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What the Bible means by Eternal Fire

ETERNAL FIRE?! If you want to know what this phrase means read on. This post will be a long one but this is a heavy one and I haven’t really dealt with this yet.

What does the bible mean when it describes the fires of hell as “eternal”? Is God really going to torture people for all eternity in fire or is this language symbolic? If God is love why would he cast people into an eternally burning hell?

Jesus, John, and Jude all speak about the fires of hell. They mention similar things: they all speak about “fire”, “judgment”, “eternal”, “the devil and his angels”. See Revelation 20:10-15, Jude 6-7 and Matthew 25:31-33, 41-46.

The passage in Jude adds that the destruction of the wicked will follow the pattern of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah :

Jude 1:6-7

And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day. 7 Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

Sodom experienced a “punishment of eternal fire” as a model of what will happen to the lost! So let’s have a look at the destruction of Sodom and see what the future holds for those who reject God.

The passage in Jude adds that the destruction of the wicked will follow the pattern of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah :

It would only be natural to assume that since Sodom experienced the “punishment of eternal fire” that this can only mean that they have no possible chance of redemption. After all what else can “punished with eternal fire” mean? But things are not as clear as they seem as we investigate further.

Jesus spoke about the future of Sodom at the time of the final judgment and makes it clear that they will receive a “more tolerable” verdict on that day than people who knew Jesus and rejected him! Matthew 11:20-24. Jesus said that if Sodom had witnessed the miracles of grace that he had performed that they would have repented. Given this Jesus says they will receive a “more tolerable verdict” on judgment day. So what are we to make of Sodom being punished with eternal fire? We thought it was all over for them? Obviously, there is more to this than meets the eye! If the people from Sodom are going to hell then how can they be thought of as receiving a “more tolerable” outcome in the future judgment? And remember that Jude says that what happens to Sodom serves as a model of what will befall the lost at the final Day of Judgment!

What else does the bible say about the final end of Sodom? How does this relate to the statement of Jesus about a “more tolerable” outcome? Is it possible that Sodom may end up being saved in that final day? The statement of Jesus is not conclusive but it does suggest that we shouldn’t automatically shut the door!

In Ezekiel 16:1,38, 46-50 we read that God is going to judge his people just the way he judged Sodom. Sounds like it is curtains for them too! But Judgment is never the final word in God’s word. Judgment is a prelude to and opportunity for mercy.

Ezekiel 16:53
53 I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes along with theirs,

What?! Sodom will one day be restored! The future of Sodom is akin to that of God’s people! Judgment is not the final word. Restoration is what judgment is all about. Since Sodom will be restored we know then what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11 when he was speaking about a “more tolerable” outcome at the time of the judgment. Restoration will follow judgment. Mercy is the final word!

But there is even more about Sodom’s future in the bible. Zephaniah speaks about the final day of the Lord when he gathers all the nations together for judgment. But what Zephaniah says is challenging to say the least. He says that the great day of the Lord’s wrath will release the “fire of his jealousy” in order to consume the whole earth when he makes a sudden end to “all who live on the earth”. See the NIV of Zephaniah 1:14,15,18. Did you notice that the fire is clearly a symbol of his jealousy?! The fire of God at the time of his wrath is about his possessive jealousy. We serve a passionate God! As we read these verses it still looks like it is the end of the human race since he makes “a sudden end” of “all who live on the earth”. But this is not the case.

As we read on in this book we learn some additional things about this final day of wrath and judgment. The fate of Moab, the Ammonites will be like that of Sodom! Zephaniah 2:9. But we just read in Ezekiel that Sodom would be restored after their judgment! Is it possible that the same fate awaits the whole of humanity?

We are not left in the dark on this issue.

Zephaniah 3:8-9 NCV
8 Just wait,” says the Lord.
“Someday I will stand up as a witness.
I have decided that I will gather nations
and assemble kingdoms.
I will pour out my anger on them,
all my strong anger.
My anger will be like fire
that will burn up the whole world.

9 “Then I will give the people of all nations pure speech
so that all of them will speak the name of the Lord
and worship me together.

What an amazing statement! God will one day gather the nations in judgment and pour out the heat of his anger; the fire of his passion. Once again we are told that the fire is merely a symbol of his passion. The whole earth will be consumed in the fire of the passion of God. But does this mean that it is all over, that is there no more hope at this time? Not at all!

Zephaniah concludes that the result of this immersion in the fire of God’s passion will be that the nations will be purified in speech so that they will proclaim the name of the Lord and worship in unison! What an unspeakable testimony to the victory of God at the time of the final judgment.

The fires of hell simply represent the passion of God’s wrath. It is obvious that the fire of God’s passion burns until their unbelief is consumed as the text says. The results of the fire are eternal: unbelief will be eliminated forever! The purpose of this firey experience is to purify the nations so that they will turn and worship the only true God! It seems too good to be true I know.

So what is hell and the lake of fire about? The fate of Sodom will be the fate of all nations at the time of the final judgment. The purpose of the “punishment of eternal fire” in the lake of fire is to purify the lost so that they turn to God, call on his name in repentance and worship.

If this doesn’t cause your heart to leap for joy nothing will. God will save all those Jesus died for!

Now read Romans 5:18 for the way Paul brings this all together.