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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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The term ‘fire’ is used literally to denote the familiar process of combustion, with its accompaniments of light and heat. In nearly all the passages in which it occurs from Acts to Revelation, it is used in a figurative sense. (1) A few of these have affinity with passages in the OT in which fire, as one of the most impressive of natural phenomena, is a form of the Divine manifestation. In some of the theophanies, in which fire is a prominent feature, it seems to express the conception of God as He is in Himself and in His nature (e.g. Ezekiel 1:4; Ezekiel 1:27); in others it is a manifestation of Him in His character as Avenger or Judge (Exodus 19:16; Exodus 19:18, Psalms 18:8; Psalms 50:3, Isaiah 30:30). The NT furnishes some analogous cases in which the theophanic fire is simply a manifestation of the Divine presence or attributes (Acts 2:8, Revelation 1:14 f; Revelation 4:5), and others in which it is an accompaniment of the Divine judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:8, 2 Peter 3:10-12), (2) The use of fire as a testing and purifying agent has led to its figurative application as a criterion for distinguishing between what possesses genuine moral worth and what does not, and as a means of purifying human character (1 Corinthians 3:12 f, 1 Peter 1:7). (3) One of the most patent characteristics of fire is its destructiveness, with the inevitable effect of suffering in the case of all forms of organic being. The vivid and forcible appeal which it makes to the imagination is due to the acute sensations it produces in the physical organism by the combination of intense brightness with intense heat. Fire is thus fitted to serve as an appropriate symbol of the Divine judgment upon sin. The OT frequently applies imagery borrowed from this source to denote the punitive aspects of God’s nature, or punitive instruments employed by Him, and thus lays the basis for the use of similar imagery in the NT.

1. Fire as a form of Divine manifestation.-(a) In this section may be grouped passages in which fire is simply an indication of the Divine presence, or symbol of Divine attributes other than those specially displayed in the punishment of sin. (α) in Acts 2:3 one of the two outward manifestations attending the descent of the Spirit on the disciples seated in the upper room is compared with fire. The appearance of fire (ὡσεὶ πυρός) assumed by the tongues referred to the Divine presence, which, in this instance, conferred on those assembled together the ‘gift of tongues,’ symbolized by the tongue-like fames that sat on the head of each. The reality corresponding to the appearance was the miraculous power of ecstatic utterance, now displayed for the first time, but afterwards a familiar feature in the worship of the Apostolic Chinch (Acts 2:4; cf. Acts 10:46 f, 1 Corinthians 14 passim). That the gift thus imparted had a Divine origin was certified by the visible accompaniment of fiery tongues.

(β) The Christophany described in Revelation 1:13-15 depicts the Risen Christ in the midst of the churches with eyes like a flame of fire (cf. Daniel 10:6. ‘his eyes as lamps of fire’). The flame-like eyes (Revelation 2:18; Revelation 19:12) are emblematic of the glance of omniscience, which penetrates the depth of the soul with its radiance, and reads the true meaning of the thoughts and actions. ‘All things,’ it is implied, ‘are naked and laid open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4:13; cf. Psalms 11:4, Proverbs 15:3).

(γ) ‘The seven torches (Authorized Version and Revised Version ‘lamps’) of fire burning before the throne’ (Revelation 4:5) describe the Spirit of God in His manifold powers, ‘the plenitude of the Godhead in all its attributes and energies’ (Alford, ad loc), under the emblem of fire. ‘Fulness, intensity, energy, are implied in the figure, which reflects the traditional association (in the primitive mind) of fire and flame with the divinity, and especially with the divine purity or holiness’ (J. Moffatt, Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘Rev.,’ 1910, p. 379). There appears to be a reference also to the illuminating power of the Spirit, by which the prophets, with whom the apocalyptic writer identifies himself, were qualified for bearing their testimony, especially with regard to the future (Revelation 2:7; Revelation 4:2; cf. Revelation 19:10).

