest to save others is surely an echo of God’s love for the world. Those who cling to their own willful ways initiate hell within themselves and will experience fire and sulfur at history’s end, but as the character Mrs. O’Brien, says in the film Tree of Life, “no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end” (Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life).
Craig Ashton Jr.