If you have participated in the debate over the validity of the conditionalist interpretation of verses such as Matthew 3:12 or 13:40 you may have encountered traditionalists who appeal to the burning bush (Ex 3:2) as a way of implying that the fire in these conditionalist proof texts may not incinerate the wicked after all. Others might have appealed to the story where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survive a superheated fire (Daniel 3:18-28) to make the same point. Over the years, I have mostly thought of this as a suboptimal argument that is easily addressed by conditionalists but have noticed it is being used more frequently. To my surprise, there are even traditionalists who should know better who have made the argument in print. For instance, the following quote is from John Blanchard’s book called Whatever Happened to Hell?
Others add the argument that as fire always consumes whatever is put into it, it would be impossible for anyone to endure the fire of hell for ever; but there are two things that can be said in reply. The first is that if we think in terms of literal fire (which is how the point is being made), it is not true to say that fire always consumes. On the contrary, nothing that is burnt by fire is extinguished in the sense of becoming non-existent. It is simply changed into another form of existence, such as vapour, gas or dust.
Secondly, there are two instances in Scripture where there was burning without consuming. At a crucial point in God’s dealings with Moses, ‘The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed’ (Exodus 3: 2). Many years later, when three of God’s faithful servants, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, infuriated King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon by refusing to worship a golden idol, he had them thrown into a blazing furnace which had been heated ‘seven times more than it was usually heated’ (Daniel 3: 19). The heat was so intense that it killed several of the soldiers who threw the men into the flames, yet some time later Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walked out of the furnace, and everybody could see that ‘the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them’ (Daniel 3: 27). These two instances alone should be enough to warn us against trying to force the teaching of the Word of God into the tiny limits of our own logic.1John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell?, Kindle ed., (Evangelical Press, 1993), Kindle locations, 4241-54.
To be fair, Blanchard is addressing the claim that fire always consumes that which it burns. Since he failed to cite who makes this argument it is impossible to interact with his claim in terms of how fairly he represents the claim. That being said, Blanchard’s point is that these examples show we cannot assume that when a fire is mentioned in the Bible it must always be fully consuming that which it burns.
When responding to John Stott’s discussion of the use of fire imagery in the Bible with respect to the final fate of the lost,2Stott’s argument was as follows:the fire itself is termed “eternal” and “unquenchable,” but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) that “rises forever and ever” (Rev 14: 11; cf. 19: 3). John R. W. Stott, ‘Judgment and Hell’, in Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism , Kindle ed.,(Cascade Books, 2014), Kindle Locations 1344-47. Larry Dixon argues,
If God can use a burning bush to communicate to His chosen person in Exodus 3 without consuming it, who is to say that His fire of judgment cannot punish those who refuse to believe the Gospel without consuming them? (cf. Dan. 3:19–27).3Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell, (Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 99.
Like Blanchard, Dixon’s argument is that we cannot assume that simply because fires normally consume things that this necessarily means the fire included in the hell prooftexts will also fully consume the wicked.
David Pawson is more direct with his argument.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. Words can carry different meanings, depending on the context in which they are used. Theology cannot live on terminology alone! Supernatural revelation requires more than natural reason to unlock its secrets.
For example, while fire usually ‘burns to ashes’, there are biblical examples of it behaving quite differently. Moses was surprised that the bush was not ‘consumed’, though the flames were real enough; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not even singed in a white-hot furnace (if the first case was not ‘natural’ fire, the second certainly was). It may be difficult for man to control fire but God has no problem doing so (as when he directed it at Elijah’s altar on Carmel).
It would be perfectly possible for God to limit the ‘physical’ effect of fire to intense heat and discomfort …
So the concept of ‘fire’ in hell is ambiguous. Our earthly experience cannot have the last word in our exegesis. Sooner or later all ‘natural’ fire burns up all its fuel and dies out.4David Pawson,The Road to Hell: Everlasting Torment or Annihilation?, Kindle ed., (Anchor Recordings, 2011), Kindle locations, 614-21.
