Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Myth of Hellfire Part 9: Incinerating the Rich Man

In my last posts here and here, I talked about the references to fire in Revelation. I plan on discussing one more important text that is used to prove a literal fiery hell. This is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Some might argue that this parable is something that actually happened and they cite to the fact that Lazarus is mentioned by name. For now, I will simply assume that it is a parable and leave this debate for another time because I do not want to get sidetracked.

Most of you might know the story but, for those that don’t, I will provide a short summary. In Luke 16, Jesus tells a story of a poor man named Lazarus and an unnamed rich man. Both die and Lazarus is taken to “Abraham’s bosom” while the rich man is taken to hell. The rich man complains of the torment he is currently facing and begs Abraham for a drop of water and to send Lazarus to warn his family. Abraham refuses, saying that even a dead man won’t convince someone if they do not obey the law.

First up is the use of the word torment. In the Greek, two words are actually used. In Luke 16:23, Jesus describes the rich man as being in “torment”. The Greek word used here is basanos. Basanos refers to something called a touchstone; this is a black stone that is used to test the purity of gold or silver. As one commentator put it, the rich man is indeed going through a test in hell, a test of purity; however, because no purity is found in the rich man, the test never ends.* Whether the rich man suffers pain or not is unknown, he very well could be, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of the word “basanos” translated to torment in most translations. The point seems to be that he is undergoing a trial that is never-ending. Whether physical, roasting pain is a part of it is beside the point.

The rich man also man begs Abraham for a drop of water to cool his tongue because of his torment. Here a different Greek word is used: odunao. Odunao only appears two other times in the New Testament and, in both uses, refers to extreme sorrow, not physical torture. This good evidence that “odunao” as used by the rich man does not refer physical torture.

There are a few more things in this parable that, at least, suggest metaphorical flames. First, the rich man begs for a drop of water to cool his tongue. However, if the rich man really was being roasted with flames, a drop of water on the tongue would do absolutely nothing. Jesus is clearly using hyperbole here to illustrate a point, similar to what he did when he said that it would be easier for a camel to go through the needle of an eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Second, the rich man is able to see Abraham and Lazarus, but how is he able to if hell is a place of darkness? It’s would seem obvious this parable isn’t mean to be taken literally when we have contradictory descriptions like this. Third, Abraham speaks of a great chasm that separates him and Lazarus from the rich man. Do we take this to mean that in hell, there will literally be a huge chasm separating those in hell from those in heaven? I don’t know of many Christians that believe that.

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve proven hell to be metaphorical. I only want to show that it is more plausible to take the various descriptions of hell metaphorically as opposed to literally. All these descriptions of hell tend to come in parables and are surrounding by metaphor. Taking the descriptions of hell literally seems to be a stretch and something we read into the text rather than out of it.

*What in Hell is Going On by JP Holding

The Myth of Hellfire Part 8: Fire and Water

Just yesterday, I made the argument that, generally, the references in Revelation to the fires of hell are not supposed to be taken literally. I also provided a bunch of verses in Revelation that talk about hell as literal fire and do not plan on going into detail with most of them unless I find a good reason to take those verses literally. However, there is one verse that I want to go into some detail. The main reason for this is because I once had a talk with a friend of mine on hell and this is the verse that my friend gave me as proof that hell will be flames and heat. I hope to give a short explanation of why I don’t think this verse talks about actual fire.

Revelation 21:6 & 8 “… To one who is thirsty I will give water free of charge from the spring of the water of life… But as for the [various sinners], their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death.”

The most important thing to note about this passage is the contrasting image. In one verse we have the image of water and the next image is one of fire. John is clearly contrasting two pairs of images here. The “good” will be given water and the “evil” will be given fire. However, no Christian that I know of believes these verses to teach that Christians will be given actual water made up of hydrogen and oxygen at the end of time. Most believe this to be a metaphor of the Holy Spirit (The writer, John, does link water with the Holy Spirit in his gospel a few times like in John 4:10-14 so there is some evidence to suggest this). The problem is that when we move to the fire image, most take this literally. That doesn’t make any sense, seeing how we just took the previous image as a metaphor. What is the reason for that? That just doesn’t seem consistent nor does it seem fair to the text. Couldn’t John be pointing out that hell will be a complete absence of the God’s spirit just has fire is completely absent of water? I think that makes much sense. I see no reason why this should be taken literally given that the writer is clearly contrasting two pairs of images.

