Is there literal fire in hell?

By Spencer D Gear


Jonathan Edwards (painting courtesy Wikipedia)

I can’t remember the last sermon I heard on hell in an evangelical church here in Australia. Absence of such preaching seems to be part of the contemporary approach of seeker-sensitive, user-friendly Christianity in my part of the world. The inference, by the silence, seems to be that to preach on hell will scare people away from the church and that we don’t need that. We need more and more people to come to church. Forget about the hell emphasis. It’s no good for our image of popularity.

It seems to me that this is because of a number of factors:

(1) Hell is not regarded as a positive message in modern society;

(2) The holiness of God is not in the forefront of Christian’s theology of God;

(3) Why would there be a need for hell if it were not for a  knowledge of the human condition – unrepentant sinners?

Preaching the consequences of sin is not at the top of the preaching Hit Parade Down Under. The silence in these areas is deafening.

That famous sermon

Perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached on hell was by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He delivered it to his own congregation at Northampton, Massachusetts with unknown impact, but when he preached it again in Enfield, Connecticut, 8 July 1741, that’s when he gained the nation’s attention. The impact has continued beyond the 18th century.

Part of this sermon reads:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment (Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol 2, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’).

I urge you to read the sermon in its entirety.

How did the listeners respond to such a sermon with hell portrayed as God’s wrath towards people burning like fire and people being cast into the fire of hell? It sure reads like a literal hell that is ‘full of the fire of wrath’ and of ‘flames of divine wrath’. This is one report of that sermon’s impact:

An eyewitness, Stephen Williams, wrote in his diary, “We went over to Enfield where we met dear Mr. Edwards of Northampton who preached a most awakening sermon from these words, Deuteronomy 32:35, and before the sermon was done there was a great moaning and crying went out through ye whole House…. ‘What shall I do to be saved,’ ‘Oh, I am going to Hell,’ ‘Oh, what shall I do for Christ,’ and so forth. So yet ye minister was obliged to desist, ye shrieks and cry were piercing and amazing” (in William P Farley, ‘Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening’).

Edwards pursued this kind of emphasis in another sermon:

The body will be full of torment as full as it can hold, and every part of it shall be full of torment. They shall be in extreme pain, every joint of ’em, every nerve shall be full of inexpressible torment. They shall be tormented even to their fingers’ ends. The whole body shall be full of the wrath of God. Their hearts and bowels and their heads, their eyes and their tongues, their hands and their feet will be filled with the fierceness of God’s wrath. This is taught us in many Scriptures (in Gerstner 1980:56, n. 37).

See another sermon by Edwards that also uses graphic imagery, ‘The portion of the wicked’, preached in 1735.


C H Spurgeon (painting courtesy Wikipedia)

Charles Spurgeon pursued similar, literal language:

Now, do not begin telling me that that is metaphorical fire: 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. And what say the wicked? “We do not care about metaphorical fires.” But they are real, sir—yes, as real as yourself. There is a real fire in hell, as truly as you have now 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. You have seen the asbestos lying in the fire red hot, but when you take it out it is unconsumed. So your body will be prepared by God in such a way that it will burn for ever without being consumed; it will lie, not as you consider, in metaphorical fire, but in actual flame” (Spurgeon 1856).[1]

However, I have a question: In spite of Jonathan Edwards’ reputation as an outstanding Calvinistic theologian and leader of a Great Awakening of spiritual impact, did Edwards paint an accurate picture of the nature of hell with his language? Is hell a literal place of fire where God’s wrath is experienced in literal manner? Is there a more accurate, biblical understanding? Was C H Spurgeon’s view harmonious with the biblical accounts?

A modern questioner

If you want to pick up some contemporary version of hell, go to an active Christian forum where you will find any number of agreements and challenges to the doctrine of hell. I met one fellow who stated:

Rev 20:14, ‘And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death’.
Rev 20:15, ‘And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire’.
Rev 21:8, ‘But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death’.
Sounds pretty scary some have suggested its (sic) a metaphor but for what.
Deut 4:24, ‘For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God’.[2]

I asked for some clarification: What would be one primary question you want us to address from what you have posted here?[3] His reply was:

What is the nature of the lake of fire?


(image courtesy public domain)

The primary question would be what does the lake of fire consist of is it a real fire to torment the wicked and unbelievers for eternity I don’t think so.
I believe it has a good purpose There are many references in the bible about fire of which I have chosen just a few to maybe show that there maybe another explanation.
Is God the lake of fire he is eternal the same as the lake?
Is the lake of fire a refining fire to remove the dross from the wicked?
Zech 13:9  And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God.[4]

Hell fire as metaphorical

My response was:[5] I consider that hell/Hades/Gehenna are real and this will be a conscious, frightful place. But I can’t conclude about its exact nature for these reasons:
I accept that the biblical writers used metaphorical and not literal language. My main reasons for such a view are:
clip_image007 Hell/Hades could not be represented as literal fire because it is also described as a place of darkness (see Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17; Jude 1:13). Fire and darkness are mutually exclusive terms so hell’s description cannot be literal.

