An Odd Argument for Literal Eternal Fire
One very interesting argument for literal eternal hellfire can be found on Matt Slick’s Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) website. It seems to be a pretty popular site for topics like this, since it was one of the first results on a Google search (I forget the search terms used at the moment). At any rate, here is a very telling part of his argument, quoted verbatim:
Some believe that the fires of hell are symbolic and/or temporal. But the following verses show that they are not.
Matt. 3:12 says, "And 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." (See also Luke 3:17.)
Mark 9:43 says, "And 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, into the unquenchable fire." The word "unquenchable" is asbestos in the Greek. According to the Enhanced Strong's lexicon, it means "unquenchable, the eternal hell fire to punish the damned."
First, let’s address his claim that the Matthew 3:12 and Mark 9:43 show that the fires of hell are not symbolic. It is important to recognize that is his claim. The fires are literal, according to Slick, and he claims to show this to be true using the aforementioned verses.
Here is the problem with that: the verses he chose show precisely the opposite of what he is claiming! The reason should be quite apparent, but let’s dissect the verses a bit just in case.
The first thing that you should notice about Matthew 3:12 and Mark 9:43 is that they use highly symbolic, figurative language throughout. This can be illustrated rather simply. Reading Matthew 3:12 through the literal lens proposed by Slick leads to the following interpretation:
1. Jesus has a literal winnowing fork (a pitchfork) in his hand that he will use to clear a literal threshing floor.
2. He will then gather literal wheat into a literal barn and burn up literal chaff with literal unquenchable fire.
So, you see, the verse is not about hell for people at all; it’s about agriculture, and it’s describing Jesus as a literal farmer!
But, of course, such a reading is ridiculous. No one, not even Slick, believes that to be a reasonable interpretation. Instead he proposes reading everything as symbolic and figurative except for the fire. So, we have figurative wheat, figurative chaff, a figurative winnowing fork, a figurative threshing floor, a figurative barn, but literal fire. Why the sudden change? Are we to believe the entire passage is symbolic except for the fire?
Such a reading violates common sense and is exegetically absurd. Using a passage that is entirely symbolic as a proof text to claim that the fire must not be symbolic is beyond bizarre.
Yet, he makes the same mistake again in his claim that Mark 9:43 proves the fire to be literal, not symbolic. Again, I am doubting that he actually believes that Jesus is advising self-mutilation and that we should literally cut off our hands, or as He says in another verse, pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin. The picture of Matt Slick on his website shows him to have two eyes as far as I can tell (although his hands are not shown, so I cannot confirm 100% that he has not cut them off). Nevertheless, I am quite confident that he, as well as almost everyone, understands Jesus words in a figurative sense. They are strong, symbolic words that are meant to emphasize the seriousness of sin and the need to repent of it rather than practice it. To interpret the verse literally requires people to mutilate themselves or disobey Jesus’ words in refusing to do so. To arbitrarily decide that Jesus suddenly goes from clearly figurative language to stark literalism without any warning is senseless. To claim such a text as proof that he does so is even worse.
The sad reality, however, is that many Christians have become so conditioned to accepting this type of nonsense that they do not even realize what is being said. The argument is confirming of the bias that they already hold, so they do not read it critically or consider its obvious irrationality. People need to begin to read with their eyes open and their brains turned on! To not do so and insist on unreasonable interpretations of Scripture maligns God to the world and makes Christians look empty-headed. Remember, Jesus told us to love God with all our minds, not just our hearts, souls and strengths (Luke 10:27).
In the Bible, fire is used symbolically regularly, and very frequently to symbolize purification. This is why Jesus will baptize us “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11) and why “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). God Himself is even described as a consuming fire on multiple occasions, and metallurgical imagery of using fire to purify people as gold is purified of dross is pervasive (to review a sampling of these verses click here). To insist that the fire must be literal and ignore all of these passages is wholly unreasonable.
Yet, Slick is not the only defender of literal hellfire to do so. Such claims were, in fact, normative during the darkest ages of church history and are still promoted today. The famous Charles Spurgeon, for example, makes similar claims:
There is a real fire in hell, as truly as you have now a real body—a fire exactly like that which we have on earth in everything except this—that it will not consume, though it will torture you. You have seen the asbestos lying in the fire red hot, but when you take it out it is unconsumed. So your body will be prepared by God in such a way that it will burn for ever without being consumed; it will lie, not as you consider, in a metaphorical fire, but in actual flame ... body and soul shall be together, each brimfull of pain, thy soul sweating in its inmost pore drops of blood, and thy body from head to foot suffused with agony; conscience, judgment, memory, all tortured, but more—thy head tormented with racking pains, thine eyes starting from their sockets with sights of blood and woe; thine ears tormented with
"Sullen moans and hollow groans.
And shrieks of tortured ghosts."
