Monday, May 20, 2019

Eternal Fire, the Sun, and Solar Flares (Why Eternal Fire does not Mean Eternal Torment)

eternal fire torment annihilationism conditional immortality hell

I used to believe that those who are not saved by faith in Christ would be tormented forever in hell. I now believe instead that they will perish (John 3:16), have their bodies and souls destroyed (Matthew 10:28), and be burned to ashes (2 Peter 2:6). I changed my view as a result of in depth study of all the Bible says on this topic. The more I study this, the more evidence I find in favor of conditional immortality (aka annihilationism). I have found that most of the Bible passages that people think point to eternal torment, when studied in the context of God’s Word, actually provide better support for conditional immortality. This is true for the three passages that mention eternal fire:

CSB17 Matt. 18:8  If your hand or your foot causes you to fall away, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.

CSB17 Matt. 25:41 "Then he will also say to those on the left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!

CSB17 Jude 1:7  Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns committed sexual immorality and perversions, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.

Traditionalists who believe in eternal conscious torment see the phrase “eternal fire” and they reason that since the unrighteous are thrown into an eternal fire it means that they are consciously tormented forever. None of the verses that mention eternal fire actually say this. A bigger problem is the ashes . . .

Turned to Ashes

Jude tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah are an example of punishment by eternal fire. Peter also points to Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly, but he specifically points to the fact that they were turned to ashes:

CSB17 2 Peter 2:6 and if he reduced the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes and condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is coming to the ungodly; (2 Pet. 2:6 CSB17)

Peter’s warning is consistent with the warning from John the Baptist that the unsaved will be burned up like chaff (Matthew 3:12), and from Jesus that they will be burned up like weeds (Matthew 13:30). Both John and Jesus use a word for “burned up” that refers to burning something up completely (see a discussion of this in my post, Downburned and Ashified, the Annihilation of the Unrighteous). Before John the Baptist, Malachi had foreseen that the wicked, “will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 4:3). The author of Hebrews points to this same truth when he writes, “of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:26).

This raises a question. If the unsaved are burned to ashes, why is the fire that destroys them called eternal fire? Why should the fire last forever if those destroyed by it do not? The Bible does not explicitly answer these questions. However, the Bible does say more about God and His fire, and this will point us to a likely explanation that makes good sense out of both a literal eternal fire and literal burning to ashes.

God is fiery, like the sun

In our present, fallen state, no one is able to fully and directly see God in all His glory. But occasionally, people in the Bible are given glimpses of God’s glory. In these visions of glory, God is seen as being incredibly bright, fiery, and glowing.

When God comes down in glory on Mount Sinai, we read, “Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke because the LORD came down on it in fire. Its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently” (Exodus 19:18 CSB17).

When Ezekiel saw a vision of God approaching, he described it this way, “I looked, and there was a whirlwind coming from the north, a huge cloud with fire flashing back and forth and brilliant light all around it. In the center of the fire, there was a gleam like amber” (Ezek. 1:4 CSB17). When he sees more detail, he describes his vision of the Lord this way:

From what seemed to be his waist up, I saw a gleam like amber, with what looked like fire enclosing it all around. From what seemed to be his waist down, I also saw what looked like fire. There was a brilliant light all around him. The appearance of the brilliant light all around was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This was the appearance of the likeness of the LORD 's glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking. (Ezekiel 1:27-28 CSB17)

When Jesus is transformed in front of Peter, James, and John, “his face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2 CSB17) and when John sees the glorified Lord in a vision, “his face was shining like the sun at full strength” (Rev. 1:16 CSB17). Paul experienced something similar (Acts 26:13). Isaiah goes so far as to say that the glory of the Lord is so bright and beautiful, that by comparison “The moon will be put to shame and the sun disgraced, because the LORD of Armies will reign as king on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, and he will display his glory in the presence of his elders” (Isa. 24:23 CSB17).

Of course, God is not simply fire, but there is something about His glory that is consistently manifested as a bright, super intense, glorious, burning fire. While this fiery aspect of God is glorious, it is also deadly to all evil. The Bible does not merely say that God consumes evil with fire, it says that God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29, and see also Exodus 24:17,  Deuteronomy 9:3, and Isaiah 33:14). This brings us to the next important piece of the puzzle.

Fire from God Destroys Evil

In the following verses, we see a consistent pattern of “fire from the Lord” and the “fire of God” coming from Him and consuming his enemies:

ESV Genesis 19:24 Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven.

CSB17 Numbers 11:1 Now the people began complaining openly before the LORD about hardship. When the LORD heard, his anger burned, and fire from the LORD blazed among them and consumed the outskirts of the camp.

CSB17 Numbers 16:35 Fire also came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were presenting the incense.

CSB17 Leviticus 10:2 Then fire came from the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

ESV 2 Kings 1:12 But Elijah answered them, "If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty." Then the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.

Daniel is given a vision of a similar fate that awaits “the beast” who opposed God’s people:

A river of fire was flowing, coming out from his presence. Thousands upon thousands served him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was convened, and the books were opened. I watched, then, because of the sound of the arrogant words the horn was speaking. As I continued watching, the beast was killed and its body destroyed and given over to the burning fire.  (Daniel 7:10-11 CSB17)

Putting it All Together

The concepts of eternal fire and being burned to ashes, both found in Scripture referring to the final fate of the unrighteous, can now be harmonized. The eternal fire is the fire associated with God’s glory. It is eternal because God is eternal, and His glory is eternal. This eternal fire can be compared to the sun. This glorious fire becomes destructive and consumes evil when God directs His holy, fiery wrath towards His enemies who have rejected Him. These eruptions of fiery wrath can be compared to solar flares. The sun gives life and light. Solar flares are destructive. The sun is long lasting. Any given solar flare is short-lived. Likewise, God’s fiery glory is eternal, but His fiery wrath is expressed “in the day of wrath” (Romans 2:5 see my post on this verse, The Day of Wrath). This explains why Jude can speak of Sodom and Gomorrah “undergoing the punishment of eternal fire” even though no fire is burning today where Sodom and Gomorrah used to be. The eruption of fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah was short lived, but the eternal source of that fire is our God, who is a consuming fire.

Can anyone hope to “dwell with ever-burning flames" (Isaiah 33:14)? The answer is yes, but only for those who are made righteous by faith in Christ. One day we will be transformed and nothing sinful or evil will be left in us. On that day we will be able to gaze unhindered on the blazing glory of God and not be consumed. Thank God for His amazing grace!

Further Study and Resources

I’m not the first to look at this issue or reach this conclusion. For example, Peter Grice wrote, “Fire from heaven—the consuming fire of God—may be considered eternal at its source, without this meaning that any manifestation or emanation of it must continue to burn forever” (in Annihilation in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (Part 1): Destroyed by the Glory of His ManifestPresence).

The issue of “eternal fire” is part of a larger discussion on the nature of hell. I’ve written quite a few posts and posted a few videos on this topic. You may find a list of these posts and videos, with brief descriptions, here:  Mark’s Resources on Hell.

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

1 comment:

  1. well done on the article. I have been contemplating this also. I was wondering when the word eternal was used in conjunction with words like judgment, punishment, destruction, fire, power, glory or even so with life John 17:3, That the word eternal could be refering to God himself although im not saying it doesn't denote time either. thanks