“Fire and Brimstone”

“Fire and Brimstone”
Genesis 19:23-29
March 23 2012

Dr. Schlambaugh, a senior lecturer at the Chemical Engineering Department,University of Oklahoma, is known for posing questions on final exams like: “Why do airplanes fly?”

In May a few years ago, the “Momentum, Heat and Mass Transfer ” exam paper contained the question:

“Is Hell exothermic or endothermic? Support your answer with proof.”

Most students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle’s Law or similar. One student, however, wrote the following:

First, we must postulate that if souls exist, they must have some mass. If they do, then a mole of souls also must have a mass. So, at what rate are souls moving into hell and at what rate are souls leaving? I think we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it does not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

As for souls entering Hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some religions say that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions, and people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to Hell. With the birth and death rates what they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change in the volume of Hell. Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the ratio of the mass of the souls and volume needs to stay constant.

[Answer 1] So, if Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature in Hell willincrease until all Hell breaks loose.

[Answer 2] Of course, if Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase in souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it? If we accept the postulate (given to me by Teresa Banyan during freshman year) that “it’ll be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you”, and taking into account that I still have not succeeded in having sexual relations with her, then [Answer 2] cannot be correct;
…… thus, Hell is exothermic.

The student got the only A.

For generations now, a sermon on the punishments of hell or the
threat of final judgment has been known as a “fire and brimstone”
sermon. Depending upon one’s religious background and point
of view one thinks such sermons good or bad. More and more
nowadays, however, such sermons are viewed, in polite culture,
as relics of a bygone era, a time when credulous and simple
people were easily influenced by wild-eyed pulpiteers who
virtually entertained them with grotesque descriptions of the
torments of the damned. Mark Twain poked fun at such sermons,
only barely disguising his scorn, and more recently Gary Larsen
has made that picture of hell a source of condescending
amusement in a number of his Far Side cartoons.

James Joyce, in his autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the
Artist as a Young Man, tells of the young schoolboy, Stephen,
attending a school retreat directed by an earnest Jesuit priest
named Father Arnall. Stephen himself is particularly susceptible
to religious impressions because he has just fallen into grave sin
after being accosted by a prostitute on a Dublin street. A
thoughtful boy, he was alarmed by a sense of his own
wickedness. Father Arnall announces that his sermons are to be
on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. But
when he comes to hell, his enthusiasm gets the better of him. His
descriptions of the sufferings of the damned are so lurid, his
account of the tortures prepared for them so ingenious that it
becomes clear to the boys that Father Arnall is obsessed with
the subject. In fact, when the time comes for the final sermon,
which was to be on heaven, Father Arnall cannot break away
from his favorite subject and preaches again on the pains of hell.
Joyce’s account is a cunningly patronizing dismissal of the
church’s doctrine. He turns the preaching of it into burlesque, a
kind of comic entertainment to be enjoyed by anyone smart
enough to know that such ideas should not be taken seriously. It
is made to look ridiculous, the passion of twisted folk who find it
a pleasure to contemplate someone else’s pain.

Well, if priests and ministers making too lurid descriptions of the
sufferings of the damned was supposedly a problem in the day of
Mark Twain and James Joyce, if hellfire and brimstone were
preached too often and too enthusiastically in those days, no one
can say we have that problem today. The contemporary church,
even the evangelical church, can hardly be accused of having an
obsession with damnation. It hardly mentions the idea and then
only in the most delicate manner. It is more interested in
discussing whether we should continue to believe the doctrine
than in proclaiming it to the world. And that is why I could not
leave this text without dealing with divine judgment, which is, after
all, the way the rest of Holy Scripture uses this text most often.
You cannot hear enough about this basic belief and conviction of
all true Christianity, not in our day and age, when that doctrine, so
central to all that we believe as Christians and to our life and duty
in the world, has been so completely marginalized, even in the

For it can hardly be denied that, whether it has been rightly or
wrongly preached, the doctrine of the judgment of the wicked is
part and parcel of the Christian faith. The threat of this judgment
is the reason for the great visitation of this world by the Son of
God, who came, the Bible says, so that those who believed on
him would not perish but have everlasting life. His the reality of
hell alone that gives urgency and seriousness and wonder to the
Christian faith and the Christian doctrine of salvation.

