Thursday, December 12, 2019

“The Lake Burning with Fire and Sulfur”: Literal or Figurative? (Part One)


Among those who believe (as I do) that the truth of the salvation of all humanity is clearly revealed in Paul’s letters, some assume that there must be evidence for this glorious truth within the Book of Revelation as well. At the very least, it’s assumed by some that John wouldn’t have ended his prophetic work without revealing that those whose names not found written in the “scroll of life” (and who must therefore be “cast into the lake of fire” and thus “injured by the second death”) will be saved. And since John did not explicitly reveal that anyone will be delivered from “the lake of fire” or “second death,” it’s reasoned that the lake of fire/second death must be a means of salvation.

According to this theory, the lake of fire figuratively represents some sort of future “purification process” in which (to paraphrase a couple proponents of this theory) “all the false that humans harbor in their hearts concerning God will be purged away,” and people will undergo the “death of their carnal self” so that they will be made fit for an eternity of fellowship with God and others. Some holding to this theory believe that the purgatorial process symbolized by the lake of fire will be undergone by mortal humans, while others believe that those undergoing it will already be immortal. Still others seem to believe that this process will involve people who are physically dead (those who affirm this view would, of course, deny that the dead are unconscious). And then there are, of course, those who simply choose to remain agnostic concerning the details (being sure only of the fact that the lake of fire must be figurative, and will involve some sort of purification/refinement process that will result in the salvation of those who must undergo it).

In contrast with the theory that the lake of fire symbolizes some sort of purification process that will result in the salvation of certain sinners, I see no good reason to believe that Revelation was intended by God to reveal the “post-eonian destiny” of anyone (whether their names are found written in the scroll of life or not). Revealing what happens to people after the eons of Christ’s reign ends is simply not the purpose of this prophetic work. As I pointed out at the end of my five-part study on the second death (click here for part one of this study), John recorded only what was revealed to him in the visions he received from God. And what ultimately happens to those human beings who are to be cast into the lake of fire to die a second time was simply not a part of John’s vision. It was not part of the information that John was inspired by God to make known.

This in no way means that being cast into the lake of fire will be the end of anyone’s story, however. Just as John saw further into the future than did Ezekiel (and revealed more in his prophetic work than Ezekiel did in his), so I believe that the apostle Paul saw further into the future than John. In contrast with John (whose vision does not take us beyond the final eon of Christ’s reign), Paul was provided with information concerning what is to occur at the end of Christ's reign, when death is abolished and the kingdom is delivered up to God. Thus, it is Paul – and not John – who reveals the ultimate and final destiny of those who will be cast into the lake of fire (as well as the ultimate and final destiny of those who won’t be cast into the lake of fire).

Now, in the aforementioned study on the subject of the second death, I defended the following argument:

1. Being “cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15) and thus “injured by the second death” (Rev. 2:11) is a future judgment that will involve mortal humans literally dying a second time, and remaining lifeless for the remainder of Christ’s future reign.
2. At the end of his eonian reign, Christ is going to abolish death by vivifying all people and making them immortal (1 Cor. 15:22-28).
3. Everyone who is going to be cast into the lake of fire and injured by the second death will eventually be saved from the second death.

The soundness of this argument depends, of course, on the validity of its premises. And according to the first premise, those who are to be “cast into the lake of fire” will literally die a second time. But is this premise true? In the first four parts of the study, I argued that it is. That is, I argued that the “lake of fire” that we’re told in Revelation 21:8 is “burning with fire and sulfur” is to be understood literally, and will be the divinely-appointed means by which certain people will be returned to the same lifeless condition they were in before being restored to life to be judged by God. Which people? Answer: those whose names are not found “written in the scroll of life” (see Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27; 22:19).

But what is the “scroll of life” to which John referred? The scroll (or “book”) of life would’ve likely been understood by John as a reference to God’s record of who is worthy to live on the earth at a certain time instead of being “cut off from the land of the living” (see Exodus 32:32-33 and Psalm 69:28; cf. Deut. 29:20, where having one’s name “blotted out from under heaven” involves being killed). In Revelation, the “scroll of life” should be understood as God’s record of those deemed worthy of the allotment of eonian life in the kingdom of God during the final eon of Christ’s reign. Those whose names will be found written in the scroll of life will get to be among those with whom we’re told God will be “tabernacling” during this time (Rev. 21:3).

