Regarding Responsible Reformation
by Al Maxey -------
Issue #46 ------- June 6, 2003
Aim at Heaven and you will get
earth "thrown in" -- Aim at earth
and you will get neither.

--- C. S. Lewis

God's Consuming Fire
Examining the Final Fate of the Wicked
in Light of Biblical Language

As one examines the many biblical examples of God's dealings with the wicked, it will be quickly perceived that not one single time in all of recorded biblical teaching is the punishment for sin against God ever declared to be torture. The ultimate punishment, instead, is always declared to be death. Thus, if indeed God's final punishment for the wicked is endless torture, as some maintain, it is a fate completely without biblical precedent. Nowhere in Scripture does God ever use torture as divine punishment for man. Not even once!


After examining a great many of the types and shadows of the OT writings which speak of God's dealings with the wicked, brother Curtis Dickinson, a well-known leader, writer and evangelist in the Churches of Christ, observed, "It will be noted that in each case the thing that was threatened was DEATH, not incessant torture. The types and shadows in no instance teach the idea of an immortal soul or eternal spirit being tortured as the punishment for sin. In ALL cases they show the penalty for sin to be the death of the person" (What The Bible Teaches About Immortality and Future Punishment, p. 20).

Again, there is simply ZERO biblical evidence, in all the many examples of God's dealings with the unrepentant wicked, of His punishment for sin ever constituting incessant torture. Such a penalty is entirely absent from the Scriptures. Thus, I repeat: If God's final punishment is indeed perpetual torture, it is a punishment without precedent. Death and destruction, on the other hand, is a divine punishment with enormous biblical precedent. It should also be noted that the language of Scripture easily lends itself to this ultimate destiny of the wicked. Examine the following list of NT expressions regarding the final disposition of the wicked (which is taken from Leroy Edwin Froom's monumental two volume, 2000 page study: The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers):

"If God intended for us to understand something other than total death for the wicked, certainly He could have found the means in the marvelous Greek language to express such. Instead He used the plainest terms indicating destruction of the whole man" (Curtis Dickinson, What The Bible Teaches About Immortality and Future Punishment, p. 21). Leroy Edwin Froom observes, "The OT uses 50 different verbs in the Hebrew language to describe the final fate of the wicked, and they all signify different aspects of destruction" (The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1, p. 106).

Brother Dickinson continues: "The Old Testament presents four great events which portray two principal facts of Judgment Day: (1) The deliverance of God's own people, and (2) The certain destruction of His enemies. The events are:

  1. The Flood, in which the basic punishment and sentence was the death of all except those safe in the ark.

  2. The Destruction of Sodom and Gommorrah, in which the punishment was total destruction by fire, which Jude plainly reveals is an example of the final fire of Judgment (Jude 7).

  3. The Destruction of Pharaoh and his Army in the Red Sea, which was sudden and final (and in which, Moses sang, they were 'consumed' and 'swallowed up' --- Exodus 15).

  4. The Destruction of Jericho, from which none -- not even women and children -- escaped except the household of Rahab, who had become an obedient believer.

None of those prototypes of Judgment Day give the slightest support to the idea of punishment by torture" (What The Bible Teaches About Immortality and Future Punishment, p. 37). In addition to the above, suggested by brother Dickinson, one should also not overlook:

  1. The Destruction of the Edomites --- Obadiah 15-21. Because of their wickedness, they "will become as if they had never existed" (vs. 16). They will be "cut off forever" (vs. 10). "Then the house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame; but the house of Esau will be as stubble. And they will set them on fire and consume them, so that there will be no survivor of the house of Esau" (vs. 18). "By 100 AD the people of Edom had become lost to history," brother Homer Hailey points out (A Commentary on the Minor Prophets, p. 30). A scholar by the name of D. Stuart Briscoe observed, "If you travel today in the region of Edom, you will find nothing but the most stark wilderness and the most isolated emptiness ... it is one of the most formidable, forsaken spots on earth."

  2. The Destruction of Nineveh --- Nahum 1. This city, because of its wickedness, will experience "His wrath poured out like fire ... and the burning of His anger" (1:6). "He will make a complete end of it" (1:8-9). "They are consumed as stubble completely withered" (1:10). "They will be cut off and pass away" (1:12). "You will be hidden" (3:11). Their place will not be known (3:17). By using these figures, the prophet is foretelling the total destruction of Nineveh, and that did indeed come to pass. About 200 years later, Xenophon the Athenian and "the Ten Thousand," backing out of their entanglement in Persia, passed by the site and noted that there was no evidence a city had ever stood there! In modern times the site was not discovered until 1842. Today, the site is covered by fields, a local dump, and a cemetery!

"Everywhere we find the notion of a final cessation of being, of a return to a state of unconsciousness, never that of a perpetual life in suffering" (Emmanuel Petavel, The Problem of Immortality).

The proponents of the traditional perspective on the nature of final punishment will often make an effort to demonstrate that our loving, compassionate, merciful God will be content with nothing less than the perpetual, never diminishing, horrific torture of the vast majority of mankind. Not only is this not what the Scriptures teach, it has the distinct disadvantage of portraying our God as a sadistic monster the likes of which the human mind cannot even conceive. It is to proclaim a God foreign to the inspired revelation. Thus, it is a mockery of Truth and a blasphemy against Deity, in my personal opinion.


The Bible teaches a different reality for the wicked. They will be consumed in the fire, NOT preserved. There is no question but what the lake of fire will be a horrific experience. An execution is not a pleasant event, and degrees of torment are involved for the one being put to death. As one who stood with the Warden inside the death chamber at the side of a man who was executed by the State of New Mexico on November 6, 2001, and who looked into his eyes as he breathed his last breath, I can assure you that weeping, gnashing of teeth, and deep torment accompany the death experience. However, the ultimate punishment is DEATH itself, not the DYING process.

Nowhere has our God prescribed incessant torture as the "wages of sin" or the penalty of lawlessness. Consider the following passage as representative of this perspective: "Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. .... And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will BURN UP the chaff with unquenchable fire" --- Matthew 3:10, 12.

Trees with bad fruit are burned (Matthew 7:19), and so are unfruitful vines (John 15:6) and useless weeds (Matthew 13:40). These figures are all employed to depict the fate of sinners at the final reckoning. They will be cast into "unquenchable fire." This is the Greek word asbestos which means "inextinguishable." It describes a fire which burns without interruption; it is an enduring fire which none can extinguish no matter how hard they might try. It is important to notice here, however, that it is the fire that Jesus describes as enduring, NOT that which is cast into it. To try and transfer the quality of endurance from the fire itself to that which is cast into it is completely unwarranted either grammatically, logically, or theologically.

That which is cast into the fire will BURN UP. This is the Greek word katakaio which means "to burn up; consume." It signifies to completely, utterly, totally destroy with fire. It is enlightening, in the context of this study, to note that this word is used in the LXX (Septuagint) in Exodus 3:2 where Moses beholds a burning bush --- "The bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was NOT consumed." This particular bush was preserved in the fire (what the traditionalists proclaim will happen with the wicked), yet Jesus disagrees with this doctrine. Jesus informs us that sinners will NOT be preserved in the fire (like the burning bush was), but rather will be "burned up" --- just the opposite of preservation. Thus, the view of final punishment promoted by many is actually in direct opposition to the teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus says the wicked will NOT be preserved in the fire, the traditionalists say they WILL. Jesus says they will be consumed in the fire (unlike the burning bush), the traditionalists say just the opposite (that they will endure without being consumed, just as the bush). Whom will you believe? As for me and my family, we choose to believe JESUS.

I'm reminded of the words of Edward White, in his classic work Life In Christ, in which he emphatically stated, "My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying 'destroy' or 'destruction,' are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this."

Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29; Deuteronomy 4:24), and nothing unholy will long remain when He unleashes His fiery wrath at the last day. All will be consumed, not preserved, in the outpouring of His wrath. In the apostle Peter's second recorded sermon, for example, he alludes to Deuteronomy 18 and declares to his hearers, "And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people" (Acts 3:23). "That prophet," of course, is a reference to Jesus Christ. Those who do not heed Him will be called to account. The penalty for their rejection of Him will be "utter destruction."

This is the Greek word exolothreuo, which appears only here in all the New Covenant documents. It means to "exterminate; utterly destroy" (The Analytical Greek Lexicon); "to destroy utterly; extirpate -- complete extermination" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon); "to slay wholly" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words). The Expositor's Greek Testament says that if this passage has "any eschatological bearing, it would support the theory of annihilation!" In other words, this term is just that emphatic a declaration of extermination and annihilation. At the very least, it is hardly supportive of the view of those who suggest the wicked will not be utterly destroyed, but rather preserved alive forevermore for the purpose of perpetual torture.

At this juncture I would like to provide a rather lengthy excerpt from brother Edward Fudge's marvelous study The Fire That Consumes. I believe the following comments put the issue into perspective, and they reflect my own thinking quite well. Thus, I will let him express my own convictions at this point:

Some have suggested this view of final punishment "endangers the faith." Henry Constable, over a hundred years ago, answered this charge this way, "Does it imperil our faith in God? What attribute of His is attacked? His love? Is it the part of love to inflict eternal pain if it can be helped? His mercy? Is it the part of mercy never to be satisfied with the misery of others? His holiness? Is it essential to holiness to keep evil forever in existence? His justice? Can justice only be satisfied with everlasting agonies? NO; we do not endanger faith. We strengthen it, by allying it once more with the divine principles of mercy, equity, and justice. It is the Augustinian (traditionalist) theory which endangers faith, and has made shipwreck of faith in the case of multitudes, by representing God as a Being of boundless injustice, caprice and cruelty" (Duration and Nature of Future Punishment, p. 166).

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, I just received the URL to your web site last night from a friend. I have read four of your Reflections this morning and have to rest because of the powerful message. My mind is overloaded and running so fast I can barely contain my thoughts. In the churches I have been part of, we have always been taught that the acts of worship are singing, praying, preaching, etc. I now disagree with those statements. We come together to get strength and to give strength. All of the prayers, singing, communion, preaching, etc. is done to build the body. If our purpose of coming together is worship, then we totally miss the concept of worship that Jesus was talking about to the woman at the well. I don't think our worship can happen very well behind the walls of our buildings. I almost think we should leave every service with a statement saying, "Now that you have been strengthened in your love and knowledge of Christ, go worship your God with your righteous living!"

If my thinking is correct, then another question comes to mind: What is allowable in our buildings on Sunday morning? My answer: Our meeting can include anything that will strengthen and support the work of righteousness by God's people that is not sinful in and of itself. Over the years I have seen many people moved by things "not allowed" in our congregations that I believe have real value in delivering the needed strength to be a truthful worshiper of God.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Al, As a Conditionalist, I am enjoying your Reflections lately even more than ever. In my view, conditional immortality, when understood, rolls like a juggernaut over several of the common traditional views ... and then the truth about immortality shines through like bright sunshine. Keep up the good work!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Those who oppose God will be eternally dead, eternally separated from God, although they will suffer just as John mentioned in Revelation 14. While the torment itself is not eternal, I imagine it will certainly feel so to those who are being tormented. I am so glad that God has been gracious enough to redeem me by the blood of His only Son! May God continue to bless you in your ministry.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Bro. Maxey, I am a member of the church ... we're a very small congregation, and one known for being very conservative. During a recent discussion on marriage, divorce and remarriage, a sister recommended your website and book Down, But Not Out. As I began to read one of the debates, I decided I needed a lot more time to study the subject. May I receive permission to print the debates, and where may I purchase a copy of your book? I am fascinated with your website and so glad it was recommended to me. I look forward to reading your lessons, etc.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Dear Bro. Al, I have held a conviction similar to what you express concerning Hell and/or the Lake of Fire & Brimstone for quite some time now. You did a masterful job in this treatise.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, You are doing a tremendous job with your Reflections. I can't tell you how much joy I feel after finding people who have seriously considered what is taught concerning Christ. With your writings, you have released the spirit within me that was hiding out of fear. God put you and others like you in place to confirm that what I am thinking is not new, and I am not alone. He put you in place as a warrior to battle Satan, and may you always be a strong warrior! Thank you for your incredible ability to support and encourage my reflection on the Word!

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