Hell On Earth: The Church as the Baptism of Fire and the Holy Spirit

In the New Testament the metaphor of fire is often associated with judgment and "coming wrath."

In this regard John the Baptist says that Jesus will bring this fiery, hellish judgment to earth:
Luke 3.7-17
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
According to John Jesus will come to baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire." And this fire is associated with hell/judgment imagery:
"Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"

"The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." 

"His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Later in the gospel of Luke the disciples tip their hand about how they see this judgment happening, this "baptism of fire." But Jesus seems to disagree:
Luke 9.51-55
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 
The text suggests that Jesus has something different in mind for his "baptism by fire." And perhaps something different from what John the Baptist had in mind.

So how does Jesus see this fire from heaven? Later in Luke Jesus describes it:
Luke 12.49-53
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Here again we see fire and baptism discussed. Jesus says that he has "come to bring fire on the earth." And this fire is disruptive. The fire creates social tension and conflict. There is a division taking place, the winnowing prophesied by John

But let's pay close attention to a few different things.

Notice that Jesus connects baptism to the fire coming to earth. An despite his earlier baptism in the Jordan this is a baptism that Jesus has yet to undergo. I take Jesus to be referring to his crucifixion.

Also note that the fire Jesus is bringing is kindled "on earth." This isn't an otherworldly hell, but a fire that is experienced--as a disruption--in intimate social relations.

And that's the last thing to note. The vision of judgment prophesied by John the Baptist--where Jesus has a winnowing fork in his hand--is shifted by Jesus away from the notion of throwing bad people into the pit of hell (the vision the disciples seem to be working with in Luke 9, a notion that Jesus rebukes) and toward people being divided up and sorted--wheat winnowed from chaff--in their social relations.

Summarizing, Jesus's crucifixion brings a fire of judgment to earth--a baptism that winnows, separates and sorts--causing social tension and conflict.

But the puzzle remains. After his death when do we see Jesus "baptize by fire and the Holy Spirit" as prophesied by John? When do we see Jesus's fire kindled on earth, a fire that winnows and disrupts social relations?

We see it happen at Pentecost:
Acts 2.1-4
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
On Pentecost we finally see the baptism prophesied by John, Jesus's baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost the fire of judgment falls from heaven and is kindled on earth.

But what is strange here is that the fire doesn't fall on the bad people.

John's hellish "unquenchable fire" of judgment falls upon the church

The church becomes hell on earth.

And we see in this the winnowing that John and Jesus predicted, how the fire begins to interrupt and disrupt social relations. After hearing Peter's sermon on Pentecost the people cry out "What shall we do?"

And in response Peter offers them hell. Step into the fire now kindled upon the earth. Step into the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. Throw yourself into the flames of Pentecost. Step into the church and save yourselves.
Acts 2.38-41
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
The people are saved from the "corrupt generation" when they throw themselves into the flames, into the church, into the Pentecostal baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit. There is a winnowing here, a sorting, an invitation to step away from a corrupt social order and into the Kingdom of God where social relations are characterized by the cruciform life of Jesus Christ:
Acts 2.42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. 
"Those who were being saved." This is what salvation looks like. This is the winnowing. This is the fire of heaven now kindled on earth. This is the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit.

Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Step into into the flames of Pentecost. Step into the fire Jesus kindled upon on earth.

The coming wrath prophesied by John has come, the flames of heaven are upon us.

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11 thoughts on “Hell On Earth: The Church as the Baptism of Fire and the Holy Spirit”

  1. This is the most textually-consistent explanation of Gospel references to the baptism of the Holy Spirit and Fire that I've come across. For me it begs the question: how do references to a city dump outside of Jerusalem fit into this context?

  2. Two posts of mine might be a way to approach this, albeit a bit differently from how I sketch it out in the post above:



    Specifically, the other place where we see Jesus coming in judgment (and in relation to Gehenna) is in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem:

    Luke 21.20-22

    “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that
    its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the
    mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country
    not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written."

    This punishment comes because Jerusalem did not repent in response to Jesus's Kingdom proclamation of peace and love for enemies:

    Luke 19.41-44

    And when Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying,
    “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make
    for peace!
    But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will
    come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and
    surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the
    ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one
    stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your

    So, the winnowing here is between those who "learn the things that make for peace"--the church, the Kingdom of God--versus those who choose the way of violence in the world, those who bring about their own destruction and find themselves cast into a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth...in this world.

  3. Thanks so much for your attention, and I really don't want to monopolize the comments. I'm just having trouble making the connection. Was Gehenna a graphic threat to Israel for not learning "the things that made for peace"?

  4. At Pentecost they asked what was happening and were told these are the times prophesied by Joel the prophet. Wasn't Joel alluding to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD? That's the way I've seen it. When they asked how could they be saved I assumed they meant this prophesy.

  5. Opinions vary.

    But in the frame I use in my comment above the argument is that every reference to hell, judgment, Gehenna, the lake of fire, etc. etc. is a reference to a concrete historical event--the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

  6. I try to make that connection in my comment to Whit, that Pentecost begins the winnowing that will culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    Still, what I think is strange in all this is how the "baptism of fire" prophesied by John falls on the church rather than upon "the world" meaning that to "be saved" one has to run toward the fire rather than flee it.

  7. Thanks, When I try to show people that connection I get some strange looks. I was beginning to think I was crazy.

  8. I like crazy. One of my favorite quotes from Alice in Wonderland:

    “But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
    "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
    "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
    "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”

  9. This post is so inspiring. I'm a person who us already in the church but so often trying to lean out and away and keep from being too sucked in. But redemptive fire sounds worth it.

  10. Richard, your interpretation is interesting and creative. However, baptism in fire and baptism in the Holy Spirit are two separate events. Holy Spirit baptism was a historical event which took place in the first century beginning at Pentecost. It was the empowering of the Apostles and those they laid hands on. Baptism in fire is the event to come at the parousia. It is coming judgment upon the disobedient. The reason the events are often in a nexus in the NT is that the early Christians (nor later ones) knew how long the interval was between the two. They only knew that the beginning had to precede and precipitate the ending. Now we know the interval is at least 2,000 years. Cullmann's "Christ and Time" was helpful to me in sorting out the eschatology of the NT. Regards, Frazier Conley

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