How are we to understand biblical imagery? What about if that imagery does not always appear consistent? Do we pick one and use it to flatten out the other? Should we be less ready to claim dogmatic certainty?
These questions are particularly relevant to the ongoing rekindled (pun intended) debate about "hell". It might seem easy to affirm the traditional view of eternal punishment of those who reject God when confronted with verses such as:
Matthew 25:46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”
Revelation 14:9-12 – “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark... he will drink of the wine of God’s fury... He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast... This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints”
Yet already we are on metaphorical ground with Revelation, a book replete with vivid imagery. Indeed, is the smoke evidence of ongoing torment or of an ongoing reminder pointing back to a torment/destruction now completed? What does being tormented with sulphur look like? Certainly wouldn't smell nice...
Mark 9:42-49 – “where the fire never goes out... thrown into hell... where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”
This quotation uses Is 66:24. There we see a picture of judgment and the death of Israel's (and God's) enemies. Clearly, bodies do not last for ever and it is in relation to dead bodies that Isaiah says "their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched". So, is this speaking of eternal torment or of something else? The picture becomes muddied all the more when we take into consideration verses that speak of destruction:
2 Peter 3:7 – “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men”
2 Thessalonians 1:9 – “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power”
Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”
Hmmm, now what? Which is it to be - destruction, whose effect lasts forever or an ongoing conscious punishment? In the past I have written against annihilation in favour of eternal punishment, yet I find myself becoming less sure of what I had thought was solid ground. It might seem like a cop out, but at present I find myself wanting to leave the whole matter up to God and not presume to pronounce judgement myself as to people's destinies. The language of judgement in Scripture is often tied to particular historical circumstances and particular enemies of Israel using vivid imagery that sometimes appears to have a reference beyond those historical circumstances. Yet, in those historical settings, the acts of judgement by God on behalf of his people and his own glory resulted in the eradication of the enemies, physically speaking at least. Is all the mention of fire supposed to enhance this idea of destruction? After all it was a powerful destructive force and still is. We don't tend to think of things being exposed to fire for a long time as anything other than destroyed. But, is all this said because in the historical circumstances what seemed to matter was a physical judgement that would destroy the physical enemies and thus free Israel? So, is there a spiritual aspect that remains behind this?
As I continue to ponder such things, perhaps you'd like to ponder them too. Maybe we'll all end up reaffirming the traditional view of eternal punishment. Maybe it will be a more nuanced version of it, or maybe something different. It certainly seems worth some careful thought before we think we have the right to go round telling people they will "burn in hell forever". After all, who is the judge, God or us?