We conclude our series on how to understand God as as consuming fire as we continue to look carefully at the passages that describe this situation. It is very important to look at the context of the passages to determine what is being communicated as well as to determine if this is literal or a metaphor. This journey has been very enlightening and has enabled us to see God as the One that Jesus came to reveal, a God of love for all His people. The One who is Light, Life and Love. Who brings light by His presence, which makes life possible so that we can experience His undying love for us. The One who burns away our fear with His love.
God as a Consuming Fire.
Fire or heat radiation is caused by most frequencies of the Electro Magnetic Spectrum. To say that God is literally a consuming fire is implying that God is a high energy being or a spirit being rather than a material being.
Is this what Ezekiel was reporting about the King of Tyre and Lucifer?
Ezekiel 28:14 NLT I ordained and anointed you as the mighty angelic guardian. You had access to the holy mountain of God and walked among the stones of fire.
Is the idea of God being fire literal or symbolic?
God may have this intense radiation around him but this does not mean he cannot veil it. When Moses asks to see God’s glory or his being God has to veil it by hiding him in a rock fissure (Exodus 33, 34).
The Case for God being a Literal Fire
In thinking about God being a literal high energy being there is a parallel with radiation. We use radiation to generate X-rays and power, to treat disease and preserve foods. These are small, controlled uses of this energy. A nuclear bomb is an example of an uncontrolled radiation. Another example is the tragic Chernobyl disaster. Pierre and Marie Curie both died of exposure to radiation. Dentists know the danger of prolonged exposure to X-rays and use distance and lead line aprons as protection. This means that there are benefits from God being perceived as the original source of energy in the universe. This concept of God is also a threat.
The metaphor of God being a “consuming fire” fits well with traditional views on God’s terrifying wrath and an ever, burning hell (Revelation 14:10-11). One can only conjecture that this concept of a violent, fiery God easily led to burning heretics at the stake and prolonging their death as long as possible. If God can treat sinners cruelly, as in an ever, burning hell, why can’t “saints” do the same, especially if they are dealing with pestilential heretics.
A consuming fire and an ever-burning hell are mutually exclusive. If the fire consumes it must end. An ever- burning hell means that there is no consumption of the material being burned. The sun is a consuming fire. It will eventually expire when its hydrogen and helium fuel is used up.
Three times in Scripture, God is explicitly called a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24; Isaiah 33:14; Hebrews 12:29). In Deuteronomy Moses is telling younger Israelites what happened at Sinai as they had not been alive or engaged at that time. Deuteronomy is written late in Moses life and those adults who had been at Sinai had all passed away in the desert by then and Israel was about to enter the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy 4:23-24 NLT So be careful not to break the covenant the LORD your God has made with you. Do not make idols of any shape or form, for the LORD your God has forbidden this. 24 The LORD your God is a devouring (consuming) fire; he is a jealous God.
Moses is reminding them of the regulations and the manifestations of God’s presence at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-20). He is warning them that God’s presence can be lethal if not mitigated by reverence and obedience. At the same time Moses entered the fire and emerged shining like the sun!
Isaiah 33:14 NLT. The sinners in Jerusalem shake with fear. Terror seizes the godless “Who can live with this devouring fire?” they cry. “Who can survive this all-consuming fire?”
The context of this passage is that God declared he was going to put an end to the marauding Assyrian army which had carried the northern Tribes away (vss. 10-13). For this reason, sinners in Jerusalem, who had feared the Assyrians, will now fear God even more. If they had been willing to repent, they would have been delivered from fear (verse 15).
Hebrews 12:28-29 NLT Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. 29 For our God is a devouring (consuming) fire.
The Kingdom of Heaven has come and it will last forever because it is protected by the “fire” of the blazing love of God. We are thus happy to reverence him in every possible way. This relationship is apparently based more on awe than on love. God always hopes we will move from obligation to fascination in our relationship with him.
To Elijah, the god who answers by fire is the true God (1 Kings 18:24).
The traditional understanding of God as a literal “consuming fire” leads to God being the cause of the death of Jesus once he took our sin on him. Deconstructing the following popular paragraph on the web substantiates this claim.
“Fortunately, God has provided the righteousness we need by sending Jesus Christ to die on the cross for the sins of all who would ever believe in Him. In that one act, Christ mitigates God’s wrath, exchanging His perfect righteousness for our sin. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). All the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus, so that those who belong to Him would not have to suffer the same fate as the Assyrians. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), but we need not fear the consuming fire of God’s wrath if we are covered by the purifying blood of Christ.” https://www.gotquestions.org/consuming-fire.html
Notice the following implications of this paragraph. 1. Christ “mitigates” or reduces God’s wrath by his death on the cross. This means that Jesus changed God’s attitude towards sinners with his sacrificial death. This is what a sacrifice is, it is the presentation of something that changes the mind of the one who receives the presentation. The writer does not understand that Christ’s sacrifice was to change sinner’s minds, not God’s mind.
