One common view among traditionalists today, including among some of the biggest names in evangelical Christianity, is that hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment, but not a place of literal fire. Such a view was represented by William Crockett in Four Views on Hell, where it was referred to as the “metaphorical view.”1 We will be using the description “the metaphorical view” throughout this article.2
Now, not everyone holds this view, and so my primary point may not apply to your view of hell. That said, you may still get something out of it if you do choose to read on, and so I certainly invite you to do so.

In any case, this view is very popular. When I was in college, I felt like it could almost be taken for granted among my friends in Campus Crusade for Christ (now officially just Cru). At least in the western world, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the majority view among evangelicals. And it is not limited to lay people or those influenced by liberalism or some sort  of anti-traditional bias. In Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle,3 they point to the ubiquity of the metaphorical view among scholars:

Most evangelical Christians who believe that Hell is a literal place and that its duration is forever do not interpret the fire imagery literally. Well-known figures such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, and Sinclair Ferguson all understand the fire images non-literally. Other conservative commentators and theologians, such as Charles Hodge, Carl Henry, F.F. Bruce,4 Roger Nicole, Leon Morris, and Robert Peterson agree.5

A number of notable scholars and authors can be added to that list, and they include the following:
Robert Morey: Author of Death and the Afterlife.6
Millard Erickson: Author of Christian Theology.7
John Blanchard: Author of Whatever Happened to Hell?8
Timothy Keller: Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.9
The main biblical reason for this goes along these lines, as Leon Morris explains:

The fact of Hell is certain. The nature of Hell is less clear. It is true that the fate of the finally impenitent is spoken of in terms of “the hell of fire” (). But it is also spoken of as the “outer darkness” (), and it is further described in terms of the “worm” that “does not die” (). It is not always easy to connect the realities of fire, darkness, and a place where the worm does not die. And this is only the beginning [of seemingly contradictory pictures of Hell].10

Of course, other reasons exist for holding this view, such as the belief held by some in the metaphorical view camp that subjecting the unrepentant to eternal suffering in hell becomes cruel if it involves actually burning them alive in real fire.11 But the reasons why the view is held isn’t nearly as important as the fact that it exists, it is very popular, and it is also very problematic.

Some Pictures and Descriptions of Hell Don’t Make Sense If Hell is Eternal Torment Without Fire

The Bible makes several allusions to nature and history to describe what hell will be like. The problem for the metaphorical view is that some of these examples, pictures, and straightforward descriptions describe something that is nothing like the fireless place of eternal suffering that the metaphorical view envisions.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Consider Sodom and Gomorrah, and their use as a model for God’s judgment in passages like  and . The former goes as far as saying that “[God] 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” (added emphasis in bold).1213 Aside from being a strong indication that hell is a place of annihilation (especially , since it tells us that God specifically made an example out of them by reducing them to ashes),14 this idea of Sodom and Gomorrah exemplifying hell flies in the face of the metaphorical view.
Now, I don’t say that it flies in the face of the metaphorical view simply because it mentions fire. I say this because Sodom and Gomorrah suffered fire and destruction. What aspect of Sodom and Gomorrah is in any way special in how they foreshadow hell? The annihilationist can say that the destruction (if not both the destruction and burning sulfur) is the aspect that foreshadows hell. A traditionalist who holds to hell as a place of literal fire could say that the divine fire is what foreshadows hell. That still makes sense out of the overall idea.15
In contrast, what does one who holds to the metaphorical view have? They say that hell is a place where the wicked are not destroyed (at least not in the sense of a city being reduced to ashes), and it is also a place where there is no fire. Why would this particular instance of divine judgment be highlighted when it bears so little similarity to what hell is supposedly like? mentions a number of past instances of divine judgment, any one of which would have fit the metaphorical view as well or better (take the angels being cast into Tartarus and chained up in , for example). If the metaphorical view is true, then the Bible appeals to the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as foreshadowing hell, a hell that is neither fiery nor destructive!

