I find a very serious and disturbing incongruity among most Jesus-believers when it comes to the subject of fire as taught in the Bible. Here’s why…
If people are Bible-believing Jesus believers, the concept of fire in the life of the believer goes something like this: God uses fire (“spiritual” fire, not literal fire) in the lives of Jesus-believers to test them, purge them, cleanse their lives of sin and rebellion, to mold and shape their lives to be more godly, and to humble them. In other words, fire is a “good” thing for those who are Jesus believers—painful, to be sure, but good, nevertheless.
Here’s the incongruity, the contradiction. For most Bible-believers, fire (as taught in the Bible) is “spiritual” for Jesus-believers and somehow “good” for them, but for pre-believers somehow the fires magically turn into literal fire and are “bad” for them. Why the difference? Why the switch? Spiritual fire for Jesus believers. Literal fires of hell for pre-Jesus believers.
Why does fire change its essential properties and become either good or bad depending upon who is being subjected to the fire? I find that type of thinking to be very inconsistent. Why doesn’t the same fire have the same effect in both instances? Fire is fire, whether literal or spiritual. Does fire’s properties and usages change simply because of the nature of person being subjected to the fire? I don’t think so. Why does spiritual fire make Jesus believers “better,” but then change to literal fire to punish pre-Jesus believers?
Hellfire and Brimstone!
With those thoughts in mind, let’s now think in terms of the fires of hell. The following statement will be seriously challenged by many of my readers and students. When pre-Jesus believers die, they are not sent to hell. Their spirits return to God and their bodies and souls are buried in the ground (or buried at sea, or cremated . . . whatever.) They do not go to hell immediately upon dying. Just as Jesus believers do not immediately go to heaven when they die. When all people die, their spirits return to God and their bodies and souls are buried in the ground to await their resurrection when they will be reunited with their spirits.
The bodies and souls of Jesus believers will be reunited with their spirits when Jesus returns to earth to establish his Kingdom. The bodies and souls of pre-Jesus believers are reunited with their spirits many years later. Then they are cast into a “place” called the lake of fire. They do not go to hell when they die, but they will be “awakened” from their “sleep” of death and cast into the lake of fire at the end of the ages and eons of time. The lake of fire at the end of the eons of time is what we mistakenly call hell.
Generally, among Bible-believing orthodox Jesus believers there are two prevailing—mistaken—viewpoints of what the Bible teaches about the fires of hell. Reduced to their simplest points, the major view is that any person who does not receive Jesus as his or her personal Savior in this life is, at the time of physical death, immediately cast into the fires of hell, there to be punished by burning forever. The other view—held by fewer Jesus believers—is that any person who does not receive Jesus as his or her Savior in this life will ultimately be destroyed or annihilated in fires of hell that burn forever, i.e., the fires burn forever, but the people in them don’t; they are simply destroyed and cease to exist.
With some minor variations, these two views—simply stated—are the views held by most people who believe in the Bible’s teachings. And each of the two groups, of course, feels that their particular view is correct, well-supported, and well-defended by the Bible. My view is that both of those views are mistaken. At this point I hasten to say that this is not just another teaching about the fires of hell; yes, I will cover that subject at some length, but this teaching is not primarily about hellfire.
Also, I state very candidly that for many years I held the first viewpoint noted above. After all, isn’t that the American Protestant and Catholic (with some minor variations) viewpoint? Isn’t a USAmerican Jesus believer just automatically supposed to hold that view? My Jesus believer background and the Bible-believing institutions of higher learning I attended taught all Jesus believers will go to be in heaven forever and all pre-Jesus believers will be punished forever in the fires of hell.
True (they taught), God might be a bit lenient with the so-called “heathen” who have never heard of God, but they’ll still end up being punished and burning in hell forever. Perhaps the fires might not be stoked quite as hot for them . . . Also, for years there was no question in my mind that this teaching was wholly biblical and true; it was the other side of the coin, so to speak, about God’s love, i.e., only punishment in hell forever would vindicate God’s love, holiness, and justice.
I was taught that God cannot look upon evil and he will simply turn his back forever upon those who are burning in hell. I was taught that God desperately does not want this to happen, but He is “forced” into this position by people who reject his son, Jesus, in this life. Oh, God didn’t create hell for humans, but, instead, he created it for the devil and his minions, and then as an afterthought simply found hell to be a convenient place for the final disposition of stubbornly resistant humans, too. With only minor variations, the preceding few paragraphs are a capsule summary of the prevailing orthodox, Bible-believing viewpoint.
Sometimes that is the entirety of what is taught about fire in the Bible. Those who teach such matters flippantly say fire is for pre-Jesus believers alone and has nothing to do with Jesus believers. Oh, now and then a Jesus believer might have to suffer a bit by some vague, refining fire. Or, they sadly admit there have been martyrs burned at the stake, but those were extra-biblical matters and really have nothing to do with fire in the Bible. There, I think I’ve stated the prevailing orthodox view clearly and accurately.
What Do YOU Believe and Feel About Such Matters? Sadly, if a Jesus believer doesn’t hold either the major or minor view mentioned above, most other Jesus believers feel such a person cannot possibly be an authentic believer. They feel that one cannot be a believer in Jesus unless one believes either that pre-Jesus believers burn in hell forever or are destroyed in a hell that burns forever. Some feel if you believe anything else, you cannot possibly be an authentic Jesus believer. Look deeply into your own heart. How do YOU feel about such matters?