The use of the terms “mankind” and “peoples” (plural) in this verse to refer to this category of people indicates that John had in view both redeemed Israelites and people from among the nations. Those among the nations who will be part of the “mankind” and “peoples” with whom God will be “tabernacling” are later referred to as “walking” by means of the light of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24). In Scripture, “walking” often refers figuratively to one’s conduct in life (see, for example, Psalm 15:2; 26:1, 3; 78:10; 81:13; 119:1; Acts 14:16; 21:21; Romans 4:12; 6:4; 8:4; 13:13; 14:15; 2 Cor. 5:7; Gal. 5:16; 6:16; Eph. 2:2; 4:1, 17; 5:8, 15; Phil. 3:17, 18 etc.). Consider, especially, how John (who wrote the Book of Revelation) used this imagery in his first letter:

“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin…whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 1:6-7; 2:11).

In these verses, “light” refers to true wisdom – i.e., knowledge that comes from God (see John 1:4-5). Thus, when we’re told that the nations will be “walking” by means of the light of the new Jerusalem, the idea being expressed is that the nations will be conducting themselves in accord with the knowledge that comes from God (which should not be surprising, given that they’ll be part of the “mankind” and “peoples” with whom we’re told God will be “tabernacling” during this time). That everyone living on the new earth – including the nations of which we read – will be comprised of those whose names were found written in the “scroll of life” is also supported by Peter’s affirmation that the new earth will be a place where “righteousness is dwelling” (2 Pet. 3:13). In light of these considerations, it’s reasonable to believe that the names of everyone who will be dwelling on the new earth during the final eon (and who will thus be able to enter “the portals into the city,” in accord with Rev. 22:14) will, at the judgment referred to in Rev. 20:11-15, be found written in the “scroll of life.” 

Now, since the “life” to which “the scroll of life” pertains is eonian life on the new earth – and since it is the opposite of the “death” that those whose names are not written in the scroll of life must undergo – it logically follows that the death that must be undergone will involve literal death. Being cast into the lake of fire should, therefore, be understood as a judgment that terminates the lives of those who will not be allowed to live on the new earth (and who will not be part of the “mankind” and “peoples” with whom God will be “tabernacling” during the final eon of Christ’s reign). This judgment will be the means by which God puts the lives of those not found written in the scroll of life “on hold” until the time comes for them to be vivified in Christ at what Paul referred to in 1 Cor. 15:24-28 as the “consummation” (when all people are subjected to Christ, reconciled to God and become part of the “all” in which we’re told God will be “All”).

An invalid interpretive strategy

Among those who deny that the lake of fire refers to a literal place that will bring the lives of certain mortal humans to an end (until the time comes for them to be vivified in Christ at the end of his reign), a common strategy used in defense of a figurative interpretation involves simply appealing to passages of Scripture in which the term “fire” is used in a figurative sense. To better understand what’s wrong with this kind of strategy, consider the following example of this sort of “interpretative strategy” being employed:

1. In Luke 3:16, John the Baptist was using the term “fire” in a figurative sense when he stated that Christ was going to be “baptizing [the people of Israel] in holy spirit and fire.”
2. In Luke 17:29, Christ declared that “fire and sulfur” rained down from heaven and destroyed the inhabitants of Sodom.
3. Since the “fire” referred to in Luke 3:16 should not be understood as literal fire, the “fire and sulfur” referred to by Christ in Luke 17:29 should not be understood as literal fire and sulfur.

Here is a similar example of this type of strategy based on verses from the Hebrew Scriptures:

1. In Ezekiel 21:31, God used the term “fire” in a figurative sense when he said, “And I will pour out my indignation upon you; I will blow upon you with the fire of my wrath, and I will deliver you into the hands of brutish men, skillful to destroy.”
2. In Ezekiel 38:22 God declared concerning Gog, “With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him, and I will rain upon him and his hordes and the many peoples who are with him torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur.”
3. Since the “fire” referred to in Ezekiel 21:31 should not be understood as literal fire, neither should the “fire and sulfur” referred to in Ezekiel 38:22 be understood as literal fire and sulfur.

The conclusions reached in these arguments (i.e., that the fire and sulfur referred to in Luke 17:29 and Ezekiel 38:22 is to be understood figuratively) are not valid. These conclusions simply do not follow from the fact that the term “fire” (or related fire-based imagery) is used figuratively elsewhere. We can’t just assume that the term “fire” is being used figuratively in a certain verse or passage merely because it’s used figuratively in a different context. In fact, we should never assume that the term “fire” is being used figuratively at all when we find it used in Scripture.

