I was part of the Anglican Church of Canada for many years. This sometimes led me into some odd and surprising conversations. Once I was at a day-long “teaching” event. During one of the breaks, a fellow sought me out in conversation. Given some of the things I had said in our small discussion group, he suspected that I was, in his language, a fundamentalist.
So he wanted to figure me out and, well – I do not know what he expected to happen. Be that as it may, for some reason, he began to make derogatory comments about fundamentalists, saying they try to scare people by inventing the atrocious idea of a lake of fire that God will throw you into. He added some colorful embellishment about sex-starved monks and uneducated backwoods rednecks being the source of this ridiculous idea.
When he finally paused for a breath, I said that the idea was not invented by fundamentalists, but was in fact in the Bible. He of course vehemently denied that this was the case, so I got out my Bible and showed him.
This seemed to end our conversation, not because the Bible convinced him, but because he had gone on and on earlier about the New Testament being all about love and acceptance, and, well, he did not know what to say about what the New Testament actually said.
Generally, a person who either knew the Bible a bit better or was just quicker on their feet would say something to me like, “Oh that’s all just metaphor, not to be taken literally.” They would then use the idea of “metaphor” as if it was an eraser that erased the text and left a blank sheet for them to say whatever they wanted.
In another article, I will look at whether the idea of a lake of fire and hell are atrocious ideas held by haters and fools. Are Christians wise to continue holding to what the Bible says? Before I do that, I want to first talk about the lake of fire and metaphor. What is the Bible saying? Is it literal? Here are six (hopefully) helpful thoughts.
First, the New Testament does teach that there is a lake of fire where people and beings are sent.
Jesus taught this, (Matt. 13:42; 18:8; 25:41; Mark 9:47-48). It is also taught clearly in the Book of Revelation (19:20; 20:10-15; 21:8). There are other texts which talk about eternal punishment, but the verses I have given clearly refer to there being a lake of fire, and that the time will come when the Triune God casts people, hades, death, ‘the beast and the false prophet’, the devil, and demons into this lake of fire.
Second, the Bible does use metaphors.
You have to be careful that you do not let the bad use of a good thing stop you from pursuing the good use of a good thing. There is nothing wrong with metaphors. It is next to impossible to speak without using a metaphor. It should not surprise you that the Bible uses metaphors all the time. In fact, as a Christian you should revel in biblical metaphors and meditate upon them.
Consider this famous text, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:14-16, NIV).
Notice all of the metaphors? Infants, waves, wind, body, etc. The metaphors are not a barrier to understanding, but a powerful vehicle of understanding.
Third, to dismiss what you do not like in the Bible by saying it is a metaphor is not a sign of serious thinking.
The Book of Proverbs is filled with warnings about giving yourself to foolishness! To meet someone who says that the resurrection of Jesus, or any of His miracles, are just metaphors, is to meet someone who is not serious about understanding what the Bible says.
It does not matter if their IQ is way higher than yours, or that they know Greek, or that they teach at a prestigious University. They do not have a deeper knowledge of the Bible, because they have closed their mind to the Bible. This is especially the case if they use “that is just a metaphor” as a license to replace the text with their own fantasies.
I once heard a Bishop with a PhD give a day of talks purporting to show how the Book of Matthew was really an exhortation for revolutionary political struggle couched in religious metaphors to get by Roman censors! This is foolishness. To turn a text like the “lake of fire” into a metaphor that talks about unconditional love is just a sign of foolishness, not wisdom.
Fourth, you cannot know whether the “lake of fire” is a metaphor or literal.
This statement will bother two types, those who assume that it has to be a metaphor, and those who assume it has to be literal. If you read the texts listed above, you see that they are all referring to the end of the end, and the dawn of the New Heavens and Earth. You cannot now know what this will be literally like. A new relationship between redeemed humanity and the Triune God will be inaugurated. You will see Him. You will relate to angels in a different way. You will have a resurrected body. All the power and presence of sin, death, and the Fall will be completely gone from within you and around you. All of “nature” will be different.
When you are in heaven, if the Lord gives you leave, you will read the Bible and look around and see how everything the Lord said in His word was true beyond your wildest dreams and yearning.
How can there be a lake that a purely spiritual being like the devil can be thrown into, and a human being can be thrown into? You cannot now know how much is metaphor and how much is literal of this future Day. But it is true, completely perfectly, wisely true.
When you are there, if the Lord gives you leave, you will read the Bible and look around and see how everything the Lord said in His word was true beyond your wildest dreams and yearning. You will marvel at the bits that were so prosaically literal and the parts that were so poetically beyond – and how the Lord in His wisdom wove them together – and you will see that every word was true and came to pass.
Fifth, whether literal or a metaphor, the lake of fire is a terrible doom – so flee to Christ and amend your life!
As Stan Lee put it, “Nuff said.”
Finally, every day, “read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest” the Bible, God’s inerrant word written.
Sometimes you will not know if what the Bible says is a metaphor or literal. Usually, you will, but occasionally you will not. That is fine. The Lord did not make your mind inerrant; He made His word inerrant.
The Lord did not make your mind inerrant; He made His word inerrant.
Bring your fallible mind to the deep well of God’s word written, drinking deeply from its living water, trusting that it is like Ent water, and will grow you in wisdom and understanding, as you read gripped by the Gospel, and with a penitent, humble, obedient, available, trusting and teachable heart.
Please pray for me and for all who are called to open God’s word for God’s people for His glory and the salvation of the lost.