This teaching presents an alternative biblical viewpoint about fire. My changed thinking started one night a few years ago while driving down a lonely country road. Some thoughts about fire popped into my mind seemingly from out of nowhere; I certainly wasn’t thinking about fire at the time. This is what popped into my head: Fire is not always punitive or destructive. More often than not, it corrects, cleanses, and disciplines, too. I followed up those thoughts. They became sort of a formula for many missing pieces in my biblical understanding of fire. I began to see in a new light the 700+ references to fire in the Bible. I began to gain a fresh new perspective to what the Bible teaches about fire.
At about the same time I read these words from a favorite writer: “The part of us that has to be burned away is something like dead wood in our lives; it has to go, to be burned in the terrible fire of reality, until there is nothing left but…what we are meant to be.” – Madeline L’Engle With my new understanding, I began to see a much “bigger” God than I had ever known in the past. I began to see anew God’s all-encompassing and complete plan of creation, redemption, restoration, and reconciliation of all things–including all humanity.
I’m not naïve enough to feel in any sense that this teaching you’re reading right now contains the entire truth about fire in the Bible. Each of us sees only a small portion of the whole of truth. But God continues to teach us if we remain open, doesn’t He?: “Here a little, there a little, line upon line, precept upon precept,” as the Bible puts it.
Some Definitions and Illustrations
By definition, “fire” is “the principle of combustion as manifested in light and heat, and, often, flames.” Combustion is “a union of substances with oxygen, resulting in the production of light, heat, and flames.” For natural, literal fire to occur, three elements are required: ignition, oxygen, and fuel. Without even one of these three elements, fire simply cannot occur. Put more simply, fire is a physical energy force which occurs under certain conditions, creating heat, light, and flames. This elemental force we call fire does not necessarily punish or destroy; more often than not, it is a force which changes, corrects, tempers, purifies, and cleanses as well.
A few brief examples of the use of fire in the natural, literal sense might suffice to strengthen this point. Regarding forest fires, grassland fires, and the like, scientists and ecologists are just now beginning to learn how helpful fires are in an ecological sense. They are discovering anew that even though fire may seem to destroy, such fires are necessary to release valuable nutrients back into the food chain to enrich the new growth that occurs after the fire. After a forest or grass fire, the plant protein often doubles or triples, thus enriching the food for the thinned-out animal population surviving the fire.
Such fires are often necessary for the spreading of seeds and for the preparation of seed beds. Urban ecologists are even discovering that the burning of leaves in the cities actually cleanses the air of pollution. In certain climates, some insect life even needs fire in order to aid their reproductive cycles. These are only a few examples to stimulate your thinking and help you understand that all fire is not “bad.”
Let’s translate just one point about literal, natural fire into the spiritual. Here’s one example to think about. We followers of God are the “chosen seed” of an entire new race of beings, and this planet is, in a sense, the “seed bed” from which God will begin to reproduce himself throughout the entire universe. Might some type of fire be necessary to spread his seed and prepare his seed bed? Perhaps you live in an area where farmers burn their fields in the fall in preparation for the spring planting.
When I was in Peru a few years ago, I discovered that as a standard farming procedure the Peruvian farmers burned their fields in preparation for planting. Perhaps this causes you to think of such statements in the Bible as “The field is the world,” in connection with 2 Peter, Chapter 3. Have you ever used flame to sterilize a needle in preparation for using it to remove a splinter from your finger? How many western movies have you seen or books have you read in which an infectious gunshot or knife wound was cauterized with a searing hot iron?
Once when I moved to a new home in the countryside I had to burn mountains of debris and junk in preparing our property for new construction. Stop a moment and just try to list mentally or on paper other examples you can think of about how fire is often “good” rather than “bad.” Think how “good” and how necessary fire is in cooking, in great blast furnaces in the steel industry; how comforting and cheery a burning fireplace is; how necessary fire is for survival in cold climates, necessary for the survival of life itself.
No, fire is not always bad. More often than not, it is good, a “friend” to humankind. True, in such instances as a burning building or in the use of napalm in war, fire can be bad, but it is not always so. That is the basic point I am trying to make right now. Fire can cleanse. Fire can purify. It can temper. It can purge. It’s not always “bad.” I’ve already defined fire. To burn is to give forth light, heat, and, sometimes, flames during combustion. To burn is to subject something—fuel—to the action of heat or fire to cleanse, temper, or purify. Note very clearly that fire does not necessarily consume or destroy. Fire, even though it seems to do so, does not consume nor destroy the fuel that is being burned. Fire merely changes the basic elemental molecular structure of the fuel. The fuel is merely changed by the fire into another form of matter.
For example, when wood burns, the elemental structure of the wood fibers is changed into a gaseous element. The wood molecules are transformed into gas molecules by the ignition, heat, and flames of the fire. The wood molecules do not cease to exist, nor do they go on burning forever. They are merely changed and transformed. He who has ears to hear, let him hear . . .
Fire Does Not Destroy Or Consume its “Fuel”
Fire or burning is an action which, by the process of heat, light, and flames, changes or transforms the fuel which is being burned. Fire does not destroy the fuel upon which it acts. This working definition is the one I will use through the remainder of this teaching. I will not deviate from this definition, and I will not intend it to mean something other than this definition. I will understand every reference to fire in the entire Bible in relation to this working definition. Please keep this definition in mind as you continue reading this teaching.