Thine heart beating high with fever; thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony; thy limbs crackling like the martyrs in the fire, and yet unburnt; thyself, put in a vessel of hot oil, pained, yet coming out undestroyed; all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on; every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune of Hell's Unutterable Lament; thy soul for ever and ever aching, and thy body palpitating in unison with thy soul. Fictions, sir! Again, I say, they are no fictions, and as God liveth, but solid, stern truth. (Spurgeon 1856)
I think that, right there, is what it is to take God’s name in vain. To swear that as God lives, your grotesque imaginings are “solid, stern truth” is a horrible perversion of Scripture. Where, I ask, does Spurgeon find the imagery of being boiled in oil, or of having our limbs crackling like logs, or of every vein becoming a road for excruciating pain, or of the devil playing his diabolical tune by using our nerves like guitar strings? Where does he get his ghoulish poem about the sullen moans, hollow groans, and shrieks of tortured ghosts? I can guarantee that none of it is from the Bible itself. It is purely dark ages fantasy designed to terrify people. Furthermore, it glorifies the devil by giving him incredible power, even in hell. And yet Spurgeon swears on God’s life that it is true! The fact that many popular preachers and theologians are willing to play so fast and loose with the Bible should give us pause and make us wonder how trustworthy they are as sources biblical truth.
The Unquenchable Question
You may be thinking presently that I have only addressed the first part of Slick’s argument. You may agree that the “evidence” he uses to back up his claim that the fire is not symbolic is less than compelling (if you are a fan of understatement). But you may still be wondering about the eternality aspect of the fire. I have addressed this already here (where the term unquenchable is discussed), as well as here, here, and here where the terms used for “eternity” are analyzed. Nevertheless, it may be wise to reiterate the true meaning of the word “unquenchable” since he bases his claim that the fire of hell is not temporal exclusively on it. It really has the sense of being unstoppable, and that it will fully complete its work. The reason that Slick uses the Enhanced Strong's lexicon to define the word is because it is enhanced. In other words, it is loaded with a particular interpretation that he prefers, saying that it means "unquenchable, the eternal hell fire to punish the damned." The italicized portion is the “enhanced” part (i.e. the part that is not actually a definition at all).
This is fairly easy to demonstrate. In the original Greek the word used is asbestos (ἄσβεστος) which is a compound word consisting of two parts
1. ἄ (a) which means “not.” English, by the way, uses this same convention in words like abiotic (which means not biotic/not living) or asynchronous (which means not synchronous) etc.
2. sbestos which is a form of the word sbennumi (σβέννυμι) which means “to quench.”
These words are also used in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament). Jesus is clearly alluding to Isaiah 66:24 when he says that the fire is “unquenchable” or that it will “not be quenched.” The exact construction of the phase in this verse is ου σβεσθήσεται which is synonymous with asbestos:
1. ου means “not.”
2. σβεσθήσεται (sbesthesetai) is a form of the word sbennumi (σβέννυμι) which means “to quench.”
So, asbestos has exactly the same meaning (not to quench) and is derived from the exact same root word (sbennumi) as ου sbesthesetai. It just uses “a” instead of “οu” to mean “not.”
With this in mind, let’s look at one other verse that uses the same exact Greek words as Isaiah 66:24 to describe fire:
Leviticus 6:12-13 (NET)
But the fire which is on the altar must be kept burning on it. It must not be extinguished (ου sbesthesetai). So the priest must kindle wood on it morning by morning, and he must arrange the burnt offering on it and offer the fat of the peace offering up in smoke on it. A continual fire must be kept burning on the altar. It must not be extinguished (ου sbesthesetai).
Since these fires did in fact go out, and the Jewish sacrificial system is no longer practiced, we know that the meaning Jesus alluded to is not one of absolute endlessness. Instead, this fire was not to be put out by anyone until its purpose was fulfilled. In the same way, the chastising fire described by Jesus will not be stopped or put out by any person. Instead it will complete its work of purification.
J.W. Hanson also gives us historical evidence that the Greek-speaking people did not understand the term “asbestos” to denote endlessness, telling us that the church historian Eusebius “twice calls the fire that consumed two martyrs unquenchable (asbesto puri).” I cross verified this fact. It occurs in book IV, chapter 41 (sections 15 and 17) of his Ecclesiastical History, and is quoted in the following passage, describing the martyrdom of several Alexandrian Christians:
"The first of these was Julian, a man afflicted with the gout, neither able to walk nor stand, who with two others that carried him, was arraigned. Of these, the one immediately denied, but the other, named Cronion, surnamed Eunus, and the aged Julian himself, having confessed the Lord, was carried on camels throughout the city - a very large one as you know - and in this elevation were scourged, and finally consumed in an immense fire - (puri asbesto.)… After these, Epimachus and Alexander, who had continued for a long time in prison, enduring innumerable sufferings from the scourges and scrapers, were also destroyed in an immense fire - (puri asbesto).” (Laing 1878)
In these same passages of Ecclesiastical History from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Arthur Cushman McGiffert translated puri asbesto as “a fierce fire.”
