We should like to thank all those who respond to our Telegraphs, either by thanking us for fellowship, or with problems and disagreements needing to be tackled. Our readers will have noticed that our theme of late has been very much devoted to the issues connected with Ultimate Reconciliation, and this is because we have sensed the Lord’s gracious pressure upon us in that direction. Some have written to say that the expositions have released them from perplexities concerning God’s character (in connection with the popular notion of hell-fire), but others have given us lists of references which support a most gruesome scene in the distant future, seemingly contradicting our thesis.
It is because of these latter correspondents that we now address the issue of God’s vengeance. One of the most powerful passages in Paul’s writings is as follows:- “The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power.” (2 Thess.1:7-9) One cannot but shrink from the dire and dreadful scene depicted of the return of this “Rambo-style Messiah” suddenly appearing from heaven with a strong angelic force, wielding flame guns and exterminators. Sorry. The language does no credit to the Lord, and in fact makes mockery of divine utterance. But we have written it like that to pinpoint the need for contemplation. This is a very serious matter, and it deserves our best attention.
How are we to UNDERSTAND the meaning of these very terrible words? Have they been translated correctly? What did they mean to those who first heard them, or read them, in Paul’s day? First of all it must be said that Paul was only writing in the same vein as the Old Testament prophets, one verse of which deserves to be quoted here. “For by fire and by His sword will the Lord plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many.“ (Isaiah 66:16) In the second place, it must be remembered that the Hebrew language is replete with figures of speech, and Paul, being a Jew would of necessity write as one who was well-versed in the Old Testament, and whose thought-patterns were governed by this constant usage of Hebrew figures.
We in the western world are also given to figurative language a great deal, and when my wife and I went to teach black Africans in Kenya some years ago, we found it very difficult to refrain from using colloquialisms and figures of speech, which the boys always failed to understand. It taught us a lesson. But whereas we accept our own style of figurative language, we seem intent on misinterpreting ancient speech, much as the Kenyan boys misinterpreted ours. How then should we approach the problem of understanding the figurative language of the Bible? To quote a verse from Cowper’s famous hymn “God moves in a mysterious way” –
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.
It is our studied belief that the Bible will interpret itself through its pages, for all those who are prepared to give of their time to search, and who are concerned enough to WANT to know the answer to most difficult questions such as the one now before us. In the two quotations given above, mention is made of FLAME OF FIRE, and a SWORD. These we believe to be the figures of speech, the symbols used by the Lord to describe His acts of judgment. They are based upon warfare as it existed in those days, and could have been understood by those who read the words. We say “could” rather than “would” because our Lord showed that true understanding is not the happy lot of all who read the Scriptures, then or now.
Where else do we find mention of FLAME OF FIRE? In Revelation 1:14 John gave a description of the Lord in glory, and the item of interest to us is – “His eyes were as a flame of fire.” Stephen, in his speech spoke of “an Angel of the Lord in a flame of fire” at the burning bush. (Acts 7:30) In Hebrews 1:7 a quotation from Psalm 104:4 reads, “He makes His Angelsspirits, and His ministers a flame of fire.” These references clearly indicate that the “flame of fire” is of the non-consuming type, as Moses noticed at the burning bush, and also that the expression is used in particular of the Lord’s EYES. In Zechariah 4:10 we read about the seven lamps that were on the candlestick, and they are called “the eyes of the Lord which run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” These are referred to again in Rev.4:5 “there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God.”
We have no intention of trying to EXPLAIN all these mysteries, but enough is revealed in these references to show that the FLAME OF FIRE is vastly different to anything that comes to the mind of westerners in modern society. How then are we to understand this FLAME OF FIRE? If it issues from the eyes of the Lord, then it has to do with an appearance of the Lord, and the effect He has on those who LOOK INTO HIS EYES. Jesus said, “And I, if I am lifted up, will draw all men toMyself.” And in Zechariah we read “They shall LOOK UPON ME whom they pierced, and shall mourn for Him.” The simple yet powerful truth is that to look into the eyes of the glorified Lord is to be struck with one’s own unworthiness, and weep in bitterness for one’s own sin. “In that day a fountain shall be opened – – for sin and uncleanness.” (Zech.12:10 & 13:1) Rather than have thoughts of destruction, we can appreciate what God is doing in His judgment scene. The “fires” of the Lord enter into man’s soul and bring about repentance. But we have also read that the Angels are “a flame of fire”. It seems that God has many helpers whose job it is, and will be, to bring man to repentance in this same manner. We even recognise the ability being given to some of God’s preachers of the past. We have read a passage in the biography of Smith Wigglesworth, that one day he walked into a railway carriage and upon looking at a man in there, found him getting up and saying, “Sir, you convict me of sin.” Merely by looking at him. Furthermore, this happened on many occasions in the ministry of Charles Finney in America. The Holy Spirit was looking out through the eyes of God’s servants, and producing this effect.“When the Holy Spirit is come He will convict the world of sin.”
It would seem therefore that the Lord has a work of greater magnitude in coming days than anyone has yet appreciated. The second symbol was that of a sword. Isaiah said that the Lord would plead with all flesh by the sword, and that the slain of the Lord would be many. What are we meant to understand by the SWORD? In the passage of Revelation already quoted, are the words “Out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword.” (1:16) Whereas the flame of fire refers to the Lord’s EYES, the sword refers to His MOUTH and His SPEECH. “The sword of the Spirit is the WORD OF GOD,” (Eph:6:17), and “the word of the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart – – all things are naked and open to the EYES of Him with Whom we have to do.” (Heb.4:12-13) Here we have the action of our Lord’s WORDS and His EYES.
