The term fire is often used in connection with the punishment of the lost. In Revelation 20, the expression “lake of fire” occurs three times to denote the final destiny of God’s enemies.
Fire is also associated with hell because of the Greek word gehenna, the term most often employed to denote the place where the lost will go after death and judgment. It occurs 11 times in the gospels and once in the rest of the New Testament (James 3:6). The word itself referred to “the valley of Hinnom,” just south of Jerusalem. It was there that the Israelites under Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6) placed children on a fiery altar dedicated to the god Molech. The specific place where the was done was called Tophet (literally “fire place”). There is a strong tradition that the valley became a city dump where refuse and the bodies of criminals were burned. The terrible reputation of this valley plus its association with fire and judgment made it an apt symbol for the place of final punishment for the wicked.
So should we portray hell as a literal furnace of fire where all the lost will scream in pain throughout all eternity? The Church Fathers, Luther, Calvin, all the classical theologians, and present-day evangelical leaders like Francis Schaeffer and J. I. Packer say an emphatic no. They point out that God will lighty punish those who did not know much about His expectations (Luke 12:48). A hell in which all burn in a literal fire does not allow for significant degrees of punishment.
Then too, it’s important to remember that the Bible often uses fire as a symbol. In 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, our works (or doctrines) are portrayed as “wood, hay, straw” that will be consumed by the fire of judgment or as “gold, silver, precious stones” that will endure the fire. In James 3:5-6 the tongue is a “fire,” causes “fire,” and is itself “set on fire by hell.” Hebrews 12:29 declares that “our God is a consuming fire.” Jude 1:23 speaks of people who have been doctrinally misled and are in need of being snatched “out of the fire.” In all of these references, the fire is symbolic.
The Bible presents a literal hell as the place of eternal punishment for all who die in unbelief or rebellion. Unscriptural and repulsive overstatements about hell have turned some people away from the gospel. Such excesses have also caused some true believers to ignore the biblical teaching about hell or to develop false doctrines like universalism. But a sensitive and accurate treatment of this truth can be used by God to strengthen Christians and to awaken sinners to their need of Christ.