What is the best way to respond to this argument from Blanchard, Dixon, and Pawson?
People who know me will know that my answer has to do with sound exegesis. By this I mean if we properly exegete Exodus 3:2 and Daniel 3:18-28 we will find cues in the text indicating the fire in question would not consume that which it was burning. In the case of Exodus 3:2 the LXX translation offers us some important clues that show how an NT author might have expressed the idea that the fire associated with the final punishment of the lost will not fully consume them. For those who are not familiar with the Greek used in the LXX and the NT, I will try to keep references to the Greek at a minimum but in a way that will help the reader see how the language is used to explicitly make the point. I have inserted the Greek word and its English transliteration to aid any reader unfamiliar with the Greek to explain how the language helps conditionalism when traditionalists do cite this verse. Here is Exodus 3:2,
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning (καίω, kaiō), yet it was not (οὐ, ou) consumed (κατακαίω, katakaiō).5Unless otherwise stated, the English translation used in this article will be the ESV.
Notice the English word burning is a translation of καίω (kaiō). This word is flexible in that it can be used to express the idea of starting or keeping a fire burning (e.g. Ex 27:20-21; Isa 50:11; Jer 7:18; Matt 5:15; Luke 12:35) or can be used to express the idea that something is fully consumed by a fire (e.g. 2 Sam 23:7; Job 15:34; Job 31:12; Isa 5:24). The word can be used in other ways, but it is sufficient to note that it has a somewhat broad range of meaning. This cannot be said for the second word for burning used in Exodus 3:2. That word is κατακαίω (katakaiō). This word has the preposition κατά (kata), which intensifies the more general καίω (kaiō).6William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, (Zondervan, 2006), 90; Cleon Rogers Jr. and Cleon Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, (Zondervan:1998), 6. Now, I do not wish to give the impression that καίω (kaiō) could not be used to express the idea of total destruction by fire; it certainly can (e.g. Isa 10:17; Jer 32:29-31; Jer 49:27; John 15:6). Nevertheless, κατακαίω (katakaiō) intensifies that meaning so it has to do with burn down or fully consuming something.
In the LXX, κατακαίω (katakaiō) is used in reference to sacrifices that have been burned to ash (Lev 4:12, 21; 8:17; Num 19:5; 17), the disposal of left over or unclean parts of sacrifices (Ex 29:14, 34; Lev 6:30-31; 7:17; 19; 8:32; 9:11; 16:27; 19:6), prescriptions for how to destroy infected clothing (Lev 13:52-57), and as the punishment for particular sexual sins (Lev 20:14; 21:9). In contexts where judgment is in view, it is frequently used when the Israelites were commanded to burn and destroy foreign places of worship (Deut 7:5, 25; 12:3), thus removing them so that they would not be tempted to fall into idolatry (Deut 29:21-28). It is employed frequently in the prophets in ways that clearly depict the complete consumption of the unrighteous by fire (Is 33:11-12; 47:14; Jer 21:10; 34:22; Ez 5:1ff.; 20:47). The point I wish to make is that κατακαίω (katakaiō) was used when an author wished to express the idea that something was to be done away with completely. It is not the kind of word used to express the idea that a fire would continually burn without ever fully consuming the fuel.
This is where the third Greek word I highlighted in Exodus 3:2 is relevant. I am referring to the negative particle οὐ (ou), which means “not”. It is this word that tells the reader that the burning bush is not incinerated. I realize that this is a rather mundane point but it bears mentioning because without it, the reader would naturally think the bush was being incinerated by the fire. Instead, we are told the bush “was not (οὐ, ou) consumed (κατακαίω, katakaiō).
Well, when we discuss Matthew 3:12 and 13:40, where the meaning of κατακαίω (katakaiō) is relevant, and given the fact that κατακαίω (katakaiō) really does mean “to incinerate”, then it is more than reasonable to think that Jesus meant to say that those who are thrown into the fire will burn up.