Now we come to what the Bible teaches about fire and burning. As previously noted, the Bible contains 700+ references to “fire,” “burn,” “flames,” and related words. I have spent many hours studying each word in its context. I have tried to gain an overview of what the Bible teaches about these subjects rather than trying to make the references fit into a preconceived framework of thought. One can see and understand the parts of anything clearly only as they relate to the whole—only as they are viewed in reference to the whole.
The two prevailing notions about a burning hell with which I introduced this teaching are very clearly the results of the people holding those views fitting various scattered references into their own preconceived framework of “fire-ology,” not even properly understanding the definition and purposes of fire in the first place. It is a faulty and unscholarly approach to the study of such an important biblical subject. Especially when—in their view—it consigns billions of people to burn eternally in hell.
When the Bible says that fire destroys or consumes, I am absolutely convinced from a properly understood definition of literal fire and from the entirety of the Bible’s teaching about fire that the two terms “destroy” and “consume” are merely figures of speech because of what it appears or seems that fire does to the fuel it is acting upon—not that the fire is literally destroying or consuming.
Fire never consumes or destroys. It always changes and transforms. Merely because it appears to the eyes and seems to the senses to destroy and consume its fuel, that does not mean consumption and destruction actually occur. For example, in the Bible the word “consume” as it relates to fire means to end or complete in the sense of consummating a process of change and transformation.
Obviously from the brief length of this teaching you can assume I am not going to refer to all 700+ references nor ask you to turn to each of them. I have not formed conclusions and then scrambled to find selected texts to fit the conclusions. It is legitimate, however, to first study all the references as objectively as possible, to form conclusions based upon that study of the whole, and then to present “key” passages and texts which seem most representative and supportive of the whole.
God Is Fire!
The most basic references to fire in the entire Bible are Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29: “For the Lord is indeed a consuming fire and an ardent God.” God is fire. As creator of all the universe, including all space and time, God is, of course, the ultimate source of all elemental matter, including fire. But here we see that God is fire in a unique sense, not simply that God is the creator of fire. Is the fire mentioned in these references literal, figurative, or spiritual? Most likely it means all three, don’t you think?
One aspect of God’s own personality and nature, one facet of his infinitely faceted nature and being, is that he Himself is fire. Wherever the Bible later refers to literal fire, it is simply referring to God in the sense that he has created the phenomenon called fire and often uses such fire for his own express purposes of refining, cleansing, and tempering.
Whenever the Bible later refers to figurative or spiritual fires, such references refer to God in a unique sense that fire is an “extension” of his nature in the “form” of Holy Spirit, who is the fire of God. Fire is God’s energizing force, one facet of God the Holy Spirit. Yes, God is fire. Fire is a unique and specific manifestation of God’s being—his energizing force—used to cleanse, purify, and temper those people who are “on fire.”
Here’s another way to look at it. For natural fire to occur there must be three elements: ignition, oxygen, and fuel. For figurative or spiritual fire to occur, let’s consider Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and present ministry in the life of the believer as God’s “ignition.” It is through Jesus’ ongoing work of ignition on this planet that God continues the work he has begun of restoring the entire creation to himself. Second, let’s consider Holy Spirit as being the “oxygen” of God through whom God does his work on behalf of humanity. And the “fuel” with which the ignition and oxygen combine is the hearts, minds, personalities, character, spirit, and ultimately the bodies of humans. Yes, God is fire, and where there is fire there must be fuel. We are God’s fuel.
Sacrifices By Fire
I’m aware that fault can be found with my simple illustration, but I trust you are relying upon Holy Spirit to teach you beyond my words and help you grasp the point I am attempting to make. Here’s another illustration. The biblical Book of Leviticus is replete with instances of the many offerings burned by fire upon the sacrificial altars. It was required that many of the offerings be burned by fire to make them acceptable to God.
When we turn to the New Testament, there are many references back to those Old Testament sacrifices burned upon those many altars of the Tabernacle and Temples. One familiar New Testament reference is Romans 12:1: “In view of all God’s mercies, I appeal to you therefore, my fellow Jesus believers, to make a decisive dedication of your entire bodies and all your faculties as holy, living sacrifices to God. This is well-pleasing to God and is certainly reasonable in terms of your service and spiritual worship.”
For the sacrifices of ourselves to God to be fully acceptable to him, I believe we must be completely “consumed” by the fire of God. I remind you of the sense in which I am using the word “consume.” God’s “burning” of our living sacrifice is the consummating step in the process of making our sacrifices wholly acceptable to him. The fire of God is to “consume” its fuel—human beings. This takes us full circle back to our first reference in Deuteronomy.
Representative Biblical References
Let’s continue by exploring various key references which are most representative of the more than 700 on the subject of fire. I can only trust Holy Spirit to fit all the references together into a meaningful and understandable whole. He wishes to give you an overall view of the subject of fire so that you will have a frame of reference, a conceptual framework from which he can then guide you deeper. I hope you will come to understand how you are God’s fuel as he transforms and changes your “elements” into the image of Jesus. I want you to be able to understand what is happening to you should it occur that God casts you into the burning furnace, sometimes heating it seven times hotter. Keep in mind this teaching is intended to be only a basic survey about the subject, not an exhaustive study.
