Is Hell Just a Metaphor?
The final wrath of God will be terrible, indescribable pain forever and ever and ever. As you consider the word pictures the New Testament uses for hell, don’t commit the folly of saying, “Oh, those are just symbols. Fire and brimstone, that’s symbolic language.” The reason I say, “Don’t commit the folly of saying that,” is because it won’t serve your purpose. I know what you’re trying to do, and it won’t work. We’re trying to make it less. Guess what? Symbols are less than reality, not more.
Suppose fire is a symbol. Do people use symbols of horror because the reality is less horrible or more horrible? I don’t know anyone who uses symbolic language for horrible realities when the literal language would make it sound more horrible. What would be the point of that? People grasp for symbols — you all do — of horror or beauty because the reality they’re trying to describe is worse or better than the symbols. They’re doing the best they can to get it across.
If I say, for example, “My wife is the diamond of my life,” would any of you respond, “Oh, he just used a symbol for something valuable. It’s only a symbol, so his wife must be less valuable than a diamond”? That’s why it’s folly to talk like this. It’s folly to say it’s only a symbol. No, I chose the most valuable jewel I could think of in order to express she’s more valuable than that. What else can I do? I want to say more. You grasp for words. That’s what language is like.
It won’t suffice. It won’t work for hell, and it won’t work for heaven, and it won’t work for wives. Honest symbols are not used because they go beyond reality, but because reality goes beyond words. When the Bible speaks of hellfire, woe to us if we say, “Well, it’s only a symbol.” So? It’s worse.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Reading the Bible Supernaturally.
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