Why The Metaphorical View Of Hell Falls Short

Here’s another piece of “The Bible Teaches Annihilationism” [as written at the time of this post’s original publication]. Since so many believers today believe that while Hell is a place of eternal torment it is not a place of literal fire, I figured I should deal with this view. Unlike the overall doctrine of eternal torment, this one is relatively quick and easy to address.

This Nearly Untenable View of Hell is Very Popular

In the debate about annihilationism, this whole section is essentially a “useful semi-tangent,” as showing the serious flaws in this particular view of eternal conscious punishment of the lost doesn’t disprove the idea that the Bible does teach eternal torment. However, I figured it was worth mentioning, given both its popularity, and how it does play into how some traditionalists will argue that eternal torment is true. By “metaphorical view,” I am referring to the view that William Crockett represents in the book Four Views on Hell, the view that when Hell is described as a place of fire, this fire is a symbol of torment, and not a literal description (41-76). This view affirms that the lost do exist, for ever and ever, in a state of suffering, but it denies that Hell is literally a place of fire and conscious burning. The fire imagery, and other pictures as well, are viewed as symbols of their suffering.

This issue of the metaphorical view is important because it is such a popular view among many respected theologians today (and to a lesser extent, in past generations since the protestant reformation):

“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, Roger Nicole, Leon Morris, and Robert Peterson agree” (Chan and Sprinkle 154).

Chan and Sprinkle concur with this view (154-155). Robert Morey does likewise (29-31). R.C. Sproul suspects that the images of Hell are symbols (285). Popular Presbyterian writer and preacher Timothy Keller holds this view, though he makes clear that he believes the real thing will be worse than fire (“The Importance of Hell”). Websites like bible.ca hold this view (“What Hell is Like”). I hear it out and about among Christians on a regular basis. It may the more common evangelical view of Hell that exists today.

However, there are a number of problems with the view that Hell is a place of eternal torment yet not a place of fire, as will be discussed below.

Not All Descriptions Of Hell Are Equal

First of all, not are descriptions of Hell are necessarily pictorial. Jesus doesn’t refer to Hell as “eternal fire” only in parables, but in a straightforward description in Matthew 18.8. Now, given that He refers to “Gehenna” in the same sermon, which isn’t literal (since the literal “Gehenna” was a garbage dump), one might say that all the descriptions of Hell must be metaphorical. But must they be? What if He is using “Gehenna” as a picture of the actual “eternal fire”? Jesus describes Hell as a fiery furnace in a the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13:24-30. However, when explaining the parable in verses, telling us what every part of the parable actually means, He refers to the literal unsaved people being thrown into a furnace. Granted, it probably isn’t literally a furnace. However, what is more likely, that Jesus is still using that part of the parable and only that part of the parable symbolically, or that he just calls the raging fire a furnace because it sounded good when posed in the backdrop of a story of a fiery furnace? Hebrews 10:27, though not specifically Jesus’ words, are as much God’s word as anything Jesus spoke, and it refers, with no metaphorical background at all, to “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (NIV). There is also nothing necessarily symbolic about the “parable” of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, where the lost are sent into the “eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (Verse 41b). That fire is described in such a straightforward way does not, on its own, eliminate the possibility of fire being a symbol, but it should make us at least consider the possibility that it is literal.

A common justification for this view comes from the descriptions of darkness in Hell, but this too falls short. It is commonly claimed that Hell is said to be a place of darkness, and since fire and darkness are incompatible, both must be symbols. However, Jesus never warns of being cast into the “eternal darkness” the way He did the “unquenchable fire” or the “eternal fire.” Darkness almost always comes up in parables. A king or lord throwing a man out of his party (after killing or binding him, mind you) is what God throwing you out of His kingdom is compared to. Hell is not compared to fire – it is said to be fire. Just as a person would be sad about being thrown out of the fun party into darkness, and just as the darkness is terrifying (and in the dark of night a person who is bound or mortally wounded would die…), so it is when people are cast out of God’s presence. The whole thing is one giant metaphor – it’s a story strictly about earthly things, and the story has parallels in the divine realm. Darkness clearly is a metaphor there for bad things. Even in Matthew 8:12, where Jesus speaks of unsaved Jews being thrown into the darkness, though it isn’t itself a parable, has symbolic elements. This being cast out is contrasted with reclining alongside the patriarchs. Is there literally a big table in heaven where all the saved sit down and eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? There could be, but this sure sounds like the parables Jesus tells later. Darkness at least can be seen here as a pictorial contrast to the idea of a table where people gather, a common picture for fellowship (which is why Jesus speaks of knocking on your door and eating with you in Revelation 3:20). That still is more pictorial than explicit warnings of fire. At most, it is inconclusive, as there is a potential symbolic element to it that does not exist in some of Jesus’ direct warnings of fire. If it is not as direct of a description of Hell as the descriptions of fire are, then it is no longer necessary to assume that they both must be symbols only.

