I have never seen a human burning alive, and when I try to imagine it the horror overwhelms me. Traditional Christianity would have us believe that the God of the Bible, a God purported to be loving and kind, burns those whose ways do not please Him. Some He burns forever. What has been the result of such teaching? Some people become skeptics and barricade themselves against the church and all for which it stands. This class says, in essence, that such a God has no right to claim loyalty from anyone, and all who buy into this obvious myth are either deranged or shallow minded.
And what has this concept done to the churches themselves? It has filled them with "Christians" who are such because of that everlasting fire they believe is waiting for all who don't yield. What kind of God is that? What kind of atmosphere prevails in churches where this doctrine is taught? My guess would be drama, raucous noise, and neon lights, as the leaders seek activities to keep the interest of those not truly born again. They think God's going to "get them" one day with flaming fire, if they don't shape up.
And please note: The same difficulty faces us as faced the religious leaders of Christ's day. They wanted a muscle-bound giant who could power them to victory over the Romans, and Jesus just wasn't that guy. He didn't fit the profile. Unbeknownst to them, He had bigger plans than anything their minds could conceive, and so they killed Him. And today we expect the Hebrew leaders' "God" to fulfill our prophetic expectations! They didn't get it back in Jesus' day, and, truth be told, they don't get it in our day either. Why? They fail to understand the word, interpreting the literal symbolically and the symbolic literally.
Can we agree that there is something wrong with this doctrine? Hasn't Scripture boldly asserted that "God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind? (2 Timothy 1:7). Is this doctrine not fear based? I think we would agree that it is and, therefore, deserves a second look.
Like several other doctrines, the idea of eternally burning hell originated in paganism and was used by the medieval church to keep the people in line.
What we do see during this time [the medieval period] is the expansion and proliferation of pagan myths about the afterlife, which were then repackaged as eternal, fiery torment in the Western (Catholic) Church, primarily by Latin theologians and Church leaders from Rome. It seems this was most likely motivated by political expediency. The idea of eternal torment was a prime tool for controlling the average churchgoer with fear and was congruent with secular mythologies of the time.1
On this point some have had the courage to stand up to the current of cultural norms and say, No. This is not the Bible view. But is it possible that those too have been deceived? Is it possible we have something more to learn about how a wise and caring God disposes of those who do not see things His way?
What Does Scripture Say?
I first want to magnify Christ to His central place in this discussion. Think of His actions as a Template. He carried our sins from His entry into the Garden of Gethsemane until His death on Calvary. Besides being our example of righteousness, He paid our sin debt. He will show us how God deals with the lost, for Christ was "lost" as He carried our sins with Him into the Garden. He carried them when they nailed Him to the cross. He carried them through all that suffering and pain until the moment when He cried out with a loud voice, "It is finished." "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (John 19:30; Luke 23:46). Again, our Teacher is our Template.
Seeing what happened to Him shows us how God the Father deals with the lost of the ages, for Christ experienced everything that the lost will experience. God will give them up, just as He gave up His Son to die for our sins (Romans 8:32). All have made a final choice, refused the Father's overtures of love, preferred independence from Him. Now He must honor their choice. Now He cannot move to comfort them. How will this affect them? Just as Christ agonized in the Garden, just as He sweat great drops of blood, the sins of the lost without the soothing hand of God to lift the burden will torment them in emotional agony. Grief will possess them, just as it possessed Christ in the Garden and on the Cross until the moment He gave up His life for us.
That His death was voluntary, a choice, is supported by:
a. His "loud cry" at the moment of His death proves He died voluntarily. His voice did not fade out until He could no longer produce a loud cry. He had full control over His voice and other faculties up to the end.
b. His death coincided with the hour of the general evening sacrifice. He chose to die at that exact moment.
c. When Joseph of Aramethia requested the body of Jesus, Pilot sent a centurion to ascertain if He was really dead, because no one died in just six hours from crucifixion alone. To prove He was really dead, the centurion plunged a spear into Jesus' side. The dual streams of blood and water proved that He was dead. He died in a surprisingly short time, because He chose the moment of His death.
d. Jesus predicted, "I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (John 10:17, 18). It was a voluntary choice, a choice that will be repeated in the end of all things.
