Beyond the Abyss 9

So what does “fire” mean in the Bible? When it comes to hell and eternality, fire comes up often. Sharon Baker, in her new book (Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgment), sketches what the Bible says and comes to this conclusion:

Fire purges, fire destroys, but fire does not go on endlessly; once it does it’s task, it’s over. Fire comes from God because God is fire. The intent of fire is burn things up, to consume — and when it comes to sin, it purges and burns it up and destroys it. (She roots this all in scriptural passages, like Mal 3:3-3; 4:1; Isa 6:6-7; Num 31:23; 1 Pet 1:7 and also Exod 3:2-3.) Here is an important text to consider in this purgatorial nature of fire:

1 Cor 3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 3:12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 3:13 each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 3:14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 3:15 If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Baker sees “hell” as God’s purging love; it’s like Zacchaeus coming face to face with Jesus.

Before we go further, what do you think is the strongest evidence for the traditional view of hell? (Doesn’t matter if you accept that traditional view, what do you think is the strongest evidence?)

The wrath of God is to turn humans over to their sins [frankly, this all strikes me as having a retributive element to it]. So, too, God’s wrath is purgatorial. Wrath then is both being handed over to our sins and then in the judgment the experience of God’s purifying flames of love. Which means we have to face this question:Why be a Christian now if all people will be purged of their sins at the judgment?

But all humans, at the judgment, will get to decide on accepting the purging graces of God or not. Why wouldn’t God give people a choice then too? Is not the God of the Bible a God of “second chances”? That’s the orientation of Baker’s study.

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  • Peter

    As far as the strongest evidence for the traditional view of hell, I must admit that when I consider these other views (like those of Sharon Baker), the story of the sheep and the goats (maybe being told in Keith Green’s voice) is playing as background music in my mind. Like others, I hate the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, but I still wonder if it might be true. Thank you for this careful exploration of a difficult issue – I think that the issue is difficult emotionally as well as theologically, so I remain unconvinced. My conviction that it’s better to be purged by walking with Christ now rather than later is based on the sweet fruit of that purging in my life and relationships, as well as an openness to the possibility that this purging might be gentler.

  • T

    I think the line from Jesus, “where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” and the story of Lazarus and the rich man both come to mind for me. I’m totally up for re-examining the whole doctrine and those passages and others, but I certainly have an association with those passages of an indefinite hell. Some day I’ll have to do some reading on Catholic doctrine on this point considering the difference on this issue.

  • While the “sheep and the goats” and the “rich man and lazarus” do SEEM to lend good support for the traditional understanding of hell, I think I have to be dismissed as such simply because they are parables. They are not literal. I think something interesting to point out in the parable “the sheep and the goats” is that both the sheep and the goats belong to the shepherd. I don’t think the story is meant to portray seperation between “believers” and “non-believers” as much as it reveals that we (Christians) are not always the sheep but most of the time relate more to the goats who didn’t meet the needs of “the least of these.” maybe a better (not necessarily the best) text to support the traditional view would be passages such as Matthew 5 where Jesus says says if you say “you fool” you are in danger of hell fire. However, I still think this more a metaphor for judgment rather than a literal reality. Jesus also gives other illustrations of judgment in the same text such as “standing before the Sanhedrin… obviously we don’t take that to be literal.
    (written from my iPhone, appologies for any spelling/grammatical errors)

  • Passages in Matt. 25:41,46 are important to bear in mind.

    –41″Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
    –46″Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    The text includes these details:

    1.) The cursed are assigned to eternal fire
    2.) The eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels
    3.) The cursed will go away to eternal punishment

    The text doesn’t say anything about eternal ‘conscious’ punishment. Punishment can be eternal in duration, and still not be conscious in experience. The eternal fire was never designed for humans, but for the devil. Maybe the cursed share in the devils fate of complete destruction by a fire that will never go out.

    Let’s keep the conversation going. This will be helpful for everyone involved.

  • Richard


    You said in the OP that “The wrath of God is to turn humans over to their sins [frankly, this all strikes me as having a retributive element to it]. So, too, God’s wrath is purgatorial. Wrath then is both being handed over to our sins and then in the judgment the experience of God’s purifying flames of love.”

    As I read Romans 1, it seems that Paul is agreeing with what you’re saying but whereas you’re suggesting it is something that happens after we die, I read Paul as saying it is ongoing here and now. Am I inaccurate in my reading of Paul, specifically v. 18? What’s the tense of “being” in that verse?

