The following is an excerpt of Christianity Without the Insanity, a bold-yet-gentle, psychologically-informed and biblically-rooted examination of the idea of hell: What’s in integrity with our spiritual traditions, and what makes for emotionally-healthy spirituality. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Symbolism in The Holy Bible is bountiful, beautiful, timeless, and cross cultural. Many words, therefore, are not literally true. Thus, fire is a very prominent and significant symbol in the sacred writings of Christianity and other religions. One of the four Biblical definitions of The Supreme Being is “God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29).
In religious literature, suffering and punishment in fire are symbolic of the spiritually corrective nature of metaphorical fire. A literal interpretation of the symbolism of fire is a major cause of fear, spiritual insanity, and spiritual abuse—especially spiritual terrorism, spiritual abuse in its most extreme form.
Tasker, General Editor of the Evangelical Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, stated, in regard to “aeonian” in Mt. 25:46 having been mistranslated as “eternal,” it would be “difficult to exaggerate” the harm that is done “…when ‘fire’ is understood in a literal rather than in a metaphorical sense.”
The metaphorical use of fire is a significant feature of Judaism, which includes sulfur and salt symbolism. The story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is an excellent case in point (Gen. 19:24-26).
Here we have in Genesis, written about 1,500 years before Christ, a preview of God’s redemptive strategy. This is the whole metaphorical and allegorical picture. Literalists are so driven to prove that this story literally happened that they miss the big symbolic picture. In the previous chapter of Genesis, the Lord informed Abraham that he was going to destroy those two cities due to their wickedness. For those who contend one must not question God, Abraham must have not gotten that message!
Abraham asked two very profound philosophical and theological questions:
“Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked” (18:23)?
And: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right” (18:25)?
The answers were that God would not destroy the righteous, and He would do right. The Lord thus sent two angels to Abraham’s nephew, Lot, to warn him and save him and his family, since they were the only righteous ones in either city. The angels escorted Lot, his wife and daughters out of range of the fire and brimstone/sulfur and told them not to even look back. But his wife did look back and was turned into a pillar of salt.
What are the spiritual lessons to be learned? God gives ample warning to the righteous and does what is right. Lot and his daughters were saved by grace, the easy way through obedience.
Lot’s wife was turned into salt for disobedience. A question which reveals my analytical bent, I have asked many people, “Why was Lot’s wife turned into salt rather than into some other substance such as petrified wood, stone, bronze, iron, steel, etc.?”
Virtually all Christians know the story; most say the message is to obey God to the letter and never look back. I have yet for anyone to tell me that he or she has ever thought about why she was turned into salt rather than some other substance.
The answer is that salt is a preservative which preserves by purifying!
The Law of Moses required salt to be offered with meat offerings. This was the salt of the Covenant made with fire, symbolizing purification (Lev. 2:13-16). Lot’s wife was saved the hard way of being “salted,” which is also a means of grace.
The backdrop of this metaphorical drama was the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by burning sulfur for time, not eternity. Since burning sulfur symbolizes healing/ purification, the wicked will be healed of their sins and eventually accepted into heaven. The ancients readily understood this metaphorical use of fire and sulfur—burning sulfur. Indeed, it is a shame that many modern people, especially conservative Christians, are so literal-minded that they fail to grasp the truth in this beautiful, timeless, cross-cultural symbolic language.
Such symbolism is like international travel signs—no words are needed, just the visual image. To use a modern analogy, if the Bible would have said that, after The Final Judgment, all those infected with sin will be cast into a fiery lake of penicillin, would that not logically symbolize healing sin infection? Sulfur was the wonder drug in the ancient world as penicillin is today.
Isaiah uses fiery language to describe the fury of God toward sin. He comes burning with anger; His lips are full of indignation, and His tongue is as a devouring fire. The breath of God is like a stream of burning sulfur (30:27-33). Isaiah also declared that the judgmental fire of God will be unquenchable (66:24). It will, therefore, purify those who have rebelled against God and have been resisting God’s saving grace. The result will eventually be universal worship of the one living God as evidenced by every knee bowing and every tongue confessing faith in God (45:21-25; 66:23). Zechariah (13:9) and Malachi (3:1-3) also describe the fiery judgment of God. Malachi closes with this commission. The people of the Covenant are told to go forth and tread down the wicked. The symbolism of the consuming fire is continued with assurance that the wicked shall be “ashes” under their feet (4:3).
With the final-prophetic message of Malachi, there were 400 years in which no prophet of Israel was heard. This span of four centuries is known by Christians as “The Intertestamental Period.”
