My son recently asked me my thoughts about heaven and hell. Was heaven really a place in the clouds with golden gates and angels playing harps? Is it individualized to the person filled with all of the things and people we love? What about hell? Is it a fiery pit beneath the earth with Satan having horns and a pitchfork like cartoons depict? If it is a place of eternal pain and torment, would masochists consider it heaven?
Honestly, I hadn’t really given much thought to it and I didn’t really know how to answer his questions. Some answers are only known to God. Nevertheless, I decided to look through scripture to see what we know to be true. In scripture hell is described as a lake of unquenchable fire (Revelation 21:8). So, understanding the nature of fire seemed like a good place to start. In this context, it refers to the destruction caused by unceasing fire. As I thought about it I realized that sin is much like playing with fire. It is only an illusion that it is ever in our control. With each sin, a small flame can quickly become a raging inferno that blazes a path of destruction through our lives. Unrepentant, we will be destroyed by our own fire which is has become inextinguishable. Hellfire is a prison of our own making.
Yet, fire does not always refer to destruction. There are several varied uses found with scripture. In some instances, fire has been used to refer to trials or tribulation. This application requires an understanding of the intended purpose of fire. When we use fire correctly it becomes a valuable tool, providing heat and light. However, if we do not handle it correctly then fire can be harmful and we are likely to get burned. In this way, tribulation or suffering can also have a two-fold effect, depending on how we handle them. It can either refine of our character or cause only pain. Scripture tells us that God often puts his own own people in the fire. Why would he do that?
In the whole land, declares the Lord,Zechariah 13:8-9
two thirds shall be cut off and perish,
and one third shall be left alive.
And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call upon my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’;
and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
The way we perceive the fire affects how we are impacted by it. If we perceive it only as punishment then we grow angry with God. Our faith weakens and a wedge is driven between us and God. Yet, if we perceive it as an opportunity for growth and maturity then we grow spiritually and our faith is deepened. Although these experiences cause us pain, God will not allow them to destroy us as long as we trust him.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.Isaiah 43:2
Another example of fire in scripture is God himself. God appeared to Moses from within the burning bush. This use of fire reveals an important quality about God. Fire burns most things in nature. As it burns the item is either destroyed or changed. But this was not so with the bush. It was neither consumed nor changed by God’s fire. This not only shows God’s power over over created things, but also his mercy. God has the power to destroy, but he also has the power to spare if he chooses. This applies to our lives as well. We are sinful and God has the power to destroy us. But he is also merciful enough to forgive, sparing us from his wrath.
There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”Exodus 3:2-4
God also appeared to the Hebrews as a pillar of fire as he led them to the promised land. In this capacity, his fire served as a he guiding light, directing their path.
The Holy Spirit is associated with fire as well, but only in reference to Christ. The Holy Spirit is the holy fire that lives in the hearts of those who have been redeemed by Christ.
John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”Luke 3:16-17
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. … But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.John 14:16-17
And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.Acts 2:3-4
Just like with the apostles, when we are filled with the Holy Spirit we are filled with God’s holy fire. The gift of the Holy Spirit fulfilled God’s prophecy to pour out his spirit on all flesh.
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”Joel 2:28-29
Redemption through Jesus Christ purifies us. He covers our sin allowing us to be filled with God’s holy fire. This spirit, which burns in our hearts, provides us with the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). We are given these gifts for the purpose of guiding others to the gospel message. Gifts that were meant to be used to God’s glory. On our day of judgment, we will answer for the way we used our gifts (Matthew 25:14-30).
For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.1 Corinthians 3:11-14
Maybe that’s what judgement is, passing through God’s holy fire. A time when all pretenses are burned away and the true quality of our character is revealed. If we’ve been redeemed, this fire could burn away our remaining sin. This cleansing fire would finally make us perfect like our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Being eternally united with God while the fruit of the spirit is manifest in eveyone… that sounds like heaven to me.
What about the unredeemed and unrepentant who are filled with sin? I imagine the opposite would be true. Instead of stripping away their sin, God’s fire would strip away any remaining goodness. Goodness after all is from God.
For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’Matthew 25:29
Lost in God’s eternal burning wrath, devoid of any goodness and without hope sounds like hell to me. This, of course, is just my thoughtful speculation. But serves as a sobering reminder to me of why I need to keep the fire of the Holy Spirit burning within me each day. I pray that God’s light will shine through me to reach those who are still stumbling in darkness.