Along the lines of darkness, Jude 13 must not be overlooked. This is not from Jesus’ preaching, though it obviously must be addressed since, like the words that came out of the mouth of Jesus, it is God’s word. In Jude 13, Jude speaks of the lost, and after a string of metaphors, calls them “wandering stars, for whom the blackness of darkness hath been reserved forever.” Here, he more directly refers to them going away to darkness. However, a number of things must be said. First of all, while at no point is fire clearly used as a symbol for torment, but darkness is used symbolically for all sorts of things that could be used to speak of the lost. As mentioned in Section XXVI, Subsection E, it often referred to death and the grave. Also, the black darkness has symbolic elements. Remember, the lost are called “wandering,” which is clearly metaphorical, as are the many descriptions that precede this passage. Like a parable, the description of darkness has a symbolic background. The lost are like stars in darkness, just as they are like clouds blown about in wind or dead trees that are uprooted. There is nothing noticeably symbolic about Jesus’ warning of the fiery furnace into which the angels will throw the unsaved in Matthew 13.40-43, or the warning of Hebrews 10.27. Although there is plenty of reason to see darkness as a metaphor, there is no reason why fire must be a symbol, or even why it most reasonably would be.

Some Pictures And Descriptions Of Hell Don’t Make Sense If This View Of Hell Is True

In Subsection B, I explained why it is wrong to say that the fire must be metaphorical. Here, I will explain not only why it doesn’t have to be metaphorical, but why the metaphorical view becomes extremely problematic in view of certain descriptions of Hell.

Sodom and Gomorrah, and their use as a model for God’s judgment, deals a serious blow to the metaphorical view. As cited in the above section, 2 Peter 2.6 looks to Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of what will happen to the ungodly. Jude 7 is similar. With that said, I must ask all of you who believe in eternal torment but don’t see Hell as literal burning sulfur a question: how can Sodom and Gomorrah be seen as an example of eternal punishment? Now of course, the pertinent passages are very strongly support annihilationism, and not eternal torment of either kind. However, at least if one believes that Hell is a place of eternal torment in fire, they can at least say it sort serves as an example to the lost since there was fire. One could say that the temporarily burning fire (called “eternal fire” in Jude 7, of course) foreshadowed the fire of Hell that burns for eternity. However, if we say that the lost don’t really suffer in fire, then what is left? Which aspect of Sodom and Gomorrah is an example of what will happen to the lost? Is it the fire? No, because the fire of Hell is just symbolic of torment. The fire of Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t a shadow of fire to come because there is no fire to come. Is it the swift destruction then? No, since the lost are tormented for all eternity, without end. Sodom’s and Gomorrah were destroyed quickly (Lamentations 4.5), but the lost are never destroyed at all. How does a city being utterly destroyed by fire foreshadow endless existence in fireless misery?

