A Scriptural Example of 'Eternal Fire' - Part Two
"And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city." Matthew 10:14-15
In Jude 7, the Bible speaks of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how the destruction of these cities is set forth as an example of God's wrath against sin and unrighteousness. What the Bible does not say, is that the inhabitants of these cities were punished by being tormented in hell for all eternity. The passage simply does not say that, nor will you find that concept anywhere in scripture.
But the Bible has much more to say about the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah; such as in the passage above where we read that 'It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city' (those cities in Judea which had rejected the preaching of Christ's disciples).
What are we to make of this? Immediately there are problems for the commonly held belief that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are currently burning in hell. The judgment spoken of here is clearly the future and final judgment of mankind. If the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are already burning in an eternal hell then this makes little sense. What good would it do to judge them in the future if they are already burning in hell?
Typical of the response given by most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians is the interpretation of the Dake's Annotated Study Bible":
"Teaching degrees of Punishment in hell"
Or the note from the Defender's Study Bible:
"This statement clearly sets forth the principle of degrees of punishment in hell..."
Will we ever begin to realize just how blind our preconceived ideas make us to what the Bible actually says? How can Matthew 10:14-15 be talking about 'degrees of punishment in hell', when once again, 'hell' is never mentioned in the passage? How is it that the passage clearly reads 'IN THE DAY OF JUDGMENT' when our commentators boldly instruct us that this means 'in HELL'?
But furthermore, taking these commentators at their word, how can this passage possibly mean that it will more more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah 'in hell' than for the wicked Judean cities that rejected the Messiah? Does that make any sense at all? If hell is actually like what we're always told it is, then what could a statement like this possibly mean? Do the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah get a cooler corner of the lake of fire? Are their burning souls made less sensitive to the tormenting flames and the devouring worms? Does it matter much since this conscious punishment supposedly lasts for all eternity? What kind of nonsense is this that we're so quick to inject into the word of God?
But if we take the Bible for what it actually says rather that what we've been told it means we can ascertain a few facts:
1) The passage does not say that it will be more tolerable for Sodom 'in hell'; it says 'in the day of judgment'. Why are so many believers so quick to inject their preconceived ideas here while apparently losing their ability to read plain English? If this passage is speaking of 'degrees of punishment' then these punishments are meted out within the time frame specified in the passage; 'In the day of judgment'. The concept of punishment in 'hell' is entirely absent.
2) It says that it shall be more tolerable for 'THE LAND of Sodom and Gomorrah' in this 'Day of Judgment'. We can ascertain from this that 'in the day of judgment' there must be a 'land of Sodom and Gomorrah' to judge. Therefore these lands must be restored in order to be judged. If the concept of various 'lands' being judged in the 'day of judgment' is foreign to you, then perhaps you might consider whether or not your understanding of the 'day of judgment' is correct.
3) The passage says nothing about the eternal destinies of these lands following the judgment.
Little attempt is made by evangelical or fundamentalist commentators to explain these facts. Having already decreed that the lands of Sodom and Gomorrah have been destroyed forever, and that their inhabitants are already burning in an eternal hell, the best they can do is assert that these passages teach 'degrees of punishment in hell'. But none of this changes what this passage actually says. If we are going to be scriptural then we must conclude that the final judgment upon the lands of Sodom and Gomorrah has not yet taken place, and that these lands will once again exist when this judgment takes place.
I can already hear the howls of protest. Based on Jude 7, and the fact that it says that these cities were destroyed by an 'eternal fire', how can I be suggesting that these cities and their inhabitants have any future restoration in the 'day of judgment'? Simple. Because:
1) The 'eternal' destruction of these cities isn't what you think it is....
2) The 'day of judgment' isn't what you've been taught that it is, and...
3) The Bible says so.
But isn't this a contradiction? How can an 'eternal destruction' allow for any future restoration?
Fortunately the Bible answers this question for us. Examine carefully the following passage where the prophet Isaiah is warning the land of Judah of their coming destruction:
"Upon the land of my people shall come up thorns and briers; Yea, upon all the houses of joy in the joyous city: Because the palaces shall be forsaken; The multitude of the city shall be left; The forts and towers shall be for dens for ever, A joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks; Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, And the fruitful field be counted for a forest. Then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, And righteousness remain in the fruitful field. " Isaiah 32:13-16
Now here's a passage you're not likely to hear preached on Sunday morning. Isaiah is warning the nation of Judah about their coming destruction and the perpetual desolation to follow. Notice carefully that 'the palaces shall be forsaken' and the 'forts and towers shall be for dens FOR EVER'. Well that sounds pretty final doesn't it? 'Forever' means 'for all eternity' doesn't it? Or does it? Notice what comes next...
