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The fire of Hell: Metaphorical or Real?

23 September 2012

The fire of Hell: Metaphorical or Real?


Evangelist Billy Graham teaches that the fire of hell is not a literal fire. Here are some of his statements on this subject: ‘Whatever Hell may be, and there are many mysteries, and I don’t intend to solve them all – whatever Hell may mean, it is separation from God. Now there are three words that Jesus used constantly to describe it. One is called “Fire.” Now we know that God has a fire that burns and doesn’t consume like the burning bush that Moses experienced. We know that James said, ‘The tongue is set on fire of hell.” We know that that wasn’t combustion – that actual literal fire isn’t down in your throat and in your tongue. It is symbolic language. And theologians through the centuries have argued and debated over what fire means. The Bible said, “For our God is a consuming fire.” Jesus told the story about the rich man who went to Hell and he asked that Lazarus may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue. Could it be that the fire Jesus talked about is an eternal search for God that is never quenched? Is that what it means? That, indeed, would be hell. To be away from God forever, separated from His Presence. (Billy Graham, The Challenge, Sermons from Madison Square Garden, pages 74-75); ‘I think that hell essentially is separation from God forever. And that is the worst hell that I can think of. But I think people have a hard time believing God is going to allow people to burn in literal fire forever. I think the fire that is mentioned in the Bible is a burning thirst for God that can never be quenched” (Graham, Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, Florida, April 10, 1983). ‘Jesus used three words to describe hell; The third word that He used is ‘fire.’ Jesus used this symbol over and over. This could be literal fire, as many believe. Or it could be symbolic. God does have fires that do not burn. And also there is the figurative use of fire in the Bible. I’ve often thought that this fire could possibly be a burning thirst for God that is never quenched. What a terrible fire that would be never to find satisfaction, joy, or fulfilment!’ (Billy Graham, A Biblical Standard for Evangelists, A commentary on the 15 Affirmations made by participants at the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, July, 1983, pp. 4547). ‘The only thing I could say for sure is that hell means separation from God. We are separated from his light, from his fellowship. That is going to be hell. When it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it. When the Scripture uses fire concerning hell, that is possibly an illustration of how terrible it’s going to be not fire but something worse, a thirst for God that cannot be quenched’ (Billy Graham, interview with Richard Ostling, Time magazine, Nov. 15, 1993).

This view is held by many Churches all over the world. Even many Pentecostals don’t believe that the fire of hell is a literal fire. The Italian Assemblies of God (ADI) denies the reality of the fire of both Hades and Gehenna. Several years ago, during a sermon broadcasted by RadioEvangelo (Gospel Radio), Francesco Toppi, former president of the Italian Assemblies of God, stated that when Jesus mentioned the fire of Hades in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Luke 16:24), He used a metaphorical language! And in his book A Domanda Risponde he states: ‘The conception of a hell with true flames of fire, is an idea exploited by crafty and not very serious preachers, which frightens only some religious women who already see themselves burning for eternity’ (Vol. 1, page 231. Translated by myself). I would like to point out, however, that I know many members of the Italian Assemblies of God who clearly affirm that the fire of hell is a real fire and not a metaphorical fire. So it cannot be said that all the members of the Italian Assemblies of God deny the reality of the fire of hell.


Concerning Hades (Greek word which means ‘the unseen world’ and which is translated ‘hell’ ten times in the King James Version), which is the place of torment where the souls of the wicked go immediately after death, it must be said that according to the Holy Scripture in it there is a literal fire, for Jesus said about the rich man who died and found himself in Hades: “Being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. The he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame” (Luke 16.23-24 – NKJV). As you can see, that man was tormented in a flame, therefore the fire of Hades is a literal fire. If the fire of hell were metaphorical, that man would not have said to Abraham: “I am tormented in this flame” or – as the New International Version reads – “in agony in this fire”.

Concerning Gehenna (or the everlasting fire), which is the place of torment into which the wicked will be cast at the end of the age and into which they will be tormented forever and ever, it must be said the same thing, that is, according to the Holy Scripture in it there is a literal fire. Let us look at some of the verses which attest this.

Jesus said that at the end of the age: “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42 – NKJV). As you can see, Jesus called that place of torment “the furnace of fire”.

Jesus said that when He comes in His glory, He will say to those on His left hand: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels ….” (Matthew 25:41 – NKJV).

Jesus said also: “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire” (Matthew 18:8 – NKJV).

The apostle John wrote that the beast, and the false prophet who will work signs in his presence, and the devil will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where they will be tormented forever and ever (cf. Revelation 19:20; 20:10). He wrote also that those who worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark on their forehead or on their hand, will “be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 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” (Revelation 14:10-11 – NKJV). Note that the apostle says that the smoke of their torment will ascend forever and ever, therefore inasmuch as there will be smoke that means that there will be a fire burning. Don’t you think so? In addition to this, John wrote that in the day of judgement, all those people whose name will not be found written in the book of Life will be thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone (cf. Revelation 20:13-15).

Therefore, brethren, in the light of the Holy Scripture, any allegorical interpretation given to the fire of Hades or to the fire of Gehenna, must be rejected; take heed to yourselves, let no one deceive you with empty words.

Giacinto Butindaro


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