Please turn to Exodus 3: 3; it’s the familiar episode of Moses and the burning bush: “And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight—why the bush is not burned up.'” God wanted to speak to his servant, Moses. What method did God use to capture Moses’ attention? Fire. Often it takes fire to bring us to a point in our lives where God can speak to us. Has God’s fire come to your life? Does it burn but not consume? Do you complain and murmur? Does it continue burning to get your attention? What is your reaction? Is it like that of Moses? Is the fire causing you to turn aside to hear what God is trying to say to you? Do you grow uneasy, impatient, fretful? Or do you say, “Speak, Lord, for I am listening. Your fire has caused me to pay attention.” Sometimes—many times, actually—God can speak to us only through fire.
Now I urge you to read all of Exodus 13, paying particular attention to verses 21 and 22: “The Lord went in front of the children of Israel by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they may travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night always remained in front of the Israelites.”
“Light” Dark and “Dark” Light
By what unique method does God lead us when the way is dark, when it is night? By fire. In the dark days of your life, God might lead you and speak to you in the same manner. Get used to fire. God often leads and speaks by means of fire. There is something even more unique about the fire of God. Turn to Exodus 14: 19 and 20: ” . . . And the cloudy pillar moved from in front of the Israelites to stand behind them, coming between them and the Egyptians. To the Israelites it was light, but to the Egyptians it was a cloud of darkness. The pillar kept the Israelites and Egyptians apart all night.”
Look carefully. The very same pillar was fire and light to the Israelites, but dense darkness to the Egyptians. The same fire by which God is leading one person may be darkness to another. One person may be rising to new heights in God because he or she sees God in the fire, while another person may be groping and stumbling blindly all the while, the same fire being nothing but darkness to that person. Which person are you—walking in the light, or stumbling in the darkness?
Now turn to Exodus 19:17-19: “Then Moses brought the Israelites from the camp to meet God; and they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, wrapped in smoke, for the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like that of a fiery furnace, and the whole mountain quaked. As the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him with a voice out of the fire and smoke.” The entire mountain was on fire. Yet, God was summoning Moses to come up to the mountain for a face-to-face encounter with him. You have been close to a roaring fire at one time or another, haven’t you? Whenever I put wood in our fireplace I must be very careful not to get too close to the fire. Could you have mustered the courage to have even stuck one finger near that mountain of fire, much less walk right up to it as Moses did?
If we wish to go to the top of the mountain with God, if we wish to “ascend into the heavenlies” with Jesus, we must go into and through the fire to get there. I believe that Moses was able to walk right into this fire because he had been in the furnace of God, so to speak, for at least 40 years prior to this incident and because he had learned long ago at a burning bush that God speaks out of fire. Will you be among those who are scaling the heights of God? You have to go through the fire to get to those heights.
Exodus 40:38: “During all their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle in the daytime, and fire was in it at night in the sight of all the Israelites.” In the New Testament we find spiritual fulfillment of all God’s literal activities throughout the Old Testament. Through Jesus, we are God’s temples—God is fully present in us (2 Corinthians 5: 1 and Revelation 21: 3). He leads us by the cloud of his presence and by the fire of his presence. As noted above, we tend to draw back from fire and not get too close to it. We prefer fire for warmth, but we don’t want to get too close because we might get burned. Yet, God often leads us by fire. Jeremiah 23: 29 tells us God’s Word is like fire. In Lamentations 1: 13, the prophet Jeremiah says God has sent fire into his bones. Do not rule out God’s leading and guidance by means of fire. Remember, God is fire.
I now refer you to Numbers 31: 23; I trust you are looking up these references in your own Bible and finding I am not taking them out of context or misusing them in some other manner: “Everything that can stand fire, you shall make go through fire, and it shall be cleansed by the fire.” I cannot stress enough this truth: the basic purpose of fire is to cleanse, purify, temper, and purge! It is to rid it’s fuel of impurities, of foreign matter, of undesirable elements. It’s basic purpose is not to destroy or punish.
Only the tradition of Greek and middle eastern mythology and tradition—coupled with medieval superstition—has caused us to believe that the fires of God are always to punish and destroy some of his creation. A clear understanding of the nature of fire, both in physics and the Bible, both literally and spiritually, should clear away all the false teaching about how God punishes people with fire. No, God’s fires are to cleanse. And he will put through the fire only those elements of fuel that can stand the fire.
Look at Psalm 66: 12: “You caused our enemies to ride over our heads when we were down; we went through fire and through water, but you brought us out into a wide, fertile expanse—into abundance, refreshing, and open air.”
A songwriter has commented much more aptly upon this reference than I ever could:
“In shady green pastures so rich and so sweet
God leads his dear children along.
Where the water’s cool flow bathes the weary ones’ feet,
God leads his dear children along.
Some through the water, some through the flood;
Some through the fire, but all through the blood.
Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song
In the night season and all the day long.”
Psalm 104: 4 and Hebrews 1: 7: “God makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his ministers. Referring to angels, God says I make my angels winds and my ministering servants flames of fire.”
I think we have already concluded that God is fire. There should no longer be any question of that in your mind—if you believe the Bible’s clear teachings. Yet, we read in these passages that God’s “messengers” are flames of fire. Does that mean what it says? Yes, just as God is fire, just as his Word is fire, even so his angel-servants, are flames of fire in their ministry to those who are God’s children. With that in mind, remember, too, that angels minister primarily to God’s children.
