The Fires of Hell

Literal or Symbolic?



Dr. John Hoole




We have examined much of what the Bible says concerning the subject of Hell.  We have determined that Hell is Real.  When liberal theologian Nels Ferre suggested that “whether Jesus taught eternal hell or not is uncertain,” he is at odds with the evidence – or he is reading a different Bible than I.


I believe it is impossible to real the New Testament in general, and the words of Jesus in particular, without facing the fact that hell is not a figment of religious imagination.  Based on Scripture, it is a terrifying reality.  There are just too many specific references to hell as an actual place, with detailed descriptions of the suffering that will occur there.  Hell will not be a symbolic separation from God.  There will be actual agony and torment for all of its inhabitants.


In addition, we have also learned that Hell Will Last for EternityMatthew 25:41 tells us the ungodly will be in “everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  Five verses later (25:46), the ungodly are said to “go away into everlasting punishment.”  And Mark 9:48 tells us the fire is not quenched.


The question is raised, “Is the fire in Hell a literal fire?  To say it another way, “Will those in Hell suffer real torment of body in a literal fire.?  There is no question but that the Bible repeatedly, … from beginning to end, teaches that hell is a place of “fire.”  But is this fire real or figurative?


Psalms 11:6 NKJV


6       Upon the wicked He will rain coals; Fire and brimstone and a burning wind Shall be the portion of their cup.


Isaiah 34:9-10 NKJV


9       Its streams shall be turned into pitch, And its dust into brimstone; Its land shall become burning pitch.

10     It shall not be quenched night or day; Its smoke shall ascend forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; No one shall pass through it forever and ever.


Matthew 13:49-51 NKJV


49     So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just,

50     and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth."


If you simply take what God said at face value and don’t try to read anything into it, then literal fire seems apparent.  To insist that all those verses are metaphorical or allegorical, would require some solid evidence to validate that claim.


In our culture, men have lost the fear of hell and, with the loos of this fear, they have also lost the soul-witnessing passion that the Church has had in ages past.  Because men, today, use the word “hell” as a byword, …a curse word,  making a joke of what should be the most serious, sober, thought-provoking subject of the whole universe, warnings of judgment have also become powerless to stir men’s souls to repentance.


Fire is evidently the only word in human language which can suggest the anguish of hell.  In the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13:36-43,  Christ interprets for us every part except the fire.


                   •  He who sows the seed in this parable is the Lord Himself.


                   •  The “field” is the world.


                   •  The “good seed “ speaks of the “sons of the kingdom” – i.e., believers.


                   •  The “enemy” who “sows the seed” is the devil.


                   •  The “harvest” will occur at the “end of the age.”


                   •  The “harvesters” are angels.  They will separate the wheat from the tares.


                            The wheat represent the “righteous” – the tares are those “who do evil” – unbelievers.


Christ interprets for us each piece of this parable except the fire.  The only reasonable explanation is that the fire is not a symbol needing interpretation.  It perfectly describes the reality of the eternal torment.


If we take the Bible literally we must conclude that the lake of fire is a literal lake.  For example, did God rain literal fire and brimstone down from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah?  Yes, He certainly did.  The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is referred to nearly 50 times in the Bible, by Moses, by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zephaniah.  The destruction of those cities are also mentioned several times by Jesus, by the apostle Paul, by Peter, by Jude and by John in the book of Revelation.


2 Peter 2:6 NKJV


6       and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly;


Notice what we are told to learn from the destruction of these two cities.  They are used as an example of what will be the final end of the ungodly.  That is literal fire and brimstone turning literal cities into a literal pile of ashes.


In the Bible, “fire and brimstone” always signify the hot wrath of God.  Our Lord said, in Luke 17:29, “But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.”  The Lord was referring to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.


Genesis 19:24 NKJV


24     Then the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens.


Revelation 14:8-11 (NKJV) shows how the lost of the tribulation will be punished.


8       And another angel followed, saying, "Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication."

9       Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand,

10     he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.

11     And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name."


The only way their smoke can ascend up forever is if they are on fire and are not consumed by the flame.  One may be reminded of Moses and the burning bush:


Exodus 3:2-3 NKJV


2       And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.

3       Then Moses said, "I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn."


The next passage from Luke shows that the wicked from the Old Testament went to a place of flames and torment.


Matthew 13:24-30 (NKJV) is another passage that indicates actual fire in hell.


         The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary gives a good interpretation of this passage.


“There is a strong evidence to indicate that literal language is used and that the Bible does in fact teach literal fire and other sufferings.  The parable of the tares in Matthew 13, which discusses eternal judgment, is helpful here.  The Son of man, the world, the children of the wicked one, the devil, the end of the world, the angels, the gathering – all are literal figures in this parable.  It is then natural to conclude that the burning of the tares should also be taken literally.”