Biblical Meaning of Fire
“Fire,” as the word is used in the Bible, is very misunderstood. “Fire” is used in a variety of ways in the Bible. Here, we are most concerned about those that might impact our understanding of the character of God. The main distinction to be made is whether or not God uses fire to harm, kill or torture people.
Traditional Legal Model – There are cases of literal fire coming directly from God at times for punishment of sin. With the non-Biblical tradition of immortality of the soul included, fire is also used to cause the lost to suffer intense pain forever.
Biblical Healing Model – There are times when fire looks like punishment from God when it is just a reference to His presence. In other cases, God is not the source of the fire but it has been wrongly ascribed to Him.
Wrong Understandings of the Fire of God
Most people either believe in or are aware of the common Christian concept of hell. It might be helpful to see a little of the process of how the current understanding developed.
The First Great Awakening – In the 1730s and 1740s there was a Protestant religious revival (called The First Great Awakening) that swept Europe and British America. One preacher who made a big impact was Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He famously preached a sermon on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut titled: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The sermon was typical of many in that period with a strong emphasis on fire and brimstone meant to move people to repent of their sins to avoid the horrors of what was understood to be eternal damnation. And Edwards did all he could to make people want to avoid it. Here is a sample of his sermon:
“The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
The motivation was obviously fear – look out for that vengeful God. But how does that correspond with:
“We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) ?
It obviously conflicts with the character of God. We can’t just throw out verses that don’t support our theological understanding; we need to resolve them.
Fortunately, the first Great Awakening was followed by the Second Great Awakening which began about 1790 and extended well into the 19th century. In that movement, there was considerable emphasis on understanding the true character of God. That message is currently being revived.
This study will consider the Biblical meaning of fire in the various ways it is used.
Biblical Meaning of Fire – the Results
There are verses that speak of fire lasting forever such as:
“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:” (Matt 25:41)
However, there are Biblical examples of everlasting fire that actually goes out:
“Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” (Jude 1:7)
Note that “everlasting” and “eternal”‘ in the two verses above are from the same original word. Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning today. In fact, you can travel to the area of the south end of the Dead Sea and find their remains today. There are mounds of ash complete with sulfur balls where buildings once stood even arranged in streets as seen on this site.
So it can be the effects of the fire not the fire itself that is eternal. See the definition for eternal/everlasting/forever.
Biblical Meaning of Fire – Cleansing
Fire is often spoken of in the Bible as a cleansing agent to remove impurities.
“And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God.” (Zech 13:9)
“That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ:” (1 Pet 1:7)
“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.” (Mal 3:2-3)
Coals of Fire
“Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:20-21)
Here is the definition for the word translated as “heap:”
4987 σωρεύω soreuo sore-yoo’-o
from another form of 4673; v
AV-heap 1, lade 1; 2
1) to heap together, to heap up
2) to overwhelm one with a heap of anything
3) metaph. to load one with the consciousness of many sins
See how the word for “heap” is used in this verse:
“For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden (G4987) with sins, led away with divers lusts,” (2 Tim 3:6)
Here is a note for the meaning of the word “coals” from the On-Line Bible:
“The Arabians call things that cause very acute mental pain ‘burning coals of the heart’ and ‘fire of the liver.’”
The connection of coals of fire to the conscience is explored more in my booklet The Lake of Fire and the Second Death.
Biblical Meaning of Fire – Theophany
Theophany definition: “a manifestation or appearance of God or a god to a person.” (dictionary.com)
“And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” (Exo 3:2)
“And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:” (Exo 13:21)
“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:” (Matt 3:11)
Biblical Uses of Fire – Miscellaneous Symbolic
Many verses speak in various ways of symbolic fire and its effects:
“I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?” (Luke 12:49)
Jesus was not talking about lighting destructive fires. The meaning here is similar to the meaning for a “sword” that divides but not in a literal sense as in:
“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10:34)
Fire and the sword are both likened to the word of God:
“And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:” (Eph 6:17)
“Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)
Fire can be used of strong feelings as in:
“And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)
Fire, as it can rapidly spread, is used symbolically in this way:
“Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” (James 3:5-6)
Fire is also used in the sense of to demonstrate or reveal something:
“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” (1 Cor 3:11-15)
Fire from Within
“Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffick; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee, and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee.” (Eze 28:18)
This is referring to the end of Satan and is examined in more detail in my booklet The Lake of Fire and the Second Death.
Our God is a Consuming Fire
“For our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:29)
Does He go around like a pyromaniac burning things up?
Do the wicked burn in His presence?
Does the effect of seeing Him as He is cause people either:
- to rejoice – “this is our God” (Isa 25:9)
- to (in the most extreme cases) be consumed with guilt and shame as they compare self with Him?
The Lake of Fire
“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (Rev 21:8)
After all the wicked have died of their unhealed condition, a literal, cleansing fire melts the elements with fervent heat:
“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10)
Notice, that verse says nothing of fire burning people alive. Please see my booklet The Lake of Fire and the Second Death for what is really happening in that situation. It shows an interesting relationship between the Hebrew words for man and for fire.
“The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil;” (Isa 33:14-15)
“LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.” (Psa 15:1-2)
The verses above show that the everlasting fire is actually the presence of God. Satan himself, before he left heaven, dwelt in that fire:
“Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee. By the multitude of thy merchandise they have filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned: therefore I will cast thee as profane out of the mountain of God: and I will destroy thee, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire.” (Eze 28:14-16)
Satan has twisted word meanings so that people now fear the fire of God but actually, in the presence of the (symbolic) fire of God is exactly where we should want to be:
“And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.” (Rev 15:2)
We are also designed for love. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf has said: “we are wired for love,” even that we are “designed to be consumed by love.” An interesting used of the word consumed by Dr. Leaf. More people die from lack of love than any other disease.
Return to the Character of God and the Gospel Glossary Index
Return to the Home Page