Do you like fire? I know it's a strange question, but some people absolutely LOVE fire. Pyromaniacs have an obsession with fire, and can spend hours staring at hypnotizing flames. Give them any excuse to burn something, and they're lighting a match. Other people, on the other hand, are terrified of fire. Pyrophobics aren't just afraid of flames if their houses are burning down--that would make sense. They're afraid of warm cozy fireplaces, romantic candles, and cooking fires too. Of course, most people realize that the experience you have at a campfire will depend greatly on whether or not you enjoy fire. If you love fire, you'll have a grand old time. If you're afraid of fire, it will be a terrible night for you.
Throughout the Bible, fire is used as a metaphor for God. In many ways, God is like fire. We talk about God's love being like warmth, and God's illuminating light that He sheds in our hearts. Those who stand opposed to God get burned by Him, while those who love God want to snuggle up to His warmth. Your experience of God differs, depending on your attitude toward Him.
Here are a few scriptures that depict God in fiery terms.
God appears to the Israelites as a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-23) that lit the way for desert travel. In 14:24, "the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic." Jeremiah says that God's word within him is like "a burning fire shut up in my bones (Jeremiah 20:9)." Ezekiel sees God's glory as:
"a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal...And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning...And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. (Ezekiel 1:4, 13b-14, 26-28)."
No doubt, this is related to the chariots of fire which whisk Elijah into heaven (2 Kings 2:11). It's an amazing thing that God's loving fire can be an awe-inspiring and even fearful thing, while not being harmful to the faithful. Moses experiences God as a bush that, while burning, is not consumed (Exodus 3:2). When an angel touched Isaiah's lips with a live coal from the altar of heaven, instead of burning him, it cleanses him (Isaiah 6:6-7).
Yet, God's holy fire is not always so pleasant. To the faithless, God says:
Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God (Deuteronomy 4:23-24).
Hebrews 12:29 says, "God is a consuming fire." Exodus 15:7 says, "In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you. You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble." Deuteronomy 6:15 says, "The LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land." In Mark 9, Jesus talks about people being thrown into hell, "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire (vv. 48-49)." In Matthew 13:49-50, Jesus says, "So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." One sobering image says:
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name (Revelation 14:9-11).”
Revelation 21:8 also gives warning to those who live apart from God's grace: "But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” I could spend all day examining scriptures that talk about God's holy fire, in a beautiful way and in a fearful way. But I think these examples give you an idea about the ways in which fire is used throughout the Bible to depict God.
Today's scripture says that not only hell, but also "the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:7)." It also says that "the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (vv. 12b-13)." God's holy fire will one day bring destruction of all things, but only so that He can put the universe back together again, remaking it in perfect beauty. Remember, Jesus is the one who says, “Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21:5).”
So, in the end, there will be fire. Of one kind or another. Either warming, illuminating, protecting, inspiring fire--or terrifying, painful, and destructive fire. And one way or another, that fire will be God's holy fire. The difference isn't in the fire--it's in whether you love that fire or not. Will you respect and, yes, even fear God enough to let His fire cleanse you as it cleansed Isaiah? Or, is the presence of God abhorrent to you? Do you reject the notion of a loving, forgiving God who wants the salvation of all people? When God calls to you with His love, do you say, "I want nothing to do with you or your Kingdom?" In that case, there will still be fire. But that righteous fire will torment your soul, because God's holiness is the last thing that you desire.
In the end, there will be fire. Holy fire. The question is, how will you respond when God strikes His match? Whether God's fire is pure heaven, or sheer hell, is up to you.
*Scriptures taken from the ESV.