Section 9B .. The Future / Hell Part Five

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What and Where is Hell?
Part V... Symbolism in The New Testament

 Because using symbolism and imagery as 'proof texts' is a very bad idea, we need to carefully examine the terms ‘fire and brimstone’, the 'unquenchable fire', and the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" Jesus spoke about.

Carol Brooks

Introduction and Index To All Chapters


New Testament Symbolism

The Second Death and The Lake of Fire

Tormented With Fire And Brimstone

‘Unquenchable’ Fire

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

New Testament Symbolism
When it comes to symbolism the book of Revelation has no peers.

The book is steeped in imagery and uses a bewildering and sometimes weird array of symbols - angels with trumpets and bowls, beasts emerging from the sea, locusts shaped like horses with tails like scorpions, waters turning to blood, a bottomless pit, dragons with seven heads, a woman sitting on a scarlet beast etc.

The language and style of apocalyptic literature in general, and Revelation in particular, was not literal but always highly dramatic in order to present the enormous spiritual realities it was trying to portray. The situations depicted were often deliberately exaggerated and (in some cases) even bizarre, in order that the message was not mistaken or underestimated. However, Revelation was never intended to be a kind of puzzle in which every symbol has to be cleverly interpreted. While we should endeavor to understand as many of the details as possible, the fundamental message... the thread that runs through the entire book is an assurance that God will ultimately prevail and establish His kingdom here on earth which is the eternal 'Heaven" promised us.

Thus any 'proof text' drawn from these chapters cannot be immediately assumed to be literal. In fact, even a little digging will reveal just how much of it is imagery.

For example, many believe that the Bible teaches that people will be burned forever in a lake of fire without perishing. Augustine certainly did. The following is from The City of God, a philosophical treatise written in the early fifth century defending Christianity.

    If, therefore, the salamander lives in fire, as naturalists have recorded, and if certain famous mountains of Sicily have been continually on fire from the remotest antiquity until now, and yet remain entire, these are sufficiently convincing examples that everything which burns is not consumed.

He went on to claim that the flesh of the peacock never rots, calling it the bird's "antiseptic property"  [01]

See The Sins of Augustine

And we are no different having invented an entirely new set of myths that we claim are based on Scripture.

But are they?

The Second Death and The Lake of Fire
We tend to think of death as absolutely final, but there are four passages in the book of Revelation which not only speak of the "second death" but tell us who this fate will befall.

    "the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars will see the second death (Gr. thanatos) (Revelation 21:8)

And when does this 'second death' occur?

Remember that dead believers are reunited with their bodies at the Seventh Trumpet (what the Bible calls the "first resurrection" in Revelation 20:5). They, together with those believers who are still alive, will be taken off the earth to protect them from the final phase of God's wrath - the Seven Bowls that will annihilate man from the face of the earth. Believers will then return to earth with Christ and live in peace for the millennium - the thousand years of Christ's rule on earth. However, the spirits of non-believers will be consigned to Hades for that period.

After the thousand years are completed and a couple of other events take place, they will be raised (Revelation 20:5-6) to face a formal judgment for their sins which were not atoned for by Christ's death on the cross. This means that since the wages of sin are death (Romans 6:23), they will have to pay this price themselves. This the Bible calls the "second death" which is exactly what it is.

    Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death (Gr. thanatos), the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11-14 NASB)

These passages specifically tie death and Hades together and say that both will be cast into the lake of fire. This only makes sense. Since no one will die in God's kingdom, there will be no need of Sheol/Hades. However, it also brings up several questions

    1. Are we to take the statement "death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire" to mean that God physically picks up the place called Hades and chucks it into a fire? Or should we understand that the terminology is a symbolic but vivid illustration of the annihilation of the unredeemed.

    2. In any case, if Hades is itself an eternal fiery hell, how can it possibly be cast into the Lake of Fire? 

    3. And what happened to Gehenna or is it supposed to be the Lake of Fire?

    4. Finally if, as many believe, people burn forever in this lake of fire, how can it be termed the second "death" - Noting of course that someone has to die before you can say there is a death. 

Actually someone does.

You may have noticed that, in Revelation 20:14 above, John used the Greek word thanatos or total destruction - a word that anyone who has read the previous chapter should be quite familiar with. In fact, thanatos is used in all four verses that speak of the 'second death'.

