There is an Old Testament phrase: His love endures forever
This word ‘forever’ is not limited to endless time and in fact when the word ‘forever’ or ‘eternal’ appears in the Bible it quite often refers to a limited period of time. Jonah was in the belly of the fish ‘forever,’ yet we know it was only 3 days. Even in Modern English, I can use the expression: ‘this is taking forever’ and you know what I mean: it is taking a long time.
The word ‘eternal’ in the Bible refers to the realm of God, the realm of the spiritual or supernatural. It refers to the kind of relationship we have with God: a loving, reconciled relationship. John 17:3 says “Now this is eternal life: that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This is a quality of life: knowing God intimately.
We accept that God is eternal in the sense of endless time and we believe that his love endures forever, but what we neglect to understand that God’s love is of an intimate, other-worldly quality. That God himself is love. Perhaps this phrase – “his love endures forever” – repeated so often in the Psalms is whispering the most powerful truth of all. God never changes and he is always love. God is love forever. God’s love never dies. God loves you unconditionally the same way while you are in the womb; at the moment that you steal a cookie from the cookie jar; when you lose your virginity; at the time of your death and on into eternity. He always loves you. This verse is talking about how amazing God’s love is – not just how endless or how long suffering. His love ‘endures’ means nothing can conquer it! He will never cease to love you.
The Western Church accepts that God’s love endures forever. But most of the Western Church also accepts that people will burn in hell for all eternity. Trying to marry these two concepts is near impossible. It does not make sense that God would love a person and at the same time abandon that person to endless torture. With a traditional concept of hell, these concepts are contradictory. However, this is a misinterpretation of Scripture. Hell is not endless! This word eternal, as I pointed out, has been used throughout the Bible to define things pertaining to the afterlife – it is a quality of life and a functioning of our relationship with God. To say that Jonah was in the fish ‘eternally’ is to say that his fate was in the hand of God – that he was in a spiritual place. In the same way, hell is a spiritual place or state of being.
What is this place or state we refer to as hell? The most common understanding is that it is fire. The New Testament writers referred to the fires of Gehenna and the lake of fire, so my purpose here is to search out the meaning of hellfire.
Today, my neighbour was playing an old John Farnham song: “Burn for you.” This song is not about burning in a literal fire, it is talking about the fire of love. To burn with passion is a reference to love or to lust. The world has equated love and burning for centuries – possibly since the beginning of time. Love burns like fire. The fire of love never burns out. This is the same in the Bible. Hellfire is the love of God. Let me show you:
“Our God is a consuming fire” – Deuteronomy 4:24 & Hebrews 12:29.
“I will put them into the fire. I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. 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 our God’” – Zechariah 13:9. This reference to the fire of God refining us occurs repeatedly in the Bible. See also Malachi 3:2 & Isaiah 48:10.
Similarly the fire of God cleanses and purifies: “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger. Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder” – Zephaniah 3:8-9.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah worried about his guilt as he stood before God. He called himself a man of unclean lips. The angel of God took a live coal (fire) and said “See this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” – Isaiah 6:6-7.
God appeared to Moses in a Burning Bush to promise that he would deliver the Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land – Exodus 3:17.
God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire in the book of Genesis. Then he promised to restore this dead nation in the afterlife – Ezekiel 16:53.
Jesus preaches a sermon about cutting off the dirty hand (that’s been in the cookie jar) and throwing it in the fire of Gehenna, rather than throwing the whole body into Gehenna. Then he makes this remarkable statement: “Everyone will be salted with fire” – Mark 9:49. In this life or the next we will be burned by the fire of God’s love. And the burning will hurt, hence the references to weeping and gnashing of teeth. It hurts because we resist it (preferring the cookie). We go against the flow of love and dirty our hands all the time. When we stop resisting love, we will no longer perceive our experience as being ‘hellish’ and experience the heavenliness of God’s love.
Then, in 2 Thessalonians we have a classic hellfire text. “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” This word ‘everlasting,’ refers to a quality and not a quantity of existence. In other words, they will be punished with fire from the presence of the Lord in the age to come. Versions of the Bible that use the phrase ‘shut out from the presence of the Lord’ are incorrect. The original Greek says that the punishment or hellfire comes ‘from’ the presence of the Lord! It is called punishment because we are resisting the Gospel of grace as it says in the verse prior.
Do you see? God is love – 1 John 4:16. And God’s love is hellfire! It is going to burn up the lies that people believe about God, until they surrender to his love. It is not eternal – but the results are endless. The result being that every person will experience the love of God in the core of their being and succumb to it: “Every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” – Philippians 4:10 & Isaiah 45:23-25.
“For Love is as Strong as Death
Its Jealousy as Unyielding as the Grave
It Burns like Blazing Fire
The Brightest Kind of Flame
Many Waters Cannot Quench Love
Nor can Rivers Drown it
If one were to Give all their Wealth for Love
It would be Utterly Scorned” – Song of Solomon 8:6-7.
Our God’s Hellfire Love is Priceless!
He is not going to abandon you. Not ever.
He burns for you!
His Love Endures Forever!