In accord with the rules of communication, we ought to try and understand Scripture according to the normal, plain, ordinary and straightforward meaning of what is being said unless we have good reason to believe that figures of speech have been employed, or that the speaker/author intended a word or expression to be understood in a way other than how it would normally or ordinarily be understood (this method of scripture interpretation is sometimes referred to as the “literal whenever possible” principle). This is an approach to Scripture interpretation that, while recognizing and appreciating figures of speech, begins from the “starting point” that Scripture should be understood in accord with the plain, ordinary, straightforward and primary meaning of words and statements unless certain contextual considerations dictate otherwise, and make such an interpretation untenable (for example, if a literal interpretation of a verse or passage were to result in a contradiction involving another statement of scripture, then one would have good reason to reject the literal interpretation as untenable and seek out another meaning).

Whether one realizes it or not, we naturally employ this method of interpretation to some degree or another when reading the Scriptures. It is not an outright, wholesale rejection of this method of interpretation that usually results in people erroneously interpreting something as figurative when it ought to be understood literally; rather, most erroneous interpretations that involve interpreting something figuratively that ought to be understood literally are simply the result of an inconsistent and arbitrary use of this method. In any case, whenever the “literal whenever possible” principle of scriptural interpretation is abandoned (whether fully or in part), it is inevitably the imagination, preferences, opinion, conjecture and suppositions of the reader that end up becoming the only “rule” of interpretation.

To illustrate this point, let’s suppose that, upon reading Christ’s words in Luke 17:29, someone finds that they are uncomfortable with the idea of God destroying entire cities with literal fire and sulfur, and finds it difficult to reconcile such an action with what they believe concerning the love and mercy of God. Would such a reader therefore be justified in interpreting the “fire and sulfur” referred to in Luke 17:29 (or the “fire eonian” referred to in Jude 1:7) as something other than literal fire and literal sulfur? No. Apart from having some good, contextually-informed reason to interpret these terms figuratively, the reader ought to understand the terms “fire” and “sulfur” literally. Otherwise, the reader is just letting his or her own preferences and opinions determine what scripture means or doesn’t mean.

In light of the above considerations, I think it’s ironic that some have accused those holding to a literal interpretation of the second death/lake of fire as being arbitrary in their interpretive method. For example, one believer (who I’ll refer to as “R.L.”) who rejects the literal nature of the second death/lake of fire has accused those who interpret the lake of fire literally as inconsistently deciding what is literal and what isn’t. According to R.L., those holding to a literal interpretation simply ”pick and choose what fire is spiritual and what is literal to suit their traditional teachings, and upbringing. One has to wonder what spirit is guiding them. It certainly isn’t the spirit of truth.”

The first point that needs to be made here is that, in contrast with R.L.’s implied dichotomy between that which is “spiritual” and that which is “literal,” something’s being “spiritual” (such as a spiritual body, a spiritual believer or a spiritual endowment/gift) doesn’t make it non-literal. See part three of my study on the second death for a more in-depth defense of this important point. So I’m going to assume that by “spiritual” here, R.L. meant “figurative.” In any case (and in contrast with R.L.’s claim), I believe it’s actually those who interpret the “fire and sulfur” of Revelation 21:8 as figurative (while, at the same time, interpreting the “fire and sulfur” referred to in Luke 17:29 as literal) who are, in fact, guilty of “picking and choosing” what is figurative and what is literal, based on their own imagination, preferences, conjecture and suppositions. Those who, in accord with the “literal whenever possible” principle of interpretation, understand the “fire and sulfur” referred to in Revelation literally are actually the ones being consistent, and doing what they can to avoid the very thing that R.L. is accusing them of doing.

Some figurative fire passages considered

One example of a passage in which there are good, context-based reasons to understand the term “fire” in a figurative sense is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (which is also a passage commonly appealed to in support of the theory that the lake of fire is not to be understood literally). In this passage, the “fire” that Paul said will reveal and test “each one’s work” (i.e., at the time when each believer is “manifested in front of the dais of Christ” and “requited for that which he puts into practice through the body, whether good or bad”) is clearly not a literal fire, since a literal fire couldn’t reveal and test the work we did during this lifetime. The “fire” imagery used in verses 13-15 is simply an extension of the figurative imagery used in verses 12-13 (where Paul depicted the work of each believer as consisting of “gold and silver, precious stones, wood, grass and straw”). Just as it’s clear that Paul’s not referring to literal gold or grass here, so it’s equally clear that he’s not referring to literal fire. But again, the reason the “fire” is to be understood figuratively is not because the term “fire” is used figuratively elsewhere (e.g., in Luke 3:16 or Ezekiel 21:31). Rather, there are contextual considerations that indicate that the “fire” of which Paul wrote in this passage should be understood in a non-literal way.