Now, I know that people think “unquenchable fire” (Mat 3:12) and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat 13:42) indicate the people cast into the eschatalogical fire will never be incinerated by it. I have previously discussed the unquenchable fire imagery here. When the unquenchable fire imagery is used in a context of divine judgment elsewhere in the Bible, it has to do with emphasizing judgment which cannot be resisted or prevented from being inflicted on the wicked (2 Kg 22:16–17; 2 Chr 34:25; Isa 1:28–31; Jer. 4:4; 7:20; 21:12; Amos 5:5–6). It means that no one can prevent that judgment from being fully and completely meted out on the wicked. As for Jesus’s statement in Matthew 13:42 that people will weep and gnash their teeth, there is no reason to suppose that this is intended to indicate they will live on in the fire in great pain for eternity. Those thrown into that fire would indeed weep and gnash their teeth as they are dragged to the fire, thrown into it, and consumed by it.
Unquenchable fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth are hardly a sufficient basis from which to conclude the fire in Matthew 3:12 and 13:40-42 will never go out, and so therefore that fire will continually burn the wicked forever.
There are also many other clues in Matthew 3:12 and 13:40-42 indicating the fire will incinerate that which is thrown into it. In both cases the righteous are compared to things that are stored in safe places like a barn (Mat 3:12; 13:30), while the wicked are discarded and burnt, not stored. Aside from the unquenchable fire imagery, Matthew 3:12 uses chaff to represent the wicked. Chaff is dried out vegetable matter, so it is exactly the wrong thing to communicate the idea that the wicked could survive the unquenchable fire. Furthermore, the Baptist explicitly says the threshing floor would be “thoroughly cleared” of the chaff by that fire. Matthew 13:40-42 is part of Jesus’s explanation of the parable in 13:24-30 where the weeds7The weeds of the ESV are darnel, which was superficially similar to wheat early in the plant’s life cycle and when planted with wheat crops. sown by an opponent of the farmer are disposed of in a fire at the harvest of the wheat crop. As with chaff, the weeds are hardly the kind of thing capable of symbolizing the idea that the wicked would never be incinerated in a fire, and both are implicitly denied storage by contrast with the explicit storage of the wheat. Even more significantly, in his explanation of the parable in 13:40, Jesus uses language that leaves the reader in no doubt that the wicked will be incinerated in the eschaton just as the darnel are incinerated in the harvest fire.
Just (ὥσπερ, hōsper) as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so (οὕτως, houtōs) will it be at the close of the age.
Notice that I have included (ὥσπερ, hōsper) and οὕτως (houtōs) in the verse. This is because I wish to briefly discuss this word combination. When this combination of words is used in a Greek sentence the idea is to set up a contrast between two things to emphasize a similarity between the two. We should think of it as saying “just as this … so also that”. We see this in Matthew 12:40.
For just as (ὥσπερ) Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so (οὕτως) will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Here the point of similarity turns on the three days. Jonah was in the whale for three days and night and Jesus is saying this is exactly how long he will be dead before being resurrected.
We see it in John 5:21.
For as (ὥσπερ) the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so (οὕτως) also the Son gives life to whom he will.
Here the point is that the Son will resurrect people in the same way the Father does.
Even in examples that are more ambiguous like Matthew 24:27 the ὥσπερ (hōsper) clause governs how we are to read the οὕτως (houtōs) clause.
For as (ὥσπερ) the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so (οὕτως) will be the coming of the Son of Man.
In this instance, the parousia of the Son is like lightning in some way — perhaps that it will be openly visible.
