Our God is a Consuming Fire

In The God Blog

Our God is a Consuming Fire

The last Bible study before summer break was on the book of Isaiah. This book contains some of the most critical passages on the subject of fire and the destruction of the wicked. All of these thoughts over the last few weeks ultimately led to the writing of this paper. Christian beliefs about the fate of the wicked fall into two broad categories:

  • A literal burning hell in which the sinner is punished for all of eternity. This view is associated with the belief that the soul is immortal.
  • Less common is the belief that the suffering of the wicked lasts only for a period of time. This view is referred to as “annihilationism”.

In this model, God is typically described as destroying (or annihilating) them after a brief period of conscious suffering by fire. There is another way of understanding the fire that is described in the book of Revelation and elsewhere in scripture – a view that incorporates these words of Jesus on the subject of fire:

“I came to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already kindled.” (Luke 12:49)


Our God is a Consuming Fire

Christian beliefs about the fate of the wicked fall into two broad categories

  • A literal burning hell in which the sinner is punished for all of eternity. This view is associated with the belief that the soul is immortal.
  • Less common is the belief that the suffering of the wicked lasts only for a period of time. This view is referred to as “annihilationism”. In this model, God is typically described as destroying (or annihilating) them after a brief period of conscious suffering by fire.

In this paper, I will try to express another way of understanding the fire that is described in the book of Revelation and elsewhere in scripture. Although this is not a view held by many, I hope that the reader will briefly consider another possibility – perhaps one that will harmonize these words of Jesus on the subject of fire:

“I came to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already kindled.” (Luke 12:49)

 

Why does it matter?

Does the fate of the wicked really matter that much to our understanding of God and the plan of salvation? After all, if we are rejoicing with God and our friends in heaven, why should we be concerned about a multitude of rebels who are suffering in pain? I heard a sermon recently in which the pastor pointed to the verse in Revelation that describes “the sea of glass mixed with fire” (Revelation 22:4). His interpretation was that those in heaven will always be able to look down and to see what should have been our fate: “Look what God would have done to me were it not for the death of Jesus!”

The view of a God who must torture his sinful children for all of eternity, “to satisfy justice” cannot help but contribute to our picture of who God is in character.

For example, imagine that you were told about a man that lives in your town. He is described to you as kind, gentle, and humble man. Stories are recounted of what he has done for the poor and the outcasts of society and you learn that he has even built a large home just for you on the back of his property, filled with the most wonderful things that you can imagine. After 15 minutes of glowing praise, you ask, “What would happen if I refused to like this man, despite his goodness? What would he do to me?” With some hesitancy the reply comes, “His sense of justice would demand that you be burned to death on the back lawn of his property.”

If that were the reality, would you still be impressed with the stories about the man’s kindness? Would you want to live in the house that he built for you or would you rather move as far away as possible? Would not all the stories about the man’s goodness and love become entirely swept away by the horror of what he does to his enemies?

Of course, some would say, “It doesn’t matter whether that offends you or not. All that matters is what the Bible says about the destruction of the wicked.” And, while I agree that the Bible is our inspired textbook for understanding this subject, my point for now is just to say that this subject contributes to our picture of God’s character perhaps more than any other. Since “eternal life is to know God” our passion must be to know His character as deeply as possible. What God does to His enemies is one critically important window into the character of God.

 

God Himself is the Fire

This passage in Revelation is, for many, the key text for an eternally burning hell:

“A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” (Revelation 14:9-11 – NIV)

I believe that this passage is a wonderful opportunity to explain the reality of what happens to the wicked even though to many it would seem to make it very clear that the wicked are tortured forever and ever by burning sulfur. But first, a critical point to our understanding of what this fire is all about. The book of Revelation is not a stand alone book that we can understand independent of the previous 65 books of the Bible for this book is largely composed from the Old Testament. Large passages derive from the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and many others. In addition, the book of Revelation opens with the words that “this is the Revelation of Jesus Christ”. In other words, Revelation must be seen through the lens of Jesus Christ and a proper understanding of this book will reveal something very important to us about God. The book, with all its symbolism, is meant to clarify, not mystify, who God is in character.

With that in mind, it is important to understand that the imagery of Revelation 14 comes directly from Isaiah, chapter 34, which describes the destruction of Edom:

“The rivers of Edom will turn into tar, and the soil will turn into sulfur. The whole country will burn like tar. It will burn day and night, and smoke will rise from it forever. The land will lie waste age after age, and no one will ever travel through it again. Owls and ravens will take over the land. The LORD will make it a barren waste again, as it was before the creation.” (Isaiah 34:9-11 – GN)

Is the country of Edom still burning? Did God destroy Edom by fire? In fact, even to a person reading this passage during Isaiah’s time, would they assume that the land would burn forever and that smoke would ascend forever if owls and ravens will “take over the land”?

