One of the many things that Christians learn about hell is that it is a place of fire. Jesus talks about “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41) and the book of Revelation speaks about the lake of fire. However, there is a belief among many Christians today that the flames of hell were never meant to be taken literally. The fires of hell are instead meant to be interpreted as a metaphor. Is this true? Is one of the most commonly taught realities of hell just a metaphor? In this article, I will discuss the question, “will Hell be literal fire?”
A Short History of a Literal Hell
First, let me give you a very short history of the literal view of a fiery hell. Throughout Christian history, the literal view that hell is fire and torment has dominated the thinking on the subject of eternal judgment. Although not all Christians have thought this way, the traditional view started early in the church. In the second through the fourth centuries, Christians came up with the idea that not only was hell literal fire, but a torture chamber where people would be punished by the part of their body they used to sin with while on earth.
“[W]e find blasphemers hanging by their tongues. Adulterous women who plaited their hair to entice men dangle over boiling mire by their necks or hair. Slanderers chew their tongues, hot irons burn their eyes. Other evildoers suffer in equally picturesque ways. Murderers are cast into pits filled with venomous reptiles, and worms fill their bodies. Women who had abortions sit neck deep in the excretions of the damned. Those who chatted idly during church stand in a pool of burning [sulfur] and pitch. Idolaters are driven up cliffs by demons where they plunge to the rocks below, only to be driven up again. Those who turned their backs on God are turned and baked slowly in the fires of hell.”
In the fourteenth century, Dante Alighieri published his Divine Comedy, which pictured hell as a place of horror. Hell was filled with screaming and wailing because the damned were running from snakes, boiling in blood, and other horrible things. Some early Christians even pictured those in heaven as happy that the damned were in torment and that this actually made heaven a better place.
Graphic views of hell persisted into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) said that hell was a place of fire and torment:
“The body will be full of torment as full as it can hold, and every part of it shall be full of torment. They shall be in extreme pain, every joint of ‘em, every nerve shall be full of inexpressible torment. They shall be tormented even to their fingers’ ends. The whole body shall be full of the wrath of God.”
Is Hell a Literal Torture Chamber Filled with Fire?
Are these historical views correct? Is hell literal fire? According to some theologians, when a person studies the Bible in context they will understand that hell is not literal fire or a torture chamber. Instead, fire is used as a metaphor to describe a very real horror – eternal separation from God and all that is good. According to scholar William Crockett, there are many reasons why the image of fire is not literal, and why they point to a hell that is horrible, but not a torture chamber full of fire and demons.
What the Bible and the Jews Taught About Fire
The first thing to understand is that the Jewish people had a tendency to use fire and torture as metaphors for hell. This was meant to convey to the reader or listener “that God has ordained an end to wickedness.” Fire is often used in Jewish literature in a non-literal way and is also used as colorful language to make a point. Here are some examples from the period around the time Jesus lived:
1) The Torah is said to have been written with “black fire on white fire” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6:1, 49d).
2) The tree of life was said to be as gold-looking in “the form of fire” (2 Enoch 8:4).
3) Jews wrote about mountains of fire (Pseudo-Philo 11:5), thrones of fire (Apoc. Abram. 18:3), rivers of fire (1 Enoch 17:5), angels and demons of fire (2 Bar. 21:6; T. of Sol. 1:10), and lashes of fire (T. Abram. 12:1).
Even in the Old Testament, we have the use of fire as non-literal:
1) God is described as a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24).
2) God has a throne “flaming with fire” that has a “river of fire” coming out from under it (Dan. 7:9-10).
3) Elijah is carried into heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11).
In the New Testament, fire is also used as a metaphor:
1) Revelation 1:14 says Christ’s eyes are “like blazing fire.”
2) Fire is used for judgment (1 Cor. 3:15), sexual desire (1 Cor. 7:9), and even unruly words (James 3:5-6).
Looking at the examples above, it is easy to see that fire was used to create a mood of reverence and seriousness about the topic being discussed. Besides this, fire is used for the topic of hell because fire conveys God’s wrath on wickedness. Why was fire used for these purposes concerning such a serious topic? In the first century, hell fire was common and easily understandable. Many people saw fire as something awful and indescribable and something they wanted to avoid.
Why the Fire is Not Literal
According to Crockett, one of the major reasons why we should interpret fire as a metaphor is the conflicting language that is used in many of the passages that refer to the fires of hell. Hell is said to be fire yet also darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17). The Epistle of Jude calls hell the “blackest darkness” in v. 13 while a few verses earlier (v. 7) he calls it “eternal fire.” Wouldn’t the fire lighten things up? How can bodies burn forever when they are being eaten by worms and maggots (Isaiah 66:24; also see non-biblical Jewish works like Judith 16:17; Sirach 7:17)? This conflicting language is not only in the Bible, but in other Jewish literature. 2 Enoch 10:2 links “black fire” and “cold ice” when referring to eternal punishment.