Returning to Matt 13:40, Jesus’ point is “just as” (οὕτως, houtōs) the weeds in the parable would be incinerated in a fire at harvest time (cf. Matt 13:30), so also (οὕτως, houtōs) the all causes of sin and all lawbreakers will be incinerated in a fire at the end of the age (Matt 13:40-42). What happens to the weeds in the parable is what will happen to those who end up in the eschatalogical fire. Like chaff, weeds are hardly the ideal basis for communicating the idea that the wicked will survive that fire.
Furthermore, most commentators on Matthew point out that “throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matt 13:42) is an allusion to either Daniel 3 where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into a superheated furnace or to Malachi 4:1 where the day of judgment is likened to a burning oven. In the case of Daniel 3, the fiery furnace is so hot that the guards who throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into it are killed. As for Malachi 4:1 the burning oven will set the wicked ablaze so that “it will leave them neither root nor branch.” In case you think this verse only refers to earthly judgment, Joseph Dear discusses the reasons why Malachi 4:1-3 ought to be regarded as referring to the final judgment here.
Andrew Hill explains the significance of what is taught there,
The destruction of the wicked with the Hebrew community is absolute, reflected in the merism of root and branch, the extremities of a plant signifying its entirety. The metaphor highlights ‘the totality of the coming destruction, with its completeness made more evident through the burning even of the roots, which ordinarily do not succumb to a flash fire, being protected by the earth’.8Andrew E. Hill, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, (Inter-Varsity Press: 2012), 358.
As it turns out, καίω (kaiō) is used in Daniel 3 and Malachi 4:1 to depict the ferocity of a fire that is superheated to ensure it completely consumes that which it burns. In the LXX of Malachi 4:1 there is the clause “burning (καίω, kaiō) like an oven)” and in the LXX of Daniel 3 there is the repetition of “into a burning (καίω, kaiō) fiery furnace” (Dan 3:6, 11, 15, 17, 20, 21, 23, 26). Although κατακαίω (katakaiō) can be more emphatic than καίω (kaiō), nevertheless this shows that in the OT source texts behind Jesus explanation of his parable in Matthew 13:40-42, and from the context of being “like the tares,” the word καίω (kaiō) carries the same strong sense of “incinerate” as κατακαίω (katakaiō). So there is every reason to think that Jesus intended to teach that the wicked would be incinerated like the tares in a fire at the end of the age.
But wait, you might ask, did not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survive the superheated fire uninjured by its flames? Yes. However, we are told that they were protected by a mysterious fourth figure (Dan 3:24-28) while the guards were killed just by going near its flames (Dan 3:22). We know that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not incinerated in the superheated fire precisely because we are told so in no uncertain terms. We know the righteous will likewise be protected in a safe place (Mat 3:12; 13:30) and so will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”(Mat 13:43; c.f. Dan 12:3; Mal 4:2). In contrast, we are told in no uncertain terms that all who are thrown into the eschatalogical fire at the end of this age will be incinerated by it (Mal 4:1; Mat 13:40-42).
Even traditionalists do not typically think that the wicked will be protected from that fire. For instance, Matt Slick states,
If there are weeping and gnashing of teeth, it must be something that the wicked experience. This means that the wicked undergoes some terrifying ordeal … the terrifying experience that is described by the weeping and gnashing of teeth would be of eternal conscious torment.9Matt Slick, ‘Annihilationism and Matthew 13:40-42, wicked are burned with fire’, https://carm.org/annihilationism/annihilationism-and-matthew-1340-42-wicked-are-burned-with-fire/, accessed 9/13/2022.