The same thing could be said of other passages that are commonly appealed to by those who reject a literal interpretation of the second death/lake of fire. For example, in Matthew 25:41 we read that a certain category of people (who are figuratively referred to as “goats” or “kids” in v. 33) will be going into what Christ referred to as “fire eonian.” As I argued in part six of my study on Matthew 25:31-46, I believe that what Christ referred to as “fire eonian” is not going to involve literal fire. But the reason I came to this conclusion wasn’t because I just didn’t like the idea of God using literal fire as a means of judgment (or because I just didn’t understand why God would do such a thing). Rather, my reason for coming to this conclusion is because there are certain contextual considerations that naturally lead one to interpret the “fire eonian” referred to in this verse as a figure for something else. For example, in this particular context (and in accord with prophecies such as Ps. 2:8-9 and Zech. 14:16-19), Christ was clearly referring to a state of affairs involving the “chastening” of the nations during the eon to come (see the aforementioned study for more in defense of this point). Christ even went on to refer to the “fire eonian” as “chastening eonian” in v. 46.

Significantly, in Jude 1:7, the exact same expression used by Christ in Matt. 25:41 (“fire eonian”) is also used to refer to the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (the consequences of which have indeed been “eonian” in duration). And I believe that this fire was just as literal as the fire that, in 1 Kings 18:38, we’re told came down from heaven and “consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” And the reason I believe this is because, in contrast with the context of Matthew 25:41, there are no context-based reasons that indicate that the fire (as well as the sulfur) referred to in Genesis 19 in connection with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (and which Jude clearly had in mind) was something other than literal fire and sulfur.

A related example in which context-based considerations lead to the conclusion that a non-literal fire is in view is found in Matt. 13:49-50. In this passage (cf. verses 40-42) we read that Christ told his disciples that, at the conclusion of the eon (which will take place at Christ’s return), the “Son of Mankind” will be dispatching his messengers, and they will be severing the wicked from the midst of the just. And they shall be casting them into a furnace of fire. There shall be lamentation and gnashing of teeth.One reason for understanding the “furnace of fire” imagery figuratively is that Christ elsewhere referred to the fate of unbelieving and wicked Israelites at the time of his return as follows: “Now I am saying to you that many from the east and the west shall be arriving and reclining with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens, yet the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness. There shall be lamentation and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:11-12). The “sons of the kingdom” here are unfaithful Israelites who will be alive on the earth at the time of Christ’s return. In Luke’s account we read the following concerning the wicked Israelites who are to be “cast into outer darkness” at the time of Christ’s return: “There there will be lamentation and gnashing of teeth, whenever you should be seeing Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, yet you cast outside.” 

Notice the words, “whenever you should be seeing [them] in the kingdom of God, yet you cast outside.” When we keep in mind that the geographical territory of the “kingdom of God” where “Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets” will be enjoying their eonian allotment is the land of Israel, we can conclude that the “outer darkness” in which the unbelieving Israelites will banished (and yet remain able to see those in the kingdom of God) will be outside the territory of the land of Israel. These wicked “sons of the kingdom” will, in other words, be banished from the land of Israel and exiled among the nations to be part of that category of humanity that Christ will be “shepherding with an iron club” and “crushing” as “vessels of pottery” during this time.

Once we see that the “furnace of fire” can’t be a literal description of the eonian fate of those cast outside the kingdom of God during the eon to come, we can then seek to understand what this figurative imagery was intended by Christ to communicate. And when we do so, we find that similar figurative imagery involving “furnaces” had already been used in the Hebrew Scripture to refer to a place of affliction and trial (see Deut. 4:20 [cf. Ex. 3:7]; 1 Kings 8:51; Jer. 11:4; Is. 48:10; Ez. 22:18-22). In light of this information, we can then conclude that Christ was simply employing this previously-used figurative imagery to describe the fate of certain unfaithful Israelites who will still be alive following Christ’s return at the end of this eon. They will be banished from the geopolitical territory of the kingdom that is going to be restored to Israel, and made to live among the nations during the time of his millennial reign (an undesirable state of affairs for any Israelite that will be cause for much “weeping and gnashing of teeth” at the time).