You are perhaps aware, that the phrase “fire and brimstone”
comes from the KJV’s rendering of v. 24: “the Lord rained upon
Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of
heaven.” Brimstone is another word for sulphur. So brimstone
and fire mean some kind of fiery sulphurous explosion, some
kind of burning sulphur, as the NIV has it. Now, “fire and
brimstone” became attached to the Bible’s doctrine of divine
retribution and the punishment of the wicked because Holy
Scripture itself employs the history of the destruction of Sodom
and Gomorrah as an image, an illustration, a picture of the divine
judgment and the destruction of the wicked.

You have references to the destruction of these cities over and
over again in the OT prophets as an illustration of what awaits the
wicked in the judgment of God. So God says to Israel in Amos

“I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have
not returned to me, declares the Lord. Therefore this is what I will
do to you, Israel, and because I will do this to you, prepare to
meet your God, O Israel.”

In the New Testament also, the devastation of Sodom and
Gomorrah serves to prefigure the divine vengeance upon
sinners. Jude writes, for example, “…Sodom and Gomorrah and
the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality
and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer
the punishment of eternal fire.” [In Jude’s day, even more than
ours, this scene of sulfurous devastation in the Valley of the Dead
Sea, still provided living evidence of divine judgment and a
warning of the reality of the eternal fires of hell.]

The connection between the destruction of Sodom and the
eternal punishment of the wicked is made also when there is no
explicit mention of Sodom or Gomorrah but the same images
are used to convey the horror of the divine punishment visited
upon the wicked. For example, in Revelation 14:10, we read that
those who align themselves with evil in the world will drink the
wine of God’s fury and will be tormented with burning sulphur in
the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.

Now, we should be clear that this is an image, a picture, a figure
of divine judgment, not an exact description. Those cities, of
course, were simply destroyed, obliterated. But the manner of
their end is used in the Bible to emphasize the ferocity of the
divine vengeance against sin and sinners.

Sometimes this has not been well understood by Christians or by
Christian ministers who have taken these various figures the
Bible uses to describe Hell as though they amounted to the
description in a travel agent’s brochure of the Inferno. Taking the
Bible together, all that it says about these judgments and the
punishments of those outside of Christ, we learn not to take
these figures so literally. The Bible in fact often likens other
historical judgments of peoples to that of Sodom and Gomorrah
which we know had nothing to do with fire and brimstone, though
they were swift and catastrophic. For example, hell is described
in the Bible both as outer darkness and as eternal fire. But fire
gives light and seems to be incompatible with darkness. Or, we
read of the Lake of Fire prepared for the Devil and his angels,
but it does not seem that angels, being spirits and not having
bodies, can be acted upon by physical forces, such as water or
fire. Further, heaven is also described to us in powerful imagery
drawn from the physical realm but which clearly refers primarily to
the happiness and blessing of spiritual life. Images such as fire
and brimstone are designed to make us dread hell, to teach us
that its punishments are severe and terrifying. They are not
intended so much to teach us exactly what those punishments will
be after all the Bible is not a science textbook.

Francis Turretin, the Swiss Reformed theologian of the 17th
century, who has sometimes been called “the Protestant Thomas
Aquinas” cautions his readers, “But what [hell] is or in what
infernal punishments consist, it is not easy to define” [Loc. 20,
Qu. 7, Parag. 4]. On the basis of arguments like those I
mentioned, Turretin preferred to think of such things as fire and
brimstone as metaphorical, physical pictures of mental and
spiritual suffering, what he calls “severe tortures of conscience
and desperation.”

In a famous statement in one of his sermons, John Donne [IV, 6]
reminds us that all of these physical images are little or nothing
compared to the great issue of the presence or absence of God.
Spiritually minded people appreciate that this alone is
everything. If you have God in full measure — which is what
heaven means — you have perfect joy, if God departs completely
from you — which is the fate of those in hell — nothing else can
give you peace, joy, or satisfaction. Donne put it this way:

“When all is done, the hell of hells, the torment of torments, is
the everlasting absence of God, and the everlasting impossibility
of returning to his presence…to fall out of the hands of the living
God, is a horror beyond our expression, beyond our
imagination…. What Tophet is not Paradise, what Brimstone is
not Amber, what gnashing is not a comfort, what gnawing of the
worme is not a tickling, what torment is not a marriage bed to this
damnation, to be secluded eternally, eternally, eternally from the
sight of God?”