Again I remind you that after having researched all 700+ references to fire in the Bible, after having studied all I could that modern physics has to teach us about fire, after all this, I am now bringing your attention only a few selected references on the subject. I am not submitting them to you as proof-texts to push any preconceived theories I have concocted. I am aware that one can support just about any biblical teaching with a few, well-chosen proof-texts. More often than not, those holding to diametrically opposing views will even select the same references to support such opposing views, merely interpreting the references differently to fit their views.
It is not my purpose to convince you of my views or some “pet” theory. The reality is that many of my former views, theories, and doctrines of the past few years have been completely dissipated as smoke before the wind. I honestly don’t feel that my views are complete or embodiments of the whole truth. Each of us knows only a small portion of truth. I only trust that my limited understanding contributes to the whole of understanding. Jesus is the whole!
With that reminder, I now ask you to turn to Song of Solomon 8: 6 and 7: “God, set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for [your] love is strong as death; [your] jealousy is as hard and cruel as Sheol [the place of the dead]. Its flashes are flashes of fire—a hot, burning flame, the flame of God. Many waters cannot quench love.”
God’s Fiery Love—The “Ring of Fire”
This reference is about how strong God’s love is. It is said to be like flashing fire. Do we really understand that God’s love is like fire, or—put another way—that God’s fire is an outgrowth, an extension, of that love which is part of his very nature. How can this be so? How can fire be part and parcel of God’s love? Here’s a homely way of answering those questions. Don’t many of our modern love songs compare love to fire? Most of you will remember Johnny Cash’s popular song, “Ring of Fire,” in which human love and passion is considered to be as fire. I don’t mean to reduce God’s love to the limitations of human love. Nevertheless, what serious Bible student can deny that a very part of God’s nature—God, who is love—is fire?
“How about the eternal fires of hell?” you ask. “Are they, too, part of God’s love? Does God somehow work out his infinite plans and purposes even in the hearts and lives of those who are cast into hell?” Remember that what we commonly call hell really is the lake of fire into which pre-Jesus believers will be cast at the end of the eons of time. People are not cast into hell at the time of their death. I don’t mean to put you off, but I’ll attempt to answer such questions in the latter part of this teaching.
Psalm 50: 3: “Our God comes—not in a silent way, but a fire devours everything before him, and all around him a mighty tempest rages.” In part, this Psalm is one of the “Messianic” psalms, one heralding a day in the writer’s future when Jesus would appear in glory, a day when out of Zion God would shine forth. We are spiritual Zion. To come to Zion out of which the perfection of beauty will shine (verse 2) we must first experience the devouring fire.
Two other representative biblical references are Isaiah 9: 19 and Ezekiel 21: 32: “Through God’s wrath the land is burned up and darkened, and the people are like fuel for the fire; no person spares his own relatives. You shall be fuel for the fire. Your blood shall be in the midst of the land; you shall not be remembered any more. I, the Lord, have spoken these things.” Do you recall my earlier thoughts about the three elements necessary for literal and spiritual fire: ignition (Jesus), oxygen (Holy Spirit), and fuel (people). Is the fuel mentioned in these references restricted to only the physical humans mentioned or does it extend beyond that—in principle—to all humanity? I am merely asking the questions, not attempting to answer them at this time. Remember, all the references I’m furnishing you are only parts of the whole of what the Bible teaches about fire.
Isaiah 24: 15: “Glorify the Lord in both the east (the region of daybreak’s lights and fires) and the west. Glorify the name of the Lord God of Israel in the islands and coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.” Do you glorify God in the fire? When his fires of judgment, purging, and cleansing come to you, what is your initial “gut reaction”? What occurs down deep inside you—at your most basic level of being—at such times as the fires draw near and the flames leap ever higher? Do you balk and draw back from the flames? Do you say, “This is Satan’s doing”?
Do you murmur and complain that this is not the complete Gospel—that the full Gospel involves nothing but health, prosperity, blessing, and abundance, certainly not fire? Do you run around frantically seeking the “fire exit”? Do you panic in the fire and trample the lives and reputations of others in your haste to escape God’s flames? Or . . . do you glorify God in the fire? The choice is yours to make. It is simply a matter of your will.
What did Jesus do when confronted with his baptism of fire? He said to his Father, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” He could have called many legions of celestial firefighters, but he chose by a simple act of his will to allow the Father to work his own will in and through the Son—through the cup of suffering and the baptism of fire. Isaiah 31: 9: “God says, “Because of sheer terror, in his flight the Assyrian will run right on past his refuge in the rocks. Even the Assyrian officers will desert in fear and panic.” God’s fire is in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem.”
To me, this is a very “deep” verse in the Bible. We will be part of the heavenly Jerusalem spoken of in Revelation. We will be part of Zion. Note that God’s fire is in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem. If—and I say if—we are Jerusalem and Zion in whom God is fully tabernacled . . . If we are these and more . . . If Gehenna (hell) was just outside the natural city of Jerusalem, then I have a tentative hypothesis to submit to you. Is it possible that we, collectively, will be the lake of fire or, at least, those fires which God will use to cleanse and purify those who are in the lake of fire in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) adjacent to spiritual Jerusalem? That is only a question, not a statement of fact or doctrine.
The Lake of Fire
If in the Bible the word “sea” often refers to masses of people, is it not possible that a “lake” refers to masses of people, too? I can only trust, of course, that you have long since rid yourself of any notions that the lake of fire in Revelation and the flames referred to in Luke 16 and other such passages are literal, natural flames of fire. A simple understanding of the Bible along with the most basic understanding of physics assures us that these are not natural flames.
