My April article has evoked an amazing response. A number of our readers and supporters are suggesting that I do not believe in a real hell with real fire because I say the fire is not physical. Surely "physical" cannot be the only criterion of "real," or one would likewise deny that God is real, that the Holy Spirit is real, that angels and demons and Satan are real. Such would indeed be real heresy.
As for why I don't believe the flames of hell are physical, I have given many sound biblical reasons for that conviction. This is a belief that I have not tried to hide but have declared in many writings and talks.
It is astonishing to me that anyone would imagine that in order for the flames of hell to be "real" they must be physical. Then the human soul and spirit are not real. Nor are justice and truth and all concepts such as morals and righteousness real, because they are not physical. Was the water "real" that Christ offered to those who would come unto Him and drink (John:7:37)? It certainly was not physical! Was it therefore unreal? It was and is in fact more real than physical water.
One dear brother, whose newsletter I have long appreciated, quickly sent out an email titled: "DAVE HUNT DENIES THE FIRE OF HELL." In his article he repeats, "Dave Hunt...is boldly denying the fire of hell." This is an accusation that greatly grieves me. I most certainly do not "deny the fire of hell." In fact, I corresponded with this brother years ago on this subject and thought we agreed.
One might just as well headline another article,
"Dave Hunt Denies the Reality of the Living Water Christ Gives to Those Who Come to Him by Faith! Hunt Dares To Say that It Isn't Physical!"
One could go on to say,
"Dave Hunt Declares that the 'Rivers of Living Water' that Jesus Said Would Flow Out of the Belly of those Who Believe on Him Are Not Physical, and He Even Denies that Jesus Meant Our Physical Bellies!"
Why do I introduce water into this discussion? I do so because water is so often used by Christ to illustrate the spiritual truths we are considering. Thirst is an important ingredient of hell. Is it a physical thirst for physical water, or something even more painful and specifically related to the spiritual thirst to which Christ so often referred and which He claimed to quench for those who would believe on Him?
The rich man in hell was "tormented in this flame." He begged Abraham to send Lazarus to "dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue..." (Luke:16:23-25). Were the flames in hell and the thirst that tormented the rich man real? Certainly. Were they physical? How could that be the case? Only the rich man's soul and spirit were in hell; his dead body was in the grave. He had no tongue in hell. Could physical flames affect soul and spirit, and could soul and spirit have physical thirst?
Did the rich man in hell need physical water? It would not have done his soul and spirit any good. The unbearable thirst that tormented him was because at the heart of all of his sin was his rejection of the water of life that Christ offered. He would suffer eternally from the painful guilt of that rejection and the weight of his sins.
Another brother repeatedly refers to physical flames and physical fire as essential if the fires of hell are "real." On that basis, and on that basis alone, he declares that I don't believe in a real hell or real fire or real flames. He gives no other definition of "real" except "physical." Using that criterion, how could he believe that God the Father, the Holy Spirit, or his own soul and spirit are real?
I have given many reasons why the flames in the lake of fire, though real, could not be physical: surely "the devil and his angels" do not have physical bodies, yet the lake of fire was prepared for them (Matthew:25:41); physical flames cannot (as Catholics believe will happen in "purgatory") morally and spiritually affect those who are tortured by them. This would reduce hell to unbearable physical torment that could no better represent the execution of God's justice upon sinners than could the physical mistreatment of Christ by Roman soldiers pay the penalty for the sins of the world as The Passion movie heretically implies.
How could physical torment distinguish between the sins of a Hitler and those of a petty thief? How could physical pain, no matter how excruciating, contribute to the tormenting agony of soul and spirit and conscience laid bare before the wrath of a Holy God against sin? Would the soul and spirit, or the flesh, cry out in agony from physical fire?
May I bring to bear further reason on this subject?
God says, "Come now, and let us reason together (Isaiah:1:18); and Peter says, "Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you... (1 Peter:3:15)." Paul continually reasoned from the Scriptures: Acts:17:2; 18:4, 19, etc. Rebuking me for reasoning from Scripture, one of the above critics declares, "It's not up to us to try to figure out how these things work. We can be assured that God knows how to make it work." In other words, "Never mind that physical fire could only inflict physical pain that cannot touch soul and spirit; we're not supposed to reason about Scripture. It says 'fire' so it's got to be physical or it wouldn't be real; so God must make that work no matter how unreasonable it is."
Let us continue to reason.
Was the water real that Jesus offered to the woman at the well (John:4:14)? Of course, or His offer would have been a fraud. Was the water physical? No. Then, say some, it couldn't have been real. Have they not made a grave mistake?
Paul says, "Fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is" (1 Corinthians:3:13). Please tell me how physical fire could reveal "what sort" of works we have done? Isn't that a moral judgment, weighing motives as well as deeds? Does not this fire, which cannot be physical yet is real, give us further insight into the nature of the fires of hell?
No physical body could survive the lake of fire for a moment. It would instantly be consumed -- so God would have to continually, moment by moment, reconstitute the physical bodies so He could continue to torment the damned. As I pointed out in the article, this is what Muslims believe about their hell and Catholics about purgatory. Neither belief is biblical. What conviction of conscience would be effected through tormenting physical bodies in physical flames?
"But what about the burning bush that was not consumed? If God can keep physical fire from consuming a bush, surely He could keep it from consuming a physical body in the lake of fire." Of course He could, but what would be the point? Why would God choose to use physical fire to torment the damned even though it didn't consume them? Shouldn't they instead be tormented by the flaming fire of an overwhelming sense of the exceeding sinfulness of the sins they have committed (Romans:7:13) and the horror of what it means to rebel against the only true God, Creator of heaven and earth? Wouldn't this burning of the conscience be far worse than burning in physical flames?
Those who are "cast into the lake of fire" have just been judged at the "great white throne...according to their works" (Revelation:20:11-12). They must be terrified by the judgment they know they deserve for the sins with which they have been confronted by the One on the throne "from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away...." Every self-justifying excuse has been stripped away, leaving the stark reality of the extreme wickedness of their sin. They will be forever tormented by a conscience that can no longer hide from God or justify itself, and by an eternally burning thirst for the Living Water Christ offered, and which they despised.
They will for eternity mourn the folly of their irrevocable decision. Imagine the pain of such a fire burning in the soul of one in the lake of fire who has in God's presence suddenly met with the full realization of one's eternal state, with the "blood" of Jesus on one's "hands." Would not the burning pain and anguish these souls and spirits will suffer be far worse than physical flames could inflict upon physical bodies?
Finally, physical torment could not affect the conscience or effect any understanding of the horror of sin and the justice of the punishment God is meting out upon sinners. Excruciating physical torment would surely distract the conscience instead of assist in the conviction just burned into it at the great white throne.
I understand the strength of the tradition that the flames of hell must be physical fire torturing bodies. In my opinion, that idea trivializes God's just punishment, has led to much misunderstanding, and instead of glorifying God for His uncompromising justice, breeds bewilderment, resentment, and even hatred of the God whom they now view as their tormentor instead of their just judge.
With all due respect to my critics, I request that they give the above a fair hearing.