In Part 1 we showed that the Biblical Hell (Hades and Sheol) is but a “clearing house” for departed souls, and does not contain any suggestion of judgments, fire, torments, lake of fire, or “eternal punishments”, etc. It may take some time for us to adapt our thinking to engage with the Scriptural truth, but to all who earnestly desire to do so, no doubt the exercise will not be burdensome.
We move on now to investigate the realms of God’s judgments, because undoubtedly these follow death, as Hebrews 9:27 makes very clear. “It is appointed to men once todie, and after this the judgment.” (Do not confuse the word “judgment” with “condemnation”.) It goes without saying that all will pass through some form of judgment.
Consider, in this second part, the judgment of believers. “We must all appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to what he has practised, whether it be good or bad.” (2 Cor.5:10) “Every man’s work shall be made manifest, for the Day will declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire will prove every man’s work of what sort it is.” (1 Cor.3:13) The following verse shows that “judgment” is not always “condemnation”. “If any man’s work abide which he has built on the foundation, he shall receive a reward.” But on the other hand, “If any man’s work shall be consumed [by the fire] he shall suffer loss, but he shall be saved, yet so as through fire.” The illustration depicts a man who is dragged from a burning building, having lost all that he owned, but whose life is preserved. Finally, Peter tells us that “the season has come for the judgment to begin at the Household of God, and if it first begin with us, what shall the end be of those who disobey the Gospel of God? If the righteous man is scarcely saved, where will the impious and sinner appear?” (1 Peter 4:17-18) “And he who has done wrong shall receive for the wrong he has done, and there is no respect of persons [with God]”. (Col.3:25)
In quoting these verses our intention is to declare the holiness and righteousness of God. None of us will be exempt from God’s judgment, and the statements of Paul and Peter should galvanise us into action, to become holy men and women of God, not parleying with the world, or allowing our fleshly natures to rule us.
But notice the use of “fire” in these references. It is not good enough just to imagine all the unsaved thrown into an endless fire. Nobody will be exempt from the fire. What does this mean? Clearly it is picture language, but why is fire adopted to describe the processes of judgment? “Indeed, our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29) Yes, even though we may prefer to think of God’s other attributes, such as His Fatherhood, His mercy and grace, we must ever bear in mind that the other side of the coin is God’s holiness, likened to the consuming fire. What does God’s fire consume? It destroys everything that is unholy, evil, and defiling. It does not consume people. It was never God’s design to consume, destroy, or annihilate those whom He created, but rather to render men clean in His sight. This is an important lesson, especially when we come on to investigate the judgments on the wicked.
Continuing with our consideration of the judgments on the righteous, we can learn a lesson from Zechariah 13:8-9. “In all the land, declares the Lord, two thirds will be cut off and perish, but the remaining third will be left in it, and I will bring this third part through the fire and refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’ and they will say ‘The Lord is my God.'” The symbolism here is the refining work of fire, as it melts metals, and the dross which floats on the top is skimmed off, leaving that which is pure and unalloyed. The Bible employs a great many pictures, and we must always be careful to translate these pictures into actuality. If God is refining His people “by fire”, what do we understand by this? Is it not that God engineers the circumstances of His children so that they are led through times of testing? This is the crux of the matter. All of us must pass through these tests, for without them, we shall remain in a useless, unproven, and defiled state before God.
There is a Greek word PEIRASMOS, which means a test, but unfortunately it is almost always translated “temptation”, so that we lose the basic meaning. See what may be learned from 1 Cor.10:13, when the word temptation is replaced by the correct translation – test. “There has no test taken you other than is common to mankind. But God is faithful who will not suffer you to be tested beyond what you are able to bear, but with the test will also make a way out, so that you may be able to endure.” Earthly life for believers must always be a time of testing, but sometimes the Devil wants to crush us beyond the Lord’s allowance. See how our Lord spoke to His disciples when instructing them to pray. “Lead us not into the test, but deliver us from the Evil One.” We should always seek God’s mercy in this respect, so that we are not destroyed by over-oppressive tests, but rather come through them knowing that we have been refined. Thankfully, “The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of trial, but reserves unjust men to the day of judgment to be punished.” (2 Peter 2:9)
James has this to say. “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing this, that the proving of your faith works patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be mature and entire, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4) He goes on to say, “Happy is the man who endures trial, for when he is tried he will receive the crown of life promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12) And James goes on to say that such trials come as a result of our being led astray by our own fallen nature, or directly by Satan, as with our Lord’s tests in the wilderness.
Remember what happened to Isaiah when he saw the Lord high and lifted up. He immediately became aware of his own defilement. So what did the Lord do? He called for one of the Seraphim to take a live coal from the altar and place it on Isaiah’s lips. (Isaiah 6) Once again, we are presented with pictorial language. Such is the way of the Lord with “holy fire”. As in all these examples, the “fire” is easily understood within its pictorial language.
“I assume the process of purification will normally involve suffering. . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.” (C.S.Lewis. Letters to Malcolm.Ch.20) “He who with his whole heart draws near to God must of necessity be proved by temptation and trial.” (St. Albert the Great) “God chooses that men should be tried, but let a man beware of tempting is neighbour.” (George MacDonald)
Thus far is our survey of the Lord’s refining and purification for those who are of the Household of Faith. In part three we shall carry over these truths to examine the lot of those who are ungodly.