I hasten to say, however, that the pain and torment of these flames, though not natural, is probably many times more severe than the pain of literal burning. The actual spiritual reality is far, far more than simply some literal flames in some pool of fire somewhere in the universe. God has always chosen to minister to people through people, and I feel strongly that all those people cast into the lake of fire will be ministered to by God’s kingdom followers.
We cannot overlook nor pass by one of the most well-known and helpful references to fire in the entire Bible, Isaiah 43: 2: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you and the rivers shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned or scorched, nor shall the flames kindle upon you.”
I will not even attempt to add to the precious promises of this reference, except to say that all such promises (although made to specific people in time and space) are for all people everywhere and everywhen. Such promises are for you; they are for me; they are for all of us—now and in our futures. Isaiah 62: 1: “For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace, says Isaiah, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her righteousness and vindication go forth as brightness, and her salvation radiates as a burning torch.”
Again we find reference to Zion and Jerusalem. We will one day be Zion and Jerusalem, both being spiritually the same, both being fully inhabited by God. The righteousness, vindication, and salvation of God will all go forth to lost humanity as a burning torch. Yes, even God’s salvation is likened to fire, to a torch. This is not in the sense of a light lightening a dark pathway; it is more than that—far more. It is the type of torch that is used to set another ignitible substance on fire. God’s ministers—his fires of salvation—will ultimately result in the flames of salvation spreading to the entire universe.
Isaiah 66: 24 is a key Old Testament reference, key in the sense that it sets the stage for very important teachings in the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9, for example; he refers back to this passage in Isaiah: “And they shall go forth and gaze upon the dead bodies of the rebellious people who have taken sides against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all people.”
Regardless of what else this Old Testament reference may or may not refer to in typology, it certainly has to do prophetically, in part, with the lake of fire in Revelation. Yes, the reference in Isaiah says the fires cannot be quenched. And this, of course, is a key proof-text for those who hold the view that the flames of hell shall burn forever and ever. That is not at all what this verse claims. It simply says the fires—whatever they are, wherever they are, whenever they are—cannot be quenched. It does not say the fires will never die out for lack of fuel.
There is a vast difference in a fire being quenched and a fire simply dying out for lack of fuel! Remember a fire needs three essential elements in order to burn, one of them being fuel. Without fuel, a fire simply dies out. I believe that is precisely what will one day happen to the lake of fire: it will simply die out for lack of fuel, even though while it is still burning—while there is still fuel—it cannot be quenched or put out. I also invite you to read Jeremiah 7: 20, 17: 7, and Ezekiel 20: 7 in this regard.
I also invite you to turn now to the familiar story in Daniel 3 of the young men who were cast into the fiery furnace. Who is not familiar in some way with this passage—the songs, the stories, the pictures about this passage are innumerable. What can I possibly add to all that has been taught and written? Note the young men were cast into the furnace still clothed with their garments. Do you have the proper garments for the fire? The “soldier’s uniform” of Ephesians 6 would be a good place to start in respect to donning the proper garments. Notice they fell down in the fire. They could not stand in their own strength. They were helpless. When the fire was the hottest, when they were most helpless, God came right into the fire with them. God was as close as the fire because God was the fire!
They were then found to be walking in the fire—not standing, not sitting, but walking. When we are totally helpless, when the fire is the hottest, that is when we can then arise and walk in the strength of the Lord our God, commune as friend with friend in the swirling, dancing flames, and find his strength perfected in our weaknesses. We are not to sit, nor to stand, nor to run, but to walk confidently through the fire as we receive direction and guidance from the one who trods the fire with us—from the one who is the fire.
Zechariah 13: 8 and 9: “God says, “In all the land two thirds shall be cut off and perish, but one third shall be left alive. And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name and I will hear and answer them. I will say, ‘it is my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.'”
This is a familiar, so-called “end time” passage often quoted by eschatologists and those who feel God’s great wrath is about to break upon this planet. There is still food for thought in this passage which has reference to the metallurgist’s fire of Malachi 3: 2 in which God will refine his people as gold and silver is refined. Such refining is not limited to the ends of the ages; it applies to all God’s dealings with individual people. It often takes the refiner’s fires to make us acknowledge, “The Lord is my God.”
Before turning now to some New Testament references, I remind you once more that we are merely looking at key passages on a particular subject. This teaching is not intended to be exhaustive nor complete; I’m merely attempting to whet your appetite for further study of the subject of fire in the Bible. Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, and John 1 all refer to Jesus’ baptism in water, in Spirit, and in fire. Jesus’ baptism in fire is an entire study in and of itself. These four references teach us that Jesus is the one who baptizes us in Holy Spirit and in fire. A simple word study of the English word, baptize, discloses that to be baptized in fire means that we are to be completely immersed in fire or to be surrounded by the element of fire.
Blood and Fire
We are cleansed by the blood of Jesus, but in some respects the “agent” by which we are cleansed—on the basis of Jesus’ full and complete blood sacrifice—is the fire into which he baptizes us. The blood and the fire are not two separate works—they are one. Is the fire of God then different for Jesus believers and pre-Jesus believers? Are Jesus believers baptized into one type of fire and pre-Jesus believers into another? When Jesus believers are baptized or immersed in fire, pre-Jesus believers are cast into a lake of fire. Are there substantial differences? Those are questions, not conclusions.
