The Problem Of Fire In Biblical Justice

KJV 2 Thessalonians 1:8 In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:

NIV 1:8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

These are two translations of the same verse. Notice any differences? I use this contrast to illustrate that the Bible words “flaming fire” and “vengeance” are unpopular and some folks would rather these words be softened or removed altogether. The NIV (New International Version) softened the word vengeance by translating it with the word punish, and then moved fire to the previous verse associating it with the brightness of Jesus' coming instead of the vengeance in His coming.

I can't get into the head of the NIV translators, and I'm sure they would defend their translation with technical arguments. But my intent for bringing this up is not to get into a technical argument about translation. I am more interested, at this point, in the effect of softening the language of justice.

That there is an inclination in our popular culture to soften the sometimes blunt language of justice used in the Bible is beyond argument. But every thinking person must realize that soft language will not soften the severity of justice. Justice is what it is, and it is harsh no matter what refined words we use to describe it. The only real effect I see from softening the language of justice is to dull the language of mercy.

Mercy is dependent on justice. It's the word we use when a guilty criminal doesn't get what is deserved by law and required by justice. The depth of mercy is in direct proportion to the intensity of the penalty justice demands for a crime. The more horrible the crime the greater the penalty, and the greater the penalty the greater the mercy when the penalty is forgiven.

Using soft words to a criminal about the penalty before he is convicted only serves to lessen his interest in mercy... but the soft language doesn't change the reality of justice or the severity of the penalty by even the smallest fraction. It only serves to dull the foreboding dread of the guilty.

A guilty criminal is done a great disservice by his lawyers when the harshness of the penalty faced is degraded and made unclear by their choice of words. My first request to my lawyers, if I was facing a criminal trial, would be, “Tell me in plain English what I'm facing if found guilty.” I would then ask, “What are my chances of being found not guilty?” If they answered "none" then my next question would be, “Is this judge known for being merciful?” These are straight questions which demand clear straight answers.

After studying the Bible for decades I know it is mercy I need when facing the justice of God... great mercy. I know this because the Bible is clear about what I am facing: hell. Don't be fooled by the soft language of popular religious culture. We--that means all of us--need great mercy, because the penalty for our sins is extreme and we have no chance of being found not guilty. Call me coarse or unrefined if you will... but, as I said earlier, that will not change the reality of justice or the severity of the penalty by even the smallest fraction. Thankfully our Judge is merciful and He has given us access to everlasting mercy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


  1. Punish leaves open the possibility that there would be an opportunity to reform. Vengeance does not. That opportunity has passed and only an eternity of torment await one who does not repent to God and trust Jesus for salvation.

  2. Great thought. By weakening judgment, we lose our appreciation of the depth of mercy. Minimizing mercy presents a smaller and less significant God. Who needs an omnipotent God if I just need a little mercy. Wow. I enjoyed chewing on this today. It helped me. For me, I need a great God full of everlasting mercy to forgive my terrible sin deserving eternal judgment.

  3. Outstanding....again. Another "home run." A law-less gospel does not help the sinner.

    Jerry D. Locke

  4. I so desperately need the mercy of God on me, in me, and expressed through me to others. Thank you again for this article. Excellent!

    Travis Jones



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