Traditionally, fire is the element most commonly associated with hell–especially in the popular imagination. Fire is such a memorable metaphor. But what does hellfire signify?
Universalists think it stands for purification while annihilationists think it stands for destruction. Of course, these two interpretations tend to cancel each other out.
I think it’s safe to say that traditionally, hellfire is associated with pain. Fire burns. And it’s quite possible hellfire in the Bible plays on that connotation.
However, there’s another possibility which I haven’t seen explored. Those of us who live in the Frost Belt associate fire with warmth. Nothing like curling up beside a crackling fireplace on a chilly night.
But, of course, the Bible is set in a hot, arid part of the world. A place where drought and wildfire results in famine. Hunger and thirst. Starvation and dehydration.
It’s not coincidental that figures of eschatological judgment depict God drying up rivers and streams. Especially in the Mideast, these were sources of freshwater and drinking water. Or take the famous lake of fire in Revelation. A lake is normally a freshwater body. Consider the “Sea” of Galilee, the Nile, and the Jordan River.
Fish, game, livestock, and vegetation were dependent on lakes, rivers and streams. Conversely, figures of eschatological salvation depict God turning the desert into an oasis.
The relationship between fire and water is paradoxical. We normally think of water dousing fire. But fire is a drying agent. Eschatological fire can evaporate bodies of water. Fire represents searing heat (among other things).
So it’s possible that the metaphor of fire is associated with the related metaphors of hunger and especially thirst. Unquenchable fire signifies unquenchable hunger and thirst. And these, in turn, are figures of yearning. The damned forever long for what they shall never have. Dying of thirst, but cursed with immortality.