Note, too, in these passages in the Gospels that the “wheat” in our lives—those parts of our lives that are “alive” spiritually—will be gathered into God’s granaries. What is a granary for? To stockpile food for people or animals. The “chaff” in our lives—those things in our lives which are “dead” spiritually—will be burned in fire which cannot be extinguished or quenched. Does that which is stored in granaries have anything to do with the fruit bearing and non-fruit bearing “branches” of John 15?
I refer you now to another very familiar passage, that of 1 Corinthians 3: 11-15. I suppose this is probably the most classic passage in the entire New Testament referring to the fire of God in the life of the Jesus believer. I will not attempt to add very much to what has already filled pages and pages of expository writings and messages. If our works stand the fire, we will gain. If not, we will suffer loss. Not some gain and some loss mixed together, but only one or the other.
Just about every Bible teacher and writer furnishes his or her own list of what wood, hay, stubble, gold, silver, and precious stones refer to. I am confident God has his own list, uniquely suited to each of our lives. And I am certain the fire of God is even now burning the burnable, and tempering, purifying, and cleansing that which is of value to him in our lives. What will that be? Gain or loss?
1 Peter 1: 6 and 7: “You should be exceedingly glad because now for a little while you are distressed by trials and temptations. This is happening so that the genuineness of your faith may be tested. Your faith is infinitely more precious that perishable gold which is tested and purified by fire. This is happening to you so that Jesus may praise you when he is revealed.”
This involves a timeless principle in the lives of Jesus-believers. Fire is designed to test and strengthen our faith. What is the exact opposite of faith? No, not doubt, but unbelief or non-faith. God is trying our faith by fire. And such trials come specifically in those areas of our lives where we have restricted Holy Spirit from placing within us and nurturing a “measure” of faith (see Romans 12: 3).
Up to this point you have certainly noticed I have shared with you references dealing for the most part with God’s fires in the lives of his children. I have touched upon his dealings in the lives of those who are not yet his children, but my primary focus has been upon the workings of God’s fires in our lives. I am now turning to a very basic study of God’s dealings in the lives of those people who are not presently his children. I would like you to go back and read the opening paragraphs of this teaching stating the two classic positions concerning the final disposition of pre-Jesus believers.
Generally, when we think of the punishment of pre-Jesus believers, our thoughts turn most often to the subject of hell. In both the Old and New Testaments the word “hell” comes from a number of words in the Hebrew and Greek languages. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word, Sheol, is translated usually into three English words: grave, pit, and hell. Sheol simply means the realm of the dead—the grave. Whatever it does mean in an actual sense, it does not mean a place of ever-burning fiery torment. The only way people have arrived at this conclusion is from what they have read into the word from traditional teaching on the subject. The word Sheol means the realm of the dead, the grave,—nothing less, nothing more.
In the New Testament, the Greek equivalent to Sheol is the word Hades. It, too, means the realm of the dead, the grave—nothing more, nothing less, although it is most often translated as hell. Another Greek word, Gehenna, is also incorrectly translated as hell. Gehenna is a “nickname” for the Valley of Hinnom adjacent to the city of Jerusalem where the residents of the city disposed of and burned their trash and garbage. None of these words can in any way be correctly translated or interpreted to mean an ever-burning hell. It is simply convenient to make them fit a preconceived notion of a hell that burns forever. I hasten to acknowledge that the Bible does, indeed, teach there is a place of burning, fiery torment—the lake of fire; I am simply saying the above words do not mean a fiery hell into which people are cast at the time of their deaths.
Before you read any further in this teaching, I want you to mark your place here, stop reading, and turn to another teaching on this website, “Beyond The Far Shores Of Time” (if you haven’t already done so). It’s imperative you understand that teaching before you read any further in this one.
Have you done that? Have you read the other teaching? All Bible references having to do with an eternal or everlasting hell can—without exception—be understood as referring to a hell (lake of fire) that shall burn only until it runs out of fuel. The everlasting hell the traditional teachings refer to is simply the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation. That lake of fire does not burn forever as the English text would have us believe. It will burn only until the end of the eons of time when it runs out of fuel. Whether or not that lake is a literal lake still remains to be seen.
I charge you to study and read all references to fire and hell in the entire New Testament; this can be done readily with the help of any good concordance. As you do so, look up in the concordance exactly what the words fire and hell mean and refer to in each instance. Examine all the words “eternal” and “everlasting” that accompany the word hell, and then—having done that objectively and honestly—ask God to bring you to a clear and concise understanding of the matter. Try to approach such references as an honest, unbiased scholar, and I am certain you will see the whole matter in an entirely new light. Set aside your tradition. Set aside your preconceived notions. Think for yourself.
Turn now to Revelation 19: 20. Who are cast into the lake of fire burning with sulphur (brimstone)? Do you have an encyclopaedia or dictionary handy—or check the internet? Look up the word, “sulphur.” Do you know what sulphur has always been used for historically—without exception? Look it up for yourself. It certainly has never been used for punishment, only for purification, healing, and cleansing. From the word sulphur comes the word sulfa which was a drug widely used to treat infections before the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics.
Read Revelation 20: 10. Who is cast into the lake of fire? Do they have literal bodies which can be burned in literal fire? Or are they spirit beings having non-corporeal bodies? How long are they tormented in this lake? Forever and ever? No, for the ages of time, not eternity. At the end of the ages, their cleansing, their purging, their tempering, their transformation will be consummated. They are not unceasingly punished. The pain, the hurt, the agony is very real. I do not wish to minimize the horrors of that punishment, but I do not wish to make something of it that the Bible doesn’t. I still have many questions about this matter, but I am merely submitting to you that which I presently seem to understand. Don’t hold my feet to the flames, so to speak. All the evidence is not yet in . . .
