But in another context it can be a raging force of destruction and annihilation. Hell vs. Heaven, you might say . . . The two faces of fire.
Is there a connection between the two faces? Let's focus on the relation between God and fire. The pivotal text is Hebrews 12:29:
"Our God is a consuming fire."What can this mean, that "our God is a consuming fire"? Our relationship to him can be warming and magical, or a raging destruction.
Consider a selection of images from both the Old and New Testaments:
"The sinners are terrified . . . Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning? He who walks righteously and speaks what is right . . . Isaiah 33:14-15The sinners are terrified; it is the righteous who are able to "dwell with everlasting burning".
"When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God." Isaiah 43:2,3No wonder that, "In that day they will say,
'Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us.'" Isaiah 25:9This saving in fire is illustrated by the experience of Daniel's three friends, who were cast into a fiery furnace because of their loyalty to God:
"Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, "Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?" They replied, "Certainly, O king." He said, "Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods." Daniel 3:24-25Obviously, the presence of Jesus - the fourth man who looked to the king like a son of God - provided protection from the consuming flames.
God's purpose is not to destroy us with fire, but to cleanse us. He himself is the fire that cleanses. He does this by consuming our imperfections and refining our characters. Sin and failure cannot exist in his presence. When they come into his presence, he consumes them. Thus, the day of his coming is often cited as one of heat and destruction:
"But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire . . . He will sit as a refiner and purifier; he will purify [his people] and refine them like silver and gold." Malachi 3:2,3The refiner uses heat to burn out the dross. The pure silver and gold melt together and separate from the imperfections and worthless slag that remains. Our God is a consuming (and cleansing) fire. As Malachi (4:1) said,
"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace."But this need not be a day of distress or horror, but rather of relief. Remember, fire has two faces. The apostle Paul lays this our clearly:
"God is just: He will . . . Give relief to you who are troubled . . . This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire." 2 Thessalonians 1:6,7The comforting relief is the warmth and purity of God cleansing our souls. It is nothing less than the presence of the Holy Spirit, the great Comforter, who comes to us as "tongues of fire." Acts 2:3
But the comforting of the Spirit may not be comfortable. For though this face of burning is not destructive to our souls, it is cleansing to our souls. As Peter says,
"Greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine." 1 Peter 1:6,7It seems for sure that we can accept the present gradual cleansing by the Holy Spirit - sanctification - by being exposed little by little to the righteousness of God. Or, we can wait for that final great day and be exposed to it all at once. The consequences of the alternate courses here are the two faces of fire. One cleansing and purifying, and the other a raging destruction. The one is heaven, now or then; the other is hell, now or then.
It is interesting that there is so little awareness of the role of God as a preserving fire for his people. And rather, that focus on fire in the religious community has largely been on hell. We ought to concern ourselves more with the face of salvation than the face of destruction.
Peter puts the faces in this perspective:
"The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly men . . . The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." 2 Peter 3:7,10This is the firestorm that rebirths the world:
"But in keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness." 2 Peter 3:13At that time,
"And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow . . . And destroy by the splendor of his coming." 2 Thessalonians 2:8
"All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire . . . But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings . . . Then the wicked will be ashes under the soles of your feet." Malachi 4:1-3The final presence of God obliterates evil. It is not a cruel, vindictive, drawn our process, but a flash of nuclear purification. The effect of his presence is eternal and everlasting. The fire will not be quenched, its result is a pure clean ash. For man it is a matter of purification, either redemptive or destructive.
But we ought not to leave this picture without some Biblical caveats. First, notice God's patience.
"He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." 2 Peter 3:9In fact, the act of obliterating one of his creation is so abhorrent to God that it is spoken of as his "work, his strange work, . . . his task, his alien task." Isaiah 28:21
Could this mean that God will stay his hand of destruction, and evil will ever be with us? After all, God told Jonah that he (God) was going to destroy Nineveh. But the Ninevites repented and he didn't, much to Jonah's annoyance. (Jonah 3:9; 4:1,2) And Paul, speaking to the Corinthians describes the good works and bad works that people do, and how God will test their works with fire. The bad works will burn up and the good ones will merit a reward:
"If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through flames." 1 Corinthians 3:14,15The point of all this is to allow yourself to be purified in the here and now - little by little - rather than waiting for the uncertain (as to you) there and then. Listen to God,
"Get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!" Ezekiel 18:31-32