This is obviously a poetic description that Edom would be destroyed forever which should invite us to bring the same meaning to the passage in Revelation.

But, there is another very important clue in the Revelation 14 passage. Read very carefully:

“A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” (Revelation 14:9-11 – NIV)

Notice that those who are experiencing torment are “in the presence of the holy angels and of the lamb.” There is obviously some symbolism involved here as Jesus is not actually a lamb, but are the angels and Jesus really standing in the fire with the wicked? That is what the passage would suggest.

Here, I believe is the key point! Jesus (who is God of course) IS the fire! Not a fire like the ones we ignite with matches of course, but yet the Bible again and again uses fire as the symbolic description of God’s immediate presence:

“Because the LORD your God is like a flaming fire.” (Daniel 4:24 – GN)

“For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29 – GN)

“God, the light of Israel, will become a fire. Israel’s holy God will become a flame, which in a single day will burn up everything, even the thorns and thistles” (Isaiah 10:17 – GN)

As I will describe, the immediate presence of God is tortuous to some – but not because He is a literal fire that burns up flesh. God does not exude any hostility towards his rebellious children. This is rather describing a psychological discomfort that involves intense guilt and shame as sinful and selfish individuals enter into the presence of a God who is selfless love personified.

The presence of God

There are several examples in scripture of individuals who have experienced God’s presence.

 

Isaiah

This was the experience of Isaiah:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord. He was sitting on his throne, high and exalted, and his robe filled the whole Temple. Around him flaming creatures were standing, each of which had six wings. Each creature covered its face with two wings, and its body with two, and used the other two for flying. They were calling out to each other: ‘Holy, holy, holy! The LORD Almighty is holy! His glory fills the world.’ The sound of their voices made the foundation of the Temple shake, and the Temple itself became filled with smoke. I said, ‘There is no hope for me! I am doomed because every word that passes my lips is sinful, and I live among a people whose every word is sinful. And yet, with my own eyes I have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’ Then one of the creatures flew down to me, carrying a burning coal that he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.” (Isaiah 6:4-6 – GN)

Notice that Isaiah did not exclaim, “God, you are so bright and hot that I am burning up!” No. Isaiah saw the beautiful glory and goodness of God and by contrast saw with an intense clarity his own sinfulness.

His lips were touched with a burning coal, but notice again the symbolism involved as the coal was not harmful to his flesh:

“He touched my lips with the burning coal and said, ‘This has touched your lips, and now your guilt is gone, and your sins are forgiven.’ Then I heard the Lord say, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?’ I answered, ‘I will go! Send me!’” (Isaiah 6:7-8 – GN)

The intense shame and guilt experience by Isaiah is what God described to Moses with these words:

“But you may not look directly at My face, for no one may see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20 – NLT)

God was not saying, “If you look at My face, I’ll kill you!” Rather, God is saying, “In your state of rebellious separation from My kingdom of other-centered love, the full face-to-face exposure to My goodness and love is actually harmful.” The destructive element of beholding God face-to-face does not come from God, but rather from within the sinner.

 

Moses

We need to use many examples to drive this point home. Moses saw the glory of God at the burning bush. But were the leaves of the bush consumed?

Our children watched a movie recently on the life of Moses and I loved how the movie portrayed the burning bush. After God’s burning glory departed Moses walked over and picked a leaf. It was completely unharmed! God’s fiery presence apparently does not burn leaves.

A little later on God came as a fire onto Mount Sinai:

“The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai…And the glory of the Lord appeared to the Israelites like devouring fire on the top of the mountain.” (Exodus 24:16-17 – GN)

Were the trees on the top of the mount consumed by the fire? Did God’s presence spark a massive forest fire? There is no record of this.

God’s glory also filled the tent in the wilderness, but is there ever a record of the sheets spontaneously bursting into flames? No, this is an altogether different kind of fire.

Moses reflected this glory when he came from the LORD’s presence:

“Whenever Moses went into the Tent of the LORD’s presence to speak to the LORD, he would take the veil off. When he came out, he would tell the people of Israel everything that he had been commanded to say, and they would see that his face was shining. Then he would put the veil back on until the next time he went to speak with the LORD.” (Exodus 34:34-35 – GN)

These were not 3rd degree burns in the face of Moses. Rather, the reflected glory of God in his face caused distress in the people – very similar to the experience of Isaiah, no doubt. Out of consideration for the people, Moses considerately put a veil over his face.

