I have never seen a human burning alive, and when I try to imagine it the horror overwhelms me. Traditional Christianity would have us believe that the God of the Bible, a God purported to be loving and kind, burns those whose ways do not please Him. Some He burns forever. What has been the result of such teaching? Some people become skeptics and barricade themselves against the church and all for which it stands. This class says, in essence, that such a God has no right to claim loyalty from anyone, and all who buy into this obvious myth are either deranged or shallow minded.
And what has this concept done to the churches themselves? It has filled them with "Christians" who are such because of that everlasting fire they believe is waiting for all who don't yield. What kind of God is that? What kind of atmosphere prevails in churches where this doctrine is taught? My guess would be drama, raucous noise, and neon lights, as the leaders seek activities to keep the interest of those not truly born again. They think God's going to "get them" one day with flaming fire, if they don't shape up.
And please note: The same difficulty faces us as faced the religious leaders of Christ's day. They wanted a muscle-bound giant who could power them to victory over the Romans, and Jesus just wasn't that guy. He didn't fit the profile. Unbeknownst to them, He had bigger plans than anything their minds could conceive, and so they killed Him. And today we expect the Hebrew leaders' "God" to fulfill our prophetic expectations! They didn't get it back in Jesus' day, and, truth be told, they don't get it in our day either. Why? They fail to understand the word, interpreting the literal symbolically and the symbolic literally.
Can we agree that there is something wrong with this doctrine? Hasn't Scripture boldly asserted that "God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind? (2 Timothy 1:7). Is this doctrine not fear based? I think we would agree that it is and, therefore, deserves a second look.
Like several other doctrines, the idea of eternally burning hell originated in paganism and was used by the medieval church to keep the people in line.
What we do see during this time [the medieval period] is the expansion and proliferation of pagan myths about the afterlife, which were then repackaged as eternal, fiery torment in the Western (Catholic) Church, primarily by Latin theologians and Church leaders from Rome. It seems this was most likely motivated by political expediency. The idea of eternal torment was a prime tool for controlling the average churchgoer with fear and was congruent with secular mythologies of the time.1
On this point some have had the courage to stand up to the current of cultural norms and say, No. This is not the Bible view. But is it possible that those too have been deceived? Is it possible we have something more to learn about how a wise and caring God disposes of those who do not see things His way?
What Does Scripture Say?
I first want to magnify Christ to His central place in this discussion. Think of His actions as a Template. He carried our sins from His entry into the Garden of Gethsemane until His death on Calvary. Besides being our example of righteousness, He paid our sin debt. He will show us how God deals with the lost, for Christ was "lost" as He carried our sins with Him into the Garden. He carried them when they nailed Him to the cross. He carried them through all that suffering and pain until the moment when He cried out with a loud voice, "It is finished." "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (John 19:30; Luke 23:46). Again, our Teacher is our Template.
Seeing what happened to Him shows us how God the Father deals with the lost of the ages, for Christ experienced everything that the lost will experience. God will give them up, just as He gave up His Son to die for our sins (Romans 8:32). All have made a final choice, refused the Father's overtures of love, preferred independence from Him. Now He must honor their choice. Now He cannot move to comfort them. How will this affect them? Just as Christ agonized in the Garden, just as He sweat great drops of blood, the sins of the lost without the soothing hand of God to lift the burden will torment them in emotional agony. Grief will possess them, just as it possessed Christ in the Garden and on the Cross until the moment He gave up His life for us.
That His death was voluntary, a choice, is supported by:
a. His "loud cry" at the moment of His death proves He died voluntarily. His voice did not fade out until He could no longer produce a loud cry. He had full control over His voice and other faculties up to the end.
b. His death coincided with the hour of the general evening sacrifice. He chose to die at that exact moment.
c. When Joseph of Aramethia requested the body of Jesus, Pilot sent a centurion to ascertain if He was really dead, because no one died in just six hours from crucifixion alone. To prove He was really dead, the centurion plunged a spear into Jesus' side. The dual streams of blood and water proved that He was dead. He died in a surprisingly short time, because He chose the moment of His death.
d. Jesus predicted, "I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (John 10:17, 18). It was a voluntary choice, a choice that will be repeated in the end of all things.