Parable of the Wheat and Tares

Other pictures of the sinner’s doom pose the same problem. Consider the parable of the weeds and Jesus’ explanation of it in . In a nutshell, the parable involves two crops, the wheat and the tares (i.e. weeds of some sort). At the end, they are harvested, the wheat is kept and the tares are burned. The wheat represents the redeemed and the tares are the unsaved (), both harvested at the end of the age by angels (). As to what the burning of the tares means in real life, Jesus explains it for us: ”

So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness,and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth ().

One might say that when Jesus says the actual people (not just the tares of the parable) are thrown into the fiery furnace, he is referring to hell metaphorically. Perhaps, one might say, the fire represents pain or displeasure. But that ignores the destruction element inherent in the analogy between men and burning tares in his divine explanation of the parable’s meaning.
Therefore, the same question arises as with Sodom and Gomorrah. How does comparing the unsaved directly to burnt up tares possibly foreshadow a hell of fireless misery? Is it the fire? No, since there is no fire. Is it the swift and utter destruction, the reducing to ashes, that represents hell? Certainly not. That would foreshadow annihilation (as defined here), not eternal continuance. It’s not like Jesus’ audience had atom smashers and would pedantically say that since there are ashes, the chaff still exists; if Jesus was making a metaphor for a place of eternal existence in suffering (without fire), why would Jesus have appealed to one of the clearest forms of destruction and, dare I say, annihilation, available at the time?
At least a traditionalist who thinks that hell is a place of fire could make some sense of the passage by saying that humans are like tares in that they are thrown into fire.16 But the picture of chaff burning up is about as far from the fireless existence of the metaphorical view as could be imagined.

The Lake of Burning Sulfur

If hell is neither a place of destruction nor fire, why portray the lost being cast into a lake of fire and brimstone as a symbol of torment in Revelation? After all, how is fire and brimstone used throughout the Old Testament? It is a means of destruction (most notably in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah). A few passages are ambiguous (e.g. ), but at no point do they even suggest torment, or for that matter, anything other than the death and destruction that would occur in nature. If it was a symbol of anything, it was a symbol of destruction.
If we are to say that hell literally is fire and brimstone, then this is less of a problem. If it is literal, then all bets are off, since symbolism wouldn’t be a factor in the first place. We wouldn’t need to make sense of the imagery because it wouldn’t be imagery, but simply what is.17
However, the question is raised as to why the Bible would use an Old Testament figure in the New Testament to represent something so radically different from what it meant in the Old, especially in a book like Revelation which is clearly written to an audience of largely Jewish believers. The only time fire and brimstone are directly used to speak of hell is in Revelation, a book largely based on figures and symbols from the Old Testament. Their meanings help explain Revelation, not the other way around. With so much Old Testament baggage, with Sodom and Gomorrah in the back of the reader’s mind, in a book so heavily laden with Old Testament imagery, do we really think that John intended to portray a whole new idea, that being of burning sulfur as a symbol of ongoing torment?

Conclusion

Unlike with the traditional doctrine, if one believes in annihilationism, the fire can still be metaphorical and the pictures of hell and analogies made about the unsaved can still make good sense. The damned are like burned weeds because, like burnt weeds, they are totally destroyed. The damned are like Sodom and Gomorrah because they are swiftly destroyed in a spectacular demonstration of God’s vengeance and power. Burning sulfur, which caused destruction so vividly in the Old Testament, is used as a symbol in Revelation to represent destruction.
I am not totally committed on whether or not there really is fire involved or not. Given how much fire is mentioned, I would imagine that there actually is some sort of fire, though it would probably have to have a supernatural component that can destroy spirits (like devil and his angels) as well as flesh. But I am not dogmatic; I do not have to be.
This whole section doesn’t address traditionalism in all its forms (though a few of the scriptures given may cause some traditionalists of any sort to rethink). That said, since so many traditionalists today hold to the metaphorical view, even among the most conservative seminaries and teachers, it’s worth pointing out how problematic the view is in light of scripture.