  • smcknight


    It’s too simplistic, however much a temptation, to dismiss Matt 25 as “parable” as if parables can’t tell the truth. Do we dismiss God’s love because it is in parabolic form in the Prodigal Son parable? So, while it involves interpretation, the parable of Matthew 25 is warning of a final judgment with “eternal” consequences — and the parable divides people into two groups, those who make it and those who don’t.

  • smcknight

    Richard, I’ve not seen “OP” before. What does that mean?

    I agree that “wrath” in Romans 1 is oriented toward God letting humans “go” and toward permitting humans to let their sins and lives run their rotten courses. I would not, however, limit “wrath” to what happens to sinful behaviors in the now. There’s too much “wrath” in eschatological/future settings in the New Testament and, even if one wants to make 70AD a big focus of wrath in the NT (which I’m more than open to), that wrath is foretaste of the final wrath.

  • Diane

    This is a very rich thread …

    The question “why be a Christian now” presupposes the only rationale is a heavenly afterlife. But there’s intrinsic joy and expansion in becoming a Christian in this life, and often, the so-called sacrifices are liberations, not deprivations. In other words, not to be stating the obvious (!) “wouldn’t trade it.” 🙂 Second, as Peter mentioned in comment 1, purification by fire doesn’t sound like fun: Just as a short prison sentence, even though not “eternal,” deters us from crime, so the idea of a punishment after earthly death seems unpleasant …

    Jeff’s 25:41 is an interesting passage. I wonder if “eternal” there means that the fire is eternal–ie won’t ever go out–rather than the person in question will be in it for eternity.

    The parable of Lazarus does come to mind as informing our vision of hell–and although it is a parable, the imagery is quite vivd, powerful and difficult to shake.

  • I have been questioning hell on my blog for the last month or so, and am becoming convinced that the traditional view of hell is somewhat of a fabrication by the Catholic Church. Although it is clear that there will be a Final Judgment, those that end up not partaking in the Kingdom of God will be a much smaller number than many would seem to think.

    It should be noted than many of the early Fathers were in one way or another universalists and Origen for one believed that the “fires” of hell would be purifying. Although I am not a universalist or an annihilationist (yet), I am seeing the strong cases for both positions. Tertullian was the first strong advocate for the eternal conscious torment model of hell and later Catholic theologians took his concept and ran with it, ignoring other theologians like Origen and Clement.

    I am about midways through my own investigation on the doctrines of hell and at the very least believe that I will become somewhat agnostic when it comes to hell. Whatever hell ends up being, I am quite sure that the idea of eternal conscious torment needs to be purged.

  • keo

    OP = Original post/poster

    Best evidence for traditional hell: the difficulty of understanding how a God interested in truth could let such a large chunk of the church be so totally wrong for so many years on such a crucial-seeming topic.

    “Why be a Christian now?” Why wait? Why not start living like an adopted child in the family of God now, enjoying the blessings of a loving relationship and the joy of sharing the news of Christ’s triumph over the sin of the world?

  • Diane#8

    I agree with your assessment on Matt 25:41,46. I mentioned that ‘eternal’ does not necessarily infer ‘conscious’ punishment, but ‘eternal’ in the sense that the punishment will never be overturned. The fire will be ‘eternal’, but that may not mean that human beings will suffer for all eternity, only that the fire will never be quenched.

  • Richard

    Scot, “OP” is shorthand for “original post” or “original poster”. Thanks for answering.

    It still seems that the fundamental fork in the road between the “traditional view” and the views advocated by Baker or MacDonald isn’t “is there a hell” or “is there wrath” but “is hell a closed system past the point of repentance?” Would that be accurate in your reading?

    To your questions, I think the strongest evidence for the traditional view of hell is the “logic” of it. It seems to make good sense of judgment passages and it works as a framework. It appeals to our desire to see vengeance, even everlasting vengeance, a la the prayers of the Psalmist crying out to smash the heads of the enemies’ infants. I personally think Jesus calls us away from that and models in his own practices of love for the oppressed (blind beggars) and the oppressor (Zacchaeus) so I see wrath as being purgative, not retributive. I may punish a child in Kid’s Club but my hope is always that he or she will change their ways and be restored to the full expression of the community, not to ban them permanently outside the doors of the Club where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth ;-). I tend to think the living God revealed in Jesus is even more resourceful than I am ;-).

    As for being a Christian now vs. later. I tend to approach it the same way I did conditioning in high school soccer or wrestling. I ran year round in preparation for the two week conditioning preseason. I still went through conditioning but I had a lot less work to make up than the guys that sat around for 5 months eating Big Macs.

    God is the God of second chances. Amen. For he has bound all men over to disobedience that he may have mercy on them all. The ones who knew and the ones who had forgotten.