This is important to show that in the end, like Christ, the lost choose to die. God does not make that choice for them. Let's look at what the lost see on Judgment Day, the day the light comes to their minds that they can no longer deny and that might make them want to die.
a. First they see their sins―in glorious living color. They see not only their sins but the far-reaching influence of those sins, the ripples that flowed out to generations beyond. As God's hand withdraws cover from them, they realize as never before the part they played in the suffering of multitudes.
b. On Judgment Day light and truth come, for that is what Judgment Day is. All are "undeceived." Here is truth staring them in the face. They can no longer deny it. They now know that they can't capture the city of New Jerusalem. With the universe now before them, they see that they are in the minority. Gone is the comfortable lifestyle that they cherished for so long. The righteous are praising God and glorifying His beautiful name. But that which appears lovely and valued beyond words to the righteous, appears vile and undesirable to the lost. There is no place for them any more, any where in the universe. They choose to die, as Christ chose to die when He paid our sin debt. "And death shall be chosen rather than life by all the residue of them that remain of this evil family" (Jeremiah 8:3; emphasis supplied throughout).
What About the Fires?
Where in Scripture do we find God endorsing burning people alive? No where. At one time I thought I had found a statement where God encouraged the people to burn someone alive. "And it shall be, that he that is taken with the accursed thing shall be burnt with fire" (Joshua 7:15). Achan had stolen and concealed something valuable at the taking of Jericho. But when I looked a little farther down the page, I found this. "And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones" (v. 25). They burned Achan and his family with fire―but they stoned them first. They were dead before they were burned. Although the people themselves sometimes burned their children alive on the arms of the idol Molock, God consistently says, "They have built also the places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind" (Jeremiah 19:5). It seems God takes an attitude similar to ours when it comes live burning of humans.
Even burning of the sacrificial animals, representing Christ, took place after they were dead. You may search Scripture all you want for information supporting the idea that God will some day alter his character and burn humans alive. But you will not be successful. It just isn't there. And if it seems to be there, take note, further study is needed.
"Fire" is a word that can be either literal or symbolic in Scripture. For example, literal usage of the word "fire" would include, "And the servants and officers stood there, who had made a fire of coals; for it was cold" (John 18:18); "He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, and walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt" (Daniel 3:25), and similar texts.
But "fire" is used extensively symbolically. "I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood" (Jeremiah 5:14). And "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?" (Jeremiah 23:29). "Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire." There are many symbolic uses of the word "fire" in Scripture that you may look up.
Similar to use of the word "sword" to characterize the emotional grief Christ passed through at the time of His suffering, the word "fire" symbolized that same suffering. While the word "sword" might be used symbolically in another setting, i.e., "the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:17), it doesn't seem to fit this usage, which is verified by several gospel texts.
What can we do with this statement: "[F]ire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them" (Revelation 20:8). It seems that this statement provides an insurmountable barrier to seeing God as nonviolent. But is this statement literal or symbolic? What might the fire represent here, if used symbolically?
In order for this statement to be true about the lost, it would also have to be true of Christ, the Template. Did literal fire play a part in Christ's sacrifice. No, it did not. We didn't observe any fire about Christ as He died for our sins. That fire, like the sword, was symbolic. But--watch closely--a prophetic statement in the Old Testament says this concerning Christ. "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger. From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them" (Lamentations 1:12, 13 ). Here again, Christ is acting as a Template for you and me and the myriads of humans for whom He died. For our discussion He mostly represents the lost of all the ages and their final fate. Does this support the falling of literal fire? Or does this support a lake, an abundance, of humans suffering their final, indescribable emotional torment?
Notice in both instances the fire is said to come down from above. However, we didn't see the fire. We didn't see the sword. Both represented the emotional agony that Christ felt in His soul. This is how the lost will feel as they contemplate their sins. This represents their grief as they contemplate their future. This is the fire of burning emotions, the sword that penetrates down into their souls.
And what is the Father's role in this. Does He in fact send the fire--either literal or symbolic? That is thoroughly covered in my other materials (See Light On the Dark Side of God). Suffice it here to say that No, He doesn't send it. He merely sees (and describes) Himself as doing that which He has the power to prevent but doesn't prevent, because the people have taken themselves out of His jurisdiction by willful sin, and He must honor their choice.
After this emotional assault on their psyche, the real fire begins that cleanses and recreates the whole earth.
