God is often referred to as a consuming fire. This is not because he’s the “angry and violent God of the Old Testament” so frequently cited by those who’ve not made serious efforts at understanding him. Anger is not the core of God’s being, though he does express it, occasionally. There are times when it is right for humans to be angry, and there are times when it is right for God to be angry. God’s anger is expressed largely against his enemies— those bent on deception, destruction, and self-promotion. One of his earliest revelations of himself took place before the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. The assembly of slaves, mostly Hebrews, were an unruly lot. The Hebrews were descendants of Jacob who, though favored by God, was no paragon of virtue. Jacob was later named “Israel”, but Jacob literally means, “the one who supplants, or overreaches, or assails, or circumvents.” Jacob tricked his brother, Esau, out of his birthright as the first-born son. Esau was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and Jacob did not hesitate to take advantage.
Jacob’s issues with integrity were seemingly passed down to most of his 12 sons. His son, Joseph, was his darling and, in a mistake most fathers have enough sense to avoid, was openly favored. Joseph happily accepted the favor, but the brothers were far from amused. They decided to kill him but, moved by guilt, they decided to sell him into slavery instead. Joseph ended up in Egypt, and we’ll skip a lot of details to get to the point where Jacob, the eleven other sons and the extended family ended up in Egypt, too. This was all good for awhile, but time passed, patrons passed on, the Hebrews lost favor, and then were made slaves in Egypt. Four hundred slow years passed before Moses showed up at Pharaoh’s door, ready to lead the Hebrews out of captivity.
So they found themselves at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The truth is, this rag-tag group had very little information about God, other than a few tidbits from their forefathers, plus their own experience of delivery out of Egypt. God was ready to establish a nation that was to be his representative on the earth. He had much to reveal about himself. This was accomplished primarily by the giving of the Ten Commandments, as well as the rest of the Law, which was essentially application of the Ten.
God also made a point of underscoring his holiness. Only Moses was permitted to be on the mountain, while the rest of the Israelites were strictly forbidden from even touching it. The appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Exodus 24.17 This idea of holiness was underscored by the Law, which was to guide the people into holy behavior. Included in the Law was the sacrificial system. The core idea of the system was that human sinfulness had to be paid for in some way. Animals became substitutes for the punishment due to humans for their sinfulness. God would remain present with the people of Israel but there would always be reminders of God’s perfect holiness and the Hebrews’ continuing sin and need for grace.
So God, in his first expansive revelation of himself made it clear that he was holy and that it was important to him that people should also be holy. He also illustrated that the nature of holiness is to consume that which is unholy. Fire, as we shall see below, thematically, in God’s revelation, is a means of purification. The wicked, those who are uninterested in submission to God, which is to say, uninterested in holiness as defined by him, must eventually be consumed by God’s holy nature.
This consuming nature of God was displayed at Sinai, and also appeared occasionally later in Israel’s history. One example had to do with the two sons of Aaron, Moses’s brother, who were given important responsibilities but were cavalier in carrying them out. Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Leviticus 10.1,2
Another famous example took place many years later when the prophet Elijah had a showdown with 450 prophets of Baal. It is a lengthy passage, but entertaining, so I will dare to present the encounter in full:
So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.”
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there. 1 Kings 18.20-40
The people of Israel understood the fire-nature of God. They saw the fire of God as his means of delivering justice. Israel had always been a small and weak nation. Even in its “glory days”, under the rulership of Saul, David, and Solomon, Israel remained a relatively small nation. The nations around them were always a threat. Israel looked to God to deliver them from their power. But, while there was certainly a political element to his protective acts, more fundamentally the acts were for the purpose of delivering Israel from the wickedness of the surrounding nations. The fear was not merely that other nations would conquer Israel and treat its people badly. The greater fear was that the people would be assimilated into the cultures of their captors. This would mean spiritual bondage added to physical bondage. Physical bondage can be truly horrible, but it must end after a time, while spiritual bondage comes with everlasting negative consequences.
