On January 3, 2015 the Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh was burned alive by ISIS. A video of the murder was later released online, evoking horror and outrage worldwide.
The other day I was in a conversation with a friend who told me he had watched the video of Al-Kasasbeh’s murder … and immediately regretted it. Now he could not get the haunting images of a tortured soul writhing in the flames out of his mind. As the saying goes, you can’t unsee that. Burning is surely one of the cruelest forms of execution imaginable. And my friend now had a more intimate knowledge of that fact than he had ever wanted.
It’s a well established fact that fire is among the central images of damnation that one finds in scripture. To take what is arguably the most disturbing of all these passages, in Revelation 14 we read:
“If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, 10 they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
The person haunted by the unfathomable cruelty of Al-Kasasbeh’s execution might well wonder how a holy God could visit such a fate on human beings. Mind you, Al-Kasabeh’s suffering was spread out over minutes — albeit minutes that likely seemed to be an eternity. But those in the fires of hell face a hell that literally lasts an eternity as the smoke of their torment rises forever.
Enter the subtler theologian who points out that the average reader’s default literalism is highly questionable. Revelation is chock full of symbols, and it is very likely that images like “burning sulfur” and “rising smoke” are symbolic and thus not to be taken literally.
Alas, that brief respite from the horror is overcome with the additional observation that these unimaginably terrifying images are chosen precisely as a means to invoke degrees of suffering that we cannot otherwise imagine.
Let me put it this way. Imagine that I tell you that your arm is about to be sawn off with no anesthetic. To put it mildly, you would be disconsolate. Now imagine that as you look back at me in horror I add, “Oh, I don’t mean that literally. I’m speaking metaphorically.” Relief washes over your body … until I add: “The description of an arm amputation is a fitting symbol for the kind of suffering and subsequent incapacitation of bodily function that you are about to endure.”
That would be cold comfort, no? Indeed, if anything you might be even more worried now for the suffering is still guaranteed, but now it is coupled with the unknown.
The fate of Al-Kasasbeh is already absolutely terrifying. There are no words for the fate of Al-Kasasbeh multiplied by infinity. And as for the fate of Al-Kasasbeh multiplied by infinity and shrouded in the mist of the unknown?
Alas the English language hath no words…