And that is true, but sinful human beings have a great difficulty
knowing and appreciating the truth of it. They are at present far
more worried by physical losses than spiritual ones, they do not
grasp that all that they enjoy in life here, they enjoy simply
because God has not yet totally deserted them, they are all for
the present and for the physical and temporal, and so the Lord
speaks to them in language they can grasp and understand. And
they can grasp this and appreciate this language of fire and
brimstone; they can grasp it today in our so-called advanced and
sophisticated society as surely as they ever could in ages past.
For, when you think of it, there has never been a time in all of
human history when the sense and the power and the imagery of
fire and brimstone were more accessible to men than today. We
have, in fact, in the 20th century taken fire and brimstone to an
altogether new and higher level!

You know, of course, that the great objection to the Christian, the
biblical doctrine of the divine punishment of the wicked is that
such judgments as the Bible predicts and warns us of are, so it is
said, incompatible with a God of love. The more detached from
the worldview of Holy Scripture, from its view of God and sin and
salvation, the more strongly this objection is put. John Hick, the
celebrated universalist — who a few years ago missed
membership in a Presbyterian Presbytery in Southern California
by one vote, with a number in the negative voting “no” simply to
avoid the controversy they knew would ensue upon his enrollment
as a Presbyterian minister — I say, John Hick thinks the idea of
hell “morally revolting” and “morally intolerable” if not he admits
absolutely logically impossible [Peterson, p. 146].

However, moral strictures on the behavior of God, pronounced in
such a day as ours, such a time of pathetic moral cowardice and
systemic ethical corruption, should be taken with a large grain of
salt. A people that cares little for holiness and understands it
almost not at all should not be taken too seriously when
pontificating as to what a holy God would and would not do.

But, still, as many Christian apologists have pointed out through
the years, and as they have pointed out with a special poignancy
in our day, the reality of hell — if it is something that can in any
way be described in terms of fire and brimstone — is not
something about which we can only speculate. It is with us,
powerfully, undeniably with us already in this world, just as it was
with Abraham, that next morning, as he looked down toward
Sodom and saw only dense smoke rising from the valley floor,
like smoke from a furnace.

People have seen it through the ages in natural devastations —
whether the destruction of Sodom or Pompeii, whether Mount St.
Helens (the 11th anniversary of whose eruption we are
celebrating today) or last week’s earthquake in Iran.

And they have seen it still more in the sufferings that men have
caused other men: the long march of refugees, trudging forlorn
and helpless, carrying away from their homes what little they
could in hopes of saving their own lives and those of their
children as smoke rises behind them. No century has seen such
weary desperation on so vast a scale and so often as our own.
And what of the death camps, the shrunken bodies and doe-like
eyes of those whose souls have died before their bodies. And
what of the moonscapes that so many great cities of our world
became at one time or another when reduced to bombed rubble,
square mile after square mile burned and blown up until there
was hardly one brick left standing on another as far as the eye
could see. This is the 20th century’s contribution to the biblical
imagery of hell. Gustave Dore has nothing on the culture of the
West in the 20th century. We have seen hell many times over.

But, surely, what that means is that we can hardly deny, we are
the last to be able to deny that the Bible’s picture of hell is
somehow unpersuasive, unrealistic or morally impossible — not
when it exists already before our very eyes. Not that men draw
this conclusion. [Newspaper article this week: Presbyterian
churches protesting the decision of the denomination forbidding
active homosexuality… the promiscuous from being ministers
and elders — in effect protesting that the church does not approve
the lifestyle of Sodom which God punished so severely. Men love
their sin still and defend it. But those who warn of God’s judgment
have history on their side.]

And that is only more true when we consider the undeniable fact
that sin is, in fact, the abominable thing that God hates, as the
Bible says, and that a Holy God will by no means — and can by
no means consistent with his holiness — clear the guilty. The very
interesting fact is that the very best people in the world, the
wisest, the most kind and loving, the most insightful, are precisely
the ones who understand this best. Let a person come face to
face with the truth about God and about himself and, suddenly, in
a moment, all of the moral objections to hell, to fire and
brimstone, are revealed to be nothing more nor less than the self
-serving protests of the immoral.

