- Tomorrow will be a day of complete devastation for the unsaved.
- The fury of God’s wrath will destroy and consume all his enemies.
- Fire will be the means of that destruction.
God’s word gives us so much insight into our future. But there is a temptation that accompanies the task of reflecting on what God says on the issue of tomorrow. God has a lot of good news to share with us, but he also has a lot of bad news. The topic of the future – after Christ returns – contains the good news of restoration and glorification, but it also contains the bad news of judgment and destruction of the lost. Modern day evangelicals have an aversion to that bad news, so some try to avoid the issue altogether.
Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle confessed to having been in that camp, at first. They wanted to erase hell, but eventually concluded that the concept of hell is biblical, so they had to write about it. They could not “erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with” them.1 My chief complaint against their work is they spent more time defending one of the traditional views of hell than they did exegeting the actual texts that describe hell in the Bible.2 If they had paid more attention to those texts, they would have found that God himself intends to erase hell – after it has done what he plans for it to do.
a great supper of God
Revelation 19:17 mentions a great supper, in which God consumes all his enemies. This is, perhaps, one of the passages predicting punishment that is quoted and referred to the least by theologians and pastors. We are generally uncomfortable with the imagery – I can give you that. But I think there is more to it. The imagery of complete consumption of the lost hints that the lost can be utterly destroyed. They are not immortal, invincible , inconsumable souls. Taking passages like this seriously might mean rethinking hell.
a consuming fire
The Scriptures teach that God is a consuming fire.3 This attribute of God usually refers to his ability to destroy his enemies utterly. Nadab and Abihu discovered that God was not limited to just making them uncomfortable forever. He could – and did – consume them with fire.4 The prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel also saw a visual demonstration, when Elijah’s sacrifice was totally consumed by fire from the sky. The Scriptures say “the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.5 Isaiah also described God’s judgment on the Assyrians as “a flame of devouring fire” kindled by “the breath of the LORD.6 These passages show us that there is background evidence in Scripture which lends credence to the concept of utter destruction as the right and proper punishment for sin and sinners.
Final judgment is described as a lake of fire.7 This would lead to the inference that the lake of fire is where and when God will finally, utterly consume all his enemies. But proponents of other views of hell suggest that God cannot and will not consume, or utterly destroy anyone. Origen suggested that “the God of fire consumes human sins. “8 He taught a doctrine of the fire of God slowly purging sin from the universe. This view (usually espoused by Catholics) claims that hell will burn until it has destroyed all sin, but sinners themselves will emerge from it.
On the other side of the spectrum, the popular evangelical teaching is that hell consists of “a fire that does not consume.”9 They insist that the fires of hell must be a perpetual process. So, in effect, they also reinterpret the phrase “consuming fire.” For them, the fire is like the appearance of God before Moses as a burning bush, which did not consume the bush. The lost are protected from the destructive nature of the flames (like the three Hebrew young men in the fiery furnace) but not its pain and torment. For them, “Hell is a place where the unsaved are tortured forever. “10
consumption and fire in Revelation
But we must ask not what fire can mean, and what a consuming fire can mean. We must ask what the metaphor of God as a consuming fire does mean in the context of the passages in which it is found. Of particular interest in this study are the two concepts of consumption and fire in the book of Revelation. Let us search the text, and discover the meaning in the text. Let us not use the excuse that the book of Revelation is symbolic. Symbols are a legitimate means of revealing truth. There is always enough data in the text of any biblical book so that we can discern the facts behind the figures of speech it employs.
- John writes of conquerors who will eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.11 Adam & Eve, and all of us who have been born from them have been prohibited from this consumption. But after sinners and all evil have been eradicated, this meal will once again be possible.
- John reflects Jesus’ condemnation of false teachers at Pergamum, who, like Balaam in the Old Testament , corrupted God’s people by teaching them that certain detestable practices are permitted. The practices he mentions specifically are sexual immorality and eating foods which had been sacrificed to idols.12
- John reflects Jesus invitation to believers in the church at Laodicea to open the door to him, because he is standing at the door, knocking. He promises to come in through the door that they open, and enjoy a meal with them.13
- John has a vision in which he is given a little scroll, and told to eat it. It tasted sweet to his mouth, but turned bitter in his stomach.14
- In the predicted “great supper of God” an angel calls out to “birds that fly directly overhead” – suggesting birds that clean up the dead after battle. They are told “to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.”15 The image is of a battle where the only thing left of the enemy is the dead bodies of the fallen. The birds are the clean-up crew.