Suddenly the long-prophetic silence was shattered by the cry of a baby—the Jewish Messiah who was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus was Jewish in every sense. His parents were Jews, His culture was Jewish, and His religion was Judaism. He prophetically proclaimed to his people that the first commandment is, “Hear O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord” (Mark 12:29). This, of course, is a quotation from the Law of Moses (Deut. 6:4).
Jesus acted totally within the Jewish tradition of great prophets by castigating the people for their sin of failing to live up to their calling as the people of the Covenant. He, like all Jewish prophets of The Torah before him, called the covenantal people to a higher standard. He also continued the metaphorical use of fire.
John the Baptist was in that same-great Jewish-prophetic tradition in the symbolic use of fire. Referring to the people of the Covenant and calling them to be faithful and fruitful, he declared to them, just prior to his baptism of Jesus, that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and there would be a judgment of unquenchable fire (Mt. 3:10-12).
We can say three things with certainty about Jesus’ use of the word “fire.” He used fire in a metaphorical—not a literal—sense.
He used it not to instill a morbid fear of God in the people of the Covenant but to convey the purifying message of God as the consuming fire in order to call them to a higher standard. Jesus used fire in the same sense as Moses, Isaiah, Zechariah, Malachi, John the Baptist, as well as other Jewish prophets.
Not one used fire in a literal or negative sense, which must be kept in mind as one reads Jesus’ words in regard to hell fire that may appear to teach eternal punishment. A good example of that is Jesus’ teaching about the unrighteous being consigned to the “aeonian” fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Mt. 25:41). Jesus validated the Jewish prophets’ metaphorical use of fire when he stated that the fire of hell will not be quenched (Mark 9:48). Unquenchable does not mean that the fire will never go out, only that it will not be put out or extinguished. But it will burn out when it has accomplished the purifying purpose for which God created it. Jesus left absolutely no doubt about his symbolic use of fire when He stated the purpose of hell:
“For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt” (Mark 9:49).
In the Aramaic which Jesus spoke, speakers expressed themselves in the strongest words possible to make their point. Thus, Jesus used strong though not literal-meaning words.
Mild Accuracy Weakness
Dr. Rocco Errico, a scholar in Aramaic, said in And There Was Light that an Aramaic speaker’s purpose was not to deliver the message in scientifically accurate terms. “He piles up his metaphors and superlatives, reinforced by a theatrical display of gestures and facial expression in order to make the hearer feel his meaning. He speaks as it were in pictures…It is also because he loves to speak in pictures and to subordinate literal accuracy to the total impression of an utterance, that he makes such extensive use of figurative language…he is fond of metaphor, exaggeration, and positiveness in speech. To him, mild accuracy is weakness.”
This understanding of the Aramaic language and culture explains exactly why Jesus’ used all these strong picture words in general and, especially in regard to hell—weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, cutting off one’s hands and feet and gouging out one’s eyes, unquenchable fire, being salted with fire, etc., because He needed to communicate in the manner His audience would have readily understood. They would not have taken such word pictures literally. On the other hand, they would have considered mild accuracy weakness! If Jesus had spoken in a mild manner, He may have lost his audience as they became bored and walked away. Even if they had not walked away, they may have missed His point if He were speaking in a style unfamiliar to them.
When trying to correct the inconsistency between what the Pharisees taught and what they did, Jesus could have said in our Western-world abstract style, “Your teachings and your behavior are incongruent.” But Jesus, as an excellent Aramaic speaker, exclaimed, “blind guides,” “child of hell,” “fools,” “hypocrites,” “serpents and generation of vipers,” “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel,” “whitewashed tombs” [clean on the outside but a stench on the inside], and “How can you escape the damnation of hell” (Mt. 23:13-33)?
Doubtlessly, Jesus deliberately mixed the metaphors of fire and salt to make it impossible for literalists to logically interpret this metaphorical language literally. It is, of course, impossible to literally salt anyone or anything with fire. And yet literalists, locked into a mindset of literalism, still interpret Jesus’ words literally.
This is a major cause of spiritual abuse/terrorism and spiritual insanity. Some victims of spiritual insanity become spiritually and mentally insane and homicidal and/or suicidal!
Christian Conceptions of Hell
- Hell is worse than literal fire for eternal torture of sinners. This is the view of Bill Wiese in his book, 23 Minutes in Hell and Robert Morey in his book Death and the Afterlife.
- Hell is literal fire for eternal torture of sinners. This is the view of Fundamental and many Evangelical Christians.
- Hell is not literal fire but symbolizes a torturous existence with sinners in it. This is the view of some Evangelical and most mainline Protestant Christians [if they believe in hell].
- Hellfire is for the purpose of annihilating sinners so they will cease to exist. The annihilation may be instant or progressive, but no one will be tormented forever. This is the view of the late Drs. Clark Pinnock and John Stott.