It is critical to note that the words “puri asbesto” are the exact same words used in Matthew 3:12, Mark 9:43/9:45, and Luke 3:17, in which they are often translated as “unquenchable fire.” This is certainly conclusive proof that ancient Greek-speaking individuals did not believe the term to denote endless suffering. Are we to believe that Eusebius thought of the fires that consumed these Christian martyrs as still tormenting them? Is he claiming that they are still experiencing "the eternal hell fire to punish the damned" as Slick's reference to Strong's "enhanced" lexicon tries to lead you to believe? Of course not! Eusebius knew that these fires had gone out long ago and still he used the term “asbesto.” This is why the translators did not translate Eusebius' words as “unquenchable”: such a term wrongly implies endlessness (to conditioned English speakers) which is, of course, obviously not what Eusebius is describing. This demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that asbestos need not denote endless suffering in literal fire as Matt Slick claims. And since this is his sole basis for claiming that the fires of hell are not temporal, his argument fails.
Now some may argue that there are other reasons to insist on the never-ending nature of the fire, by quoting other verses that have words like “forever and ever” and “eternal” to describe “hell.” We have already spent a lot of time debunking those claims (and the links to read those chapters are available on this page), so I will not re-hash all of them again. Instead, I will allow you to consider the words of another scholar on the matter of eternity in the Bible.
George Campbell Morgan D.D. was certainly no “liberal” theologian. He was a friend of Charles Spurgeon (whose preaching we just looked at) and other famous preachers of his day and he contributed an essay to The Fundamentals, a series of 90 essays “which are widely considered to be the foundation of the modern Fundamentalist movement” ("Overview - G. Campbell Morgan's Exposition on the Whole Bible"). It is highly doubtful that he believed in universal salvation. Nevertheless, he is honest and correct in his assessment of the status of the concept of eternity in the biblical text:
Let me say to Bible students that we must be very careful how we use the word “eternity.” We have fallen into great error in our constant usage of that word. There is no word in the whole Book of God corresponding with our “eternal,” which as commonly used among us, means absolutely without end… Men have divided the Church, separated from each other, and persecuted one another, upon a thought conveyed by an English word which has no equivalent in the Bible… God is subject to no limitation, and our finite thought must utterly fail to fathom the ages which He inhabits. We have no right to dogmatize upon anything beyond what is written; nor should we use a human word to express Divine things in the great future, concerning which we know so little. (Morgan, in God’s Methods with Man… pages 185-186)
Matt Slick’s usage of Matthew 3:12 and Mark 9:43 to claim that the fires of hell are not symbolic and not temporal fails on both fronts for the following reasons:
1. He uses obviously symbolic, figurative verses as “proof” that the fires are not symbolic or figurative. This patently makes no sense. Instead of insisting that just one part of a verse is literal and the rest symbolic (and then swear on God's life that our gruesome imaginary embellishments are stern solid truth), we should ask ourselves what the symbolism refers to biblically. In the case of fire, the symbol very often refers to purification.
2. The word translated as “unquenchable” does not have the sense of eternal suffering in the original Greek. This is proven by the fact that the Bible itself uses the term of fires that have in fact gone out, and by the fact that Greek-speakers used the term for fires that were clearly temporary, such as the fires Eusebius describes that killed the Alexandrian martyrs.
3. Many scholars (cited in this chapter and elsewhere) admit that there is no term for “eternal” in the Bible itself in its original languages and that it is a major mistake to insist on using that word and dogmatizing on it. Nevertheless, dogmatizing is exactly what most modern pastors and theologians do when they insist that everyone must believe in eternal conscious torment to be Christian.
By recognizing the biblical symbolism of fire and a right understanding of the biblical terms used to describe the disciplinary punishment of sin (asbestos, aionas aionon, aionios, kolasin, etc.), we can be free from unreasonable interpretations that so often confuse both believers and non-believers as to God’s nature and purpose.
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Citations and Notes
Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius of Caesarea. Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250106.htm
Laing, W. “Unquenchable Fire.” Truth According To Scripture, https://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/unquenchable-fire.php#.WzzhZdIzrIU . Republished from The Bible Standard May 1878 pg 59-60. Retrieved July 4, 2018
Morgan, George Campbell. “God's Methods with Man in Time: Past, Present, and Future.” Google Books, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898. https://books.google.com/books/about/God_s_Methods_with_Man_in_Time_Past_Pres.html?id=-ytVAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false .
“Overview - G. Campbell Morgan's Exposition on the Whole Bible.” StudyLight.org, www.studylight.org/commentaries/gcm.html .
Slick, Matt. “Is Hell Eternal?” CARM.org, 12-15-08, Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, 15 Dec. 2008, carm.org/hell-eternal. Retrieved 7/2/2018
Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. “The Resurrection of the Dead.” The Spurgeon Center, 17 Feb. 1856, Sermon No. 66-67. From New Park Street Pulpit Volume 2. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-resurrection-of-the-dead#flipbook/