I once had Revelation 21:8 pointed out to me as proof that hell will be a place of literal fire. However, the person who showed me this verse seemed to skip out on the verses right before that talks about water “from the spring of the water of life”. We can’t just point to a single phrase like this and cite it as proof, especially when we don’t look at the surrounding context. This verse had the opposite effect of what that person wanted and convinced me even more that the fires of hell aren’t literal flames. It seems to me that citing verses from Revelations as proof of a literal fiery hell just doesn’t work considering the abundance of symbolism and metaphors it contains. It makes much more sense to take the fire imagery as a symbol of the complete absence of God’s spirit rather than literal flames

The Myth of Hellfire Part 7: Fiery Torture

I cannot believe it’s been a month since I’ve posted to my blog. My “short break” from my blog ended being longer than I anticipated. Between finishing a semester of law school, cramming for final exams and writing a research paper, I had little time to read and write on my blog. But after finally finishing up the semester yesterday, I’ve been eager to get back to writing on here… Well, enough with the housekeeping, we’re moving on to continue our series on hell.

I spent my last post discussing the fire imagery in Jesus’ teachings and concluded that the fire imagery isn’t meant to be taken literally. The imagery is really a picture of God’s judgment much like the fire imagery in the Old Testament and is unlikely to refer to real, literal flames.

However, this fire imagery does pop up in more places, most notably in the Revelation. The writer writes about how the people who will take the mark of the beast will “also drink of the wine of God’s anger… and he will be tortured with fire and sulfur” where the smoke “will go up forever and ever” in Revelation 14:10-11.  Later, the writer says that both the beast and false prophet will be “thrown alive into the lake of fire burning with sulfur” in Revelation 19:20. A few verses later we read that the devil “was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are too and they will be tormented there day and night.” We also are told that “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” and that “this is the second death – the late of fire.” Revelation 21:8 tells us that “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.”

All these verses speak of the second death or final judgment (hell) and describe it in terms of fire. However, that doesn’t automatically mean hell will full of literal flames. There are a few things to remember first before we can get to that conclusion. The most important thing to remember is that the book of Revelation is full of apocalyptic imagery and symbolism. There is talk of a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and scorpions with hair like women and teeth like lion. There are many more images like this that could come straight out of a horror movie and yet, they are not taken literally.* A vast majority of the images in Revelation are simply not taken literally nor were they meant to be.** Revelation is written as apocalyptic literature full of symbolism and metaphor. Because of all this, I would argue that unless we have very good evidence for taking the symbols in Revelation literally, we should not do so.

Let’s look at Revelation 14:10-11. Here we read about those with the mark of the beast being tortured with fire and sulfur. There would have to be a very good reason to take this literally and not metaphorically. Why do I say this? Well, right before this description, we read that those with the mark of the beast will also drink the wine of God’s anger. Does that mean they will literally be force-fed wine? Not many people actually believe that. We don’t take that literally, yet the very next phrase is taken literally. Why? There is no evidence in the verse that we should take the very next phrase as literal fiery torture. Absent any clue telling us that this is a literal description, I see no reason to take this image as literal.

There are still more verses that mention fire in Revelation and I plan on going into more detail with some of the other verses mentioned above in future posts, but my argument here still applies to all them. Unless there is strong evidence for it, I see no reason to interpret the fire imagery literally when the entire book is filled to the brim with metaphorical language. Though there is more that can be said, I will stop here for now. I will continue writing about these verses in future posts. Hopefully I’ll have another post written up tomorrow; I do have time now that I’m finally finished with my spring semester =)

*For example, John Piper preaches here that the dragon in Revelation 12:9  refers to Satan. However, no one imagines Satan to be an actual dragon with wings, scales, talons who literally breathes fire..

**Many believe that the rider on the white horse refers to the Anti-Christ, yet a majority of people making this interpretation don’t believe that the Anti-Christ will literally come riding on an actual white horse.