(b) Passages in which fire is an accompaniment of the Parousia.-(α) According to the rendering of 2 Thessalonians 1:7 f. in Authorized Version , fire is the instrument with which Christ, at His Second Advent, executes vengeance on Gentile and Jewish enemies of the Gospel. The Revised Version , mare accurately, separates the first clause of 2 Thessalonians 1:8, ‘in flaming fire’ from what follows, and connects it with 2 Thessalonians 1:7. The ‘flame of fire,’ an expression containing a reminiscence of OT theophanies of judgment, is the element or medium by which the glory of Christ is revealed at His Return, not the means by which He inflicts punishment on the wicked. Like the lightning, which is everywhere visible at the same time (Matthew 24:27), this feature is fitted to arrest the attention and impress the mind of all beholders.

(β) Literal fire is associated in 2 Peter 3:10-12 with the Parousia (‘the day of the Lord’) as the means by which the visible universe is to be destroyed. Once temporarily destroyed by the waters of the deluge, the earth and the heavens have been ‘stored up for fire’ (2 Peter 3:7) and now at the Coming of the Lord ‘the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat’ (v. 12). The old creation is to be dissolved, and pass away in the final world-conflagration which prepares the way for the advent of new heavens and a new earth. Other passages of Scripture anticipate that the present material order, having had a beginning, is destined to come to an end. They also foreshadow the emergence of a new order, free from the defects of the old, which is to be the future abode of the redeemed (Isaiah 65:17; Isaiah 66:22, Hebrews 12:26-28, Revelation 20:11; Revelation 21:1). In the NT these great cosmic changes are associated with the last Advent. In 2 Pet, alone are the means described by which the transition destined to result in a renovated universe is effected. It is to be by fire, which is the only agent adequate to the accomplishment of a destruction so thorough and complete. Science maintains that the end of the universe, as at present constituted, is to be brought about by the gradual loss of radiant heat. The steady reduction of temperature is to render the continuance of life on the planet impossible. Mayor (Ep. of St. Jude and Second Ep. of St. Peter, 1907, p. 209) suggests that this theory requires revision, in view of ‘the stores of energy in the chemical elements, and of the varieties of radiant energy to which attention has been prominently directed by the discovery of radium. But assuming the reasonableness of this conjecture, the passage under discussion sheds no light on the constitution of the new environment in which a spiritual body takes the place of a natural body (1 Corinthians 15:44).

2. Fire as a testing and purifying agent.-Fire and water are the two elements used for purification, and of the two, fire is the more drastic and searching. In the process of refining, fire is the means of separating the precious metals from dross or alloys (Zechariah 13:9). In the art of assaying, the same agent is employed for testing the quantity of gold or silver in ore or alloys.

(a) The use of fire for these purposes has led to the word being figuratively applied to the trials, especially in the form of severe persecutions, which the early Christians were called on to endure at the hands of their heathen oppressors (1 Peter 1:7). From the searching ordeal by fire, it was the Divine design that their faith might emerge, more precious than gold, thoroughly tested and approved as genuine. In a later passage (1 Peter 4:12) the extremity of their sufferings, arising from the same cause, is compared to a burning or conflagration (πύρθσις) by which character is tested and purified; and the sharp discipline they are undergoing is spoken of appropriately, considering its extreme severity, as judgment (κρίμα) already begun, from which the righteous escape with, difficulty (1 Peter 4:17 f; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13).