  • smcknight

    Richard, I agree: the issue is eternality of hell and its fixedness once one dies.

  • Richard

    Scot, are there previous posts where the blog has wrestled with your point above that even if the majority of wrath references are located in 70 AD, they’re still a foretaste of what’s to come?

    Do we read it this this way primarily because we can all agree there hasn’t been a universal resurrection to date?

  • T

    FWIW, I think there is plenty of reason to be reconciled to the great God and Father of the Lord Jesus asap, even if God does what he has done before and threaten judgment only to give another chance for mercy. I will gladly follow and trust now even if he gives another chance post-death.

    That said, I think the passages we’ve mentioned, even the parables (for reasons Scot mentioned in 6 & 7), are intended to present the warning/threat that “today” and today alone is the time for salvation. Tomorrow is not only not promised, the NT generally and Jesus specifically warns that at some point tomorrow will be too late. To bet otherwise may turn out okay given God’s willingness to be merciful and hold off on promised judgment in the past, but it seems highly dangerous even in ignorance, and is even putting God to the test if done with knowledge of these warnings.

  • Scot, perhaps the question to consider is how do you reconcile the passages that suggest hell with the idea that the cross is the reconciliation of humanity to God. In other words, is God somehow going back on his word? The two are deeply intertwined.

  • Danny

    Question: If “fire” is only a symbol – isn’t the reality of it even more worse?

  • Percival

    Strongest evidence for the traditional view? For me, like Jeff #4, it is reflected in the Matthew 25 passages.

    Specifically, if the “place” of eternal punishment is the same for a group of people and for the Devil and his angels, how can it be a fire of cleansing transformation? It is for the accursed. It is a place distanced from God (depart from me), seemingly not a place where they are held close to his cleansing fire. That’s one reason I lean toward annihilation-ism instead of universalism.

  • MatthewS

    The apocalyptic imagery of Revelation is pretty vivid stuff. The beast and the false prophet are tormented day and night forever in the lake of burning sulfur. The lake of fire is the second death. Those whose name does not appear in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire. (see Rev 20:10-15)

  • What I appreciate most about this thread, is the voices those among us who either 1) Don’t profess to belief in the “traditinal” view of Hell, or 2) are really disturbed by it, are still willing to recognise that there are apparent scriptural supports for the traditional formulations of the doctrine.

    This makes for a far more stimulating conversation than simply listing all the “verses” that support one’s beliefs and explaning away the verses that don’t.

  • MatthewS

    From a logical perspective, how would it work if there were no hell? Whatever true evil means to you (violent sexual abuser, for example), how could an unrepentant person who is evil sit side-by-side with his/her victims in heaven? That is impossible: it would no longer be heaven for the victim.

    An important thing happens when one is redeemed by Jesus. One’s evil is answered by the cross. But one who has never accepted that – how is his/her evil answered? Hebrews makes it clear that there is no other sacrifice for sins other than Jesus, “but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”

    I don’t see discussion in the NT about those who rejected Jesus in this life then going through this judgment and fire, finally arriving in heaven or the new earth. I want to believe there is such a path but I just don’t think the NT names it. Perhaps God has something in mind he hasn’t shared (in fact, I really hope he does!)

  • The fact that both the Lazarus and goat/sheep parables refer to eternal hell and heaven present a very strong case for the existence of both. Further, there is no mention whatsoever of any eternal reward for those who reject God during their lifetimes. For me, that is the most compelling case.

    For the second question, I think the clarifying question is “why be a Christian when being one requires genuine sacrifice?”

    Francis Chan relates the story of Christians in the Middle East and India, for whom conversion means giving up everything. There is no gap between becoming a Christian and becoming a disciple. American Christians tend to live in the gap, which makes this question seem more relevant.

    But my short answer is that there is none. And there is certainly no reason to ask others to sacrifice for God. If everyone is saved at the end, I would advise would be Middle Eastern Christians to safe themselves the heartache by kicking that particular can down the road.

    The God of second chances is a human construct. God does offer grace, but he also destroys people. He did away with the Nation of Israel entirely, though some think he will rebuild it.

    The bible is also pretty clear, per the Lazarus parable, that those who reject God now will reject God in all circumstances. People are inclined to choose heaven, but are not inclined to choose God. At best, then, you are left with a distinction without a difference.

