The Fallacy of Taking the Literal Figuratively and the Figurative Literally (Say that ten times fast)
One of the key fallacies in the argument for eternal punishment (the traditional doctrine of hell) is that it insists on taking figurative and symbolic passages literally, and taking literal passages figuratively. What do I mean by this?
Have you noticed that all of the passages about “hell” use figurative language?
For example, Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna)” (Matthew 5:29).
I am pretty sure I’ve never met anyone who took that statement literally. It would be, after all, easy to tell since they’d be missing all kinds of body parts!
We aren’t meant to take it literally. It is a deliberately hyperbolic statement that illustrates the seriousness of sin and the importance of getting rid of it, of “putting to death” the sinful acts of the flesh (Romans 8:13).
Will we literally be thrown into the Valley of Hinnom, the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem as God’s judgment? I don’t think so. It is clearly symbolic.
Besides Jesus’ statements on Gehenna, the other primary place in which God’s final judgment is discussed is the book of Revelation, where it is described as the lake of fire and the second death. Should we take these literally or symbolically?
Consider what type of literature Revelation is. It is apocalyptic and prophetic. I’d argue that it is pretty much entirely symbolic. I’ve never met a person who was convinced that a seven headed beast with ten horns will literally rise up out of the sea as described in Revelation 13.
In fact, Revelation explicitly tells us that it is using symbolism, right from the beginning of the book. Consider Revelation 1, in which John sees a vision of Christ amongst seven lampstands, holding seven stars in His right hand. This vision is explained by Christ Himself:
As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
So we clearly can see that Revelation is using symbols to represent truths. Jesus’ parables do this very same thing as do many of His sayings that are often mistakenly interpreted as supportive of the traditional doctrine of hell. Hopefully, you can now see that this doctrine has very little, if any, Scriptural support.
On the other hand, there is abundant, consistent Scriptural support for the assertion that God will save humanity. Not only this, but it is used in parts of the Bible written by the apostles in order to explain the Christian faith to the churches. While Jesus spoke in mysterious parables in which “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13), the apostles speak plainly in order to elucidate the truths that Christ taught. Remember, the closest followers of Jesus benefited from hearing His own explanations of His parables and sayings. These same men are the ones who wrote that “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2), and that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). These verses are straightforward because they are meant to be. Not so with the passages that many claim to support “hell.”
Still, you may be wondering what the figurative language used by Jesus and the symbols of judgment found in the Bible actually mean.
This is what we will examine in the following chapters and I trust that you will find the journey not only Biblically consistent, but also intellectually and spiritually satisfying.
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