Longing for the Divine

Nadab & Abihu: Consumed By Fire! – Part 3

I’ve been pondering the story told in Leviticus chapter 10:1–3, which describes how fire came down and consumed Nadab and Abihu. It seems harsh. I don’t know about you, but I want to know about the God who burned them up. Does God want to barbecue sinners, or does He yearn for our well-being and intimate fellowship? 

When we think of the fire that consumed Nadab and Abihu, we naturally think of the negative—a punishing fire from the sky. In common notions of hell, God is cast as the tormenter, the destroyer. Some imagine the pain of being burned with fire—eternally writhing in actual punitive flames. The problem with this traditional idea of sinners in fiery torment is that it’s inconsistent with the central revelation of God’s embracing love and mercy (1 John 4:8, 16). So, what alternatives are there to an angry God in the sky?

The mysterious fire in the Leviticus story came from God’s presence and consumed Nadab and Abihu, but this was not as simple as you might think. The fire didn’t burn them as we might imagine. We tend to think of fire as combustive energy, like the lighting of a match, but this fire was the inexplicable divine force of God’s majesty (Hebrews 12:29). This fiery divine power was not a punishing or torturing fire but one that consumed in an instant. There was no burning or frying, for the bodies were intact and remained dressed in their special priestly clothes. Does this mean that Nadab and Abihu died because “no one can see [God’s] face and live” (Exodus 33:20)? God’s unveiled glory is described as a consuming fire that can be fatal to us (Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:24).

It seems that our notions about God’s unutterable majesty and power almost always come up short. Equating His glory with the blazing radiance of the sun or a gigantic nebula erupting to outshine its entire galaxy is perhaps the best way to convey the magnitude of the energy that is resident in God, yet the intensity of God’s being is simply beyond our ability to imagine. He is bigger than anything we can possibly take in. The glory of God’s being is hidden from us; our access is limited. God has been willing, however, to lay aside His glory to disclose Himself—appearing in veiled ways that we can endure. God dwelt in the Sanctuary, where His presence was depicted as fire and His divine glory was restrained and clouded. If God were to come out of hiding and unveil Himself, we would be consumed.

In Revelation 20:9, we encounter this same fiery divine power coming from God and consuming those who brazenly advanced into the place of His presence, which emanated with glory. The place is described as the great holy of holies where God dwells (Revelation 21:16; 1 Kings 6:20). In a striking echo of Leviticus 10, God’s glory-encased fire came down and consumed those who entered. This devouring fire is well known, but some of the story’s important details are often overlooked or considered irrelevant. You may not realize it, but the story of Nadab and Abihu is all about fire, and some of this fire they kindled themselves. They brought a strange, impure, and profane fire, which is in line with Origen’s argument that “every sinner kindles for himself the flame of his own fire and is not plunged into a fire which has been previously kindled by someone else or which existed before him” (On First Principles 2.20.4, trans. G. W. Butterworth 1936, as cited in Sigve Tonstad, Revelation, 2019, p. 280). 

God is not inherently a destroyer. Wherever a sinner finds God, however, is a consuming fire. This imploding fire is not a demonstration of God’s arbitrary power. It’s not a wrathful, vengeful, or punishing power but the power of love and the source of life (Exodus 33-34). By choosing sin, we place ourselves out of harmony with God, rendering His presence to us a consuming fire.  

We often depict this fiery judgment as an eternal tormenting punishment, but God does not burn His victims endlessly. He consumes them! The fire “shall burn them up” (Malachi 4:10). This is not a fire that burns forever. God’s fire in the story of Nadab and Abihu teaches the exact opposite of the doctrine of eternal conscience torment, which indicates that God’s fire does not consume but punishes forever. 

The Bible also references the dead bodies that must be carried away to a place out of the camp. Death is inconsistent with God’s presence, which pulsates a full and vibrant life. Holiness and life will overcome sin and death. Death and hell are to be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), so how could one punish eternally? Removing the impurity of death from God’s dwelling suggests that in the world to come, death and suffering will be no more (Revelation 21:4). Sinners who cling to the fires they have kindled do not possess the light of immortality that allows them to live eternally (1 Timothy 6:16). This is the vision of the prophets who said, “he will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8, ESV). 

Finally, the story of Nadab and Abihu raises important questions about the nature of our future dwelling with God. Who is this God who is a consuming fire, who is out to burn up everything that doesn’t belong? Who would survive should this burning flame reach its zenith? If we are destined to experience God’s presence directly, what are we to make of heaven and hell? Jesus spoke about everyone being “salted with fire,” a good fire (Mark 9:49–50). This positive fire does not punish but speaks of cleansing and renewal. When God acts fully, what are the results?

The sinners in Zion are afraid;

    trembling has seized the godless:

“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?

    Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”

He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,

    who despises the gain of oppressions,

who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe,

    who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed

    and shuts his eyes from looking on evil,

 he will dwell on the heights;

    his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks;

    his bread will be given him; his water will be sure.

Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty...

Isaiah 33:14-18, ESV

When God comes out to unveil Himself in the end, He will be the sun and shield for those who walk in the light, as He is in the light (1 John 1:7). The pure of heart will see God, and it will be a radiant bliss. Like the sun’s active energy, God’s presence is a saving and healing power, but it can also burn and consume, as it did Nadab and Abihu.“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him” (Psalm 50:2–3, NRSV).

The eternal nature of this fire is God Himself (Hebrews 12:29). His goal is to express His love and His beautiful presence among His people. God’s fire conveys the beauty of His majesty, not His anger toward or punishment of sinners. God’s fire reflects glory and light, not torment and punishment. God desires to remove death and hell from His creation, to consume sin and evil wherever found. He aims to purify by consuming everything that does not belong. God’s cleansing fire of holiness is the source of life and beauty, as it eliminates evil and everything else that opposes His flourishing life of beauty and love  (2 Peter 3:12–13). Might I suggest that to imply any other depiction of God’s fire is false—it is a strange fire?

Craig Ashton Jr.

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