Jefferson Vann joins the recent discussion of the metaphorical fire of 1 Corinthians 3.
Do traditionalists believe that hell will involve literal fire or not? I ask this question after listening to a recent debate on the subject of whether Hell will involve eternal torment. Damon Richardson quoted the following text:
- “Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”1
Richardson’s point was that the New Testament uses fire as a metaphor for judgement, but not the literal means of that judgment. He was in essence accusing conditionalists of thinking too literally about the fire of hell. He implied that the purpose of judgment is to reveal, not to destroy.
Chris Date pointed out that conditionalists do not deny that sometimes fire can be used metaphorically in the scriptures, but the question is how the term is used in those passages which are clearly describing final judgment. For example, these texts:
- “just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”2
- “and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter.”3
In both of these passages, Sodom & Gomorrah’s literal destruction by eternal fire is the result of their judgement. The fire that destroyed them was just as literal as their judgment. It was not a metaphor.
But what is Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 3? Is he suggesting that the fire of hell is not literal?
The issue in 1 Corinthians 3 is not final punishment. The issue is divided loyalty among the believers in Corinth. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians not to place their loyalty in human teachers, but to focus on Christ, the foundation. Human teachers add to that foundation, but some of their teachings will be found to be wrong when the day of Christ’s return reveals the quality of those teachings. So, it is the second coming – not any supposed “believers’ judgment” that will burn up those works.
Yes, fire is being used as a metaphor in this text. But what does the metaphor describe? The metaphorical fire of 1 Corinthians 3 describes the literal destruction of any teaching that departs from the foundational teachings of Christ.
Even in this rare instance where fire is used as a metaphor, there is no suggestion of conscious suffering. Instead the teachers who are guilty of going beyond the foundation of Christ are still saved – even though their works are burned up.
For videos or podcasts of the original debate and the subsequent review, use the links below:
1 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 (NASB).
2 Jude 7 (NASB).
3 2 Peter 2:6 (NASB).