I had apparently given one of the newer men in our Friday breakfast group the impression that I was weak-in-the-knees about hell. I don’t know exactly what I said that may have given him that impression, but I do recall that I referred to the “lake of fire” as a “metaphor,” and it seemed to concern him that I didn't see it "literally."
The next Friday he brought me a copy of an article by Tim Keller, entitled The Importance of Hell, as a corrective, I think. (The article is well worth reading, and can be found in its entirely at the link.)
In the article, Keller writes in part:
Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical . . . Even Jonathan Edwards pointed out that the Biblical language for hell was symbolic, but, he added “when metaphors are used in Scripture about spiritual things . . . they fall short of the literal truth.”
Keller makes it plain that separation from God is such an awful state that it is beyond description. Metaphors, then, are the only thing Jesus could resort to in order to explain how awful it is.
Dealing with the metaphor of fire and darkness and the like has significance in terms of our personal evangelism. Keller states later in the article:
I’ve found that only stressing the symbols of hell (fire and darkness) in preaching rather than going into what the symbols refer to (eternal, spiritual decomposition) actually prevents modern people from finding hell a deterrent. Some years ago I remember a man who said that talk about the fires of hell simply didn’t scare him. It seemed too far-fetched, even silly. So I read him lines from C.S. Lewis:
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of Gold ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell until it is nipped in the bud.”
To my surprise he got very quiet and said, “Now that scares me to death.”
As a “modern person,” I can tell you that this scares me to death too. Sometimes I think that I am mostly grumble already! But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:57)