Over on Tekton’sYouTube channel, I have a video explaining that the flames of hell are metaphors for shame and separation from God (see more info at link below). One of the points I made was that the Bible offers contradictory descriptions – fire and darkness – to illustrate hell, and this is a clear sign that we have metaphor at work (among other signs). As my film’s lead character – a Smokey the Bear simulacrum – asks, “Huh. Fire and darkness. You think the fire’s black?”
And would you believe it? Some commenters had an explanation – one so contrived that it has to be read as is to be believed:
I must say you present a valid explanation if you don't take the Bible in a literal sense, however, for those that do, hell being both fire and darkness is a very simple explanation. Hydrogen burns at ultraviolet and is one of the hottest known flames.
There’s a number of problems with this, of course, and I duly pointed them out.
One is that this does not account for the fact that light and water are clearly used as opposing metaphorical images.
The second is that the flames are analogized to those in Gehenna, which certainly were not caused by hydrogen.
The third is that it is absurd (if not arrogant) to suppose that God left this kind of information which no one would “get” until the modern era, leaving readers in the dark, so to speak, for thousands of years. Although I have allowed for instances where equivocal language is used in the Bible to explain things ancient people would not understand (link below), this only occurs in cases where ancient people had some gap in language or understanding. Here, they did not. If these flames were invisible to the human eye, then there were much better words to use for them that would not have left commentators for ages with the impression that these were literal, everyday flames:
Therme – or “heat” (Acts 28:3)
Kauson – used of the “burning heat” of the sun (Matt. 20:12//Luke 12:55, James 1:11; related word 2 Peter 3:10, 1; Rev. 7:16, 16:9)
Either of these words would have done well to represent, phenomenologically, the sort of invisible flames that these objectors suppose might be intended – which, to ancient observers, would seem to be nothing more than scorching heat emerging from an unseen source. Since indeed Revelation and Peter use these words in a judgmental context, it is hard to see why a word for literal fire would be used in the other passages, if what we have is invisible flames caused by hydrogen.
I could also point out that it is fairly clear that the rich man (Luke 16), if we take this with literalism, is obviously seeing the flame that is causing his torment. Of course, we could always hypothesize that people in hell are given special “x-ray vision” powers (or glasses) that enable them to see the hydrogen flames. Or maybe we could say that in hell, everyone is given special revelations or education about the nature of hydrogen.
But that would be a contrivance, now….wouldn’t it?
Summary article for video
Article on equivocal language (PDF version)