Hell, Metaphorically Speaking

image “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Mt 14:40-41)

Could a God whose primary characteristic is His love truly condemn sinners to an everlasting punishment of fiery pain and unending agony? This is one of the first questions that must be answered in a theological examination of the doctrine of Hell. Could such a thing be literally true? In the previous post, the literal view says that there is a Hell and that it is as described in the Bible, a place of eternal punishment.

A second approach to Hell is known as the metaphorical view which denies that the Bible does not support a literal picture of a burning abyss. Some say that this has become the dominant evangelical view and that it best aligns with the revelation of Scripture. At the heart of this position is the exegetical understanding that the images of Hellfire and brimstone are not meant to be interpreted as literal depictions of hell. Instead, they are to be read as figurative language intended to warn the sinful of their impending doom. Jean Calvin was a supporter of the metaphorical view saying that the ‘eternal fire’ in passages such as Matthew 3:12 are better understood metaphorically. Luther also dismissed the horrific images of Hell portrayed by the artist, saying they held no value in the discussion. Proponents of the metaphorical view are careful to limit discussion of the description of Hell to only what is revealed in the scriptures. It is noted by this camp that many of the impressions of Hell that we hold today have come from the fanciful imaginations of authors outside of the Bible.

Is there an adequate foundation for this approach to Scripture? The first assurance that the metaphorical camp issues is that they in no way intend to do away with the doctrine of Hell. There will be a judgment of all people to perdition or peace. With this point established, the question of how to approach the texts on this matter must be answered. The metaphorical view states that it was common practice to use hyperbolic language (rabbinic hyperbole, which would include Jesus) to emphasize their points. A pair of texts from different contexts give examples of this type of language:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:26)

“If your right eye causes you to do, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Mt 5:29)

Do we take these statements literally and gouge our eyes out or hate our beloved? No, and nor did Jesus intend for these statements to be taken literally. In the portrait of Hell that the Scriptures provided, especially in the NT, hyperbole is utilized in order to emphasize the end that awaits those who do not follow Christ into a positive judgment. It was common in Jewish literature to use vivid pictures in order to demonstrate that God has ordained an end to wickedness.

The image and use of fire in Jewish literature is often non-literal. It is used to portray the gravity or seriousness of a situation and not necessarily an intense heat or consuming flame. [ In the NT, examples of this usage include Rev 1:14, Luke 12:49, 1 Cor 3:15, James 3:5-6. ] The use of fire in conjunction with Hell is understood to be a convenient image portraying the intensity of the burning wrath of God. The imagery that is provided is meant to convey the seriousness of the final judgment and it was to included to bring gravity to the entire message of the gospel. The decision to ignore the message is at your own peril, it is not a decision to be dismissed without thought.

Proponents of the metaphorical view support their understanding of the figurative language by examining the language used to describe Heaven. If the scriptural images of Heaven are examined the reader discovers a thoroughly first century picture of the place of eternal rest. It is portrayed as a magnificent city built of gold and jewels and surrounded by high walls, something that is unseen in the modern world. We must ask why the image doesn’t portray a Los Angeles or Paris, modern day magnificent cities. The metaphorical camp challenges the hermeneutic used to interpret the imagery, asking, doesn’t God use images appropriate to the time to help readers of a specific era comprehend His message?


The metaphorical view of Hell interprets the imagery used to described the place/condition of the wicked following the final judgment as figurative. The images of fire and sulfuric smoke are not to be taken literally. They are hyperbolic vignettes meant to convey the serious nature of the judgment and the need to align one’s life appropriately. The metaphorical view does not deny the reality of Hell, it simply challenges the horrific punitive imagery that has developed over the years from the snippets of revelation in the Bible.

Image Jan Hoogendoorn

5 thoughts on “Hell, Metaphorically Speaking”

  1. “The metaphorical view does not deny the reality of Hell, it simply challenges the horrific punitive imagery that has developed over the years from the snippets of revelation in the Bible.”

    THANK YOU! Thank you for adding this! If you had not stated it, I was going to.

  2. Thanks for keeping an eye out. I think the consumer church has elected this as their dominant view and wants to push the idea of Hell to far recesses of doctrine. Many evangelicals are embarrassed and uninformed (bad combination) by the doctrine and they feel like this lets them off the hook. On further examination however, these same Evangelicals are responsible for providing an answer to the numerous scriptures that point to a division of peoples at the judgment. What happens to those on the other side of the line? Hope all is well with the family.

  3. I know those in the Emergent camp is real big in denying a literal “Hell”. I think its a view influenced a little by the Reformed view (which I would say is “metaphorical”, though men like Edwards seemed to use the metaphoical language in a literal way, but why not? We can talk like the Bible talks without raping Scripture, right?), the Eastern Orthodox views on eternal damnation, and frankly, humanism. I think the safest most Biblical roll to go down concerning Hell is that its a literal place described by metaphoric language. Bottom line is, for those who denied Christ in this lifetime, its gonna suck…forever.

    Of course, those of us who confess the Creeds would remind people that we believe that what Christ suffered on the Cross was literally Hell. No flames…simply the wrath of God poured out on Christ in payment for sin.

  4. As I studied to write this piece up I ran across references to Calvin acceding to the scriptures about Hell as being metaphors. I didn’t scan the Institutes to see if this were true. Do you know anything about it? Maybe in his commentaries.

    “It sucks to be you…forever” I wonder if this would make a good church tagline?

  5. Yeah I would have a hard time believing that’s true. Particularly when you read about his views about the retrobate, what “he decended into Hell” means in the Apostle’s Creed, ect. At least I don’t think he would have bought into a metaphorical view of Hell that denied the punitive aspects of it. I don’t think he would say that the language in Scriptures about fire and burning sulfur and all that is literal any more than he would say that Heaven’s streets are literally paved with gold. However if we’re talking about a metaphorical view of Hell that denies eternal punishment (or damnation) for those who reject Christ, for Calvin to get behind this view he would have had to deny so much of his own theology.

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