  • Ellen

    The question”Why be a Christian now if all people will be purged of their sins at the judgment?” implies that what being a Christian is about is getting into heaven. Is it not far more than that? Are we not about things like friendship and intimacy with God, the experience of shalom in community and the preaching of the gospel across the earth not out of fear of hell but out of love for God and others and our desire to include them in the Kingdom Now.
    It seems that the realityy of gospel for us NOW iincludes a burning away of what is false in us, what is egotistical and selfish and greedy so that Christ is formed in us. Perhaps that transformational “burning” is better to experience now (as painful as it can be) than later (hence the warnings).

  • smcknight


    I don’t know your point follows. The point is not that the only point of the Christian life is getting to heaven, but that if it doesn’t matter how we live now if we get a second chance, what is the incentive to live a different life now. That’s slightly different, so I think.

    Furthermore, the Christian claim about “heaven” (I’d say new heavens and new earth) is that it is eternal, which means life in the here and now is but a speck of time in comparison. If that be true, then considering the eternal is paramount.

    But I must admit this too; the question comes from Baker’s students in the chp.

  • Amanda

    The idea that the imagery of the parables can be dismissed just because their “parables” (scary quotes intended) is a shallow reading of the parables. Some of them were metaphorical, yes, and others related to real things. See the metaphor of the plank and speck vs. the metaphor of the widow seeking for a coin. There is not literally a plank or a speck in eyes when a person sins, but a women could conceivably search for a coin. Therefore, it can be concluded that the parables detailing judgment and hell could be referring to an actual place rather than some vague sense of judgment or retribution. Whether that place has fire or that fire is symbolic is immaterial (like Danny said in answer 13).

  • Amanda


    I wish we could edit posts.

  • E.G.

    Lots of interesting comments on this thread. And on the previous posts on this topic. I’m learning tons. Thanks.

    I think, however, that it’s fair to summarize that, whatever the actual mode of Hell happens to be, none of us want to be there, nor should we desire any other human to be there.

  • DRT

    I agree with kevin s. in #22 for most compelling

    The fact that both the Lazarus and goat/sheep parables refer to eternal hell and heaven present a very strong case for the existence of both. Further, there is no mention whatsoever of any eternal reward for those who reject God during their lifetimes. For me, that is the most compelling case.

    Why be a Christian now? I am starting to fully believe that the most fulfilling life is a life participating in the KoG. The best happiness can be found there in any circumstance.

  • The fact that the majority of Christians at the majority of times seems to believe in eternal conscious torment is the best argument in my mind. I don’t think the Bible goes there as conclusively or consistently as is often supposed.

  • Sherman Nobles

    hi, I’m trying to post but am having difficulty.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Ok, looks like the problem is fixed. I’ll retype my original reply that didn’t make it.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Hello everyone, a friend who regularly views this blog encouraged me to check it out. I’ve just come to believe in the last year or so that Jesus truly is the savior of all humanity, especially (not only) we who believe (1 Tim.4:10). Scriptures like Jn.12:32, Rom.5:18, Phil.2:10-11, Col.1:20 and others inspired me to believe such. But it was my study on what scripture says, or more accurately “doesn’t say” concerning Hell that freed me to believe in Universal Reconciliation.

    Have you noticed that the word Hell is progressively disappearing from English translations. The 1610 Catholic version had the word in it 110 times, KJV only 64 times, NKJV 32 times, many only have it 12-14 times, and the newest Catholic version doesn’t have the word Hell in it at all. Why? Because not one word in the Hebrew or Greek text of scripture accurately translates as Hell.

    Sheol and Hades mean grave or “realm of the dead”. Tartaroo is only used once and though it means a torturous realm of the dead, it is not used of humans and Peter implies that it is not even endless for the sinning angels consigned there. And of course, Gehenna was Jerusalem’s trash dump where there was a continuous fire (though it went out long ago) and there was never a shortage of maggots to eat the dead flesh (“The worm dies not” – have you ever seen a dead maggot? No, they transform into flies.)

    “Why be a Christian if all are ultimately saved?” is about like asking “Why should a fish want to swim in water?” We were created for relationship with God, without that relationship we’re like fish flopping around on the ground, gasping for life!

    “If all are saved, why share the Gospel?” is about like asking “If your brother doesn’t know he’s your brother, why introduce him to your father who loves him?” My brothers and sisters are estranged from me and our father, not knowing our love for them. Why share with them our love? Because we love them and have been given this ministry of reconciliation! The Father inspires us with His love for all people, and this love compells us to share the good news of His love and grace for us all.

    God loves you, has redeemed you by the blood of His one Faithful Son, and will fulfill His plan for you in-spite of the mess you’ve created and become! This is really good news! And maybe the reason many people do not respond to the traditional presentation of the gospel is because the traditional gospel is not really “Good News” at all – “God loves you and Jesus died for you, but if you don’t…(whatever)… you’ll burn in Hell forever.” No matter how one spins it, that’s not “Good News”; rather, it sounds like the angry cry of a dictator, not a loving Father!

