Unquenchable Fire and Hope

I was reading through the book of Jeremiah and reached Chapter 17, the last verse of which reads:

"But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses." (Jer. 17.27)

The line that caught my attention was the reference to "an unquenchable fire." This phrase caught my attention because of New Testament descriptions of an "an unquenchable fire," passages often used to justify a vision of hell. For example, John the Baptist says this about the coming ministry of Jesus:

"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3.12)
It's not surprising that John the Baptist would pull language and images from the Old Testament prophets, here, echoing Jeremiah, a reference to "unquenchable fire." I raise this connection, though, to make an observation.

Specifically, many have pointed to texts like Matthew 3.12 as evidence that the punishments and fire of hell are eternal and everlasting. That is to say, to use the term of art, hell is "eternal conscious torment." 

And yet, Jeremiah's reference to "an unquenchable fire" doesn't imply eternal separation from God. As we know, while the prophets did prophecy judgment against Israel, culminating in her exile, we also know that after the exile the prophets turned to proclaim a message of hope, salvation, and future reconciliation between Israel and God. For the prophets being punished with "an unquenchable fire" didn't mean that you couldn't or wouldn't be reconciled to God in the future. 

All this is just another reminder that when we hear talk of judgment from Jesus and John in the gospels we have to keep the Old Testament prophetic backdrop constantly in mind. When we hear Matthew 3.12 we need to keep in mind Jeremiah 17.27 which helps us understand that being punished with "an unquenchable fire" doesn't foreclose on hope.

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