This is important to show that in the end, like Christ, the lost choose to die. God does not make that choice for them. Let's look at what the lost see on Judgment Day, the day the light comes to their minds that they can no longer deny and that might make them want to die.
a. First they see their sins―in glorious living color. They see not only their sins but the far-reaching influence of those sins, the ripples that flowed out to generations beyond. As God's hand withdraws cover from them, they realize as never before the part they played in the suffering of multitudes.
b. On Judgment Day light and truth come, for that is what Judgment Day is. All are "undeceived." Here is truth staring them in the face. They can no longer deny it. They now know that they can't capture the city of New Jerusalem. With the universe now before them, they see that they are in the minority. Gone is the comfortable lifestyle that they cherished for so long. The righteous are praising God and glorifying His beautiful name. But that which appears lovely and valued beyond words to the righteous, appears vile and undesirable to the lost. There is no place for them any more, any where in the universe. They choose to die, as Christ chose to die when He paid our sin debt. "And death shall be chosen rather than life by all the residue of them that remain of this evil family" (Jeremiah 8:3; emphasis supplied throughout).
What About the Fires?
Where in Scripture do we find God endorsing burning people alive? No where. At one time I thought I had found a statement where God encouraged the people to burn someone alive. "And it shall be, that he that is taken with the accursed thing shall be burnt with fire" (Joshua 7:15). Achan had stolen and concealed something valuable at the taking of Jericho. But when I looked a little farther down the page, I found this. "And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones" (v. 25). They burned Achan and his family with fire―but they stoned them first. They were dead before they were burned. Although the people themselves sometimes burned their children alive on the arms of the idol Molock, God consistently says, "They have built also the places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind" (Jeremiah 19:5). It seems God takes an attitude similar to ours when it comes live burning of humans.
Even burning of the sacrificial animals, representing Christ, took place after they were dead. You may search Scripture all you want for information supporting the idea that God will some day alter his character and burn humans alive. But you will not be successful. It just isn't there. And if it seems to be there, take note, further study is needed.
"Fire" is a word that can be either literal or symbolic in Scripture. For example, literal usage of the word "fire" would include, "And the servants and officers stood there, who had made a fire of coals; for it was cold" (John 18:18); "He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, and walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt" (Daniel 3:25), and similar texts.
But "fire" is used extensively symbolically. "I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood" (Jeremiah 5:14). "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?" (Jeremiah 23:29). And "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body" (James 3:6). There are many symbolic uses of the word "fire" in Scripture that you may look up.
Similar to use of the word "sword" to characterize the emotional grief Christ passed through at the time of His suffering, the word "fire" symbolized that same suffering. While the word "sword" might be used symbolically in another setting, i.e., "the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:17), it doesn't seem to fit this usage, which is verified by several gospel texts.
What can we do with this statement: "[F]ire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them" (Revelation 20:8). It seems that this statement provides an insurmountable barrier to seeing God as nonviolent. But is this statement literal or symbolic? What might the fire represent here, if used symbolically?
In order for this statement to be true about the lost, it would also have to be true of Christ, the Template. Did literal fire play a part in Christ's sacrifice. No, it did not. We didn't observe any fire about Christ as He died for our sins. That fire, like the sword, was symbolic. But--watch closely--a prophetic statement in the Old Testament says this concerning Christ. "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger. From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them" (Lamentations 1:12, 13 ). Here again, Christ is acting as a Template for you and me and the myriads of humans for whom He died. For our discussion He mostly represents the lost of the ages and their final fate. Does this support the falling of literal fire? Or does this support a lake, an abundance, of humans suffering their final, indescribable emotional torment?
Notice in both instances the fire is said to come down from above. However, we didn't see the fire. We didn't see the sword. Both represented the emotional agony that Christ felt in His soul. This is how the lost will feel as they contemplate their sins. This represents their grief as they contemplate their future. This is the fire of burning emotions, the sword that penetrates down into their souls.
And what is the Father's role in this. Does He in fact send the fire--either literal or symbolic? That is thoroughly covered in my other materials (See Light On the Dark Side of God). Suffice it here to say that No, He doesn't send it. He merely sees (and describes) Himself as doing that which He has the power to prevent but doesn't prevent, because the people have taken themselves out of His jurisdiction by willful sin, and He must honor their choice.
(You will find this format used over and over again in Scripture if you look for it and know what you are looking for. Again, I refer you to the book, Light On the Dark Side of God.)
After this emotional assault on their psyche, the real fire begins that cleanses and recreates the whole earth.
1Brazen Church, "How and When the Idea of Eternal Torment Invaded Church Doctrine." https//medium.com/@BrazenChurch/how-when-the-idea-of-eternal-torment-invaded-church-doctrine-7610e6b70815. To read several good essays on this subject, google "How did the doctrine of eternally burning hell come into Christianity"?