    Well, I realize that there are many passages of scripture and concepts to consider but I look forward to discussing this topic with you all. Of course, I could be wrong!


  • Barry

    I would have to agree with #6 that, due to the nature of parable, one cannot (necessarily) make an argument from the Matt 25 text for the literal existence of an eternal punishment (aka hell). What about exaggeration and hyperbole? Jesus did not seem to be among that (thinking of the sinful hand or eye that should get lopped off or poked out). While parables do account for deeper truth, maybe this is an example of just how serious one should take toward being a ‘sheep’ (another non-literal metaphor w/ a deeper ‘obedience’ meaning). Point to the parable w/ the woman and the coin as plausible still does not account for the parabolic nature of other parables.

    What if all of the really good references to eternal conscious torment are in fact parabolic rather than literal and are meant to say ‘this sheep acting is REALLY REALLY important…NOW!’.

    Btw… I would disagree with the original post statement that the wrath of God turning humans over to their sins “as having a retributive element to it”. May be semantics, but retribution seems proactive rather than passive and the turning over seems a withholding of action rather than God in action…hence not exactly retribution unless God creates consequences that match the sin on the run or in the past (which, I guess, could be argued).

  • smcknight


    Too many maybes and I hope sos in your parable stuff, but …

    Let’s explore this retributive element: if God “permits” (an act of his will not to act at a minimum) humans to sink into their sins or let their sins swallow them, then God’s permitting some level of just retribution. The word “retribution” seems to be a nasty word so it’s got to be bad — that’s how I read much of what I see about the word. But, let’s get honest: if God chooses not to act, God is choosing to let retribution occur. I don’t see a way around it.

    The issue, as I see it, is eternal retribution not retribution per se. But once one permits retribution at all the whole image shifts.

  • Barry

    post #33 “to be among that” should read “to be above that”.

    Also, @29, arguing that tradition is the best argument for a traditional view of hell seems a bit circular. I imagine that the majority of humanity believes a lot of erroneous stuff about God which makes Matt 25 my favorite description of ‘hell’ since the issue is not about doctrine but discipleship.

  • @Barry

    The upshot of what you just said is that doctrine indicates that the issue is not about doctrine, which is obviously odd. Also, If it isn’t about doctrine, shouldn’t it be about tradition? I don’t see how you can dismiss both.

  • Barry

    My point about parables @33 is that they simply cannot be taken literally due to the nature of the genre (like fable or myth). This is not to say they are untrue (again, like fable or myth) but that one cannot take the “thing” of parable and simply transplant it into the “thing” of reality…even “eternal punishment”.

    re: retribution. I’ll be the first to admit that the word is negatively loaded for me primarily because of the all to common idea among humans that we are capable or qualified to deliver retribution in God’s stead (contra Romans 12.19 – which unambiguously states God capable of avenging / repaying).

    re: “Why be a Christian now if all people will be purged of their sins at the judgment?” My favorite modern day parable on the subject of hell is C.S. Lewis’ “Great Divorce”. In this parable, the purging of sin in the next reflects the amount of sin in this. Said another way, those in Lewis’ depiction of hell are living a shadow of an eternal life because after sin has been stripped away, there is almost nothing left. A life of discipleship today is preparation for eternity tomorrow. Far better to lead a solid existence in heaven than a non-existence in hell (so to speak). Oddly, Lewis’ expresses a second chance scenario because the bus is always moving back and forth between heaven / hell (not sure how Lewis theologically bridges the metaphorical chasm in the Rich Man / Lazarus story).

  • Dana Ames

    Best argument for trad “hell”: Matt 25, and the “justice” of the idea that we will get what we truly want (if God, then unending life with him; if “not-God”, then that).

    Why be a Christian now?

    The example of “conditioning” Richard @12 gave is a good analogy. Conversion of life and habits -living a different life now- is not something that happens in an instant; it’s a process. Why not begin “the eternal kind of life” (Willard) now-
    a life of increasing union with God,
    secure in the love of the One who has freed us from death,
    which security allows us to deny ourselves in pursuit of the ability to enter into manifesting the same kind of self-giving love that was shown on the Cross-
    in doing so becoming more like Jesus as we are becoming more human,
    looking to the day when we are able to bring God’s wise rule in the eschaton as beings made in his image?