1Brazen Church, "How and When the Idea of Eternal Torment Invaded Church Doctrine." https//medium.com/@BrazenChurch/how-when-the-idea-of-eternal-torment-invaded-church-doctrine-7610e6b70815. To read several good essays on this subject, google "How did the doctrine of eternally burning hell come into Christianity"?
"When I sent you without purse, and script, and shoes, lacked ye anything? . . . But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, 'And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end" (Luke 22:36, 37, emphasis supplied throughout). This text appears only in Luke. Matthew, Mark, and John apparently did not consider it of sufficient importance to include in the gospel record.
Clearly, this statement marked a change in Christ's life and behavior in a way the disciples could not comprehend, although He had told them. They thought He meant the time had come to fight; therefore, Peter drew his sword and cut off the high priest's servant's ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" and quickly healed the man. The disciples knew that Jesus had the power to win any confrontation. Why wouldn't He fight? Why wouldn't He allow them to fight? Now thoroughly confused, having taken Jesus' meaning literally, when He gave them opportunity to flee, they took it. Although critics of the message of God's character of love try to use this text to prove that, when threatened with physical harm, Christ endorsed use of the sword, abundant evidence exists1 that He didn't mean that. Violence was not in His nature. Well, then, what did He mean?
In a footnote to Luke 22:36 in The Geneva Bible Commentary, the author makes this comment: "He says all this using an allegory, as if he said, 'O my friends and fellow soldiers, you have lived until now in relative peace: but now there is at hand a most severe battle to be fought, and you must therefore lay all other things aside and think about dressing yourselves in armour.' And what this armour is, is shown by his own example, when he . . . reproved Peter for striking with the sword."
Remember where Jesus was at this time, because it is relevant. As they entered the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knew this was the hour that He would drink the cup of sorrow to its dregs and then return to His home in heaven. Although the disciples didn't know it at the moment, this was His departing message to them.
Indeed, Jesus position in the world changed that day. Henceforth the disciples would have to go it alone without His physical presence to comfort and counsel them. He said, "[T]his scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was counted among the lawless,'" quoting Isaiah 53:12, "[H]e was numbered with the transgressors," meaning He knew that within a few short hours He would be hanging between two thieves on His way to a voluntary death. He meant His crisis hour had arrived. His concern had nothing to do with swords, as critics of present truth today assert. He used the word "sword" symbolically. Did He refer to future conquests by the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God? Or might He have meant the severity of the assault on His emotions? Could He have attached a symbolic word within a statement that was otherwise quite straightforward? One thing is clear; what He didn't mean. And He didn't mean to endorse the violent use of the sword.
Imagine what an emotional burden Jesus carried into the Garden that night. Could His experience have been compared to the agony of a sword slashing through His heart? Apparently so, for there are at least two references to this in Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. The first is in Psalms 22:18, where we hear Christ praying to the Father. "Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog." A sword was not used at the crucifixion. The only thing that came close was a spear, which a centurion plunged into His side when He was already dead. This sword was clearly figurative.
A second example is Zechariah 13:7. "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man who is my fellow, saith the Lord of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered." Jesus claimed these words as a prophecy of Himself when He said, "All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad" (Matthew 26:31). Although He did not mention the sword in the part of the text that He quoted, these two portions clearly belong together, again symbolizing the great pain Jesus experienced when He went to the cross for us.
The New Testament offers a third example of the use of the sword to symbolize the pain that Jesus felt through His mother's experience when He went to the cross. The just and devout Simeon at the dedication of baby Jesus declared to Mary, "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also," implying the piercing of a sword through Jesus heart and by this, through the heart of Mary. Did Simeon speak the truth? Yes. But it was a symbolic sword that nonetheless drove through His emotions so realistically that it broke His heart. Symbolic swords can kill.
When opponents of this message seek ammunition in Jesus' life to defeat our position, they inevitably pick this statement in Luke 22:36, 37 as their first exhibit. You can hardly blame them, because scant proof exists that Jesus was ever anything but nonviolent, and they have little from which to choose. Couple that with the fact that the Father is just like Jesus, and (what can I say?) we win.
Luke 22:36 illustrates what can happen when the symbolic is erroneously interpreted as literal or vice versa. In the study of no subject is this more clear than in the study of the Fires of Judgment Day. We will take up this study next time.
1"Then Simon, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, 'Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?'" (John 10, 11).
"Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, 'Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'" (Matthew 26:51-53).