    "He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death (Gr. thanatos).' (Revelation 2:11),

    "the second death (Gr. thanatos) has no power" over those who were part of the first resurrection (Revelation 20:6)

    Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death (Gr. thanatos), the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14 NASB)

    "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."  (Revelation 21:8 NASB)

For those who have not read the previous chapter the Greek word thanatos means 'dead' - stone cold dead. The following examples are only two of many.

    "For God said, 'honor your father and mother,' and 'he who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death (Gr. thanatos) (Gk. thanatos).' (Matthew 15:4 NASB)

    saying, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death (Gk. thanatos) and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. (Mark 10:33 NASB)

Tormented With Fire And Brimstone
One commonly quoted passage in favour of the traditional viewpoint comes from the book of Revelation which says...

    Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." (Revelation 14:9-11 NASB)

This verse, perhaps more than any other, comes the closest to supporting the traditional view of Hell. However, one verse does not a doctrine make especially when it comes from the highly symbolic book of Revelation. To avoid dangerous mistakes, Christians must consider the whole counsel of God when formulating doctrine. Also See Context is Crucial

The imagery of fire and brimstone comes from Genesis 19:24 that says "the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven". Jude 7 tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah serve as as example of undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. The problem is that there is no perpetually burning fire on the southern tip of the Dead Sea where these two cites once existed. Thus the only possible conclusion is that they suffered a fiery destruction that had eternal consequences.

In any case, notice that this passage from Revelation does not speak of anyone being eternally tormented. It says "the smoke of their torment" ascends forever. This vividly expresses the idea that, like Edom and Sodom and Gomorrah, the sentence passed on the unrepentant sinner will be permanent.

Unquenchable Fire
A couple of passages are quoted in support of the unending fire that cannot be quenched.

1.) John the Baptist, the man chosen to herald the coming of the Saviour spoke about an unquenchable fire.

    As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable (Gr. asbestos) fire." (Matthew 3:11-12 NASB)

2.) Both Matthew and Luke referred to the 'unquenchable fire' in the context of the events that will take place at the Seventh Trumpet

    "His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17 NASB)

3.) Although Mark 9:43-47 conveys exactly the same message as Matthew 5:29-30, Mark added some detail which he often did in his Gospel (either Mark himself, or his source had an extremely good memory and an eye for detail). Mark said the fire of Gehenna were unquenched which is commonly taken to mean that the sinner is destined to burn forever in a fire that cannot be put out.

    (43) If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell (Gr. Gehenna), into the unquenchable fire, (44) where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (45) "If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell (Gr. Gehenna), (46) where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched  (47) "If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell (Gr. Gehenna), (Mark 9:43-47 NASB) See Footnote on "their worm does not die"

An "Unquenchable Fire" in The Old Testament
Although the Lord's anger was described as as an unquenchable fire in the Old Testament (See for example, 2 Kings 22:17, Jeremiah 4:4, 7:20, and 21:12), perhaps the passages that best clarify this concept come from Isaiah and Ezekiel. One prophesied that Edom would be permanently turned into a "burning pitch" that can never be quenched -thus the smoke would ascend for ever. The other says pretty much the same thing about the forest of the Negev.

    Edom: Its streams will be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land will become burning pitch. It will not be quenched (Heb. kābāh) night or day; Its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; None will pass through it forever and ever. (Isaiah 34:9-10 NASB)

    The Forest Of The Negev: and say to the forest of the Negev, 'Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched (Heb. kābāh) and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. "All flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched (Heb. kābāh)."' (Ezekiel 20:47-48 NASB)

The ancient land of Edom lay between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba in what is now southwestern Jordan. There is no literal smoke or burning pitch anywhere in the south of Jordan and no blazing flames in the Negev - an arid and semi-arid region of southern Israel.

Quite obviously, God was using metaphoric language that graphically expressed the idea that the sentence passed on Edom would be permanent.

 So why exactly are the 'unquenchable fires' in the Old Testament symbolic, but the 'unquenchable fires' in the New Testament literal?

We need to also note that in the New Testament imagery was not restricted to the book of Revelation. Jesus Himself used it more than once...

Dismember Ourselves?
That graphic symbolism is carried over into the New Testament is well demonstrated by Matthew 5:29-30, in which Jesus instructs us to gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands or feet, should any of these organs cause us to stumble.