    Otherwise, we have a theology that does not connect the original creation with the renewed creation; we might as well go off to another world called “Heaven”. I think Ellen’s point @23 is germane.

    The goal is, after all, to be able to love God and our neighbors…

    It does not necessarily follow that if the fire is purifying then that means it’s retributive. It also does not necessarily follow that we shouldn’t try to live a different life now. If grace abounds, then should we sin all the more? May it never be!


    “According to Gregory of Nyssa, the torments of Hell exist in order that the soul of the sinner may be purified in their fire from the dust of sin: having passed through the ‘baptism of fire’, the souls of sinners become able to take part in the restoration of all (apokatastasis ton panton), when not only all people, but also demons and the Devil will return to their primordial sinless and blessed state. This idea, which was dear to Gregory of Nyssa,[17] is based on the teaching of St Paul that, after the resurrection of all and the final victory of Christ over death, everything will be subjected to God and He will be ‘all in all’.[1 Cor.15:22-28] As to the term apokatastasis panton (restoration, or restitution of all), it is borrowed from the Book of Acts [3.21]… (note 17: This teaching of Gregory of Nyssa must be distinguished from the Origenist understanding of apokatastasis which was condemned in the sixth century. Gregory of Nyssa did not share Origen’s idea of the preexistence of the soul; unlike Origen, Gregory also taught that the body will take part in the final restoration. The teaching of Gregory was therefore never formally condemned, though it never became a dogma… ‘Restoration of all’ is an object of hope rather than a dogma of faith.”

    There is a thread of Christian thought stretching back to the church fathers that nurtures this hope. Baker’s notion of purgation rather than punishment is tied to this thread.

    Sorry again (but not too sorry… sorry!) for the long comment.

    T@2, this is not a feature of Catholic thought, but rather of Eastern Orthodox.


  • Dana Ames



    1. requital according to merits or deserts, esp. for evil.
    2. something given or inflicted in such requital.
    3. Theology: the distribution of rewards and punishments in a future life.

    1350–1400; ME retribucioun < MF < LL retribūtiōn- (s. of retribūtiō ) punishment, reward as result of judgment, equiv. to L retribūt ( us ) (ptp. of retribuere to restore, give back; see re-, tribute) + -iōn- -ion

    1, 2. retaliation, repayment, recompense. See revenge.

    1, 2. pardon.


    Sounds more active than simply "permitting".

    Scot, I'm pushing back hard on this because:
    1. It warrants repeating that the view of God as retaliatory and vengeful is not consistent with the Cross and Resurrection, and the operation in concert of all the Persons of the Trinity toward the goal of salvation (however one defines that word).
    2. People need to know, whether they agree with it or not, that a hermeneutic positing a non-retributive view of God has existed for a couple thousand years and is in fact (o)rthodox.


  • Richard

    Why do we interpret the parables in a literalistic manner but think Jesus was being figurative when he used phrases like, “this generation” when referring to eschatalogical events (i.e. Matthew 24, esp. v. 34)? Where’s the hermeneutical key I’m missing?

  • smcknight


    Yes, I know about the non-retributive stuff in history, though it is not as prominent nor accepted as some here are suggesting. There’s a great book by an orthodox theologian, and I blogged the book, about the descent into hell — and that book I think clearly shows the place of that minority view.

    One text you will have to explain to me sometime: Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, and I will repay. If that’s not a retributive idea I don’t know one.

    In my assessment, people want to make “retribution” something that it is not, and I compare the present use of “retribution” to calling penal substitution divine child abuse or calling evangelism colonialism, et al.

    If there is purgation, there is clearly cleaning something up by fire (image for destruction). That idea — purgation — is an act of judgment that sets wrongs rights, and that means there’s retributive justice inherent to the restoring process. There is, as I see it, only one alternative to retribution: God simply drops the issues, pretends nothing happened, and we start all over again. I don’t see anyone arguing that. So, for me, the moment one argues for purgation at the end, one has some form of retribution at work.

    The “permitting” idea was a minimalist approach to Romans 1:18-32. That permissive sense of wrath is an act by God, so it has an active side to it.

  • Josh Mueller

    Scot (#41),
    You said,

    “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, and I will repay. If that’s not a retributive idea I don’t know one.”

    Yes, it’s clearly retributive but what makes you so sure that God’s vengeance would look very much like ours?

    Isn’t the lense through which we read texts like these immediately tainted by a cry for satisfaction because of the rage in our own hearts? Isn’t Jesus’ cry for forgiveness on the cross the very antithesis of that sentiment? And what exactly would the kind of vengeance WE demand solve – both in the victim and the perpetrator?

