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” (Matt. 5:22). But it is also spoken of as the “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12), and it is further described in terms of the “worm” that “does not die” (Mark 9:48). 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 2 Peter 2.6 and Jude 7. 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). 12 13 Aside from being a strong indication that hell is a place of annihilation (especially 2 Peter 2:6, 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? 2 Peter 2 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 Verse 4, 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 Matthew 13. 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 (Verse 38), both harvested at the end of the age by angels (Verse 39). 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 (Verses 40-42).
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. Psalm 11:6), 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?
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.
- William Crockett. “Chapter Two: The Metaphorical View,” Four Views on Hell. Ed. William Crockett and Stanley Gundry (Zondervan, 1996), 43-76.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up (David C. Cook, 2011), 154.
- Robert Morey. Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 1984), 29-31.
- Millard Erickson. Christian Theology (Baker Academic, 1998), 1248.
- John Blanchard. Whatever Happened to Hell? (Evangelical, 1993), 138.
- 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).
- Leon Morris. “The Dreadful Harvest.” Christianity Today, (May 27, 1991): 34-38. PDF File.
- e.g. William Crockett, 50.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- The annihilationist is still in much a better position, given the Old Testament’s emphasis on Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction – Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19-20; Jeremiah 50:40; Lamentations 4:6; Zephaniah 2:9 – as well as the specific text of 2 Peter 2:6 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.
- As with Sodom and Gomorrah, the annihilationist is still in the better position since Jesus, in Verse 40, 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.
- 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