Again, no one is arguing that every statement in these texts is literal. There is symbolism involved. But even the symbols used in these texts suggest that something has really been consumed. There is no indication that the eating is some kind of ever-enduring process.
- In the first trumpet of the seven trumpets vision, one third of all the land, the trees and the grass are burned up because of a plague of hail and fire, mixed with blood. They are all said to have been burned up.16
- The Great prostitute is said to be made desolate and naked. Her flesh is devoured and she is burned up with fire.17
- Babylon the Great is also said to be “burned up with fire,” and the people who had “committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her” will see the smoke – the evidence of her destruction – and “weep and wail.”18
- Satan, the beast, and the false prophet, and all “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” will be throne into the lake of fire.19 Each will suffer torment for as long as is necessary. But the torment is not the purpose of this lake of fire. No, this is “the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”20 A lake of fire consumes what is thrown into it. This is the natural reading of the text. It also fits the picture of God as a consuming fire that is evident in the previous Scriptures we have surveyed.
destruction in the rest of the New Testament
The teachings of the rest of the New Testament serve as a corresponding affirmation that the final state of the lost will be complete destruction:
“fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”21
“And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are- the Holy One of God.22“”
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.23
“Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot- they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all– so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”24
“Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’”25
“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”26
“We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”27
“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”28
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil. “29
“For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”30
“those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. … like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction.”31
“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”32
consumption by fire in the rest of the New Testament
The rest of the New Testament also utilizes the metaphor of consumption in fire as a description of God’s judgment on sinners.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.33“”
“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.”34”
“And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?””35
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”36
“This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken- that is, things that have been made- in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”37
“waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”38
In the face of all this evidence from Scripture that the LORD plans to consume his enemies by destroying them with fire at the final judgment, it makes sense to believe this truth, and teach it in our churches. Let us have an end to redefining biblical words and misapplying Scriptural texts. Let us take God at his word regarding the fate of the lost, because he is a consuming fire. The world needs to know that!
- Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011), 135.
- See my review of the book here: www.afterlife.co.nz/2011/featured-article/erasing-hell-review-by-jefferson-vann/
- Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Isa. 33:14; Lam. 2:3; Heb. 12:29.
- Leviticus 10:1-2.
- 1 Kings 18:38-39.
- Isaiah 30:30,33.
- Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14f.
- Origen, Homilies on Leviticus. Quoted in Joseph T. Lienhard, ed. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 278.
- R.T. Kendall, The Parables of Jesus. (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2006), 355. Kendall argued that hell is a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and that cannot happen if one is burned up or annihilated. But, anyone can imagine that just before an execution, the condemned would respond to their immanent demise with either grief or anger, or both. Their weeping and gnashing of teeth would be a very natural reaction to their fate, but would by no means prohibit them from subsequently being executed.
- Revelation 2:7.
- Revelation 2:14, 20.
- Revelation 3:20.
- Revelation 10:9-10.
- Revelation 19:17-18.
- Revelation 8:7.
- Revelation 17:16.
- Revelation 18:1-18.
- Revelation 19:20; 21:8.
- Revelation 21:8.
- Matthew 10:28 ESV. (This and all subsequent references will include underlining for emphasis. The emphases are mine).
- Luke 4:33-34 ESV.
- Luke 17:26-27 ESV.
- Luke 17:28-30 ESV.
- Acts 3:22-23 ESV.
- 1 Corinthians 3:17 ESV.
- 1 Corinthians 10:9-11 ESV.
- 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 ESV.
- Hebrews 2:14 ESV.
- Hebrews 10:36-39 ESV.
- 2 Peter 2:10, 12 ESV.
- 1 John 3:8 ESV.
- Matthew 3:12 NET.
- Matthew 13:40 ESV.
- Luke 9:54 ESV.
- Hebrews 10:26-27 ESV.
- Hebrews 12:27-29 ESV.
- 2 Peter 3:12 ESV.