- Hell symbolizes nonexistence, but God will not annihilate sinners. They will go to “sleep” at death and never awaken. This view is called “Conditional Immortality.” God will bestow immortality on those who accept Christ as Savior.
- Hellfire symbolizes purification of sinners. But sinners will not be saved due to them forever saying “No” to God’s offer of salvation and God not violating their free will. This is the view of Rob Bell in his best-selling book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived [whose fate Bell laves uncertain].
- Hell fire is for purification, and almost all sinners will be saved. But not all will be saved, because after God, as fire, has consumed all the sin in some people there will be nothing good in them, so the fire that consumes sin will then consume such sinners. This is the view of Sharon Baker in her book, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgment.
- Hell fire symbolizes purification of sinners. And, eventually, without coercing or violating free will, all sinners will say, “Yes” to God’s offer of salvation and be saved. Theoretically, in this view, sinners in hell could say “No” to God’s offer of salvation forever, since God will never violate free will. Yet it is certain that they will not say “No” forever, as evidenced by Christ drawing all to Himself (John 12:32), universal submission and confession of faith in Christ (Phil. 2:9-11), all living in Christ and God being all in all (I Cor. 15:22, 28), and universal worship (Rev. 5:13). This is my view and that of these authors who believe in Christian Universalism: Gerry Beauchemin in Hope Beyond Hell: The Righteous Purpose of God’s Judgment; Bob Evely in At the End of the Ages: The Abolition of Hell; Kalen Fristad in Destined For Salvation: God’s Promise to Save Everyone; Eric Stetson in Christian Universalism: Good News For All People; and Thomas Talbott in The Inescapable Love of God.
- Other Christian Universalists believe that there is no hell except life on earth being hell. Bell made a good case for this view in Love Wins though this is not his stated position. It is the view expressed by Allan Chevrier in Whatever Became of Melanie?, Julie Ferwerda in Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire; and Michael Riley and James William in Is God Fair? What About Gandhi? and Gary Amirault at Tentmaker.org. This no-hell view is generally called “Ultra-Universalism.”
With all of these views of hell, and perhaps variations of these, among those who believe the Bible is the Word of God, cannot we Christians just agree to disagree agreeably on the issue of hell? Mature faith will trust God to do the right – not the wrong – thing.
Praise for Christianity Without Insanity
“Boyd C. Purcell Ph.D. has written a book about Christianity that in my opinion is the best I’ve ever read. With over 40 years of ministry in counseling: agency, clinical, pastoral, psychiatric hospital, school, substance abuse, private practice, and chaplaincy—providing spiritual care at the end of life for hospice patients, he is uniquely qualified to address the topic of Christianity Without Insanity. It’s been said that if the shoe fits … It not only fits, it fits like a glove! Boyd paints a beautiful Scriptural picture of what existed for at least the first 500 years of Christianity. This awesome glorious good news is available for everyone. It’s the greatest truth ever told. Christian Universalism! All humanity will ultimately be reconciled to God.”
— David Black, Amazon reviewer
“I rarely read books twice, but this one I am getting ready to read again. It had freeing effect on me—so thorough and hopeful. Boyd brought up points I have not heard in the Universalist movement, and one (I won’t spoil it for you) has continually refreshed me. Boyd starts off the book with a rather shocking and extreme example that I didn’t think related to me, but it turned out to be dead right and incredibly revealing as to effects that have been influencing me that I never would have noticed. This book has helped me to be gentle with myself and others; we are all healing from an incomplete picture that dominant doctrine has provided for so long.”
— Amy H., Amazon reviewer
“This is a really good book for anyone with doubts or concerns about hell and eternal damnation as it is traditionally taught in most of Christendom. Boyd Purcell shares his passion for people of all faiths and denominations to be set free from the insanity preached from the pulpits of of the Christian church, come to the knowledge of the truth that all humanity will eventually be saved and none will forever be burning in an endless torture chamber of fire called hell. Even if you already are aware of the truth about hell as I was before reading this one, I found Dr Purcell’s book very encouraging and filled with information I did not know.”
— John, Amazon reviewer
About the Author
Boyd C. Purcell, Ph.D. is a National Board Certified Counselor, a Licensed Professional Counselor, an Ordained Honorably Retired Presbyterian Minister, and a Board Certified Chaplain. Educationally, he has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Comprehensive Social Studies (World/European/American History, Economics, Geography, Political Science, etc.). He also has a Master of Arts Degree in Counseling, a Master of Divinity Degree in Biblical Studies, and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in the integration of psychology and theology. In terms of experience, Dr. Purcell has over 40 years of ministry in counseling: agency, clinical, pastoral, psychiatric hospital, school, substance abuse, private practice, and chaplaincy—providing spiritual care at the end of life for hospice patients.