(b) The figure is used in a somewhat similar manner to describe the judgment by which the work of Christian teachers is to be tested at the Parousia. ‘The day (of. Christ’s Second Coming) is to be revealed in fire’ (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:7 f.), ‘and the fire itself shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is’ (1 Corinthians 3:13-15 Revised Version ). The fire in which the whole fabric built on the One Foundation is involved, detects and exposes the flimsy and worthless materials by consuming them, but leaves uninjured the solid and durable materials that are fire-proof. In the one instance, the skilful builder has the gratification of seeing his work survive, and himself rewarded. In the other, the unskilful builder has the mortification of seeing his work destroyed and his labour lost; and although he himself escapes, it is with difficulty, as one escapes from a burning house-‘saved, yet so as through fire.’ The picture presented is that of a general conflagration. It may have been suggested by ‘the conflagration of Corinth under Mummius; the stately temples standing amidst the universal destruction of the meaner buildings’ (A. P. Stanley, Epistles to the Corinthians2, 1858, p. 67). The main point of the illustration is not the purification of character, but the decisive testing of the difference between solid and worthless achievement. The fire is not disciplinary, and, needless to say, it contains no allusion to ‘purgatorial fire, whether in this or in a future life’ (J. B. Mayor, ‘The General Epistle of Jude,’ in Expositor’s Greek Testament , 1910, p. 276).

3. Fire as an instrument of Divine punishment.-(a) In this section may be grouped together passage in which fire is a symbol of God’s temporal judgments on human sin. Such passages have a close affinity with frequent references in the OT, in which God is represented ‘as surrounded by, or manifested in, fire, the most immaterial of elements, and at the same time the agency best suited to represent symbolically His power to destroy all that is sinful or unholy’. (S. R. Driver, Daniel [Cambridge Bible for Schools, 1900], p. 85; cf. Genesis 15:17, Numbers 16:35, Psalms 50:3, Isaiah 30:27, Isaiah 33:14, Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 21:12, Ezekiel 21:31, Daniel 7:9 f., Amos 5:6; Amos 7:4).

(α) In accordance with this usage, fire is employed in Judges 1:23 to represent the present judgment which overtakes the second of the three classes enticed into licentious living by the antinomian teachers (cf. Judges 1:4). There is no reference here to the fire of future judgment. There is an evident allusion in the phrase, ‘snatching them out of the fire’ (Revised Version ), to Amos 4:11, where persons who had just escaped with their lives from the earthquake, are referred to; and to Zechariah 3:2, where the high priest Joshua is described as a brand plucked out of the Babylonian captivity. Fleshly indulgence exposes those addicted to it to present penalties as well as to future ones, and it is from this perilous position that their rescuers are to snatch them hastily, and almost violently.

(β) Fire, as an image of God’s temporal judgments, appears in the symbolism of the Apocalypse. When the Church was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Imperial Rome, her members regarded terrible visitations, in the shape of the three historic scourges, war, famine, and pestilence, as signs of the approaching end of the age and Christ’s Return. The NT Apocalyptist heightens the effect of the lurid pictures in which he forecasts the judgments impending on the enemies of Christ and His Church, by the introduction of fire, in one case literal, material fire, as a token of those judgments. In answer to the prayers of suffering saints, the angel fills the censer with fire from the altar, and casts the burning contents on the earth, as a sign that the Divine vengeance is about to descend upon it (Revelation 8:5; cf. Ezekiel 10:2). The horror which the countless host of horsemen is fitted to inspire, is intensified by the circumstance that fire and smoke and brimstone issue out of their mouths (Revelation 9:17 f.). In Revelation 14:18 it is the angel who has power over the fire-in this instance the symbol of Divine wrath-that brings the angel with the sickle the message that the vintage is to begin, because the world is ripe for judgment. The sea of glass before the Throne, by the side of which stand the victors in the conflict with the Beast, is flushed red with the fire of impending judgments-the seven last plagues which are the precursors of the downfall of Babylon (Revelation 15:1 f; Revelation 15:5 cf. Revelation 17:1).

(γ) Literal, material fire is the means by which the total and final destruction of the harlot-city, mystic Babylon, is effected (18 passim). Nero Redivivus and his Parthian allies, to whom the burning of the city is attributed, are only the human instruments in God’s hand for executing His judgment upon her (Revelation 18:20; Revelation 18:24; Revelation 19:2).

(δ) Supernatural fire is the agent by which the nations, Gog and Magog, are consumed, and their attempt to capture ‘the beloved city’ frustrated (Revelation 20:9).