2. “All the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus” thus delivering believers from death. This means death is a punishment, not a consequence of sin. As a punishment, death, can then be moved to a substitute. However, death is the consequence of sin as much as emphysema is a consequence of smoking. I can’t take your emphysema into my lungs so you can breathe. I need to help you stop smoking to be of any help to someone short of breath caused by smoking.
3. The consuming fire is equated with God’s wrath. This is comparing apples with oranges. The consuming fire may be seen as purifying us of straw and hay and reveal the gold and silver. God’s wrath is a way of describing God’s emotion when he is forced away and must leave sinners to the consequences of their bad choices. Sinners then become subject to the thief who steals, kills, and destroys (John 10:10). The consequence of sin, spiritual, emotional, and physical death also play their deadly role.
The concept of God as a “consuming fire” is a simile or metaphor for the bad consequences of sin or God’s protection of his people.
The following 20 examples demonstrate this claim and suggest that the “consuming fire” of God is not literal but symbolic.
1. When God finds Adam and Eve hiding in the garden there is no mention of God coming as a “consuming fire.” They hid long before God showed up which indicates that the problem was in them and not in God (Genesis 3).
2. Satan is not destroyed by fire when he comes to the Heavenly Council and challenges the LORD (Job 1:6- 11; 2:1-5).
3. To Abraham, God comes as a smoking oven and a burning torch (Genesis 15:17) to bless him.
4. When Moses comes close to the burning bush and talks to the LORD, he is not consumed (Exodus 3:1-6).
5. When Moses comes down off the Mountain of God his face was shining to the point where the Israelites asked him to wear a veil (2 Corinthians 3:7). They preferred their darkness to the light of God reflecting off Moses face. This was because many of the Israelites were worshiping their own gods—not the God who had delivered them from Egypt. They were worshiping Sakkuth, the king god and Kaiwan, the star god (Amos 5:26). They will later worship the bronze serpent (2 Kings 18:4). To Moses, the Burning Bush became Mt Sinai burning with fire. Moses enters the fire (Exodus 19:16-20) and comes out unscathed. It was a blessing to him and to those who wanted to be close to God.
“To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the LORD appeared at the summit like a consuming fire” (Exodus 24:17 NLT).
6. When Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, use common fire to burn incense the fire of the LORD blazed forth and they died. Their clothes were not burned, so this was not a literal fire (Leviticus 10:1-5).
7. When Joshua is about to enter the Promised Land, the LORD promises to be a “consuming fire” to their enemies. Deuteronomy 9:1-3 NLT “Listen, O Israel! Today you are about to cross the Jordan River to take over the land belonging to nations much greater and more powerful than you. They live in cities with walls that reach to the sky! 2 The people are strong and tall descendants of the famous Anakite giants. You’ve heard the saying, ‘Who can stand up to the Anakites?’ 3 But recognize today that the LORD your God is the one who will cross over ahead of you like a devouring (consuming) fire to destroy them. He will subdue them so that you will quickly conquer them and drive them out, just as the LORD has promised.
We have no record of Israel’s enemies being destroyed by literal fire. Rather the LORD promised to send “terror” to defeat them (Exodus 23:28; Deuteronomy 7:20).
8. When Isaiah sees the LORD, high and lifted up he is not consumed (Isaiah 6:1-5).
9. God as a “consuming fire” is a metaphor for destruction as the last passage indicates. It was good news for the Israelites. It meant that destruction was coming to the Assyrians. Persia destroyed Assyria in battle.
Isaiah 30:27 NLT “Look! The LORD is coming from far away (against the Assyrians), burning with anger, surrounded by thick, rising smoke. His lips are filled with fury; his words consume like fire.”
10. Ezekiel has visions of God by the Kebar river and he sees God blazing forth (Ezekiel 3:23). For Ezekiel this is good news of restoration from captivity.
11. Daniel sees a river of fire proceeding from the throne of God (Daniel 7:10)—this river is a metaphor of his blazing, unconditional love for us as he deals with the little horn.
12. Malachi ends the OT prophesying the Messiah will come like a refiners fire (3:2-3), and like fullers soap. He will also purify the descendants of Levi. John the Baptist calls the rich to pity the poor, calls solders to stop harassing people. He calls the crowds a brood of vipers and warns them that if they do not repent and reform they will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:7-9), and this fire will consume the chaff with an unquenchable or consuming fire (Luke 3:17). This was a repeat of Malachi’s prophecy 400 years earlier.
13. John the Baptist prophesied the following.
Luke 3:15-16 NLT Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah. 16 John answered their questions by saying, “I baptize you with[a] water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
By fire John is predicting the tongues of fire at Pentecost but also suffering as the following shows.
14. Jesus speaks as follows concerning the fire he brought.
Luke 12:49-50 NLT “I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning! 50 I have a terrible baptism of suffering ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished.