Two Sets of Books
Now let’s take a close look at Revelation 20: 11-15. Let’s analyze the passage a verse at a time and see what conclusions you reach. Verse 11 is very plain and simple and should need no further analysis than just a simple reading of the verse. In verse 12, people who have been dead and are now resurrected are standing before the throne of God; two sets of books are opened. One set is plural: books. The other set contains only one book, singular: The Book of Life. What is the first set of books? I submit to you that it is the Bible.
The Bible is a “set of books.” People are always judged by God’s standard, by his written Word, the Bible. That set of books is enough. There is not another separate set of books God is keeping off in heaven somewhere. These are not some fantastic ledger books up in heaven somewhere in God’s accounting office—books that angel accountants have been laboring over since the dawn of humanity, writing down all the good and the bad, maintaining literal accounts on each human being. That is something Santa Claus and his elves do, not God. This set of books is the 66 books of the Bible by which all humanity will be judged.
The Book of Life is another matter, a study all by itself. If you wish to study the subject independently, I refer you to Daniel 12: 1, Psalm 69: 28, Revelation 3: 5, Revelation 20: 15, and Revelation 21: 27. Those are the only passages in the Bible referring to the Book of Life.
Now look at verse 13 of Revelation 20. Three elements yield up the resurrected dead who are in them: death, hades, and the sea. Here’s a question: if people will have already been burning in an eternal hell prior to this time (cast there at the moment of their death), how is it that they are able to leave that eternal hell and be transferred into an eternal lake of fire? If something is eternal, it can’t end and then be followed by another eternity. If people go to an eternal hell immediately when they die, a hell in which they are to burn forever, how is it that they are able later to be transferred to a lake of fire?
Verses 14 and 15 are interesting in the light of what we’ve already studied together. The resurrected dead people who have been in a state of death and hades are now—at the time of this event—cast into a lake of fire. [Please read my companion teaching, “The Day Death Died”] Here’s a summary of what that article teaches. If you had been a literate Greek of 2,000 years ago and had read this passage in Revelation about a lake of fire, you would have immediately—with absolutely no hesitation—understood that this lake was a lake of divine purification and cleansing. You wouldn’t have given a moment’s thought to the lake being a place of punishment alone.
The thrust and intent of this passage to any person who might have read it with the knowledge of the Greek language, beliefs, and customs would have understood this to have been a lake of cleansing. This lake is not an ever-burning hell of punishment wrought by an angry and vindictive God. This is a lake of fire designed to purify, cleanse, and purge until such time as the last person in it is fully cleansed of all sin. Keep in mind it is the shed blood of Jesus which makes the cleansing fires possible.
Jesus’ Full and Complete, Total Sacrifice
Let’s review just a bit of theology at this point. The sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary’s hill was all-encompassing and all-efficacious for the sins of all humanity. He is the Lamb of God who takes away all the sin of all the world (John 1: 29). Jesus’ blood shed on that lonely hill outside of Jerusalem was sufficient to remit the sins of all humankind. People can either accept his substitute payment for their sins and be completely cleansed of sin by that means. Or, they can refuse Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice on their behalf and then have their sins purged out of them—burned out of them—in the lake of fire.
Such purging being necessary because of their refusal to accept the substitute God has freely provided them. Either way, God’s blood sacrifice for sin is total and complete in every aspect and in every respect. In both cases, Jesus has made full and free provision so that all people have access to his complete salvation. Calvary’s bloody crucifixion provides rebirth by faith or reconciliation by fire. The choice of which way we receive God’s salvation is up to each of us.
No, the lake of fire does not burn forever—only until the last stubborn human being has yielded to the cleansing fires and has confessed Jesus as Lord by means of Holy Spirit—to the glory of God the Father. In a very real sense this takes us to 1 Corinthians 15: 27 and 28 which is really the end of the Bible—not the end of the Book of Revelation. The events in these two verses occur outside of space and time in a very real sense—at the ends of the ages, yet beyond the ends of the ages in the eternal state. It is a time when God shall be everything to every person. God is All in all—Everything to everyone! What a glorious consummation of all things in time and space.
Have we successfully completed our Bible survey on the subject of fire? Probably not. Is your mind made up? Perhaps, perhaps not. You make your own choices and decisions. Have we exhausted the subject? No, we barely got started. I’ve only provided a skeleton outline of the subject.
Here’s my prayer for you: “Spirit of the God who is fire, I turn each reader over to you now and trust you to perform and complete all your purposes for each of them. If you must take them through the fire, so be it. If so, lead them gently into the fire, through it, and beyond it, out into your new Kingdom life. Let each of us be your flaming torches to take your message of salvation to the ends of the earth and beyond. I pray through Jesus. Amen.”
NOTE: There are a number of very good books covering other aspects of this subject: Hope Beyond Hell, Hope For All, Heavens Doors, At the End of the Ages, Is Hell Eternal or Will God’s Plan Fail? All Things New. More and more of these types of books become available almost every passing year. For more complete information about the ones I listed, contact me. Or, most of them are available now on Amazon.com.
Life Enrichment Services, Inc
Revised and updated May 2021