Thursday, July 9, 2009

Is the language of Hell symbolic?

Question from Jesse:
Is the language about Hell in the Bible real or symbolic?

Pastor Josh's answer: First and foremost, Hell is real. It is eternity before the righteous, ever-burning wrath of God, a suffering torment from which there is no escape and no relief. Some within Evangelicalism have begun teaching the idea that Hell is just a metaphor for 'ceasing to exist'. But the Bible clearly teaches that the punishment is eternal. In fact, most of what we know about Hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself.

Your question relates to the nature of the language Scripture uses concerning Hell. It is described as an "everlasting fire" (Matthew 25:41) and a "furnace of fire" where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:50); a place "where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48); where the unbeliever "will be tormented with fire and brimstone" (Revelation 14:10) and the “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever and they have no rest day and night”(Revelation 14:11).

Even if Scripture used metaphorical language it doesn't detract from what is being described. Sometimes people make the silly statement, "Oh that language is just symbolic", but they never stop to consider what exactly is being symbolized. Metaphors and symbols point to a larger reality then themselves--and Hell is a big, horrible, terrible place. Ultimately it doesn't really matter if Scripture's description of Hell is graphically literal or gruesomely symbolic. Either way, it is infinitely worse than anything words can describe.

R.C. Sproul puts it this way:
"I suspect they are symbols, but I find no relief in that. We must not think of them as being merely symbols. It is probable that the sinner in hell would prefer a literal lake of fire as his eternal abode to the reality of hell represented in the lake of fire image. If these images are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests. The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain. That Jesus used the most awful symbols imaginable to describe hell is no comfort to those who see them simply as symbols" [R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1992), pp. 285-287].

Because of Hell's unfathomable fury, Scripture warns us of its existence while simultaneously providing humanity with a way of escape. Revelation 20:15 tells us that "whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the Lake of Fire." Realizing the power and holiness of God, the Philippian prison guard cried out "...Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, 'believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved..." (Acts 16:30, 31).

Hell is nothing short of the full wrath of a sovereign God poured out upon an individual for all of eternity. But in His mercy, He has provided salvation through Jesus Christ. Still, many choose to reject Christ. Considering the consequence, such a refusal is illogical and impossible to comprehend. This is why the author of Hebrews could ask in wonder, "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:3).

You can follow Pastor Josh on Twitter: Questions about faith, scripture, theology, or daily Christian living can be submitted via Email. "Faith Questions" is a feature in the newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.


  1. Rejecting christ is not illogical with christ most are seeking help and forgiveness. Although those who reject him are full of hatred and pride not knowing of how much they need him.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment. But I'm not sure I agree. If God is true, and if rejecting God leads to eternal damnation, then not only is the rejection of God illogical it is also psychotic.

    If God exists, then logic is a quality that resides with and in God (hence God cannot be illogical). Logic, by its very definition and origin, must lead one to accept God. It is the presence of sin---in our hearts as well as our minds---that breaks the logical process down and leads to someone rejecting God.

    Rejecting God is the greatest and most extreme example of illogical thinking that is possible.