Isaiah 33:14 – A Lesser Known Prooftext

Isaiah 33:14 gives a warning to sinners by means of a question, and this question is occasionally pointed to by apologists of the traditional view as evidence for eternal conscious hell: 1 Hell: Suppose It’s True after All? [tract], (Wheaton, IL: Good News Tracts, 1995). 2 Millard Erickson,  Christian Theology., 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 1246. 3 William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 202.

“The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?” 4 Las citas bíblicas presentadas en esta traducción al español son tomadas de la Reina Valera 1960.

The last line is what is really emphasized. The passage says “everlasting burning,” so doesn’t that prove eternal conscious hell?

This one phrase (translated to English) may sound friendly to eternal torment at first glance, but that is where any semblance of support for eternal torment in this passage ends.
An aside, as comes up with several other eternal conscious hell prooftexts, be on the lookout for anyone who cites this passage about everlasting *burning* to support the doctrine but who also denies that hell involves literal fire or some supernatural equivalent. Their reasoning is inconsistent, and it is among the many reasons why the softened, separation-from-God form of eternal conscious hell that has become popular (even among theological conservatives) is very weak – even more so than a traditional view of eternal fiery torture. 5 For more on this, see “The Many and Varied Problems with the Modern, Metaphorical View of Eternal Conscious Hell“.

Perhaps the first thing to notice is that Isaiah 33:14 never actually says that the wicked will experience everlasting burning. Obviously, rhetorical questions are a thing, but a rhetorical question here could, all else being equal, be used to make the point that the wicked, in fact, do not burn forever specifically because they are unable to dwell with it.

And all else is not equal, because that is exactly what the rest of the passage indicates. Everlasting burning is not what the wicked will experience. Rather, the fire is that of God himself, and only the righteous can withstand the experience.

The passage does not stop at Verse 14. Rather, Isaiah goes on to answer the question:

Those who walk righteously and speak what is right, who reject gain from extortion and keep their hands from accepting bribes, who stop their ears against plots of murder and shut their eyes against contemplating evil—they are the ones who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. Their bread will be supplied, and water will not fail them (Isaiah 33:15-16).

It is the righteous who can dwell on the heights. The righteous can dwell where the wicked cannot.

The general flow of thought makes it most reasonable that God is answering the question he posed through Isaiah. But if this is so, it would sure seem like his point is that the righteous can dwell specifically in the place of consuming fire and everlasting burning (unlike the wicked).

Does this mean the righteous go to hell? Certainly not. Rather, the scripture tells us that God himself is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3). The fact that Verse 14 itself speaks of dwelling “with consuming fire” is quite telling.

God’s presence and fire are intertwined elsewhere in the Old Testament, such as Exodus 3:1-6, Judges 6:28-24, and Zechariah 2:5. It is a fairly common motif in scripture (which is probably why the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of fire at Pentecost in Acts 2:3). Normally, fire would burn people to death, and God’s fiery presence does so to the unrighteous (like Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:2). But the takeaway here would be that this will not be the case for the righteous.

Now, one could argue that Verses 15 and 16 do not conclusively show that God is saying that the wicked cannot dwell in his fiery presence (i.e. that they die instead) while the righteous can. But doesn’t this, at the very least, serve as a reasonable alternative to the traditionalist interpretation, even if it doesn’t disprove the traditionalist interpretation?

Of course, it doesn’t stop at being merely a reasonable alternative, because there are also Verses 10-12:

“Now will I arise,” says the Lord. “Now will I be exalted; now will I be lifted up. You conceive chaff, you give birth to straw; your breath is a fire that consumes you. The peoples will be burned to ashes; like cut thornbushes they will be set ablaze.”

So if there was any ambiguity as to what it would look like when the wicked came to the everlasting burning mentioned in Verse 14, God already told us in language that hardly could be more emphatic: the wicked will be burnt up. They will not be like eternal hearthstones but like thorn bushes burned to ashes.

Therefore, if after saying the wicked will be burnt up, God mockingly raises the question of “who of us can dwell in everlasting burning?” (and with a *consuming* fire as well), and then he speaks of the righteous dwelling on God’s holy mountain, then the implications should be pretty clear. It is not the case that the wicked, as a traditionalist might suggest, dwell in the fire forever and suffer so much that they can’t emotionally or mentally handle it. Rather, the wicked don’t dwell with the fire at all because it ends them.

Further Analysis Shifts The Entire Paradigm of How This Passage Relates To Hell

Upon further examination, the tables turn on the one advocating for the traditional view. What seemed like a traditionalist prooftext ended up lending signficant weight to the annihilationist view by telling us that, at judgment, God’s holy fire destroys the wicked, as seen elsewhere in scripture (e.g. Malachi 4:1-3). 6 For more on Malachi 4:1-3, see “Malachi 4:1-3 and the Final Destruction of the Unrepentant“.

The best case scenario for the traditionalist would now just be that the passage is not eschatological to begin with, but instead only reflects on an earthly judgment. Perhaps one might argue that Isaiah’s use of the Hebrew olam doesn’t really mean the burning is everlasting in this context. Maybe they argue that all that is in view is a military conquest like the then-future exile.

I will just say two brief things about that:

1. The idea that this passage is evidence for eternal conscious hell is completely diffused when we get to this point. If the argument made by the traditionalist interpreter is that the passage isn’t speaking of final judgment at all, then at best for their view, it maybe is neutral.

2. There is good reason to think that this passage is speaking of the everlasting burning and consuming fire of God’s presence itself, which brings joy to the righteous but destroys the wicked. 7 The idea that the fire of hell emanates directly from God is not unique to annihilationism, and it is only one variation of evangelical conditional out of many. But I believe it makes the most sense in light of this passage.

Prophetic passages that speak of military conquest do use grandiose language, but nothing in this passage gives any contextual indicator of such a thing. There is no mention of a foreign power to conquer them, of anything specifically limiting the time in such as the exile, etc. Furthermore, sins are forgiven and illness is gone (Verse 24). That doesn’t sound like merely the return from exile or something like that.

Because of the complexity of Old Testament prophecy, I may not be willing to say that this is definitely eschatological. Nevertheless, the evidence certainly seems to be heavily in favor of such a view.

If the view (traditionalism) that was originally said to be proved by this passage now has to rely on the argument that maybe things could pan out is such a way that the passage now merely allows for their view, then I consider that a win for evangelical conditionalism.

Conclusión

When you expect to find eternal conscious hell in the Bible, you will see it fairly often. Once you start to question the doctrine, it can be quite the surprise how annihilationism can pop up even in places where one might go in order to disprove it.

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References
1 Hell: Suppose It’s True after All? [tract], (Wheaton, IL: Good News Tracts, 1995).
2 Millard Erickson,  Christian Theology., 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 1246.
3 William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 202.
4 Las citas bíblicas presentadas en esta traducción al español son tomadas de la Reina Valera 1960.
5 For more on this, see “The Many and Varied Problems with the Modern, Metaphorical View of Eternal Conscious Hell“.
6 For more on Malachi 4:1-3, see “Malachi 4:1-3 and the Final Destruction of the Unrepentant“.
7 The idea that the fire of hell emanates directly from God is not unique to annihilationism, and it is only one variation of evangelical conditional out of many. But I believe it makes the most sense in light of this passage.