Likewise, Eldon Woodcock concludes,
It [the imagery of fire] also portrays conditions in Hell as a fury of fire and a “fiery furnace”–terrifying images. Their conscious pain prompts their weeping and gnashing of teeth, as their woeful reaction to their agony (Matt. 13:40-42).10Eldon Woodcock, Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue, Kindle ed., (WestBow Press, 2012), Kindle locations, 4553-4556
Even where a traditionalist emphasizes hell as separation there is still often an admission that the fire does affect the wicked in some way. See, for instance, Christopher Morgan,
Hell is exclusion/separation from the kingdom of God (13:40-41, 49-50); it is described as “the fire” (13:40; cf. 3:10-12), “the fiery furnace” (13:42, 50), and a place of suffering, and again depicted as a place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42, 50; cf. 8:12).11Christopher W. Morgan, ‘Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell’, in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds., Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A Peterson, Kindle ed. (Zondervan, 2007), Kindle locations, 3373-3381
Or, see William Crockett,
When Jesus talks about hell, he often uses gehenna and the hellenistic [Greek] term hades (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23) to dramatize hell’s suffering. Behind these two words is the image of fire, a picture often used to describe hell in antiquity. In Matthew 13:49-50 Jesus talks about the Last Judgment …
Should we take these words as indicating a literal, fiery abyss? Or as a severe, though unspecified judgment awaiting the wicked?12William Crockett, ‘The Metaphorical View’, in Four Views on Hell, eds. Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett, Kindle ed., (Zondervan, 1996), Kindle locations, 5736-5743.
So, traditionalists really do think the judgment fire will affect the wicked when they are thrown into it but they ignore the ways in which the Bible emphasizes that this fire will incinerate them (Matt 3:12; 13:40-42) ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch’ (Mal 4:1).
To be sure, Blanchard, Dixon, and Pawson are correct that God can cause a person or thing to be in a fire but not burn up. However, in Daniel 3:22 and Exodus 3:2, that was because of God’s supernatural intervention. We know this precisely because the language in those passages explicitly tells us the fire did not consume them.
Does the fire always consume that which it burns? No.The righteous are the exception to the rule because God will supernaturally intervene in some way to prevent the fire from doing what it would normally do.
When it comes to the fate of the unrighteous as described in Matthew 3:12 and 13:40 this is not the case. The language in these verses is explicit. It is unambiguous. It tells us that any unrighteous person thrown into that fire will be incinerated by it.
|￪1||John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell?, Kindle ed., (Evangelical Press, 1993), Kindle locations, 4241-54.|
|￪2||Stott’s argument was as follows:the fire itself is termed “eternal” and “unquenchable,” but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) that “rises forever and ever” (Rev 14: 11; cf. 19: 3). John R. W. Stott, ‘Judgment and Hell’, in Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism , Kindle ed.,(Cascade Books, 2014), Kindle Locations 1344-47.|
|￪3||Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus’ Teaching on Hell, (Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 99.|
|￪4||David Pawson,The Road to Hell: Everlasting Torment or Annihilation?, Kindle ed., (Anchor Recordings, 2011), Kindle locations, 614-21.|
|￪5||Unless otherwise stated, the English translation used in this article will be the ESV.|
|￪6||William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, (Zondervan, 2006), 90; Cleon Rogers Jr. and Cleon Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, (Zondervan:1998), 6.|
|￪7||The weeds of the ESV are darnel, which was superficially similar to wheat early in the plant’s life cycle and when planted with wheat crops.|
|￪8||Andrew E. Hill, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, (Inter-Varsity Press: 2012), 358.|
|￪9||Matt Slick, ‘Annihilationism and Matthew 13:40-42, wicked are burned with fire’, https://carm.org/annihilationism/annihilationism-and-matthew-1340-42-wicked-are-burned-with-fire/, accessed 9/13/2022.|
|￪10||Eldon Woodcock, Hell: An Exhaustive Look at a Burning Issue, Kindle ed., (WestBow Press, 2012), Kindle locations, 4553-4556|
|￪11||Christopher W. Morgan, ‘Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell’, in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds., Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A Peterson, Kindle ed. (Zondervan, 2007), Kindle locations, 3373-3381|
|￪12||William Crockett, ‘The Metaphorical View’, in Four Views on Hell, eds. Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett, Kindle ed., (Zondervan, 1996), Kindle locations, 5736-5743.|