What the Bible Actually Says about “Eternal Fire” – Part 2

As you might imagine, traditionalists have given rebuttals to the general case put forth in Part 1. These rebuttals break down into two broader camps. The first camp is that Jude 7 should be translated differently from how it is presented in Part 1. Those in this camp would argue that the text does not really say that Sodom and Gomorrah themselves were burned with eternal fire in the first place.

Rebuttals of the second category do not challenge the translation of the NASB (which I used in Part 1). Instead, when Jude says they were burned with eternal fire, this does not challenge the standard interpretation that “eternal fire” is fire that burns for eternity.1

Given the scope of this article, I will touch upon some of the common objections to the aforementioned interpretation, though I encourage the curious reader to consult my free ebook, The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Sections XVI and XVII, regarding relevant passages.

Traditionalist Rebuttal: Jude Should Be Translated Differently

A number of translations render Jude 7 as the NASB does, indicating that Sodom and Gomrrah themselves were subject to eternal fire:

…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.

This rendering, however, is not universal. One argument is that the passage is better translated in such a way as to indicate that Sodom and Gomorrah merely typify what eternal fire will be like, not that they actually experienced it. Consider, for example, the NIV:

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

The NIV translation is still significant, since it says that Sodom and Gomorrah do serve as an example, and therefore give us an idea of what eternal fire will be like. The fact that a town being quickly burnt up serves as an example of the final fate of the wicked is still quite telling. However, it does not describe Sodom and Gomorrah as having been burned in the eternal fire themselves, which takes out some of the force of my argument above.

Although he does not cite the NIV specifically, Robert Morey cites this kind of translation in rebuttal to the claim that Sodom and Gomorrah themselves suffered eternal fire.2 Morey asserts that such a translation is better. However, Morey makes no substantive case for the NIV’s kind of translation, other than citing an obscure translation that mimics the NIV and then (incorrectly) stating that one must rely on the King James Version to get a translation like that of the NASB. 

To that, I would simply respond that among the most literal translations, almost all translate this verse as the NASB above (several of which already existed when Morey made his claim about the NASB’s rendering being unique to the KJV). This includes the KJV, the ESV, the ASV, the HCSB, and even the Mounce Reverse Interlinear New Testament. Those that word it so that Sodom and Gomorrah did not themselves suffer the vengeance of eternal fire tend to be the less literal ones, those that are more apt to rephrase or simplify the wording of a passage to better convey what they think is the correct theological interpretation.3

Beyond Morey, in my experience, arguments that Jude 7 should be translated more like the NIV tend to be less linguistic, (i.e that as a matter of language, the Greek reads like the NIV), and more theological (i.e. it means Sodom and Gomorrah are just foreshadowing “eternal fire” because we all know that the term “eternal fire” means the eternally burning and tormenting fires of hell).4 Such responses do not pose a substantial challenge to the annihilationist case, since this response effectively assumes traditionalism to be true from the start.

Traditionalist Rebuttal – Jude Thought the Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah Were Still Burning on Earth

This following response is rare, but not unheard of. The claim is made that in Jude’s time, there was a widespread Jewish belief that after the fire fell on Sodom and Gomorrah, it never totally went out. The fire continued to burn even thousands of years later, and would do so forever. So when Jude spoke of Sodom and Gomorrah undergoing the vengeance of eternal fire, he was speaking of the physical ruins of the city still smoldering. Although Jude was not speaking of hell per se, nonetheless this would mean that Jude’s use of “eternal fire” does not challenge the conventional wisdom that “eternal fire” continually burns what is in it for ever and ever. 56

Now, this response should raise some red flags right off the bat. It is evident, almost 2,000 years after Jude wrote his epistle, that there is no charred, smoldering pit bordering the Dead Sea. Most people of all beliefs are in general agreement that Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning. And if they are not burning still, it obviously cannot have been a fire that was to burn for eternity. This ancient Jewish view was false.