Another passage that is commonly appealed to by those who understand the lake of fire figuratively is Malachi 3:1-4. In this passage we read the following:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Here we’re told that the “sons of Levi” will be purified by Christ, as gold and silver are refined and purified by fire. Thus, for these particular Israelites (whom God has chosen to have an allotment in the kingdom that will be restored to Israel), the refining of gold and silver by fire is used as a figure for the refining/purifying of the hearts (and conduct) of certain Israelites at a future time (and which will apparently involve a time of trial and affliction that will be brought about through the authority of Christ himself). However, after referring to those among God’s covenant people who will be purified in preparation for the coming kingdom of God, we read of a different category of people in the next few verses:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

That a distinction is being made between two different categories of people who will be on the earth when God “draws near for judgment” is further emphasized in verses 16-18. The fate of this second category of people (i.e., those who do not fear and serve God) is described using more “fire” imagery in the next chapter (Mal. 4:1-3). However, we no longer find the “refining fire” imagery of Mal. 3:1-4 being used. Instead, the imagery we find is that of a consuming fire that will reduce the wicked to ashes under the feet of the righteous:

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.”

The contrast between the different “fire” imagery used in the last two chapters of Malachi could not be more striking. For the “sons of Levi” who are in view in Mal. 3:1-4, the trying events of the day of the Lord will result in their spiritual purification, so that “they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord,” and so that “the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” However, the same cannot be said for those referred to as “the arrogant and all evildoers.” Rather than being refined and purified “like gold and silver,” we read that the day of the Lord will “set them ablaze” and reduce them to “ashes.”

Thus, although figurative imagery involving “fire” is, on occasion, used in the Hebrew Scriptures to represent the “purification” of certain people during a time of judgment, the people who are represented as being “purified” or “refined” are not all people without exception. Rather, in the context of Mal. 3:1-4, they should be understood as those among God’s covenant people who will be enjoying an allotment in the kingdom that is to be restored to Israel. For those who have not been chosen by God for this eonian destiny, the figurative “fire” to which they’re appointed will not be a “purifying fire.” Rather, it will be a destructive, consuming one that will “set them ablaze” and turn them into “stubble.”

This is the case not only for events that will be occurring in the future, but for events that have occurred in the past as well. For example, in the book of Ezekiel we find the imagery of fire used in reference to a national judgment that God brought upon Israel (Ezekiel 21:31-32; 22:20-21, 29-31). Although I believe this divine judgment is perfectly consistent with the truth that those who perished during the judgment will ultimately be saved, there’s little reason to believe that this judgment resulted in the “spiritual purification” or “refinement” of those involved in it. Most likely, those involved in this judgment were killed (and of course remain dead to this day). Thus, even when, in contexts involving judgment, we find figurative, fire-related imagery being used, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those being judged are necessarily undergoing a process of “spiritual refinement” or “purification.” We must allow context (in conjunction with a consistent interpretive method) to determine what the inspired author had in mind when he used such imagery.

Another text in which the term “fire” is clearly being used in a figurative sense (and which, not surprisingly, is commonly appealed to by those who believe the lake of fire symbolizes a process of purification) is Hebrews 12:29. In this verse we read that “our God is also a consuming fire.” I believe this to be a strange “proof-text” for those who hold to the figurative lake of fire view, for the “fire” with which God is figuratively equated here is not said to be a refining or purifying fire, but rather a “consuming fire.” And lest one object that something has to be consumed in order for something else to be purified, the clear emphasis here is on that which is consumed. To refer to a fire as a “consuming fire” is to put the emphasis on that which is burned up when coming into contact with the fire. Recall the distinction made between the two categories of people in Malachi 3-4: some will be purified by the “fire” of the day of the Lord (like gold and silver), while others will be “consumed” by it (like vegetation that is set ablaze and reduced to ashes). And in the immediate context, those who will encounter God as a “consuming fire” are those who refuse and turn from him (see Heb. 12:25-26). It is these who will expose themselves to the fearful judgment referred to earlier, in Hebrews 10:26-31:

For at our sinning voluntarily after obtaining the recognition of the truth, it is no longer leaving a sacrifice concerned with sins, but a certain fearful waiting for judging and fiery jealousy, about to be eating the hostile. Anyone repudiating Moses' law is dying without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, are you supposing, will he be counted worthy who tramples on the Son of God, and deems the blood of the covenant by which he is hallowed contaminating, and outrages the spirit of grace? For we are acquainted with Him Who is saying, Mine is vengeance! I will repay! the Lord is saying, and again, "The Lord will be judging His people." Fearful is it to be falling into the hands of the living God!

The “consuming fire” with which God is being equated in Hebrews 12:29 is, in other words, the same “fire” that we’re told in Mal. 4:1-3 will turn the wicked into “stubble” and “set them ablaze” so that they will be “ashes under the soles of” the feet of the righteous. It is a reference to the indignation of God that will be manifested during the day of the Lord (Heb. 12:25-29; cf. 10:25-39), and which will result in the eonian destruction of those not appointed for eonian life in the kingdom of God (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8-9).

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