'The forts and towers shall be for dens FOR EVER... UNTIL the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field.'
Notice what this passage does not say; it does not say that this desolation of Judah lasts until the 'spirit be poured out from on high'. It says that the desolation lasts FOR EVER, until the 'spirit be poured out from on high'.
How many people have ever taken the time to consider this - that scripturally a destruction which is to last 'for ever' only lasts 'until' God restores it by the pouring out of His spirit? This is not my interpretation or opinion, it is simply what the Bible says.
The inescapable conclusion in this passage is that 'for ever' is simply as long as God intends it to last - this is the only scriptural conclusion that we can come to. Even the most conservative commentators are here forced to admit this.
For example, the Bible Knowledge Commentary States:
"The desolation (whether by Assyria or Babylon) would come on the land forever (‘ôlām). This Hebrew word does not always carry the same force as the English word “forever.” From verse 15 it is obvious that Isaiah saw a day when the desolation would cease. So it is better to understand ‘ôlām here as meaning “for a long indeterminable time.” (emphasis mine)
The Pulpit Commentary admits:
"For ever. This expression must not be pressed. Hyperbole is a recognized feature of poetry written under strong excitement.... Until. The expression “until” modifies the previous “for ever,” showing that the desolation was not always to continue. "
I couldn't agree more with these conclusions, but the problem for them is this: Since they are forced here to admit that a destruction which is expressly stated to last 'for ever' will ultimately come to an end, then how can they say by the same logic that the perpetual destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah can never come to an end, particularly when we are explicitly told by Jesus that these cities must exist 'in the day of judgment'? If the desolation of Judah lasts 'for ever' until God restores it, then why is this not also true of Sodom and Gomorrah?
Do we believe what the Bible says? Are we willing to admit that we might have been mistaken?
Some might reason that while such a restoration is promised for the nation of Israel, such a restoration is never promised for the lands of Sodom and Gomorrah. But such reasoning is completely mistaken.
The comparison between the wickedness of Israel and that of cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is not unique to the New Testament, such as in Matthew 10:14-15, but is also found in the Old Testament:
"As I live, declares the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it." Ezekiel 16:48-50
Notice the comparison here. The sins of Jerusalem are being compared to the sins of Sodom. The Lord declares that in his eyes, Jerusalem had sinned far worse than Sodom which had been destroyed for their wickedness. Because of their guilt, Judah and Jerusalem were also to experience destruction and desolation. As shown above, this destruction was also foretold by the prophet Isaiah - destruction that was was to last 'for ever' until Judah and Jerusalem were restored by God's spirit.
Similarly, the book of Ezekiel also speaks of this future restoration of Judah and Jerusalem. But within the context describing that restoration we read an absolutely astonishing statement concerning the lands of Sodom and Gomorrah:
"I will restore their fortunes, both the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes in their midst, that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done, becoming a consolation to them. As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters shall return to their former state, and Samaria and her daughters shall return to their former state, and you and your daughters shall return to your former state." Ezekiel 16:53-55
Again, the restorations of Judah and Jerusalem are promised, but they are promised along with the restoration of Sodom! To be sure, Sodom was extremely sinful and their destruction served as an example of God's wrath against sin. But the nation of Israel, having been given so much more divine favor incurred more guilt than even Sodom. Both nations were destroyed, and both have suffered perpetual desolation. But just as God promised restoration to the nation of Israel, he also promised restoration to the land of Sodom. Because wicked Israel felt that they were so much more righteous than the surrounding nations, they will suffer great remorse in the judgment when they see the restoration of Sodom - a remorse which will be magnified by Sodom receiving a more 'tolerable' judgment.
So what have we learned from all this?
First, that the Bible never says that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were sent to hell, only that the destruction of their cities is set forth as an example of the vengeance of 'eternal fire'. Second, that this eternal destruction and desolation lasts only as long God ordains it to last. And lastly, that Sodom and Gomorrah are promised a future restoration along with the nation a Israel - a restoration which will occur 'in the day of judgment'. The concept that inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are currently suffering in an eternal hell is not only absent, but in direct contradiction to what the scriptures actually say.
I hope this this brief study on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah will challenge all believers to reexamine their belief in the doctrine of eternal torment, and to ask once again if what they have been taught is really based on the scriptures alone.
Labels: Eternal Torment