Jewish writers were not concerned with contradicting terms when they wanted to just make a point. Other examples of Jewish metaphors include teachings of Jesus himself. Jesus taught us to “gouge out” one of our eyes instead of go to hell (Matt. 5:29), “hate your mother and father” (Luke 14:26), and let the dead “bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). These were not to be taken literally; the listeners would have understood them “to be hyperbole, picturesque speech to bring home the urgency of the situation.”
Even the prophet Isaiah used a metaphor for hell: worms! Isaiah 66::24 says, “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Referring to the worms, scholar J. P. Moreland makes the following observation:
“In Jesus’ day [and, for the most part, in Old Testament times] thousands of animals were sacrificed every week in the Temple, and there was a sewage system for the blood and fat to flow outside, where it gathered in a pool. There were worms constantly ingesting that. It was a very ugly place…[w]hen Jesus [and presumably Isaiah as well] was teaching, he used this metaphor as a way of saying hell is worse than that disgusting place outside the city.”
There is also a connection between burning in hell and the Valley of Hinnom, where children were at one time burned as a sacrifice to the Ammonite (ancient Jordanian) god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 32:35). Jeremiah would even go on to say that the valley would become the place of God’s judgment. People would later burn their garbage in this valley by using sulfur. The Hebrew name for the valley is ge-hinnom and this evolved into geena (ghenna) which is the Greek word for hell. Thus the image of that horrible place was used for hell. It is clear from these references that the Jews were using places around Jerusalem to give the people a way of thinking about how horrible hell would be.
What Hell Is
Fire and torment is used to describe something that is horrible for a person: life without God. Theologian J.I. Packer mentions the common way that scholars describe hell:
“Loss of all good, all pleasure, all rest, and all hope; exclusion from God’s [favor] and exposure to his anger; remorse, frustration, fury, despair; self-hate as a form of self-absorption; introversion to the point of idiocy.”
This is why Jesus said “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:49-50). Theologian Millard Erickson mentions that hell is banishment from God and that loneliness and hopelessness will overtake the person while there. The minds of unbelievers will be tormented “by the assurance of their hopeless spiritual plight, which will result in extreme depression…The psychological notion of suffering is enforced by the uses of these words [like torment] in [chapter] 18 [in Revelation] where they are joined with ‘weeping’ and ‘mourning.’” Randy Alcorn, in his book on heaven, says of hell.
“Because God is the source of all good, and Hell is the absence of God, Hell must also be the absence of all good. Likewise, community, fellowship, and friendship are good, rooted in the triune God himself. But in the absence of God, Hell will have no community, no camaraderie, no friendship. I don’t believe Hell is a place where demons take delight in punishing people and where people commiserate over their fate. More likely, each person is in solitary confinement, just as the rich man is portrayed alone in Hell (Luke 16:22-23. Misery loves company, but there will be nothing to love in Hell.”
In my opinion, the arguments made for a metaphorical view of the fires of hell is very convincing. The fact that the Jewish audience of Jesus would have viewed fire as non-literal, and the fact that Jesus and the writers of the Bible used conflicting language (darkness and fire) point to the great possibility that hell is not a torture chamber full of fire. Some Christians may think that this view makes hell not as bad, but the fire is used to convey a message to the reader that something horrible awaits them in hell. In fact, fire represents something that is worse than fire: separation from God and a completely meaningless life. I also do not think that this is an issue that should divide Christians. Whether or not fire is literal, hell is a very real place that will last forever.
What do you think? Do the arguments presented in this article convince you that the fire that describes hell in the Bible is not literal? Leave a comment below.
 William V. Crockett, “The Metaphorical View,” in Four Views on Hell. Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett, eds. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. Pgs. 46-47.
 Crockett, 47.
 Jonathan Edwards, in John Gerstner, “Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell,” 56, n. 37; cf. 54-55, quoted in Crockett, 48.
 Crockett, 52.
 Ibid. 53.
 Ibid., 53-54.
 Ibid., 59.
 William Crockett. “Response to John F. Walvoord.” In Four Views on Hell. Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett, eds. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. Pg. 30.
 Lee Strobal, The Case for Faith. Grand Raids: Zondervan, 2000. Pg. 176.
 Crockett, 58.
 J. I. Packer, “The Problem of Eternal Punishment,” Crux 26 (September 1990): 25.
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998. Pgs. 1242-1243.
 G. K. Beale. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999. Pg. 760.
 Randy Alcorn. Heaven. Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2004. Pg. 28.