The following is part of a series on Hell, partially as a response to the Love Wins controversy. To catch up, go here.
As I stated in the first post, this section will be mostly based on Sharon Baker’s Razing Hell.
Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? (Part 3)
The Fire of God’s Judgment
For Baker, the overarching reality of God in Scripture is that God constantly seeks to forgive and restore relationships in spite of the actions of the offenders of God’s perfect standard (102). Part of reconciliation is to name evil or else justice is not complete. We must not, therefore, ignore what the Bible says about a coming Judgment Day. God will judge with metaphorical fire. And it is to this fire that we must turn our attention to understand Baker’s perspective.
Fire, throughout the Bible, is attributed to God. God, for instance, “…is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4.24; Ezek. 1.27; 8.2; Heb. 12.29) who purifies and refines (Mal. 3.2-3; 4.1). Fire represents the means by which God judges evil, a fire that “devours and consumes its target” (113). This is God’s ultimate wrath. For the biblical writers, God is a fire and these flames burn up to the point of non-existence all that is not pure goodness. God’s fire “burns and devours wickedness like stubble so that it no longer exists” (in Psalms and Isaiah), “cleanses and purifies what remains (Isa. 6:6-7),” and “will not burn up whatever is righteous and pure” (Isa. 43.2) (ibid.).
Isaiah comes before God’s throne and the fiery coal cleanses his sin when the seraphim (plural for fire in Hebrew) touches his lips. Zechariah says that God will send the wicked “into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested” (13.9). Even the Apostle Peter speaks of faith that is tested by fire to purify humanity (1 Peter 1.7). Fire cleanses as it destroys all that is evil leaving intact all that is good (ibid.).
Baker continues her discussion on God’s fire that will be experienced by all on judgment day by looking at 1 Corinthians 3.12-15. This states:
So, whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown. The day will make it clear, because it will be revealed with fire—the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work survives, they’ll get a reward. But if anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through a fire.
Here Baker notes, “in the final judgment, everyone will go through the fire – through the fire that surrounds God, comes from God, and is God” (114). This passage specifically speaks of believers being judged, but it gives us a clue to what the final judgment will entail. All that is pure survives the fiery judgment of God, all that is rubbish because of sin will be annihilated. This is how God will reconcile humans to others and to God’s own self. If biblical justice is restorative and not retributive, this judgment will be consistent with that reality. Christians and non-Christians alike will go through this final judgment by fire, which is based on works.
After talking about the importance of justification by faith N.T. Wright makes a similar distinction:
Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works. He says this clearly and unambiguously in Romans 14.10–12 and 2 Corinthians 5.10. He affirms it in that terrifying passage about church-builders in 1 Corinthians 3. But the main passage in question is of course Romans 2.1–16.
This will be the fire of God that purifies believers and unbelievers alike. “To stand in God’s presence entails standing in the flames.” This purging makes Christians fit for the new creation. For Baker, to experience “hell” is to go through the terrifying purging fires of God’s love, which is the vehicle for God’s justice. The question that remains when speaking of this final judgment is: What is the outcome of this judgment, especially regarding non-Christians? (Ibid.). Her answer comes through a hypothetical hell story about a man on the final judgment named Otto.