Surprised by Hell: The Consuming Fire

Up to this point, I remain astonished at how consistent the scriptures are on the fate of the saved and lost.

But there is an inconsistency. Revelation describes those outside of Jesus as dying in the Lake of Fire, this being the Second Death (Rev 20:14-15; 21:8 ).

However, Peter describes the lost as being destroyed in the fire that destroys heaven and earth —

(2 Pet 3:7) By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

Hmm …

It seems virtually certain that the “Lake of Fire” in Revelation is the same as Jesus’ Gehenna. After all, a valley filled with burning garbage could look very much like a lake of fire. As Revelation was written to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), the use of Gehenna as a metaphor would hardly work for these increasingly Gentile churches far from Jerusalem.

But there’s a third image of fire that helps unite the first two —

(Deu 4:24) For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

The idea that God himself is fire comes from the fact that God appeared as a fire on Mt. Sinai and traveled with the Israelites as they traveled to the Promised Land as a column of fire.

(Exo 24:17) To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.

Many passages speak of God acting through fire —

(Deu 9:3) But be assured today that the LORD your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you.

(Deu 32:22) For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains.

(Psa 21:8-9) Your hand will lay hold on all your enemies; your right hand will seize your foes. 9 At the time of your appearing you will make them like a fiery furnace. In his wrath the LORD will swallow them up, and his fire will consume them.

(Isa 33:14) The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?”

(Zep 1:18 ) “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath. In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth.”

“End” in Zep 1:18 translates kalah, meaning utter destruction or consumption.

The same vision of God is found in the New Testament —

(Heb 12:28-29) Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”

Now, remember we’re talking about metaphors. In the new heavens and new earth, even the laws of physics will be different.

But if the Lake of Fire and the fire that destroys the old heavens and the old earth will both be kindled by the wrath of God, indeed, will be the wrath of God, then they are the same.

(Isa 9:19) By the wrath of the LORD Almighty the land will be scorched and the people will be fuel for the fire; no one will spare his brother.

(Isa 30:27) See, the Name of the LORD comes from afar, with burning anger and dense clouds of smoke; his lips are full of wrath, and his tongue is a consuming fire.

(Jer 4:4) Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done — burn with no one to quench it.

(Jer 7:20) “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched.”

(Jer 21:12) O house of David, this is what the LORD says: “‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done — burn with no one to quench it.

(Lam 4:11) The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations.

(Ezek 22:20-21) As men gather silver, copper, iron, lead and tin into a furnace to melt it with a fiery blast, so will I gather you in my anger and my wrath and put you inside the city and melt you. 21 I will gather you and I will blow on you with my fiery wrath, and you will be melted inside her.

(Ezek 22:30-31) “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. 31 So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

(Nahum 1:6) Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him.

(Zep 3:8 ) Therefore wait for me,” declares the LORD, “for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them — all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.

In numerous passages, the Old Testament refers to God’s wrath as fire — not fire used because of his wrath, but wrath that is fire.

Many of the earlier passages are speaking of the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, and so the wrath that consumes or that uses God’s enemies as fuel is plainly speaking of actual death — not everlasting torment.

Later on, as in Zephaniah, the fire of God’s wrath is eschatological — coming at the End of space-time. And there’s no reason to take the similar language as referring to torture instead of death.

(Rev 14:9-10) A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.”

And Revelation 14 seems to clearly equate God’s wrath with the Lake of Fire.

Therefore, the apparent inconsistency comes from being a bit too literal in our interpretation of these passages. If we read them in light of their Old Testament antecedents, it seems likely that the passages all refer to the consuming fire of God’s wrath.