There is a paradoxical character to some of the Biblical
descriptions of Hell. Hell is at once a fiery place, and also a place
of unrelieved darkness:
“Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
The flames of our experience illumine as well as burn; how can there
be a dark fire? But the annihilationist's quick response: there can be
no dark fire, therefore there is no such place as Hell, and all the
Biblical descriptions of such a place are just metaphors,— also
seems too hasty. We have no experience of this state of affairs, but
that does not mean it is not a reality.
Wheat and Chaff
Before Jesus began to preach, John the Baptist identified the Messiah as a fire-starter:
- “And now also the axe is laid unto the root
of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good
fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize
you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is
mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall
baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose
fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and
gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff
with unquenchable fire.”
- (Matthew 3:10-12).
What are all these flames? Why is the chaff burnt up "with
unquenchable fire"? What is unquenchable fire? It is God, says Hosea
Ballou the universalist, and God is good:
"We cannot conceive of more than one unquenchable fire, and that one is GOD, as it
is written, our GOD is a consuming fire; it cannot be supposed that this fire is quenchable, neither can we
with propriety suppose another unquenchable fire, as that would be supposing another nature equal to
". . .From these passages it is evident that the fire into which the trees were to be cast, the fire
with which the Savior baptizes, and the fire which burns up the chaff, are the same fire. And as
this is the fire which accompanies the Holy Ghost, in its quickening and life giving operations, it is perfectly
consistent with the text and context to suppose that this unquenchable fire is the fire of
divine love, which is God himself, for God is love. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it."
(Hosea Ballou, Notes on the Parables of the New Testament, pp. 15-18)
This leaves the reader wondering why the wheat, gathered carefully into the barn, is bereft of this
comforting, surrounding fire of divine love. Does God love only chaff, and not wheat also?
The Lord is like a refiner's fire:
"But who may abide the day of his
coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a
refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a
refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi,
and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD
an offering in righteousness." (Malachi 3:2-3).
Not all substances react to fire the same way. Gold and silver
shine, their dross taken away, while chaff burns. The fire which is a blessing for some means ruin for others.
Fire does not only purify, it also destroys. The 'unquenchable'
variety does not go out once its work is done.
Vengeance is Mine
God's people are forbidden to seek vengeance on the grounds that they trespass on God's prerogatives by
so doing. God, however, is not forbidden to seek vengeance:
"For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall
burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her
increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains. . .
To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide
in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the
things that shall come upon them make haste. For the LORD shall
judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he
seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or
left. . . See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with
me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is
there any that can deliver out of my hand. For I lift up my hand
to heaven, and say, I live for ever. If I whet my glittering
sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render
vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me. I
will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour
flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives,
from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy. Rejoice, O ye
nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his
servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will
be merciful unto his land, and to his people.
Human beings are strictly forbidden to seek vengeance, a right which belongs only to God:
"Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
Some people generalize from God's prohibition against humanity trespassing upon His prerogatives, to a general
rule, applicable equally to God as to His people, that justice must never be done, that God can only love, even those who
count the blood of Jesus as a worthless thing. This is faulty generalization, because God is not man. He showed His boundless
love by providing a means of salvation, at terrible cost; He is not obliged to defer justice forever, against those who contemptuously
kick His gift away.
It is a given to many of those who will not tolerate the idea
of hell, that all human beings deserve happiness:
"If it were true that one human soul was immortal and
yet was to be eternally damned, getting only more clotted with
crime and deeper bit by agony as the ages went slowly by, then
immortality were a curse, not to that man only, but to all
mankind— for no amount of happiness, merited or undeserved, could
ever atone or make up for the horrid wrong done to that one most
(Parker, Theodore. Works of
Theodore Parker (Kindle Locations 5710-5713). The Perfect
Why is is obvious that any wrong has been done to this man? What
if we are talking about Genghis Khan, whose men stacked up the
skulls into pyramids of the men, women and children they butchered
in front of their devastated and depopulated towns? There is an entire system of ethics
premised on the assumption that all human beings deserve happiness; it
is a sort of inalienable entitlement: