In the conclusion of my most recent article (posted nearly four years ago!) I wrote the following: “I understand that many ‘traditionalists’ today soften the traditional view so much that penal suffering is minimized or denied altogether (which is another topic for another day)…” Today is the day that I pick up on that thread—better late than never, I suppose.
I previously suggested that the dominant view of hell throughout church history envisions the damned endlessly suffering physical torture—typically by means of fire, among other torments. That hell will involve literal fire was a view held, for instance, by Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, just to name a few.
Of course, there have always been some exceptions. I am not a scholar of church history, but I think it’s accurate to say that the literal fire view of hell was held by the overwhelming majority of Christians up until the 16th century (Calvin, for instance, famously viewed the biblical fire imagery metaphorically). And even then, the literal view was dominant until at least the Enlightenment, and was only eclipsed by the so-called metaphorical view very recently, sometime in the 20th century (thanks, C.S. Lewis). In his 1910 entry, “Hell,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Joseph Hontheim writes:
The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things: from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation. Nevertheless, Scripture and tradition speak again and again of the fire of hell, and there is no sufficient reason for taking the term as a mere metaphor.
Likewise, in the first edition of Four Views on Hell (1996), William Crockett, himself an advocate of the metaphorical view, concedes: “[The] metaphorical understanding of hell rather than a place of literal heat and smoke . . . has been advocated only since the sixteenth century.”
How things have changed! Although there are still some notable holdouts, most contemporary adherents of the endless torment view of hell insist that the fiery descriptions of final punishment found in Scripture should not be taken literally. Tim Keller, for instance, assures his readers that “Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical.”
So, according to most modern theologians, we shouldn’t believe that the damned will literally roast in hell forever—heaven forbid! Instead, we ought to understand the biblical images of fire in a figurative or metaphorical sense. In other words, fire symbolically represents some other reality that the damned will experience after judgment. According to Keller, fire symbolizes “the disintegration of being separated from God.” For J.P. Moreland, the flames represent “utter heartbreak.” In Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (2007), Ken Boa and Rob Bowman argue that fire represents “spiritual torment” (whatever that means). Many see fire as a general symbol for God’s wrath. Others refuse to speculate and conclude that fire simply represents something unpleasant that the damned encounter in hell.
So why the change? What does Tim Keller see that Augustine and Aquinas missed? Perhaps modern Christians are in possession of sophisticated hermeneutic techniques unknown to to their predecessors. Maybe the radical shift in their understanding of hell is due to better translations or more reliable manuscripts of Scripture. Whatever the case, we should expect that modern traditionalists have excellent—and hopefully several—biblical reasons for deviating from the very tradition that they so confidently appeal to when arguing against conditionalism and universalism.
In fact, when defending a metaphorical conception of hell, contemporary traditionalists typically rely heavily on a single argument: namely that fiery descriptions of hell found in Scripture cannot be taken literally because they contradict other descriptions: specifically those of darkness. Very often, this is the only argument put forward.
In his contribution to Hell Under Fire (2004), Sinclair Ferguson writes,
Over the centuries theologians have discussed whether the biblical vocabulary for hell is to be taken literally or metaphorically. Great names fall on each side of that question. My own view is that in any aspect of biblical teaching where various descriptions contain elements in tension with each other, those descriptions are in all likelihood metaphorical. We are not under constraint to resolve how utter darkness can also have perpetually burning flames. These, I take it, are metaphors (226).
Similarly, In Short Answers to Big Questions… (2015), Clint and Jeff Arnold write:
Though hell is very real, it is probably not quite what you’re picturing . . . Consider that hell is often described as “fire” and “darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). But think about it: have you heard of a completely dark fire? Normally we would never associate fire and darkness together, because fire is a major source of light. This, as well as a few other textual clues, seems to suggest that we shouldn’t take this imagery literally (137).
Likewise, R.C. Sproul writes:
One of the reasons that classical orthodox theology has tended not to interpret these images literally is because, if you do, you have a very difficult time making them agree with one another. If hell is a place of burning fire on the one hand and a place of outer darkness on the other hand, that’s difficult to reconcile, because usually where there’s fire, there’s light. You can’t have fire in a total darkness. So there is a collision of images there.
The “fire and darkness cannot coexist” line is pervasive in contemporary traditionalist literature. It is an important part of William Crockett’s case in Four Views on Hell. Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle appeal to it in Erasing Hell (2011). Boa and Bowman trot it out in Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell. For a few accessible online examples, see here, here, here, here, and here.
I will presently explain why I think this is an ill-conceived, shallow argument. First, I should point out that even generally careful thinkers can be found repeating the bromide. In The Case for Faith (2000), evangelical philosopher J.P. Moreland is quoted as saying, “I just want to be biblically accurate. We know that the reference to flames is figurative because if you try to take it literally, it makes no sense. For example, hell is described as a place of utter darkness and yet there are flames, too. How can that be? Flames would light things up” (176).
It’s somewhat disappointing to see a philosopher offer this justification, because just a few moments of reflection—along with a little common sense—show that fire and darkness can coexist.
Fire and Darkness, Together Throughout History
Consider the following photograph of a brush fire at night:
What do you see? I see two distinct elements: fire and darkness, miraculously coexisting. All snark aside, this shouldn’t surprise anybody; light and darkness are graded, not binary, phenomena. If I walk into a room and mutter “it’s dark in here,” I don’t mean that there are literally no photons of visible light in the room. Of course, it is true that normal fire is incompatible with absolute darkness, but none of the relevant biblical passages mention absolute darkness. The closest we have is “gloom of utter darkness,” found in the ESV translation of Jude 13. As far as I can tell, that’s an idiosyncratic rendering of the Greek phrase. Most translations opt for something like “black darkness” or “blackness of darkness.”
In addition to the above point, there are at least three other, less obvious ways in which literal fire and darkness might coexist in hell:
1. Unlike earthly fires, the fires of hell simply do not emit light. This is either because hellfire has unique properties or because God supernaturally prevents the light from emanating.
2. Thick smoke from the fire makes hell dark. Several judgment passages mention smoke, after all.
3. The darkness language is phenomenological, referring to the perspective of the damned, who are blind. If sight is a blessing, and hell involves the removal of all of God’s blessings, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that sight is absent (cf. Ecclesiastes 11:7 and Matthew 6:23).
Interestingly, all three have been suggested by influential Christians of the past. Expressing option 1, John Chrysostom writes the following in the fourth century:
…yea we shall groan mightily, as the flame is applied more severely to us, but we shall see no one save those who are being punished with us, and great desolation. And how should any one describe the terrors arising to our souls from the darkness? For just as that fire has no consuming power so neither has it any power of giving light: for otherwise there would not be darkness.
Saint Gregory the Great echoes the same sentiment in the sixth century, but also includes the element of blindness:
Now it is the nature of fire to give out both light and a property of consuming from itself, but the fire that is the avenger of past sins has a consuming property but no light. It is hence that ‘Truth’ saith to the lost . . . Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness. [Mat. 22, 1] Accordingly, if the fire that torments the lost could have had light, he that is cast off would never be said to ‘be cast into darkness.’ Hence too the Psalmist hath it; Fire hath fallen upon them, and they have not seen the sun. [Ps. 58, 8. Vulg.] For ‘fire falls’ upon the ungodly, but ‘the sun is not seen’ on the fire falling; for as the flame of hell devours them, it blinds them to the vision of the true Light, that at the same time both the pain of consuming fire should torment them without, and the infliction of blindness darken them within…
In question 97 of the Supplement of the Summa, Thomas Aquinas takes up the issue of darkness in hell. Thomas himself adopts the more straightforward view that hell is by and large dark, with only some light. His own explanation includes the element of smoke:
Yet it happens accidentally that seeing is painful, when we see things that are hurtful to us, or displeasing to our will. Consequently in hell the place must be so disposed for seeing as regards light and darkness, that nothing be seen clearly, and that only such things be dimly seen as are able to bring anguish to the heart. Wherefore, simply speaking, the place is dark. Yet by Divine disposition, there is a certain amount of light, as much as suffices for seeing those things which are capable of tormenting the soul. The natural situation of the place is enough for this, since in the centre of the earth, where hell is said to be, fire cannot be otherwise than thick and cloudy, and reeky as it were.
In addition to citing a portion of the Gregory quote I reproduced above, Thomas also quotes fourth-century Father Saint Basil the Great, who posits that God will miraculously separate the fire’s light from its heat: “by God’s might the brightness of the fire will be separated from its power of burning, so that its brightness will conduce to the joy of the blessed, and the heat of the flame to the torment of the damned.” (Thomas also references an obscure and even more bizarre theory: “Some hold that this darkness is caused by the massing together of the bodies of the damned, which will so fill the place of hell with their numbers, that no air will remain, so that there will be no translucid body that can be the subject of light and darkness, except the eyes of the damned, which will be darkened utterly.”)
The 17th century English poet, John Milton, takes the supernatural fire route in Book 1 of Paradise Lost:
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe
Aquinas’ views on hellfire were repopularized with the publication of Hell Opened to Christians, written by 17th-century Italian Jesuit, Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti. 18th-century English translations of Pinamonti’s tract enjoyed widespread circulation. In fact, James Joyce used the tract as a model for the “hell sermons” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Pinamonti writes:
Consider that this prison will not only be extremely strait, but also extremely dark. It is true there will be a ﬁre, but without light; yet so that the eye shall suffer with the sight of most horrible appearances, and yet debarred of the comfort which, in the midst of all their terror, the lightnings themselves might cause in the most frightful tempests . . . That will be true, because, as St. Thomas says, “There will be heat without brightness,” by a contrary miracle to what was wrought in the Babylonian furnace, for there, by the command of God, the heat was taken from the fire, but not the light or brightness; but in hell the fire will lose its light, but not its heat. Moreover, this same fire burning with brimstone will have a searching flame, which being mingled with the rolling smoke of that infernal cave, will fill the whole place, and raise a storm of darkness according to what is written, “These are the persons to whom the storm of darkness is reserved for ever.”
English Puritan Richard Baxter spoke of the dark flames of hell in 1658: “If you will sin in darkness, you shall suffer in darkness: As you have a fire of fleshly and worldly lusts within you, which abhors the light of saving truth; so God hath a fire of perpetual torment for you, which is as far from the consolatory light of his countenance. As the fire of concupiscence is dark, so is the tormenting fire dark.”
17th-century Particular Baptist minister, Benjamin Keach, writes the following in his Tropologia: “God sometimes hath brought Darkness upon a people, as a great judgement, for sin and rebellion against him: so God in just judgment will cast the wicked into Darkness, into a burning furnace of fire, but such fire as shall give no light, therefore called Utter Darkness.” And again, “To increase the horror and amazement of the damned, this fire shall only torment them, not give them any light, but they shall be cast out into Utter Darkness” (970-971).
Isaac Ambrose, 17th-century Puritan divine, in Prima, Media, & Ultima writes:
As hell-fire differs from ours in heat, so in light . . . Maybe you will object, if there be fire, there is assuredly light; nay, (without question) this fire hath heat, no light: it is a dark smoky flame, that burns dim to the eye, yet sharp to the sense: or it may be, (as some do imagine) this Fire affords a little sulphureous or obscure light, but how? Not for comfort, but confusion . . . lo, pillars of smoke arise out of the infernal pit, which darken the light, as fire lightens the darkness…
And Martin de Cochem, 17th-century German theologian, combines elements of smoke and blindness:
In this horrible darkness the damned lie helpless as blind men, or as those who have had their eyes cruelly put out. They see nothing, for the acrid smoke stings their eyes, and the poisonous fumes of sulphur destroy their sight. We know how dense this smoke is from the account given by St. John: “To him (Satan) was given the key of the bottomless pit (Hell). And he opened the bottomless pit; and the smoke of the pit arose as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke of the pit” (Apoc. ix. 2).
Apparently, important Christians of the past had no problem at all reconciling literal fire with literal darkness.
Why It Matters
I should clarify that I’m not arguing for or against any particular view of hell here. I happen to believe that final punishment will most likely involve literal fire, and that the darkness of Jude 13, for instance, represents death and oblivion (cf. Job 3:1–6). If someone has good reasons for interpreting all the relevant fire descriptions metaphorically, fine; I don’t have an issue with that (aside from interpretive disagreements, obviously). And I certainly don’t insist that any of the four points above are beyond dispute. If, for example, someone wants to argue that the darkness language is not merely phenomenological, or that the “black darkness” of Jude 13 necessarily refers to 100% absolute darkness, I’m open to hear those arguments.
The problem, as we’ve seen, is that “fire and darkness are incompatible!” is just a shallow, lazy bit of thinking, particularly when used as a standalone argument. And it is especially problematic coming from traditionalists who often admonish—or even excoriate—conditionalists for not giving due weight to church history and tradition. Traditionalists often ask incredulously, “if conditionalism is clearly taught in Scripture, how did everybody miss it for two thousand years?” For example, see Jerry Walls’ comments here. Yet often, those same traditionalists will blithely brush aside the literal fire view of hell with a facile observation about fire and darkness that most Christians throughout history have been completely unmoved by. Jerry Walls himself, for instance, writes: “I do not believe the fire is literal but rather an image, just as I think ‘the worm that does not die’ is an image or a metaphor (Mark 9:48). As has often been pointed out, hell is also pictured as darkness (eg Matthew 22:13), and literal fire and darkness are incompatible.”
In what can only be described as a rare moment of candor and self-awareness among traditionalists, William Crockett, while critiquing conditionalism, writes the following:
When someone proposes to change a doctrine taught consistently since the inception of the church, it should make us wonder how everyone throughout the centuries could have been so terribly wrong. Not that an error could not have been made or that traditions are infallible. They are not, of course. In fact, the position I hold, suggesting a metaphorical understanding of hell rather than a place of literal heat and smoke, should raise similar caution. Actually, it has been advocated only since the sixteenth century. The true test is how well the view conforms with the biblical data.
But why have so many 20th-century traditionalists flippantly repudiated the mainstream of historical orthodoxy regarding hellfire? Why have they so eagerly latched on to this bad argument about fire and darkness en masse? If I can indulge in some armchair psychology, my hunch is that the “fire and darkness cannot coexist” line is used by moderns who are (rightly) embarrassed by the outrageous, sickening view of hell as literal, endless torture, but need a biblical-sounding argument to justify their departure from the historical view.
This is ironic because, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, most published critiques of conditionalism include—and often feature—a denunciation of the sentiments that supposedly underlie the popularity of the view. As Edward Fudge points out in his chapter, “A Kinder, Gentler Traditionalism” of The Fire That Consumes, “The irony is that many of today’s traditionalists accuse conditionalists of having ‘gone soft'” (360). Crockett, for instance, just a few sentences prior to the quote above, writes “Because the idea of a never-ending punishment is so harsh . . . a number of evangelicals have called for a reconsideration of the doctrine. In its place they have proposed that we embrace conditional immortality.” Likewise, J.I. Packer contends that, “the feelings that make people want conditionalism to be true seem to me to reflect, not superior spiritual sensitivity, but secular sentimentalism…” We could just as well replace “conditionalism” and “conditional immortality” above with “the metaphorical view”; it would probably be more accurate. Physician, heal thyself.
I can’t help but to find it humorous that many traditionalists, after reciting the “fire and darkness” meme, will immediately and perfunctorily reassure their readers that hell is worse than literal fire. The Arnolds, for example, after making the point about fire and darkness, write, “So hell is most likely not a literal lake of fire. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, remember that Jesus would only use such intense imagery if hell were too terrible to describe with words. This means that hell will be just as bad, if not worse than a lake of fire” (137). Similarly, Sproul writes, “When people ask me whether these images of hell are to be interpreted literally, I usually respond by saying, ‘No, I don’t interpret those images literally,’ and people typically respond with a sigh of relief.” Sproul then repeats the fire and darkness line and continues:
If we take the New Testament’s descriptions of hell as symbolic language, we have to remember the function of symbols. The function of figurative language or metaphorical language in Scripture is to demonstrate a likeness to a reality . . . The question is whether the reality to which the symbol points is less intense or more intense than the symbol. The assumption is that there’s always more to the reality than what is indicated by the symbol, which makes me think that, instead of taking comfort that these images of the New Testament may indeed be symbolic, we should be worrying that the reality toward which these symbols point is more ghastly than the symbols. I once heard a theologian say that a sinner in hell would do anything he could and give everything he had to be in a lake of fire rather than to be where he actually is.
I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on here. Contemporary traditionalists know that “separation from God” and “spiritual torment” don’t sound nearly as terrifying as “endlessly tortured by fire” so they just baldly assert that the latter is much worse than the former to maintain theological “street cred” and avoid accusations of having gone soft. I think Clark Pinnock’s diagnosis is spot-on:
Crockett (and Packer) is looking to his theological right and wants to be seen as orthodox, while making a major shift to a nonliteral view of hell. It is essential in this shift not to appear to the fundamentalists to be making hell easy or nice, because they will jump all over him if that were true. So he must not appear to have lowered the pain quotient in a nonliteral hell (even though I think he has).
This has gone on way longer than I initially anticipated, so I’ll briefly recap the main points. The fact that so many modern traditionalists rely heavily on “fire and darkness can’t coexist” shows us several things:
1. It’s an example of how traditionalist thinking is often platitudinous and superficial. This is yet another meme or talking point that contemporary traditionalists (including philosophers) tend to parrot without putting much thought into it.
2. It shows how disconnected many traditionalists are from the tradition they see themselves as heirs of. My guess is that many who make the “fire and darkness” argument are simply not aware that the literal fire view is historically dominant—they are most certainly not aware of how theologians of the past reconciled the biblical descriptions of fire and darkness.
3. Many traditionalists are apparently subject to the same “secular sentimentality” that they pin on conditionalists and universalists.