However, this traditionalist response regarding Sodom and Gomorrah means that Jude not only believed the false Jewish myth, but asserted it as truth in scripture and based his argument on this myth.

Although Rethinking Hell does not officially hold to inerrancy, anyone who does hold to inerrancy (as I and others at Rethinking Hell do) should consider this whole idea a non-starter. Those who hold to less stringent views of the Bible’s accuracy will have to determine if such a mistake, asserted as truth in scripture, is tolerable within their framework.

Either way, this traditionalist claim effectively requires the Bible to be wrong, which is never a good basis for doctrine even if you don’t believe in inerrancy. Considering how often conditionalists are written off as denying what the Bible teaches and as being liberals who don’t accept it as the authority on matters of doctrine, the irony here is incredible.

For this reason, this argument is quite rare, and I don’t think much more needs to be said about it.

Traditionalist Rebuttal – Jude Describes Sodom and Gomorrah As Presently and Continually Burning in Hell

Another traditionalist response is that the present tense in Jude 7 indicates that Sodom and Gomorrah are currently undergoing the punishment of eternal fire even now. In other words, it is describing their present experiences in hell.7

This interpretation doesn’t seem to be all that common, though I have seen it more than I have seen the other present-burning interpretation above.

Not being a Greek expert, it does seem to me that this argument is at least consistent with the language of the passage. Not that it is the only consistent interpretation – as I will get to shortly – but on its face, the text, in a vacuum, could be reasonably interpreted as indicating that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were (and are) presently suffering the punishment of eternal fire as an ongoing process.

However, aside from not being required from the language (more on that below), this view is fraught with theological problems. It says that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are currently in the state of eternal fire. But what about the intermediate state? What about people being removed from hades at judgment and only then cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15)? Most orthodox theologians would say that the state of the dead currently, whatever it entails, is not their final state. That’s why we call it the “intermediate state.” But if it is the intermediate state, how could it be the eternal state? If hades is temporary, even according to traditionalists, how can anyone already be in the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (emphasis added) described in Matthew 25:41?

Speaking of Matthew 25:41’s reference to eternal fire, does it not seem like the place Jesus is sending the wicked to is not the same place they came from? After all, Jesus doesn’t say “depart from me back into the eternal fire…”

With all this in mind, the idea that Sodom and Gomorrah were already in “eternal fire” goes against what most of us (of all sorts of eschatological beliefs) would take as a fairly clear and straightforward part of eschatology: no one is in their final state yet.

Furthermore, Jude 7 says the cities serve as an example. What happened/is happening to Sodom and Gomorrah is supposed to be special and noteworthy and noticeable. This traditionalist claim, however, contradicts all of that. If the passage speaks of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah currently being punished in the intermediate state, their punishment is invisible, mentioned nowhere else in scripture, and it would not in any way be special or noteworthy. They would just be suffering the same fate as every other unredeemed sinner. How would that serve as an example at all?

Contrast this with the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was unusual and spectacular. What other cities on earth were destroyed that way? It was recorded in scripture for us to know about what happened. And, unlike the supposed conscious sufferings of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in the intermediate state, there are multiple references to what happened to those cities on earth thousands of years ago (e.g. Deuteronomy 29:23, Isaiah 13:19-20, Jeremiah 50:40, Lamentations 4:6, Zephaniah 2:9). Now that sounds like something that would stand out as an example.

This traditionalist rebuttal to the conditionalist argument put forth in Part 1 requires us to believe that Jude was saying the people of Sodom and Gomorrah serve as an “example” by currently undergoing a fate that is invisible and that countless other people are also suffering, in “eternal fire” that isn’t in any sense eternal.

What About Jude’s Use of Present Tense?

Indeed, it is true that Jude does not use the past tense when describing Sodom and Gomorrah undergoing the vengeance of “eternal fire.” But this does not necessarily mean that a past event is not in view.