Yes, the word of the Lord can kill, but what sort of death is to be understood? Is it just physical death? We ask, what point would there be in that? Is not man “appointed once to die, and after that the judgment?” Are we not ALL already appointed to death, because we are born in Adam, and therefore sinners. “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” No, this “death”, by the sword of God’s mouth, is not to do with physical death, it is rather to do with the death of our old natures. None of us should object to this thought, because the preaching of the word is doing this all the time. If a man preach the Gospel, and the Spirit of God convicts some of sin, then a state of repentance is achieved, which brings great joy in heaven. If the word of God can bring about this blessed effect through the preaching of us humans, then think how much greater will be the effect when the Lord of glory appears Himself, and “every eye shall see Him.” The combined effect of His EYES(the fire), and His MOUTH, (the sword-words), will indeed mean that “the slain of the Lord are many.” Praise the Lord.
In His coming judgment scene, He will be manifesting Himself for the sake of drawing men to Himself. Jesus will be lifted up. God is not the author of destruction, unless it be interpreted as the destruction of evil. But NOT the destruction of the beingswhom He has Himself created. In Revelation, when the seven seals are opened, we are told that ONE QUARTER of menare killed. During the time of the sounding of the seven trumpets, ONE THIRD of the earth is “slaughtered.” But in chapter seven, we read about a “great multitude whom no man can number, who have washed ther robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” On the one hand the vision speaks of about 50% of the earth’s population being killed, whereas on the other hand God obtains a harvest of prodigious size “out of every nation, kindred, people, and tongue.”
The analysis given above shows that these apparently diverse things are in reality ONE AND THE SAME. Physical death is used as a figure of speech to indicate the magnitude of God’s harvest, like the later symbols of the sickle and the blood from the grapes. Those who advocate an unnecessary literalism in the interpretation of Revelation cannot but foster the bloodthirsty vengeful nature of God, which we believe is wholly false. God sent Jesus into the world so that men might be saved, not utterly destroyed or tormented for ever and ever.
We realise that even if the foregoing finds some satisfaction with our readers, there will always be a question mark because of the latter part of 2 Thess.1:8-9, where Paul says that those who “know not God, and those who obey not the gospel, will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” We are challenged by some of our readers to find an answer to this verse without resorting to some devious or mischievous device. On the surface the verse sounds dreadful, and reminds one of a person taking revenge in hot temper. But we offer the following questions, which must be answered on the basis of God’s character, and not just semantics.
1. If the writer intended to convey the idea of annihilation, why didn’t he just say that and nothing more? To say that their punishment would be “destruction” would suffice. Anything added would then be wholly superfluous.
2. Why is this destruction said to be “everlasting”? Greek scholars are unanimous about the meaning of AIONIOS, that whatever nuances it may possess, it was never intended to mean “everlasting” as we think of it today. AIONIOS is not equal to infinity-of-time.
3. Why is this destruction said to be “from the presence of the Lord?” Destruction, if it really means extermination, needs no additional descriptive clause of this type.
We believe that answers to these questions can be found, and our own understanding may be summarised as follows. The words translated destruction in the N.T., when applied to human beings always means “death”, just ordinary physical death, and no more. But the Book of Hebrews tells us that “after death comes the judgment.” Hence this ordinary physical death cannot be equated with destruction, annihilation, or extermination as we understand the use of those terms. This is why the “destruction” is “everlasting”. It is death which lasts throughout the Millennial age. The punishment is to be excluded from this glorious period of God’s Sabbath Rest. That’s why the word AIONIOS is better translated age-lasting, rather than everlasting. The “destruction” is “from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints.”
This amplifies what was said in the last paragraph. It depicts something of the wonder that will be present on earth during Christ’s reign, and the anguish that will be experienced by those who will be excluded from it. Finally, we believe that Paul’s words are his way of summing up what the Lord said Himself about the division of the “sheep” from the “goats” in Matthew 25. We find it difficult to understand why some believers seem to be intent on upholding the traditional view of everlasting torment and hell-fire. Some who write to us send us lists of all the most horrible verses they can find, and say that we haven’t given any consideration to them. We have tried to restore the balance in this paper, but would also like to point out that a much fuller exposition was given in the Telegraph entitled “Every Knee Shall Bow”. (P.T.20) But the real point is this. In our papers we have presented all those marvellous verses which speak of God’s ultimate goal, to recreate ALL. There are so many such verses throughout both Testaments. Our query is why these same correspondents find it so difficult to believe THEM, whereas they find it so ‘palatable’ to believe the dreadful ones.
May we make a gentle suggestion? It is our studied belief that the apparent necessity of some in believing in everlasting torment is just a part of the old nature of man, sometimes whipped up into a frenzy by the Devil himself, who gets very angry indeed when he is told that one day he will bow the knee to Jesus!
Try it, tel the Devil that one day he will submit to Christ, and see what sort of lash-back you experience. But please do so under the canopy of Christ’s protection, and not just as a “dare”. We have spoken to Satan in this wise, and we sensed a very hostile reaction in our spirits.