  • Dana Ames

    Yes, Met. Hilarion’s book; I have it. The longer quote above is from his web site.

    I don’t believe God will pretend nothing happened. I believe the fire is about judgment, and wrongs will be righted. I just believe God will do it in a way that will astound us with its display of his goodness, love and mercy.

    Rom 12.19 needs to be read in context. Here is Tom on the passage, from the NIB, pp 714-15:

    “12:19-20. This sets the scene for the third appeal against retaliation, which this time is explained, albeit somewhat darkly. Do not curse your persecutors (v.14); do not repay evil for evil (v.17); now, do not perform acts of vengeance– that is, acts that try to bring justice to bear in your own disputes… The verb ekdikeo, as its root suggests, indicates the doing of justice, which Paul is not forbidding; what he prohibits is doing it freelance, in one’s own favor– in other words, what we call ‘vengeance’.

    “Instead, he says, ‘give place to wrath.’ Without chapter 13 it might not be clear whether this in fact meant ‘let your own wrath smolder away quietly,’ ‘leave room for God’s wrath,’ or ‘let the process of moral cause and effect take its course’, –though the first one Paul would certainly have ruled out, the second points in the right direction, and the third might not have been foreign to him either. But with 13:4 coming up six verses later, we can be reasonably confident that he means ‘allow God to do justice–which may well be done through the appointed magistrates.’ It is impossible to act in one’s own case with sufficient impartiality; which is why, as Deuteronomy 32:35 has declared, God reserves the sole right to judicial punishment, which becomes ‘vengeance’ when offended parties take the law into their own hands… [T]his was, clearly, a passage upon which he drew consciously and regularly.

    In place of private vengeance, Paul recommends a shockingly positive line of action: feed a hungry foe, give drink to a thirsty one. He quotes here from Prov 25:21-22… The ‘coals of fire’ are almost certainly intended as the burning shame of remorse for having treated someone so badly… The point is then that treating enemies kindly is not only appropriate behavior in its own right, refusing the vengeance that would usurp God’s prerogative; it may also have the effect of turning their hearts.

    “12.21. Paul sums up the whole paragraph with another possible allusion to the Sermon on the Mount, and to the gospel events themselves, Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yes, there is evil ‘out there’ in the world. But God’s people are to meet it in the way that even God met it: with love and generous goodness. The theology of the cross, in fact, can be glimpsed under this apparently detached ethical maxim: when God came to defeat evil, this was not achieved by using an even greater evil, but by using its opposite– namely, the surprising and initially counterintuitive weapons of goodness. To be consumed with vengeful thoughts, or to be led into putting such thoughts into practice, is to keep evil in circulation, whereas the way to overthrow evil, rather than perpetuating it, is to take its force and give back goodness instead.”


  • “Yes, it’s clearly retributive but what makes you so sure that God’s vengeance would look very much like ours?”

    What makes you so sure grace looks like ours? At some point, we have to rely upon the scriptures to communicate what they seem to communicate.

  • Josh Mueller

    Kevin (#44),

    I’m not saying that at all. I believe even God’s grace far surpasses what we think it is. I base my understanding of God’s vengeance exactly on what scripture tries to communicate about it, nd what would be a better starting point than Jesus’ (the perfect God image’s) own dealing with evil.

    The principle that evil is only overcome by good applies not just to us as believers but to God’s way of dealing with it as well. And a human understanding of vengeance is usually a sad perversion of what’s communicated in our demand for the scales to be balanced.

  • Barry

    Scot @41 “There is, as I see it, only one alternative to retribution: God simply drops the issues, pretends nothing happened, and we start all over again. I don’t see anyone arguing that.”

    Let me be the first to argue, then, that in parable form, Jesus is suggesting that God does, in fact, drop the issue if for no other reason than being asked. That is certainly God’s prerogative. This suggests that wrath, vengeance and retribution, even tho’ biblical, are optional for and not intrinsic to God. The rather clumsy human metaphors of wrath and retribution, though they may be the best we can muster for the moment, hardly deserve the certainty that comes with some of our definitions of them in relation to God.

  • Barry

    Oops. I’m referring to the parable in Matt 18.21-35

  • Barry

    Scot @41,

    “One text you will have to explain to me sometime: Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, and I will repay. If that’s not a retributive idea I don’t know one.”

    With Josh @42, the ‘retributive’ wording is there but I think this is a also place that undoes our preconceived notions of just what retribution is. If we must use ‘retribution’, it deserves a lot of care to ward of images of an angry God slapping his children for every infraction. Even the verse quoted above from Deut 32.25 seems to echo the consequential nature of sin (similar to Romans).

