Open Letter #5, Does God Judge by Fire?
Oct 16, 2007
I had recently e-mailed a question to you which remain unanswered. This is in relation to your comment that nowhere in scripture that God burns anyone alive for any sin. I am having difficulty reconciling this to Genesis where God clearly destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire. Your comments would be appreciated.
(When I first answered this email, I assumed unnecessarily that this question came from one who believed in eternal torment, and answered accordingly. However, in looking more closely at the question, I see that this is not necessarily a correct assumption. It is a good question, and seems to proceed from an honest inquirer. I appreciate questions like this.)
Well, you got me with that one. My wording did not take into account Sodom and Gomorrah. I had in mind the divine law itself, which does not prescribe death by being burned alive. I can think of another example as well, which you did not mention, and this is of the death of Nadab and Abihu. The fire came out from the Lord and devoured them (Num. 10:2).
You and I each have our own problem in interpreting this. For me, it is the fact that God did in fact judge people by fire. For you, it is the fact that this fire burned up people rather instantly, instead of it being everlasting. Even the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were not burned forever.
So that is the area of discussion. Do we take these examples of "fire" as types of eternal punishment, or as types of an instantaneous death (annihilationist position), or as types of the law itself in a more general way, as in "the fiery law" (Deut. 33:2)?
For my part, I see the Old Testament "fire" as a type of the Baptism of Fire in the New Testament, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which judges the flesh with correction as its goal. What is death in the Old is life in the New Testament, as a rule of thumb.
I have always felt that there were two primary issues to ponder: (1) the nature of the fire; and (2) the duration of the fire. Of the two, the second is more important, because even if a person is burned alive, the torture is quite temporary. When combined with a never-ending time frame, however, it really takes on huge proportions.
So the real question, then, is in the meaning of the Hebrew term olam and its Greek equivalent,aionian.
Most commentators admit that these words can mean EITHER a limited or an unlimited period of time, because the essence of the word means "concealed" (amount of time), which is "indefinite" but not necessarily infinite.
My challenge has been this: If these words can mean either, then neither side can prove its case by the use of these words. Therefore, I challenge anyone to prove eternal punishment from Scripture without using either of these words. It cannot be done, because the entire case rests upon the supposition that these words must be translated "eternal."
On the other hand, I can easily prove the temporary nature of divine judgment, because Paul and John speak many times about "all" being reconciled in the end. "All" cannot be reconciled, if they are eternally judged. The law itself speaks of the Jubilee as a principle of forgiveness (cancellation of all "debt" or sin). The law limits misdemeanor judgment to 40 stripes. The whole principle of divine judgment limits the amount of judgment that one can receive. This is because the judgment fits the crime, and no one can commit enough crime in a life time to warrant a never-ending judgment.
In other words, I have a whole array of Scripture to use without ever having to depend upon the words olam or eonian.
Furthermore, I have shown that most of the early Church believed this until it was suppressed, beginning in the year 400 A.D. Augustine himself, the "champion of eternal torments," admitted that his view was in the minority.
That is the heart of the issue. I think that once we have defined the issues, then we can review the premises on which our conclusions are based.