In English at least, people talk like that even today. Consider this example: “As you see here, Jesse Owens is set forth as an example of a man courageously opposing unjust social norms, running in the Olympics in Berlin under Hitler’s rule, in spite of being black.”8 At no point in that phrase do I technically speak in past tense. Like Sodom and Gomorrah “undergoing” their fate, Jesse Owens is spoken of as “running” using a present participle.

However, we all know that I am speaking of a past event. The fact that I speak of Jesse Owens “running” does not change this.

How then can the reader be expected to know that a past event is in view? Context.

We all know who Jesse Owens was (or at least who Hitler was) and that the Olympics are not going on at the time I am writing this. So, even though the grammar of my sentence is ambiguous (though not incorrect), we know from the context what I am talking about. Similarly, readers of Jude would immediately think back to the fiery incineration of the earthly cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the past, in the days of Abraham. As noted before, this was one of the most oft-cited supernatural acts of God in the Old Testament. Everyone knew what was in view whenever someone mentioned Sodom and Gomorrah – especially when vengeance and fire are mentioned as well.

Other Possibilities

Other writers, at least some of whom were probably traditionalists, have ventured other ways to explain Jude’s grammar without running into the problems posed by traditionalist rebuttals dealt with above.

For example, traditionalist Robert Andrew Fausset posits that the text does indicate ongoing action, but posits that they were “undergoing to this present time; alluding to the marks of volcanic fire about the Dead Sea.”910 In other words, by continuing to be ruins and not rebuilt, and showing physical signs of what happened, the cities continued undergoing the vengeance of eternal fire – even though the fire had gone out and any disembodied suffering in hades was not in view.

Other interpretations of this sort do not challenge the conditionalist view of Jude 7 put forth in Part 1, so not much more need be said about them.

Concluding Remarks

Like a number of prooftexts for the doctrine of eternal torment, the Bible’s use of the term “eternal fire” not only does not necessarily teach eternal torment, it actually serves as evidence for evangelical conditionalism. The one time where it is clear what eternal fire actually does, it refers to a fire that destroys everything and does not burn anyone forever. It speaks volumes that a number of passages used to demonstrate the truth of the eternal torment doctrine actually go against that view once they are properly understood.

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  1. Recall in Part 1 that there is a conditionalist interpretation of “eternal fire” in Jude 7 that asserts the term does mean a fire that burns for eternity because it emanates from God, who is eternal and said to be a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). []
  2. Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 1984), 140-141. []
  3. More on this in The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, Section XVI. []
  4. For example, consider Glenn People’s comments on R.C.H. Lenski’s claim that Sodom and Gomorrah simply served as a foreshadowing of the everlasting fire and torment of hell:

    Glenn Peoples, “Fire and Flood: Fire and Flood: How the New Testament Uses the First Testament to Teach on Final Punishment,” Afterlife, n.d., https://www.afterlife.co.nz/articles/fire-and-flood/ (accessed July 26, 2018). []

  5. “Jude 7,” For An Answer, n.d., http://www.forananswer.org/Jude/Jude7.htm, (accessed June 3, 2018). []
  6. SC Gayford, The Future State, (Edwin S. Gorham, 1905), 96-97, reproduced at Google Books, (accessed June 3, 2018). []
  7. e.g. Bert Thompson, “The Origin, Nature, and Destiny of the Soul [Part V],” Apologetics Press, n.d., http://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=507&article=183 (accessed June 3, 2018). []
  8. This example is a modified version of an example of this kind of language provided to me by fellow Rethinking Hell contributor, Glenn Peoples, back in 2010. []
  9. Robert Andrew Faucett, “The General Epistle of Jude,” A Commentary, Critical and Expository, on the Old and New Testaments: Volume 2, (S.S. Scranton and Company, 1871), 544, reproduced at Google Books, n.d. https://books.google.com/books?id=E1FAAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed June 3, 2018). []
  10. The idea that a volcano erupting was the physical source of the burning sulfur that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah comes up from time to time, e.g. J.I Packer, Knowing God, (Intervarsity,1993), 68. []