IS HELL LITERALLY A PLACE OF FIRE AND BRIMSTONE?

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By raining down fire and brimstone upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God not only demonstrated how He felt about overt sin, but He also launched an enduring metaphor. After the events of Genesis 19:24, the mere mention of fire, brimstone, Sodom or Gomorrah instantly transports a reader into the context of God’s judgment. Such an emotionally potent symbol, however, has trouble escaping its own gravity. This fiery image can impede, rather than advance, its purpose. A symbol should show a similarity between two dissimilar entities. Fire and brimstone describes some of what hell is like—but not all of what hell is.

The word the Bible uses to describe a burning hell—Gehenna—comes from an actual burning place, the valley of Gehenna adjacent to Jerusalem on the south. Gehenna is an English transliteration of the Greek form of an Aramaic word, which is derived from the Hebrew phrase “the Valley of (the son[s] of) Hinnom.” In one of their greatest apostasies, the Jews (especially under kings Ahaz and Manasseh) passed their children through the fires in sacrifice to the god Molech in that very valley (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Jeremiah 32:35). Eventually, the Jews considered that location to be ritually unclean (2 Kings 23:10), and they defiled it all the more by casting the bodies of criminals into its smoldering heaps. In Jesus’ time this was a place of constant fire, but more so, it was a refuse heap, the last stop for all items judged by men to be worthless. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna hell, He was speaking of the city dump of all eternity. Yes, fire was part of it, but the purposeful casting away—the separation and loss—was all of it.

In Mark 9:43 Jesus used another powerful image to illustrate the seriousness of hell. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.” For most readers, this image does escape its own gravity—in spite of the goriness! Few believe that Jesus wants us literally to cut off our own hand. He would rather that we do whatever is necessary to avoid going to hell, and that is the purpose of such language—to polarize, to set up an either/or dynamic, to compare. Since the first part of the passage uses imagery, the second part does also, and therefore should not be understood as an encyclopedic description of hell.

In addition to fire, the New Testament describes hell as a bottomless pit (abyss) (Revelation 20:3), a lake (Revelation 20:14), darkness (Matthew 25:30), death (Revelation 2:11), destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:9), everlasting torment (Revelation 20:10), a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:30), and a place of gradated punishment (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 12:47-48; Revelation 20:12-13). The very variety of hell’s descriptors argues against applying a literal interpretation of any particular one. For instance, hell’s literal fire could emit no light, since hell would be literally dark. Its fire could not consume its literal fuel (persons!) since their torment is non-ending. Additionally, the gradation of punishments within hell also confounds literalness. Does hell’s fire burn Hitler more fiercely than an honest pagan? Does he fall more rapidly in the abyss than another? Is it darker for Hitler? Does he wail and gnash more loudly or more continually than the other? The variety and symbolic nature of descriptors do not lessen hell, however—just the opposite, in fact. Their combined effect describes a hell that is worse than death, darker than darkness, and deeper than any abyss. Hell is a place with more wailing and gnashing of teeth than any single descriptor could ever portray. Its symbolic descriptors bring us to a place beyond the limits of our language—to a place far worse than we could ever imagine.

Prophet Nathan Emol

PREDICTING JESUS COMING:

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Matthew 24:36-44 declares, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come…So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him.” At first glance, these verses would seem to provide a clear and explicit answer to the question. No, no one can know when Jesus is coming back. However, those verses do not say that no one will ever be able to know when Jesus will return. Most Bible scholars would say that Jesus, now glorified in heaven, knows the timing of His return, indicating that the phrase “nor the Son” does not mean Jesus will never know when He will return. Similarly, it is possible that, while Matthew 24:36-44 indicates that no one at that time could know the timing of Jesus’ return, God could reveal the timing of Jesus’ return to someone in the future.

In addition, there is Acts 1:7, which states, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority.” This was said by Jesus after the disciples asked Him if He was at that time going to restore the kingdom to Israel. This would seem to confirm the message of Matthew 24. It is not for us to know the timing of Jesus coming back. But there is also the question of which return these passages are referring to. Are they speaking of the Rapture or the Second Coming? Which return is unknowable—the Rapture, the Second Coming, or both? While the Rapture is presented as being imminent and mysterious, the timing of the Second Coming could potentially be known based on end-times prophecy.

With that said, let us be abundantly clear: we do not believe that God has revealed to anyone when Jesus is coming back, and we see nothing in Scripture which indicates that God will ever reveal to anyone when Jesus is coming back. Matthew 24:36-44, while spoken directly to the people in Jesus’ time, also contains a general principle. The timing of Jesus’ return and the end of the age is not for us to know. Scripture nowhere encourages us to try to determine the date. Rather, we are to “keep watch, because we do not know on which day our Lord will come” (v. 42). We are to “be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when we do not expect Him” (v. 44). The force of Jesus’ words diminishes if at some point in the future someone will be able to determine when He is coming back. If the date is discovered, we no longer need to “keep watch” or “be ready.” So, with the principle of Matthew 24:36-44 in mind, no, it is not possible for anyone to know the date that Jesus is coming back.

Despite this clear biblical principle, many throughout Christian history have attempted to prophesy the date that Jesus is coming back. Many such dates have been proposed, and all of them have been wrong. Most, if not all, of those who have predicted specific dates for Jesus’ return have had questionable, if not heretical, doctrinal positions on other issues. As it was said above, based on Matthew 24:36 and Acts 1:7, it is not God’s desire for us to calculate the day that Jesus is coming back. Anyone who undertakes such a task is, if nothing else, misguided.

The key points are (1) the Bible nowhere encourages us to attempt to discover the timing of Jesus’ return and (2) the Bible gives no explicit data by which the timing of Jesus’ return can be determined. Rather than developing wild and speculative calculations to determine when Jesus is coming back, the Bible encourages us to “keep watch” and “be ready” (Matthew 24:42-44). The fact that the day of Jesus’ return is unknown should motivate us to live every day in light of the imminence of Christ’s return.

Prophet Nathan Emol