clip_image007[1] Let’s use Jude as an example. He described the after-life as ‘eternal fire’ (Jude 1:7) but that is contrasted with ‘utter darkness’ (Jude 1:13). For the angels, Jude writes of ‘gloomy darkness’ (Jude 1:6). Again, literal fire and literal darkness would be contradictory – from my human perspective.

clip_image007[2] This issue is made knotty by the ‘lake of fire’ (Rev 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8. This hardly conforms with the ‘blackest darkness’.

clip_image007[3] John the Baptist and Jesus also describe hell as ‘fire’ (Matt 3:10; 25:41) but also as ‘darkness’ (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).

clip_image008 Also Matt 25:41 describes hell as a place for the devil and his angels. They are spirit beings. How is it possible for fire to work on non-physical beings?
Therefore, I accept a metaphorical understanding of hell/Hades/Gehenna. It does involve conscious suffering/torment (cf Luke 16:23-24) , but its nature is unknown to me because of the language used. Evidence from outside the NT also supports this perspective.

See fire and darkness appearing together in Jewish writings such as Qumran (1QS 2:8; 4:13), 1 Enoch 103:7; 2 Enoch 10:2-3; Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6:1, 49d. These writings also speak of the bodies of the wicked that are rotting with worms and maggots (Judith 16:17; Sirach (Ben Sira) 7:17, cf Isa 66:24). It was ‘hot as fire and cold as ice’ replacing eternal torment in 2 Enoch 14:20(12).[6]

Support for the metaphorical view


William V Crockett (photo courtesy Facebook)

I have been helped greatly in reaching this understanding by the exposition on hell, ‘The Metaphorical View’, by William Crockett. Crockett wrote:

Christians should never be faced with this kind of embarrassment – the Bible does not support a literal view of a burning abyss. Hellfire and brimstone are not literal depictions of hell’s fictions, but figurative expressions warning the wicked of impending doom…. Opinions on the nature of final judgment will always be with us, and it would be presumptuous to say that I know precisely what hell is going to be like. I do not, of course, and no one else does either. When it comes to the afterlife, only the dead know for sure. Yet we do have revelation from the Lord of the living and the dead, and that revelation – the Scriptures – must be our guide…. The words of Jesus and the apostles tell us that the final abode of the wicked will be a place of awful reckoning, but specifically what that reckoning will be, we cannot know for certain until we pass beyond this life (Crockett 1999:44, 45).

Crockett rightly calls on support for the metaphorical view from John Calvin, Charles Hodge, J I Packer, Kenneth Kantzer, and Billy Graham. Let’s check out what these Christian leaders stated.

clip_image012 John Calvin in describing the ‘eternal fire’ in texts such as Matt 3:12 stated:

Many persons, I am aware, have entered into ingenious debates about the eternal fire, by which the wicked will be tormented after the judgment. But we may conclude from many passages of Scripture, that it is a metaphorical expression. For, if we must believe that it is real, or what they call material fire, we must also believe that the brimstone and the fan are material, both of them being mentioned by Isaiah. fire] is a metaphorical expression’ (Calvin’s commentaries, vol 31, Matthew Mark, and Luke, Part 1, Matthew 3:11-12).

clip_image012[1] Charles Hodge, Calvinistic theologian, was very pointed:

There seems no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in Scripture is to be a literal fire, than that the worm that never dies is literally a worm. The devil and his angels who are to suffer the vengeance of eternal fire, and whose doom the finally impenitent are to share, have no material bodies to be acted upon by elemental fire. As there are to be degrees in the glory and blessedness of heaven, as our Lord teaches us in the parable of the ten talents, so there will be differences as to degree in the sufferings of the lost: some will be beaten with few stripes, some with many (Hodge 1975:868).

clip_image012[2] J I Packer wrote, ‘Do not try to imagine what it is like to be in hell…. The mistake is to take such pictures as physical descriptions, when in fact they are imagery symbolizing realities … far worse than the symbols themselves’ (Packer 1990:25).[7] Elsewhere, Packer wrote:

The New Testament views hell (Gehenna, as Jesus calls it, the place of incineration, Matt. 5:22; 18:9) as the final abode of those consigned to eternal punishment at the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:41-46; Rev. 20:11-15). It is thought of as a place of fire and darkness (Jude 7, 13), of weeping and grinding of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30), of destruction (2 Thess. 1:7-9; 2 Pet. 3:7; 1 Thess. 5:3), and of torment (Rev. 20:10; Luke 16:23)—in other words, of total distress and misery. If, as it seems, these terms are symbolic rather than literal (fire and darkness would be mutually exclusive in literal terms), we may be sure that the reality, which is beyond our imagining, exceeds the symbol in dreadfulness. New Testament teaching about hell is meant to appall us and strike us dumb with horror, assuring us that, as heaven will be better than we could dream, so hell will be worse than we can conceive. Such are the issues of eternity, which need now to be realistically faced….