 

Nabad and Abihu

And the story of the rebellious sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, also reinforces this view:

“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu…disobeyed the LORD by burning before Him the wrong kind of fire…So fire blazed forth from the LORD’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD meant when He said, ‘I will display My holiness through those who come near Me. I will display My glory before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent. Then Moses called for…Aaron’s cousins…He said to them, ‘Come forward and carry away the bodies of your relatives from in front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.’”

Don’t read on!

“Fire blazed forth from the LORD’s presence and burned them up…” If you were Aaron’s cousins and were given the command to carry them outside the camp, what would you predict would be left of their bodies? What would you predict would be left of their clothes?

Read on!

“So they came forward and picked them up by their garments and carried them out of the camp, just as Moses had commanded.” (Leviticus 10:1-5 – NLT)

The fire that emanates from the very presence of God is apparently not harmful to clothes or flesh, but yet these 2 rebellious men could not stand in the presence of God.

 

Job

Job also saw God in all his glory, and like Isaiah he was acutely aware of his own guilt:

“In the past I knew only what others had told me, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. So I am ashamed of all I have said and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6 – GN)

 

Daniel

Is there a more righteous saint in the Bible than Daniel? But yet, his experience in the presence of God had this effect:

“I looked up and saw someone who was wearing linen clothes and a belt of fine gold. His body shone like a jewel. His face was as bright as a flash of lightning, and his eyes blazed like fire. His arms and legs shone like polished bronze, and his voice sounded like the roar of a great crowd. I was the only one who saw the vision. Those who were with me did not see anything, but they were terrified and ran and hid. I was left there alone, watching this amazing vision. I had no strength left, and my face was so changed that no one could have recognized me. When I heard his voice, I fell to the ground unconscious and lay there face downward. Then a hand took hold of me and raised me to my hands and knees; I was still trembling. The angel said to me, ‘Daniel, God loves you. Stand up and listen…” (Daniel 10:5-10 – GN)

The friends that Daniel was with fled in panic, while Daniel is described as acutely aware of his own sinfulness, “…my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength.” (Daniel 10:8 – ASV).

I love the fact though that the angel immediately reassures Daniel with these comforting words: “God loves you”.

 

John

John, who walked with Jesus for over 3 years, later saw Him in all His glory. He had a similar response as Daniel: “When I saw him, I fell down at his feet like a dead man. He placed his right hand on me and said, ‘Don’t be afraid!’” (Revelation 1:17 – GN)

Once again, isn’t it wonderful that God is so quick to say, “I love you” and “Don’t be afraid!” But once again, no one turns to God and says “It’s too hot in here. My flesh is starting to burn.” Rather, these individuals are experiencing psychological discomfort, guilt and shame.

 

Lucifer

Before His rebellion, Lucifer flourished in the presence of God’s glory:

“I ordained and anointed you as the mighty angelic guardian. You had access to the holy mountain of God and walked among the stones of fire.” (Ezekiel 28:14 – NLT)

“The stones of fire” is describing the very presence of God and the sinless Lucifer dwelt unharmed with his Creator.

 

The destruction comes from within

Notice very carefully the description of Satan’s destruction just a few verses later:

“You defiled your sanctuaries with your many sins and your dishonest trade. So I brought fire from within you, and it consumed you. I let it burn you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching” (Ezekiel 28:18, NLT).

The destructive element in God’s presence does not emanate from God, but rather from within the sinner. The destructive “fire” that will end of the life of Satan comes from within his own selfish and rebellious heart.

To me, this passage in Isaiah is one of the most compelling on this subject:

“But the LORD says, ‘Now I will do something and be greatly praised. Your deeds are straw that will be set on fire by your very own breath. You will be burned to ashes like thorns in a fire. Everyone, both far and near, come look at what I have done. See my mighty power!’ The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: ‘Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?’ He who walks righteously and speaks what is right…” (Isaiah 33:11-15 – CEV, NIV)

This passage is describing the fear and dread that the wicked experience in the presence of God who appears to them as “the consuming fire” and the “everlasting burning”. They ask, “Who of us can dwell with the everlasting burning?” But notice that the reply comes that “He who walks righteously and speaks what is right” can dwell in the presence of God!

This passage in Psalms also describes the two classes of people that will one day stand in God’s presence:

“As wax melts in front of the fire, so do the wicked perish in his presence. But the righteous are glad and rejoice in his presence; they are happy and shout for joy.” (Psalms 68:2 – GN)

For some, God’s presence is tortuous; for others it is a place of great joy and happiness.

We see this same relationship once again in the book of Malachi, where the wicked perish in His presence, while to others that same presence brings great happiness, joy and healing:

“The LORD Almighty says, ‘The day is coming when all proud and evil people will burn like straw. On that day they will burn up, and there will be nothing left of them. But for you who obey me, my saving power will rise on you like the sun and bring healing like the sun’s rays. You will be as free and happy as calves let out of a stall.” (Malachi 4:1-2 – GN)

When the fire of God is understood in this way, both heaven and hell are seen to be the same place. That is, both heaven and hell are a Person. For some, it is heaven to dwell in the presence of Love Personified; for others, it is hell.