Charles Spurgeon put it this way:

“When men talk of a little hell, it is because they think they have
only a little sin, and they believe in a little Savior. [John Hick, for
example, is sure that if Christ is not for you, Buddha will do, or for
that matter anyone or anything else you choose!] But, when you
get a great sense of sin, you want a great Savior, and feel that if
you do not have him, you will fall into a great destruction and
suffer a great punishment at the hands of the great God.”
[Peterson, p. 213]

That is the way all think who see something of the living God and
who feel something of his terrible and wonderful holiness and
who come to know something of the enormity of their own sin.
This led John Henry Newman to go so far as to say,

“[Hell] is the turning point between Christianity and pantheism
[we would say between Christianity and all views that deny the
existence of a personal and holy God who is separate from his
creation], it is the critical doctrine — you can’t get rid of it — it is
the very characteristic of Christianity. We must therefore look
matters in the face. Is it more probable that eternal punishment
should be true, or that there should be no God? For if there be a
God there is eternal punishment…” [F24]

And can anyone at the end of the 20th century seriously maintain
that hell is impossible to believe when we have seen so much of
it with our own eyes?

What then will you do with this portrait of hell we have before us in
Genesis 19? In Deuteronomy 29:23-25, the Lord speaks to his
people and warns them that if they are unfaithful to his covenant
they will suffer, Sodom and Gomorrah’s fate.

“Your children who follow you in later generations and
foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities
that have fallen on the land, the diseases with which the Lord has
afflicted it. The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and
sulfur — nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing
on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,
Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in fierce anger. All
the nations will ask: ‘Why has the Lord done this to this land?
Why this fierce, burning anger?’ And the answer will be: ‘It is
because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the
God of their fathers…. They went off and worshiped other gods…”

And, remember what we said, this physical destruction is only an
image of an everlasting penalty and loss. And if we take God’s
Holy Word seriously in this matter — as our Savior did and his
apostles did and as all the good and wise through all the ages
have done — we will care not only that we avoid this terrible lot
that awaits those who are unfaithful to God, but that we warn
others as well.

You may remember reading of the traffic pile-up on a British
highway south of London in December of 1984 [Peterson, p.
242]. On the 12th of December dense fog shrouded the M25
near Godstone, in Surrey. The hazard warning lights along the
highway were on, but were ignored by most drivers. At 6:15 a.m.
a truck carrying huge rolls of paper was involved in an accident
and blocked the lanes of traffic. In moments the highway was a
scene of mounting carnage as one car after another piled into
the wreckage accumulating on the pavement. Eventually ten
people were killed, many more were injured. A police car was
soon on the scene and two policemen ran back up the highway
to stop oncoming traffic. They waved their arms and shouted at
the top of their voices, but many drivers took no notice and sped
by to plunge into the disaster ahead. The policemen then began
picking up traffic cones and hurling them at the windshields of
passing cars in a desperate attempt to awaken drivers to the
catastrophe up ahead. One was in tears as car after car went by
and he waited for the sickening sound of impact as the car
disappeared into the fog behind him and crashed into the
growing mass of wreckage not far down the road.

Mouth of Hell.

Mouth of Hell.

There is another 20th century image of the plight and the danger
of mankind just as serviceable as that of the destruction of
Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the condition and the prospect of
men and women apart from Christ and hurtling toward doom–
and they are as utterly unaware and unknowing as that. We must
tell them in every way that we can, and we have no reason
whatsoever to fear their scorn, for this is the truth, terrible as it is,
and their own consciences and the whole world in which they live
scream this truth every day that they live. Like Lot’s sons-in-law
they may think it a huge joke but only because they will not think
honestly about it. Or they have been taught a different doctrine. But we know that it is not! And we also know
there is a way of escape, a salvation great enough to rescue us
even from a doom as terrible and that has been chosen by such
vast multitudes before us: the salvation that Jesus gives to all
who come to him.


1 Comment

Filed under Hell, Tell Me More About It!, House of the Nazarene's Posts

One response to ““Fire and Brimstone”

  1. Reblogged this on whatshotn and commented:

    “Fire and Brimstone”
    “Is Hell exothermic or endothermic? Support your answer with proof.”
    Please Read the Article, like, comment, and share the Article…


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