Study Guide: Tormented by the Flames?

Sunday January 11, 2009 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

The story of the rich man and Lazarus has often been used to ground our theology when it comes to the doctrine of Hell. This message aims to broaden our imagination about this issue by looking at this passage in the larger biblical context.

Extended Summary:

This text is one of the primary inspirations for the traditional view of hell as an eternal place of fire. In traditional teaching the torment of hell will never ever be abated. Another disturbing aspect of this text is that people in heaven and hell can see and talk to one another! In addition, it raises the concern about how GOD enjoys heaven watching all this.

This text points to three questions about eternal punishment:

  1. How is eternal punishment consistent with the Biblical theme that God’s anger lasts “for a moment,” but his love, mercy and/or favor last “forever” (e.g. Ps. 30:5; 103:9; I Chr. 16:24; 2 Chr. 20:21).
  2. How is eternal punishment consistent with the teaching that “God is love” (I John 4:8; 16)
  3. How is eternal punishment consistent with the Bible’s teaching regarding God’s final victory?

In order to understand Jesus’ teaching on hell in this passage you need to grasp these four things:

  1. Luke 16:19-31 is a parable. The main point of the parable isn’t to teach us about the nature of heaven and hell, therefore we can’t draw conclusions about these matters. There are other texts in the ancient world where dialogues between people or gods in heaven and hell were used to teach a lesson. This is one such example.
  2. There are many metaphors used to describe God’s final punishment. In all references to fire except for this passage the fire consumes the wicked. When it says the fire is unquenchable, it means it won’t be put out before it does what fires does, which is burn things up.
  3. The most common ways of referring to God’s final punishment in the Bible are death, destruction and perishing. It’s hard to reconcile this with the idea that the damned are consciously suffering throughout eternity.
  4. The Bible sometimes speaks of things being “eternal” in consequence, not in duration. So also, it possible that when the Bible speaks of eternal punishment or eternal destruction, it doesn’t mean that people will be eternally undergoing punishment or destruction, but that once they’re punished or destroyed, it’s eternal. There is no going back.

God’s love is like a fire that purifies all that is consistent with love character and burns up all that is not. To the saved God is a purifying fire of love, to the rebellious God is a consuming fire. Everything and every one will be subjected to this metaphorical fire. God’s hope and desire is that his fire would purge all and destroy none. But God will not turn people into robots and the Bible warns rebels over and over against about the threat of being consumed by fire of God’s judgment.

This leads to three conclusions:

  1. You were created for eternal life, not death.
  2. The consequence of rejecting God is hell, and it’s nightmarish.
  3. The only way to be compatible with God’s love is submit your life completely to Christ and therefore align yourself with a Kingdom community.

Christ came to defeat the devil, rescue you from destruction, and establish God’s Kingdom on earth. You will begin to be transformed by his love when you submit to him and join his Kingdom revolution.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Describe the predominant view of hell that you have had before hearing this sermon?
  2. In what ways does your view seem to contradict or line up with God’s nature?
  3. How does the traditional view of hell cause people to respond to God in fear and miss out on God’s love?
  4. What stands out to you from this sermon more “different than you expected”?
  5. How does this view of hell change how you see God and his love?