God’s love is very hot indeed:

“Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death…Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, nor will rivers overflow it. (Song of Solomon 8:6-7)

Courage in the presence of God

John describes the individuals who will stand in the presence of God this way: “Yes, my children, remain in union with him, so that when he appears we may be full of courage and need not hide in shame from him on the Day he comes…We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is” (1 John 2:28, 3:2 – GN)

When God returns, those who already live in union with him will have courage for they will know that the glorious One who stands before them is just like Jesus in character – kind, gentle, humble, and supremely forgiving. These individuals are settled into the truth about the kind of Person God is. And, by daily dwelling in the presence of the God of love, it is a law that we become like the God we love, trust and admire: “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is!”

The central characteristic of God’s friends in the last generation is that they will see God as he really is. That is, they are fully settled in the picture of God that Jesus came to bring and by beholding the true God it is an unavoidable natural consequence that we are changed into His image:

“All of us, then, reflect the glory of the Lord with uncovered faces; and that same glory, coming from the Lord, who is the Spirit, transforms us into his likeness in an ever greater degree of glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 – GN)

 

The fire is eternal

I grew up in a church that preached annihilationism and I recall some pastors going to great lengths to explain that the soul is not immortal and to quickly add the “good news” that “the fire won’t last forever”. “The wicked will only burn for as long as they deserve.”

But if the “eternal fire” is ultimately the very presence of God, then the fire really is eternal – an eternal fire of intense love and goodness that will never be extinguished! By contrast though, the suffering of the wicked in God’s presence is short and does not last forever, but yet the fire of God’s love will burn on.

And here is the best part! God’s friends will dwell in His presence for all of eternity. Just as Lucifer was described as walking among the stones of fire, John described heaven as “…what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire” (Revelation 22:4). Once again, this refers to the very presence of our God and the righteous will dwell in the unveiled glory of God – face to face!

I believe that the reason Jesus would say, “I came to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already kindled” is that He desires more than anything to experience with each one of us a deeply personal face-to-face relationship. Jesus came in order to restore and to heal us that we may enter into His presence and experience this incredible intimacy and friendship with God: “But now, by means of the physical death of his Son, God has made you his friends, in order to bring you, holy, pure, and faultless, into his presence.” (Colossians 1:22 – GN)

What God has desired more than anything from the moment Adam and Eve fled from His presence, is to wrap His arms around His children once again. How significant then that the end of the great controversy is described with these words!

“They will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. There shall be no more night, and they will not need lamps or sunlight, because the Lord God will be their light, and they will rule as kings forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:4-5 – GN)

 

Some quotes from others on this subject

“This is not an act of arbitrary power on the part of God. The rejecters of His mercy reap that which they have sown. God is the fountain of life; and when one chooses the service of sin, he separates from God, and thus cuts himself off from life. He is ‘alienated from the life of God.’ Christ says, ‘All they that hate Me love death.’ Ephesians 4:18; Proverbs 8:36. God gives them existence for a time that they may develop their character and reveal their principles. This accomplished, they receive the results of their own choice. By a life of rebellion, Satan and all who unite with him place themselves so out of harmony with God that His very presence is to them a consuming fire. The glory of Him who is love will destroy them.” (DA 764)

“We are not to regard God as waiting to punish the sinner for his sin. The sinner brings the punishment upon himself. His own actions start a train of circumstances that bring the sure result. Every act of transgression reacts upon the sinner, works in him a change of character, and makes it more easy for him to transgress again. By choosing to sin, men separate themselves from God, cut themselves off from the channel of blessing, and the sure result is ruin and death.” (Letter 96, 1896)

“God does not stand toward the sinner as an executioner of the sentence against transgression; but He leaves the rejectors of His mercy to themselves, to reap that which they have sown.” (GC 56)

“Could those whose hearts are filled with hatred of God, of truth and holiness, mingle with the heavenly throng and join their songs of praise? Could they endure the glory of God and the Lamb? No, no; years of probation were granted them, that they might form characters for heaven; but they have never trained the mind to love purity; they have never learned the language of heaven, and now it is too late. A life of rebellion against God has unfitted them for heaven. Its purity, holiness, and peace would be torture to them; the glory of God would be a consuming fire. They would long to flee from that holy place. They would welcome destruction, that they might be hidden from the face of Him who died to redeem them. The destiny of the wicked is fixed by their own choice. Their exclusion from heaven is voluntary with themselves, and just and merciful on the part of God” (GC 542, 543).