(β) Fire is the symbol of God’s future and final judgment on the wicked.-(α) In view of the near approach of the Parousia (Hebrews 10:37), those in danger of the wilful sin of apostasy from the Christian faith are reminded of the terrible consequences which await those succumbing to the great temptation-‘a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries’ (Hebrews 10:27 Revised Version ). The solemn reminder is repeated in connexion with the declaration that the present transient order of things must give place to the new and eternal order (Hebrews 12:27). In contrast with the material fire that manifested His presence at Sinai, God is Himself in His very essence what that consuming fire denoted-immaculate purity which destroys everything incompatible with it (Hebrews 12:20; cf. Deuteronomy 4:24).

(β) Outside the Synoptic Gospels, there is only one explicit reference to the penal fire of the future world as the fire of hell (Gehenna). The Epistle of James traces to it as the ultimate cause the wide-spread mischief caused by the tongue, which is compared to a spark setting fire to a great forest Deuteronomy 3:6).

(γ) The only parallel to the expression Eternal Fire, used in the Synoptic Gospels to denote the future punishment of the wicked, is found in Judges 1:7, where the writer declares that the cities of the Plain are ‘set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance (Revised Version ‘punishment’) of eternal fire’ (πῦρ αἰώνιον). According to the renderings of Authorized Version and Revised Version , which regard πυρός as grammatically depending on δἰκην, the burning of these cities is spoken of as still persisting. In favour of this idea Wisdom of Solomon 10:7 is cited, and appeal is made to the volcanic phenomena in the region of the Dead Sea as likely to suggest the continued existence of subterranean fire. Further confirmation of the idea is sought in the Book of Enoch (lxvii. 6f.), where it is said that ‘the valley of the angels burned continually under the earth.’ An alternative rendering to that of the Authorized Version and Revised Version , takes δεῖγμα with πυρός in the sense of ‘an example (or ‘testimony’) of eternal fire,’ the punishment which began with the destruction of the cities, and still continues, fitting them to serve as such example. Whichever view be taken, it is evident that the example, in order to be effective, must point to the fate which awaits the wicked after the Last Judgment. Whatever may be the condition of the impenitent between death and the Judgment, it is implied by the uniform teaching of the NT on the Last Things that the decisive sentence which determines their ultimate condition is not pronounced till the Last Judgment. The πῦρ αἰώνιον would have little relevancy to the warning which the passage seeks to enforce if that expression had no relation to future retribution. That being so, the much-debated question as to the meaning of αἰώνιος arises. ‘This verse,’ remarks Charles (Eschatology2, 1913, p. 413), ‘shows how Christians at the close of the first century a.d. read their own ideas into the OT records of the past. Thus the temporal destruction by fire of Sodom and Gomorrah is interpreted as an eternal punishment by fire beyond the grave.’ The attempts made to substitute the expression ‘age-lasting’ for ‘eternal’ as the meaning of the Greek adjective, so as to prove that it does not imply the idea of unlimited duration, are not particularly convincing. ‘It is surely obvious,’ says Moffatt (British Weekly, 28 Sept. 1905), ‘that the NT writers assumed that the soul of man was immortal and that its existence beyond death, in weal or woe, was endless, when they used this term (αἰώνιος) or spoke of this subject. How else could they have conveyed what corresponded in their minds to the idea of “eternal”?’. It must be admitted, at the same time, that the term takes us out into a region where the categories of time and space do not apply, and where ‘objects ate presented in their relation to some eternal aspect of the Divine nature’ (A, Bisset, article ‘Eternal Fire,’ in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels vol. i. [1906] p. 537:b; see the whole article for a thoughtful and temperate discussion of the expression ‘eternal tire’ in its eschatological bearings).