    "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. "If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30 NASB)

Christians understand that Jesus was not telling us to literally dismember ourselves, but very graphically emphasizing the seriousness of sin.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth
One statement Jesus made was

    but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping (Gr. klauthmos) and gnashing (Gr. brugmos) of teeth." (Matthew 8:12 NASB)

Proponents of eternal suffering claim that the weeping and gnashing of teeth signify pain and suffering. In fact, Strong's Greek-English Lexicon demonstrates unbelievable prejudice when it says that the expression is used to denote "extreme anguish and utter despair of men consigned to eternal punishment in hell". [https://biblehub.com/greek/1030.htm]

So let's look at other less biased sources including the Bible itself

1) What 'Gnashing' Means.
According to several English dictionaries, the word Gnash means to express a strong emotion, usually rage

    If you say that someone is gnashing their teeth, you mean they are angry or frustrated about something. (English Collins Dictionary)

    to show you are angry or annoyed about something bad that you cannot do anything to stop (thefreedictionary.com)

    to grind or strike the teeth together, a grinding or grating together of the teeth in rage or anguish. (Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary)

This definition is clearly supported by the Scriptures that provides no evidence of anyone gnashing their teeth in extreme anguish and utter despair as Strong's claims. Much to the contrary, both Testaments use the word in connection with anger

In the Old Testament: It is used several times to express the idea of a ferocious enemy. For example,  

    "His anger has torn me and hunted me down, He has gnashed at me with His teeth; My adversary glares at me. (Job 16:9 NASB)

    All your enemies Have opened their mouths wide against you; They hiss and gnash their teeth. They say, "We have swallowed her up! Surely this is the day for which we waited; We have reached it, we have seen it." (Lamentations 2:16 NASB)

In the New Testament the Greek word brugmos (gnashing) is only used the one time in Matthew 8:12. However, brugmos is derived from the verb brucho. Although this verb also occurs only once the context is very enlightening.

When Stephen was allowed to answer the trumped up charge of blasphemy, he accused the council of being stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears and of resisting the Holy Spirit. Stephen also said they not only murdered the prophets who announced the coming of the Righteous One but murdered Him as well. Verse 54 goes on to say 

    Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing (Gr. brucho) their teeth at him. (Acts 7:54 NASB)

Stephen's persecutors immediately went on to stone him to death so, quite obviously, they were filled with rage not remorse, which completely agrees with the Old Testament portrayal of "gnashing" and the English dictionary's definition of the word.

While there is no question that Jesus also said the people in outer darkness were weeping, people weep for many reasons. In other words, according to the Scriptures the damned cry bitter tears and grind their teeth in fury.

2) The Circumstances.
Jesus said people gnashed their teeth when they were

    Cast into "outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30)

    Cast into "the furnace of fire". (Matthew 13:42, 50)

    Cut in pieces. (Matthew 24:51)  

However, because 1) "outer darkness" and "the furnace of fire" both cannot both be the destination of the unsaved and 2) anyone who is "cut in pieces" would have a hard time gnashing their teeth, it should be more that obvious that Jesus was making a point, not literally describing future conditions.

This brings us to some of Jesus' other words that we have taken literally rather than as a strong warning couched in vivid images. For example, most assume that the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus is a literal description of hell.

Let us at least try and stick to the message taught by the Scriptures. All those who disbelieve or continue to ignore God's offer of salvation - counter it with what they consider 'clever' arguments and live their short lives on earth as though there was nothing beyond it will find that is exactly what they get

Continue on To PART VI- The Rich Man and Lazarus
If this parable was meant to be literal how do we explain the numerous anti-Biblical details it contains. Lets see - we do one of two things - either gloss over the difficulties or, based on preconceived ideas, decide which parts of the story are literal and which are not. This is not exactly how the Bible should be interpreted. Because we have not made the effort to grasp the overall message of what Jesus was saying in the section, we have jumped to conclusions that support what we have already decided to believe. HERE

Footnote: "Their Worm Does Not Die"

When Jesus said "their worm does not die", He was quoting Isaiah 66:23-24 that says "Then they will go forth and look On the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm (Heb. tōlā) will not die and their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind."  (Isaiah 66:24 NASB)

I do not think anyone can be sure exactly what either Jesus or Isaiah meant when they spoke of a worm that does not die. However, all worms die and since undying worms and unquenched fired are joined by the conjunction 'and' we can safely assume that once again, the language is figurative used to graphically illustrate the permanent sentence passed on transgressors.

End Notes
[01] The City of God (Book XXI) Translated by Marcus Dods. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.


Chapter 4 - Those Overlooked Greek Words

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