So, while there was always a sense within Israel that God was not to be trifled with, Israel saw the dangerous side of God as protection and a source of comfort. They were reminded that they should never envy the wicked because God was certain to bring the wicked to account.
Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. Psalm 21.8,9
Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. Psalm 97.3
But God’s nature as a consuming fire, while it is directed at the wicked throughout the course of human history, it carries forward to its most severe expression at the final judgment.
For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many. And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. Isaiah 66.15-24
Look! The LORD is coming from far away, burning with anger, surrounded by thick, rising smoke. His lips are filled with fury; his words consume like fire. His hot breath pours out like a flood up to the neck of his enemies. He will sift out the proud nations for destruction. He will bridle them and lead them away to ruin. Isaiah 30.27,27
Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. Zephaniah 1.18
Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord, “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all my burning anger; for in the fire of my jealousy all the earth shall be consumed. Zephaniah 3.8
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Matthew 25:41
If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Hebrews 10.26,27
For this reason her [Babylon’s] plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her. Revelation 18.8
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in
them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were
thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not
found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20.13-14
There is a continuity and a preponderance of this idea that God, as fire, consumes his
adversaries. It’s important to consider just why this is.
God is Master of the universe. He may have adversaries but they are not truly adversaries. God’s “adversaries” are those he permits to rebel against him for a time. His purposes for this are many and mostly too complex for us to follow. But we know he uses the wicked to punish other wicked people, to test the people he loves, and we know that even the wicked are given opportunity to repent and serve God. But God is not interested in perpetual battles with nominal adversaries; his goal is to establish a kingdom in which he reigns in the hearts of all kingdom citizens. His goal is a land of harmony. In his land the lion will lay down with the lamb; the Republican will shake hands with the Democrat; the capitalist will shake hands with the socialist; the blacks will shake hands with the whites; and all the false religions and ideologies will find their places in the library stacks, in the room called, Dumb Ideas.
He will cleanse the new earth of all who persisted in their pursuits of narcissism, self-magnification, autonomy, and rebellion. This is what a consuming fire does—that which is in its way is turned to ash. When the wicked have blown away, all that will remain will be those whose hearts are soft and humble, filled with love, and filled with trust for their Lord and Maker.
This is how the Bible describes the fire-nature of God. One important inference that needs to be drawn from this is that the teaching that the wicked will be sent off to the eternal torment of fire is simply false. God will not toy with the wicked. God is not interested in seeing the wicked squirm. He will be rid of them. The everlasting, unquenchable fire will consume them and then they will be gone.
There is another angle from which we should look at this issue. This consuming nature is fundamentally a manifestation of grace. We see in the Psalms how David prayed continually to be delivered from his tormenters. This is not something foreign—it is something that we all know and understand. We all know people who are brutal. They use whatever power they have and do not hesitate to make others miserable, as long as they think they can get away with it. People like this must either be radically changed or they must be radically removed. Hitler was not someone we could get away with saying, “Oh, well, he only wants a little lebensraum. Once we give him Poland, he’ll calm down and leave the rest of Europe alone.” No, Hitler had to go.
America is presently suffering under the bizarre leadership of a little god-man. He has to go. These are not exceptional people, though. They are normal people, unguided by the Holy Spirit. Adam and Eve—what did they do that was so terrible? They ate a piece of fruit, for crying out loud. Should such a little thing result in a world so broken? But it was not long after the eating of the fruit that we see where distrust of God leads. Cain murdered his brother Abel, and for what? It seems he was jealous, or envious. Without the Spirit of God acting as a personal and social governor, everyone in the world would live as Cain did. Just think for awhile about what you would do in the world if you had unbridled power and you knew there would be no repercussions. I know full well that I am not equipped to manage such power. Only by God’s grace would I avoid being a terrifying menace.
It is God’s intent to deliver those who would trust him out of bondage to sin and into holy, abundant living. Those who will not hear, who cover their ears and shout, who close their eyes, and turn away—these will come to a place where God’s patience ends. They will no longer be permitted to menace the rest of humanity. They will come to a full understanding of God’s consuming nature.