Many other pictures of the sinner’s doom pose the same problem. As you recall, in Section XXX we looked at the parable of the weeds and Jesus’ explanation of it. We are told that the damned will be thrown in the fiery furnace just as the weeds are in the parable. In what way is this indicative of the lost? Is it how they are burned up like weeds? No, because if their fate is likened to weeds, then they would destroyed, not endlessly tortured. Is it because they are thrown into a fire? If one takes the view that Hell is a place of fire, this is at least plausible. It’s less likely given that the whole point of the parable is that they are like weeds, even directly likened to them in Verse 40. However, it’s possible at least. Jesus could be using the weeds simply as a backdrop to say that they are thrown into fire. Yet if fire is a metaphor, they are not thrown into fire. So what on earth could Jesus have meant when He said “as therefore the tares are gathered up and burned with fire; so shall it be in the end of the world” (Matthew 13.40)? They aren’t burned up like weeds, and they aren’t thrown in fire, so how is the picture of weeds being burnt up anything at all like the fate of the damned?

If Hell is neither a place of destruction nor fire, why have the lost being tormented in fire and brimstone as a symbol of torment in Revelation? After all, how is fire and brimstone used throughout the Old Testament? It is means of destruction. If we are to say that Hell literally is fire and brimstone, then this is less of a problem. One could say that God used burning sulfur in earthly judgments in order to foreshadow His use of it in Hell. On earth it kills, which is the greatest judgment that can be done. However, in eternity, it is infinitely worse. Such an argument is speculative, and I don’t think is very strong, but it does at least make sense. But why use an Old Testament figure in the New Testament to represent something so radically different than it did 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 used to speak of Hell is in Revelation, which is largely based on figures and symbols from the Old Testament. Their meanings help explain Revelation, not the other way around.

Now, like I said, 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. The only time we see fire and brimstone used this way is in Revelation. As I said before, Old Testament figures are represented quite a bit, and their meanings in the Old Testament are used to convey the meaning in Revelation (like a lamb, which was sacrificed for sins, used to represent Jesus, who was sacrificed for sin). The lamb doesn’t represent something radically different from its Old Testament counterpart – it isn’t the devil or a murderer. The meaning has quite a bit of thematic relation to the symbol. A greater destruction than earthly destruction (which is temporary) would most reasonably be eternal destruction, not a noticeably different fate (like eternal existence in torment). But at least that argument makes sense. To use burning sulfur as merely a symbol for torment, however, would seem to disregard its clear Old Testament significance.

The Fire Metaphor And Annihilationism

Unlike one who believes in eternal torment, if one believes in annihilation, the fire can still be metaphorical and the comparisons to the damned can still make 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 destroyed in a spectacular demonstration of God’s vengeance and power. Burning sulfur, which caused destruction throughout the Old Testament, is used as a symbol in Revelation to represent destruction.

As for me, I am not totally committed on whether or not there really is fire involved or not, but I do personally think that there probably is fire or something quite like it that God consumes the wicked with. Given how often fire is spoken of, this seems more likely than it all being a metaphor for destruction. The exact mechanics are unclear to me, as this fire would need to destroy both men and spirit creatures. Perhaps it is special fire, or perhaps there is ostensible fire and within it God exercises His ultimate power in destroying the spiritual elements of those that are cast into it. And again, it may be the case that it is just a symbol. After all, if God destroys the lost, then fire being a symbol in all of the Bible’s descriptions of Hell actually works.

Like I said, this doesn’t really prove annihilation, but since so many traditionalist scholars today view the fire of Hell as metaphorical, and for many this affects the way they argue for eternal torment, I figured it would be relevant to bring up in this discussion. Whether the fire is literal or not, the wicked will be ashes under our feet all the same.

Works Cited

Chan, Francis and Preston Sprinkle. Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011. Print.

Crockett, William V. “Chapter Two: The Metaphorical View.” Walvoord et al. 41-76

Keller, Timothy. “The Importance Of Hell.” Redeemer.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Jan. 2010. <http://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/articles/the_importance_of_hell.html>.

Morey, Robert A. Death and the Afterlife. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 1984. Print.

New International Version (NIV Bible). N.p.: Biblica, 1984. Biblegateway.com. Web. 6 Jun. 2011. <http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-International-Version-NIV-Bible/>.

Sproul, R.C. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992. Print.

Walvoord, John, William Crockett, Zachary Hayes, and Clark Pinnock. Four Views on Hell. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1992. Print.


(Originally published 01/13/2011: http://3-ringbinder.blogspot.com/2011/01/why-metaphorical-view-of-hell-falls.html. Immaterial changes have been made).


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