The reality … will be more terrible than the concept; no one can imagine how bad hell will be (Packer 1993:261-262).

clip_image012[3] A former editor of Christianity Today, Kenneth Kantzer, was quoted in an article in U.S. News and World Report (March 25, 1991): ‘The Bible makes it clear that hell is real and it’s bad … but when Jesus spoke of flames … these are most likely figurative warnings’.


Billy Graham (photo courtesy public domain)

clip_image014 This metaphorical view is also supported by Billy Graham who stated, ‘I have often wondered if hell is a terrible burning within our hearts for God, to fellowship with God, a fire that we can never quench’ (Graham 1984:2). Elsewhere it is reported of Billy Graham:

The Orlando (Florida) Sentinel for April 10, 1983, asked Billy Graham: “Surveys tell us that 85% of Americans believe in heaven, but only 65% believe in hell. Why do you think so many Americans don’t accept the concept of hell?” He replied: 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.”

“Hell is not the most popular of preaching topics. I don’t like to preach on it. But I must if I am to proclaim the whole counsel of God. We must not avoid warning of it. The most outspoken messages on hell, and the most graphic references to it, came from Jesus Himself. … 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. … 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 fulfillment!” (source).[8]

clip_image012[4] Dave Hunt took a similar metaphorical view of hell: ‘The lake of fire will be torment of a burning spiritual thirst beyond description and will never end’ (Hunt 2004).

How do people get in hell forever?

I have found no better, brief explanation than that of J I Packer:[9]

Scripture sees hell as self-chosen; those in hell will realize that they sentenced themselves to it by loving darkness rather than light, choosing not to have their Creator as their Lord, preferring self-indulgent sin to self-denying righteousness, and (if they encountered the gospel) rejecting Jesus rather than coming to him (John 3:18-21; Rom. 1:18, 24, 26, 28, 32; 2:8; 2 Thess. 2:9-11). General revelation confronts all mankind with this issue, and from this standpoint hell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshiping him, or without God forever, worshiping themselves. Those who are in hell will know not only that for their doings they deserve it but also that in their hearts they chose it.

The purpose of Bible teaching about hell is to make us appreciate, thankfully embrace, and rationally prefer the grace of Christ that saves us from it (Matt. 5:29-30; 13:48-50). It is really a mercy to mankind that God in Scripture is so explicit about hell. We cannot now say that we have not been warned (Packer 1993:262-263).


The NT provides a picture of heaven with gates of pearl and hell with flames and darkness. These were not meant to be taken literally. The writers were using language that was understood by the people of the day to have the greatest impact. The important emphasis is: ‘Heaven and hell are real; one a place of immeasurable happiness, and the other of profound misery’ (Crockett 1999:76).

See also William V Crockett’s article, ‘Wrath that endures forever’ (1991).


(image courtesy Wikipedia)

Works consulted

Crockett, W 1999. The metaphorical view, in W Crockett (ed), Four views on hell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Gerstner, J 1080. Jonathan Edwards on heaven and hell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Graham, B 1984. There is a real hell. Decision 25, No 7-8, July-August.

Hodge, C 1975.[10] Systematic theology, vol 3. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Hunt, D 2004. The Berean Call, a monthly newsletter, July. Bend, Oregon.

Packer, J I 1958. Introduction to John Owen, The death of death in the death of Christ (online). London: Banner of Truth. Available at: (Accessed 28 September 2014).

Packer, J I 1990. The problem of eternal punishment. Crux 26, 18-25, September.

Packer, J I 1993. Concise theology: A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Spurgeon, C H 1856. The resurrection of the dead [Sermon], New Park Street Chapel, February 17. Available at The Spurgeon series 1855 & 1856: Unabridged sermons in modern language (Accessed 29 September 2014).


[1] This is the unabridged language of Spurgeon, but in modern English. A copy of the original sermon can be found HERE.

[2] Davetaff, ‘The lake of fire’, UK Christian Web, September 24, 2014. Available at: (Accessed 27 September 2014).

[3] Ibid., OzSpen#1.

[4] Ibid., Davetaff#2. Dave’s language & punctuation seem to indicate this is posted from an iphone or tablet.

[5] Ibid., OzSpen#3.

[6] These verses are from Crockett (1999:59).

[7] I located this quote in Crockett (1999:44-45).

[8] A Biblical Standard for Evangelists, Billy Graham, A commentary on the 15 Affirmations made by participants at the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, July, 1983 (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Worldwide Publications, pp 45-47).

[9] I find the following statement by Packer to be incompatible with his Calvinistic belief, ‘Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist’ (Packer 1958). How can there be irresistible grace AND a doctrine that ‘sees hell as self-chosen; those in hell will realize that they sentenced themselves to it’. Irresistible grace means that some are chosen by God through grace that they cannot resist. That means that the rest are chosen by God not to receive grace. So how can that be self-chosen when it was impossible for them to choose otherwise?

[10] This is a reprint in 1975.


Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 April 2016.