Did God Use Literal Fire and Brimstone to Destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; or Was the Fire Symbolic?


Whatever technique God used to destroy the ancient wicked cities of the plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah, it was completely effective and immediate. According to the record in Genesis, “The Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire…out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground” (Gen. 19:24-25). Jesus, comparing the time of His second advent to the time of the destruction of Sodom, says that, “The same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:29). It would seem from this that Jesus understood the terms in their literal sense. We have no reason not to believe the record as it is written.

According to Halley’s Bible Handbook, in the area of the Dead Sea where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are believed to have been, there remains today “a great fortified enclosure, evidently a ‘high place’ for religious festivals,…. from the period dating between 2500 B.C. and 2000 B.C.” There is also “evidence that the population ended abruptly about 2000 B.C.” Archaeologists also suggest that the region “was densely populated and prosperous,” and that it “has been a region of unmixed desolation there since,” as though to “indicate that the district was destroyed by some great cataclysm which changed the soil and climate.” One writer suggests that the area has a stratum of salt 150 feet thick, and above it a stratum of “marl mingled with free sulfur.” He feels that “at the proper time God kindled the gases,” and a “great explosion took place, the salt and the sulfur being thrown into the heavens red hot, so that it did literally rain fire and brimstone from heaven.”

Whether or not this is true, it is not beyond the scope of God’s power to use natural materials in His supernatural way, to bring about the purpose He had decreed.

Fire being a destructive agent, it is often used in the Bible as a symbol of destruction and of the judgments of God. For example, in Ps. 18:8: “There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it.” We cannot imagine smoke literally coming out of the Lord’s nostrils, or fire from His mouth. But it is a poetic description of His destructive power.

John the Baptist, speaking of Christ, said, “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). We certainly do not believe that He holds a literal “fan” in His hand, nor that He is threshing literal “wheat” to store in His literal “garner.” Neither is the fire literal. It is a symbol of the destruction which will be the reward of disobedience.

Paul uses the same simile in 2 Thessalonians 1, describing the judgments that will accompany Christ’s second advent. “And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then he continues to describe exactly what that fiery vengeance is: “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe” (2 Thess. 1:7-10). The “everlasting destruction” is described as “flaming fire.”

The prophet Isaiah used the term fire to describe the just retribution which will fall on the enemies of God. The prophet Ezekiel associated the fire of God’s wrath with His indignation (Ezek. 21:31; 22:21, 31). Zephaniah speaks of the ‘”fire of his jealousy” (Zeph. 1:18; 3:8), or His “blazing wrath” (Ezek. 38:19, NRSV).

The prophet Zephaniah, speaking of the judgments that will accompany Christ’s second advent (3:8), says that “All the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy” We cannot picture the literal earth being devoured with literal fire, but as symbols, the term is significant, the people being the offensive element to be removed and the “fire” being symbolic of their destruction. And of one fact we may be certain: the destruction will be effective, so effective that the promise will be fulfilled: “The king of Israel even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more” (v. 15).

In the book of Revelation, fire is used even more vividly to describe the judgments of God. Exactly how those judgments will be dispensed, or by what means, we are not told. Fire is a fitting term because it consumes completely and finally. Revelation 20:10 and 14, also 21:8 define the term “lake of fire” as “the second [penal] death,” that final and penal death from which there is no awakening, which is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). But there is no thought of eternal torture or torment. That which is burned is destroyed, not kept eternally burning. God set before His human children “life and death” (Deut. 30:15), not life in happiness or life in torment. Jesus said, “Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction,” not eternal torment (Matt. 7:13).

The destruction at the end of the Millennium is fittingly represented as a “lake of fire.” As fire destroys everything cast into it, so the second death will totally eliminate the wicked. The fire of God’s judgments will completely destroy them, they shall be left “neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1).

The symbolic nature of this fire is confirmed by the point that death itself shall be cast into it (Rev. 20:15). Paul made the same point when he wrote that “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). Ultimately death and hell (the grave) will be “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

Whatever means the Lord uses to destroy the rebellious and wicked, the righteous will be preserved unharmed.