This article first appeared in the Ask Hank column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 01 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The question about whether the flames of hell are literal or metaphorical invokes strong opinions.1 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, rightly called the prince of preachers, was inclined toward answering the question literally. “Do not tell me that hell is metaphorical fire,” he thundered. “Who cares for that? If a man were to threaten to give me a metaphorical blow on the head, I should care very little about it; he would be welcome to give me as many as he pleased.” Spurgeon went on to contend that there was “real fire in hell, as truly as you now have 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.”2 The venerable exegete R. C. H. Lenski was strongly persuaded in the opposite direction. “Do not ask what kind of fire caused the flame by which the rich man was anguished,” wrote Lenski with a faint hint of sarcasm. “Physical fire as we know it on earth does not determine anything about the fire and the burning which are constantly predicated of hell beyond its power to produce the intensest pain. That fire torments the devils who have no bodies, the spirits of the damned before they are reunited with their earthly bodies, and finally also their bodies. Is that not effect enough without prying into the nature of that fire?” As Lenski goes on to explain, Jesus spoke of incomprehensible things in comprehensible language. “It is the language of a parent to a child about things that are beyond the child’s comprehension. The parent must either be silent or descend to one-syllable baby words.”3
While both Spurgeon and Lenski were exemplary Christians, formidable intellects, and popular exegetes, they came to completely different conclusions in this matter. Rather than decide who is right on the basis of a personality contest or in the court of public opinion, we would do well to “test everything” in light of the final court of arbitration and then “hold on to the good” (1 Thess. 5:21).4
Metaphors Magnify. We should note that a metaphor is an implied comparison that identifies a word or a phrase with something it does not literally represent. Far from minimizing biblical truth, metaphors serve as magnifying glasses that identify truth we might otherwise miss. This identification creates a meaning that lies beyond a woodenly literal interpretation and thus requires an imaginative leap to grasp what is meant. When the Bible speaks of God’s throne as “flaming with fire” and its wheels “all ablaze” (Dan. 7:9), we intuitively recognize that an implied comparison is in view. Likewise, when we read of the lamps of fire before God’s throne, we apprehend that there is more going on than mere fire. Indeed, as the Apostle of the Apocalypse explains, the lamps of fire are “the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 4:5 RSV).
Metaphorical Blows Cause Real Pain. To suppose that a metaphorical interpretation of hellfire somehow makes eternal separation from the grace and goodness of God something less formidable is to miss the point entirely. One can almost imagine the laughter that Sunday morning long ago in London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle when Spurgeon suggested that one may beat him with as many metaphorical blows as he pleased. But upon sober reflection, a graphic reality emerges. Metaphorical blows may not be physical, but they are nonetheless painful. A metaphorical knife in the back does not draw blood but nonetheless produces an abiding emotional scar. Drowning in debt does not destroy one physically but does nonetheless produce deep psychological despair. In like fashion the fire of hell need not be physical to be devastatingly real. Jesus no doubt used the metaphor of fire to get through to an obstinate people more concerned with physical well-being than the eternal state of their souls. To be at enmity with a holy God — to experience not so much as a drop of water to assuage the thirst of such separation — is indeed a fearful thing.5
Metaphorical Fire. There is ample biblical precedent for interpreting the fire of hell metaphorically. Consider the words of James, the family member of Jesus, who described the human tongue as being set on fire by hell. “The tongue,” said James, “is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (Jas. 3:6). James obviously does not intend us to suppose that the tongue, which is itself a metaphor for human language, is a literal fire that literally sets on fire “the whole course of one’s life.” Nor are human tongues (languages) literally “set on fire” by hell. Rather, just as James uses the language of fire as a metaphor for the destructive power of words, so too he uses the language of fire as a metaphor for the destructive nature of hell. Similarly, the Bible uses the metaphor of fire to describe godly jealousy (Deut. 4:24), sexual lust (Prov. 6:27), and unbridled passion (Hos. 7:6). Likewise, the Bible not only uses the metaphor of “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30) and “blackest darkness” (2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 13) to describe hell, but uses the imagery of “gloomy dungeons” (2 Pet. 2:4), a “lake of burning sulfur” (Rev. 20:10), and a “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14) to describe the horror of eternal separation from the very One with whom we were designed for fellowship.— Hank Hanegraaff
Hank Hanegraaff serves as president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man broadcast and the Hank Unplugged podcast. He is author of more than twenty books, including Truth Matters, Life Matters More: The Unexpected Beauty of an Authentic Christian Life (W Publishing Group, 2019).
- This article is adapted from Hank Hanegraaff, AfterLife: What You Need to Know about Heaven, the Hereafter and Near-Death Experiences (Brentwood, TN: Worthy, 2013), 59–61.
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Resurrection of the Dead,” sermon preached February 17, 1856, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/theresurrection-of-the-dead/#flipbook/.
- C. H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (1946; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), 854–55.
- Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are from NIV 1984.
- See Luke 16:19–31; Hebrews 10:26–31.