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  1. William Crockett. “Chapter Two: The Metaphorical View,” Four Views on Hell. Ed. William Crockett and Stanley Gundry (Zondervan, 1996), 43-76. []
  2. adapted from Joseph Dear. The Bible Teaches Annihilationism (n.d.), Section XLIV, found at 3-Ring Binder, n.d., http://3-ringbinder.weebly.com/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism.pdf (accessed on December 1, 2013). []
  3. You may recall that Preston Sprinkle was interviewed on the Rethinkinghell Podcast, Episodes 5 and 6. Since co-writing Erasing Hell and the subsequent interview, Dr. Sprinkle has come to accept the evangelical conditionalist view and allowed us to list him among proponents of the view in our Explore section. []
  4. For what it’s worth, F.F.  Bruce reportedly came to consider conditionalism a viable interpretation – Thomas Dudley-Smith. John Stott: A Global Ministry: A Biography of the Later Years (Intervarsity, 2006), 354 []
  5. Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up (David C. Cook, 2011), 154. []
  6. Robert Morey. Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 1984), 29-31. []
  7. Millard Erickson. Christian Theology (Baker Academic, 1998), 1248. []
  8. John Blanchard. Whatever Happened to Hell? (Evangelical, 1993), 138. []
  9. Timothy Keller. “The Importance of Hell,” redeemer.com, n.d. http://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/articles/the_importance_of_hell.html, (Accessed on December 1, 2013). []
  10. Leon Morris. “The Dreadful Harvest.” Christianity Today, (May 27, 1991): 34-38. PDF File. []
  11. e.g. William Crockett, 50. []
  12. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations I give are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. []
  13. The NASB, my preferred default translation, uses italics to indicate words not literally in the original language that are added to make the sentence make sense in English. This is why I used bold letters for emphasis instead of italics. []
  14. Some translations, such as the ESV, translate it in such a way that drives home the point even further: “if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” I am told that there is a textual variant which accounts for the reference to “extinction” and the different ending (“making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly”), though I do not know more than that []
  15. The annihilationist is still in much a better position, given the Old Testament’s emphasis on Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction – ; ; ; ; – as well as the specific text of which says that God made them an example specifically by incinerating them, not just in the use of fire (fire itself isn’t actually even mentioned except by implication in the idea of reducing to ashes). But of course, that’s a separate issue. []
  16. As with Sodom and Gomorrah, the annihilationist is still in the better position since Jesus, in , compares the fate of the unsaved directly to how tares burn, i.e. completely to ashes, as opposed to being like a finger getting burned on a hot griddle. []
  17. Now, I will say that I don’t think the idea that fire and brimstone was used on earth to kill in order to foreshadow its use as a tool of torture is particularly strong, given it’s use in the Old Testament as a means of destruction, not torment. In a book as packed with Old Testament imagery as Revelation, burning sulfur should be expected to call to mind destruction, the same way that a lamb calls to mind an innocent being sacrificed for sin. We wouldn’t expect it to be literal. For more on this, see parts one and two of a recent and ongoing series by co-contibutor Chris Date []

22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

23 the whole land burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in his anger and wrath—

19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,
the splendor and pomp of the Chaldeans,
will be like Sodom and Gomorrah
when God overthrew them.
20 It will never be inhabited
or lived in for all generations;
no Arab will pitch his tent there;
no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there.

40 As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring cities, declares the Lord, so no man shall dwell there, and no son of man shall sojourn in her.

For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater
than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment,
and no hands were wrung for her.

Therefore, as I live,” declares the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel,
“Moab shall become like Sodom,
and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
and a waste forever.
The remnant of my people shall plunder them,
and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.”

if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

2:1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.

Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, 11 whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. 12 But these, 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, 13 suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. 14 They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 15 Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, 16 but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.

17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. 18 For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. 20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;

13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.

15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, 54 and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one,

39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels.

40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.

Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.