By “fire” Jesus was referring to his suffering and his followers suffering at the hands of wicked men.
15. When Jesus was transfigured his face and clothes shone (Matthew 17:1-3). No one was hurt!
16. Those who rebel against God expect condemnation and destruction at his hands, as Adam and Eve did when they hid in the garden after eating the fruit.
Hebrews 10:26 “For if we wilfully persist in sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins remains: only a terrifying expectation of judgement and a fierce fire which will consume God's enemies.”
17. Peter does not want believers to be surprised by the fiery trial that comes to them (2 Peter 3:10-13). This fire consumes the wood, hay, straw in us and refines the gold and silver. Revelation 3:18 counsels us to buy gold tried in the fire. Clearly these are all metaphors for trouble and refining.
18. John the Revelator reports that Christ will look upon us with his eyes of fire (Revelation 1:14b).
19. Death and Hades are thrown into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14). This means this fire is symbolic of total destruction since death cannot literally be thrown into a fire. God does not oscillate between wrath and love. Eventually all his enemies come to an end and are totally destroyed because this is the consequence of sin. God is love. He is never wrath.
20. Revelation 6:13-17 tells of the reaction of sinners to the presence of God at the Second Coming. They prefer mass suicide to meeting the Lamb. Pure, unselfish love is horribly threatening to sinners whose every cell is infected with the virus of selfishness. For sinners, the Second Coming is God’s “consuming fire” because they are evil and fear the light of love. God is coming to save, not to destroy, but sinners have their own baggage which causes them to prefer suicide to eternal life with God. (Ezekiel 28:18 fire comes out of the Devil to destroy him. This is the cause of his demise. Like Judas, like every suicide.)
Fire is symbolic of purity (gold refined in the fire). We sometimes use fire to deal with garden refuse and unwanted garbage. We used to use fire to cauterize wounds. The fire of God is the consequence of his being spirit not material and his presence prevents evil in the same way the sun prevents darkness. One has to move away from God’s to practise evil.
A pure moral presence is a threat to sinners. Plato knew 400 years before Jesus that if a perfect man appeared he would be executed because he was an embarrassment to imperfect men. How much more would men hate the innocent, unconditional loving God. What would they do to him if they could get their hands on him? The torture and execution of Jesus Christ answers that quest.
Sinners prefer the dark to the light (1 John 1:5-7; 2:8b-11; 3:19). When the traders leave the temple, it is because they are in awe of the purity of Jesus. His moral purity drove them out. His moral purity was a “consuming fire” to them. This is evident from them asking the next day, “By what authority are you doing all these things?” (Mark 11:28). If Jesus had driven them out by physical violence, they would not have asked this question. There were temple police to deal with physical violence. They were never called.
Fire is used in a literal and in a symbolic sense in the Bible. Manoah’s offering is literally burned up (Judges 13), Elijah’s altar is literally burned up, but the Lake of Fire is NOT literal since it can burn up death (Revelation20:14-15) and as such is a symbol of complete destruction.
Philosophically, God is not material since he created all matter. He is spirit and so he is pure energy and to all material or spiritual impurity he is a threat in the same way that the heat of a crucible is a threat to impurity in a precious metal, in the same way that antibiotics threaten bacteria and soap threatens dirt. The best analogy is the threat of light to darkness!
The creation story has as God’s first creative act the creation of light. This is because when God is present there is light. Jesus will claim millennia later that he is the Light of the World (John 8:12) and as a consequence he is also Life and Love. It is the energy that produces light that also produces life (Literally through photosynthesis) and love through affection and kindness.
We mistakenly think Messiah comes the second time to deal with sinners, but when he comes, he deals with all, saints, and sinners (Hebrews 9:28). To saints he is light and life and love. Sinners think he has come for revenge and punishment and they prefer death like Judas did 2000 years ago (Revelation 6:13-17).
Sinners cry for the rocks and the mountains to fall on them because they feel totally self-condemned. This is a cry for mass suicide.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15b, tells us that the result of encountering Christ is that we build with gold and silver not wood and straw (Pride, Greed and Lust). We are diamonds in the rough covered in chaff.
Does God destroy those who are not part of the temple of God (16-17)? The sun destroys darkness, not because it wants to destroy darkness, but it’s the nature of light. It helps to distinguish between the destruction of fire but light does not.
The fire Jesus brings is the presence of God. This is not judgment, condemnation, or punishment but the blazing, cleansing love of God.
What is not of love will be burned up. Both sinners and saints suffer loss, but dross is worth losing.
God’s love is intense and blazing with passion. It is not luke-warm.
God loves you into purity.
How to get close to the fire of God’s love.
Pray to be baptised by the Holy Spirit and with fire. This is the change believers covet. Get close to the picture Jesus gave us of God and his love. Be curious about our motivation for life. Is it fear and anxiety that separates us from God.
2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.
Ian Hartley, December 2021