(δ) In the Apocalypse the Lake of Fire is the place of final punishment to which are consigned (1) the Beast and the False Prophet (Revelation 19:20), (2) Satan (Revelation 20:10) (3) Death and Hades (Revelation 20:14), (4) the dupes of Satan, whose names are not written in the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15; cf. Revelation 13:8; Revelation 14:9 f.; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:8). The figure of ‘the lake of fire,’ otherwise described as ‘the lake of fire burning with brimstone,’ seems to have been suggested by a shallow pool (λἱμνη) of blazing; sulphur such as is sometimes found in volcanic districts. Nothing is said as to its locality. ‘Volcanic forces, indicating the existence of subterranean fire, might well lead the ancients to place their Tartarus and Gehenna in the under-world’ [W. Boyd Carpenter, ‘Rev.’ in Ellicott’s NT Com. iii. [1884] 622). Swete (Apoc. of St. John2, 1907, p. 258) remarks that the conception o£ ‘the lake of fire’ may have already been familiar to the Asian Churches, and that ‘possibly it was a local expression for the γέεννα τοῦ πυρός which was familiar to Palestinian Christians.’ The expression does not occur in the apocalyptic writings, but in the Book of Enoch ‘the abyss or fire’ is the doom in store for the fallen angels in the Day of Judgment (x. 13; cf. xxi. 7-10), and in the Secrets of Enoch (x. 2), among the torments of ‘the place prepared for those who do not know God’ is ‘a fiery river’ The terse outline in the Apocalypse referring to the place of woe, appears in these writings as a finished picture filled in with elaborate details. The reference in the imagery to ‘fire and brimstone’ is evidently derived from the historical account of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19:24, mediated by passages such as Isaiah 30:33, in which Topheth is a symbol of God’s burning judgments, and Isaiah 66:24, in which the valley of Hinnom, with its fire continually burning, is the scene of final judgment on God’s enemies. In the interval between the close of OT prophecy and the time of Christ, the idea of penal fire, confined in the OT to the present world, was projected into the unseen world as an image of endless retribution. During this period the writers of the apocalypses sought relief from the glaring anomaly presented by the contrast between character and condition in the present life, by transferring the scene of rewards and punishments to the world beyond the grave. In accordance with this view-the view recognized throughout the NT-the enemies of God and Christ, who often escape His righteous judgments here, are reserved for the severer penalties of the world to come. There, deceivers and deceived together share, one common doom in ‘the lake of fire,’ which is identified in Revelation 20:14 with ‘the second death,’ ‘the nearest analogue [in the new order] of Death as we know it here’ (Swete, op. cit. p. 274). ‘It is not certain,’ says Swete again, in his commentary on v. 10 (p. 270), ‘that these terrible words can be pressed into the service of the doctrine of the Last Things, … It is safer to regard them as belonging to the scenery of the vision rather then to its eschatological teaching. But beyond a doubt St. John intends at least to teach that the forces, personal or impersonal, which have inspired mankind with false views of life and antagonism to God and to Christ will in the end be completely subjugated, and, if not annihilated, will at least be prevented from causing further trouble. From the Lake of Fire there is no release, unless evil itself should be ultimately consumed; and over that possibility there lies a veil which our writer does not help us to lift or pierce’

Literature.-articles ‘Eschatology of NT’ (S. D. F. Salmond) In Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , ‘Eternal Fire; (A. Bisset) ‘Eternal punishment’ (W. H. Dyson) in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , ‘Eschatology’ (R, H. Charles), ‘Fire’ (T. K. Cheyne), ‘Theophany’ (G. B. Gray) in Encyclopaedia Biblica ; Commentaries on the relevant passage. For the meaning of αἰώνιος, and for the eschatological bearing of the passages. see H. Cremer, Bib.-Theol. Lex, of NT Greek3, 1880; F. W. Farrar, Eternal Hope, 1878, Mercy and Judgment, 1881; J. A. Beet, The Last Things, new ed. 1905: C. A. Row, Future Retribution, 1887; J. Stephen, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, 1907, Epilogue: A. Jukes, The Second Death and tin Restitution of All Things12, 1887.

W. S. Montgomery.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fire'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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