Don’t Play with Fire

A respected evangelical scholar addresses the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Here is all he wrote on the nature of the torment that unbelievers will experience:

“This suffering, however, is probably more mental than physical, since otherwise the fire could be expected to consume him.” Bock, 1370

He has no other comments about the nature of the punishment except that it is “permanent.” 1363

There are several reasons this line frustrated me, but I’ll focus on the metaphoric fire issue. (“more mental than physical”)

Reasons the metaphoric fire position frustrates me:

1. Inerrancy is brought into question. Even if the words are metaphors, then the meaning of those metaphors is to communicate feelings in the category of terror. Have you ever read someone’s account of metaphoric fire where they clearly expressed the terror of such an experience? The closest I have ever come to such a treatment was by Randy Alcorn in the novel Dominion. (And no, I’m not totally sure that Alcorn holds to the metaphoric fire position. I did email him twice and his secretary responded with links to articles that did not clarify.)

If the meaning of the specific word is to communicate terror, and we interpret it in such a way as to remove that emotion, have we not tampered—to some degree—with inerrancy? We didn’t like the meaning of a word, so we interpreted the word as a picture which allows us enough wiggle room to not be pinned down.

If this is not what is happening, then someone who holds to this position should attempt to clarify things publicly. This may never happen because eternal torment is already viewed as too harsh by many people today.

Furthermore, if fire and torment in Luke 16 are metaphors then shouldn’t they be metaphors in Matthew 5:22, Mark 9:43, 2 Thess. 1:8-9, et. al.? What is to stop “and the evening and the morning were the sixth day” from being a metaphor for millions of years? Or “out of the belly of the fish” in Jonah 2 could be a metaphor for in the middle of hard times. Or “Jesus coming in the clouds of Heaven” could be a metaphor for Roman soldiers coming with the dust of the road behind them. At what point do we say, this is not a valid hermeneutical practice anymore, this is an invalid theological presupposition?

2. Perspicuity is brought into question. Obviously, there are hard statements in the Bible, but this doesn’t have to be one of them. The words in their most natural meaning do not contradict any other Scriptures. Maybe Luke 14:26 is not perspicuous because it appears to contradict other Scriptures. But Luke 16 does not. The only hard thing is that we don’t like it. Not that it creates some contradiction or hermeneutical difficulty. Therefore, the metaphoric fire position removes those portions of Scripture from the hands of laity.

3. Evangelism is potentially discouraged. Somewhere I read once that the mainline denominations could trace their lessening interest in foreign missions to their rejection of certain aspects of God’s judgment.

4. The metaphoric fire position implies an accommodation with cultural or scholarly sensibilities that are repulsed by some of the clear wordings of Scripture. Bock’s response hints at academic gamesmanship. He had 20 pages on the rich man and Lazarus (in a commentary well over 2,000 pages). This story is possibly the clearest and most extensive treatment that Christ gave to the destination of the lost, but he couldn’t find time or space to define clearly or defend the doctrine of Hell.

Certainly, he said many good things. The majority of which were not debated. And yes, he had good insights into a number of different aspects. I’m not bothered at the numerous good things in his treatment, but where there was controversy, he didn’t say much. Why? Because he was totally ignorant? Of course not. Because he didn’t want to start a fire? Possibly so. And if so, then that’s what bothers me.

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One Response to Don’t Play with Fire

  1. David says:

    As one of my profs said, “If the fire is merely a symbol, then the reality must be worse than what the symbol points to.”
    If physical fire is an analogue, I think the inhabitants of Hell would prefer it to the black flame that it points to.

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