    “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.”

    God’s action, even here, seems primarily in holding back the full force consequences of sin like a dam holding back the flood. Eventually the dam will break because we keep chipping away at its foundation (still a clumsy metaphor but tries to express the passive nature of this particular verse).

    I could just as easily us ‘retribution’ to describe the skinned knee of my 5-year-old son who slipped while tight-rope walking the a concrete curb but that would require, in some real sense, a significant redefinition of ‘retribution’ (see Dana @39).

  • Just watched this short interview from CNN about what happens after we die. Interesting comments. Thoughts? Ideas? Concerns?

    They have also included a short article for review.


  • Sherman Nobles

    To me the context of “Vengeance is mine” is actually one of compassion and mercy. Deut.32:35-36

    35 Vengeance is Mine, and recompense;
    Their foot shall slip in due time;
    For the day of their calamity is at hand,
    And the things to come hasten upon them.’

    36 “For the LORD will judge His people
    And have compassion on His servants,
    When He sees that their power is gone,
    And there is no one remaining, bond or free.

    Note that in vs.36, the Lord highlights his compassion on those who power is gone apparently because of their forsaking Him. The Lord’s “vengeance” is tied to his compassion. He allows some negative consequences of our sins to come our way so as to teach us not to do those things, to teach us how bad evil is.

    It’s interesting that in Lev.19:17-18 the Lord commands:
    17 ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

    If the Lord commands us to “not take vengeance” or “bear any grudge” against others, but to rather love them as we love ourselves, then to me thinking that God bears a grudge against us and takes vengeance on us in a negative way seems hypocritical.

    Ps.99:8 is another interesting verse that ties together the vengeance of God with his forgiveness. “You answered them, O LORD our God; You were to them God-Who-Forgives, though You took vengeance on their deeds.”

    Rom. 12 is interesting also:
    17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
    18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
    19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
    20 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.
    21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

    Notice that Paul is instructing us to leave “vengeance” to God and to not take “vengeace” into our own hands. Rather, we should do good for our enemies and overcome evil with good. — Why would we think that God would then stoop to overcoming evil with evil?

    Our vengeance would be retributive, flowing from our hurt and pain, from our disfunction; but God’s “vengeance” would be different, flowing from His compassion and forgiveness, from His wholeness, wholly good and profitable.

    It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. And in the sacrifice of Christ all of our sins are forgiven. God forgave us our sins while we were yet enemies against Him in our own minds. God understands that we are but dust, dead in our sins, bound in iniquity, unclean in every thought and action; and yet He loves us.

    Frankly, I believe it’s the revelatation of His love and acceptance of us that burns the hell out of us!

  • Barry

    I realize this is a late comment that may not get noticed anymore but I am reading, with friends, a book by one of my favorite authors and we recently came across this quote. It takes on the idea of retribution from a Biblical perspective. One assumption I am, of course, making is that whatever one says of Jesus’ sense of ‘retribution’ equally applies to God.

    “Justice is a faded entry on a dog-eared page of our society’s lexicon. When someone is the victim of a heinous crime, we sometimes hear someone say, usually in emotive, unflinching terms: “I want justice.” What they often mean is the death penalty. When civil liberty spokespersons talk about “justice,” they tend to think in terms of Robin Hood: dismantling systemic exploitation and redistributing money and power. They often intend to be the beneficiaries of this “justice.”

    Because the term justice is used like this so often, it has acquired the sense of being negative and nasty. It seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment. But in Jesus’ kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution. Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that kingdom justice concerns restoring humans to both God and others.

    In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes “making something right,” and for something to be “right,” there has to be a standard. For the Jewish world the standard is God’s will, the Torah, and so justice for Israel was to “make things right” according to Scripture. In our American society what makes something “right” is if it conforms to the United States Constitution or to a decision made in a court of law. Jesus operates in the Jewish world. What makes things “right” for him? What is his standard? Here is where a Christian restorative sense of justice parts company with standard social understandings.

    “The standard of justice for Jesus is the Jesus Creed. What is “right” is determined by the twin exhortation to love God (by following Jesus) and to love others. For Jesus, justice is about restoring people and society to the love of God and love of others. This vision of restorative justice clobbers, with a padded stick of love, any retributive sense of justice. The follower of Jesus is to “hunger and thirst for righteousness |or justice],” but that “justice” is defined by the Jesus Creed, not the Constitution. To get things right in our world, according to Jesus, is to love others and work for a system that expresses such love.”

    (The Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight).

    See also #34 above. I assume that “clobbers” means something like “renders ineffective” or “disables”.