“Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
Jude plainly says that Sodom and Gomorrah are a sign or symbol of eternal fire. How did these cities come to represent the horrible fate of eternal torment? How is this symbol used in God’s Word?
How Sodom and Gomorrah Became A Symbol
The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were the descendants of Canaan, the son of Ham, the son of Noah (Gen. 10:6-20, v. 19). Abraham lived about 1800 B.C. and descended from Noah’s son Shem. The journeys of Abraham carried him from Ur to Haran, to Bethel in Palestine, to Egypt, and back to Bethel. In this vicinity, Abraham and Lot, his nephew, prospered with their flocks and herds until it seemed necessary to separate. Bethel is twelve miles north of Jerusalem. Looking toward the east from the higher ground of Bethel, one could see Sodom and Gomorrah in the plain of Jordan. The whole region was well watered, “as the garden of the Lord” (Gen. 13:10). Lot moved into this region, “but the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly” (v.13).
Sodom and Gomorrah were located near and confederate with three other cities (Admah, Zeboim, and Bela also called Zoar), all in the vicinity of “the vale of Siddim,” which Moses said many years later “is the salt sea” (Gen. 14:1-3). King Chedorlaomer of Elam conquered these five cities. When they rebelled against him later, he raided them and took many spoils of war and many captives, including Lot. When Abraham heard of this, he led 318 of his men in pursuit of Chedorlaomer, caught up with him at Dan, and rescued all the possessions and people which had been taken (Gen. 14:1-16).
When Abraham returned, he was met by the King of Sodom and his allies, and by Melchizedek, who was both the “king of Salem” and “the priest of the most high God.”
In the presence of these kings, Melchizedek blessed Abram in the name of “the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies unto thy hand.” Abram gave to this king and priest “tithes of all” things in his possession, i.e., God was honored with a portion of the booty recovered. Abraham refused to accept from the king of Sodom “a thread even to a shoe latchet” lest the king should say, “I have made Abram rich” (Gen. 14:17-24).
In spite of the exceeding wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, through Abraham and Melchizedek God manifested himself, extended his patience, and provided an opportunity for these cities to repent.
God sent angels in the form of men as messengers to Abraham, declaring his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah “because their sin is very great.” No doubt thinking of Lot, Abraham pled for God to spare Sodom if only fifty righteous souls could be found in it. Then he went down to forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and ten! God agreed to spare the city each time but, alas, not even ten could be found (Gen. 18:16-33). Think of it! Out of all the cities of the plain, ten righteous people could not be found!
As recorded in Genesis 19, God sent the messengers to warn Lot in Sodom to escape for his life. Lot graciously received them, but the men of the city demanded Lot to relinquish his visitors to them for the purpose of abusing them in homosexual practices. The Sodomites were so perverted that they violently beat upon Lot’s door, threatened him, and then persisted in their demands even after the Lord struck them blind! Lot, his wife, and his two daughters believed the angels’ warning that they had come to destroy Sodom, but “he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law” (v. 14). Lot, his daughters, and his wife dreaded to leave their friends and loved ones behind when the time came, but the messengers persuaded them and literally pulled them by their hands to lead them out, “the Lord being merciful to him” (v.16).
The angels granted Lot’s request to spare the little town of Zoar, to which he fled. As he fled, his wife violated the angels’ command that no one look back, “and she became a pillar of salt” (v.26).
“Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground” (Gen. 19:24-25).
We can only imagine what went through Abraham’s mind when he looked off into the distance “toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace” (v.28).
From that day until this day, Sodom and Gomorrah have symbolized God’s fierce hatred of all immorality, especially the sin of homosexuality, and the horrible ruin brought upon the sinner by God’s wrath. The grave of Sodom and Gomorrah is not covered with fertile soil bearing grass, forests, and crops like other cities of antiquity. No, its grave is covered by the Salt Sea, the Dead Sea. This sea is not noted for delicious fish, nor its shore for beautiful flowers. Where there was once a veritable garden of the Lord and a thriving population, now “there are great quantities of salt, with deposits of bitumen, sulphur, and nitre on the shores of the Dead Sea.” This depressing depression “has the earth’s lowest surface, 1290 feet below sea level,” and its “water’s depth attains 1300 feet.” The Dead Sea’s “salt concentration reaches 25 percent, four times that of ocean water. Magnesium bromide prevents organic life; the climate is arid, and the heat extreme” (see “Gomorrah” and “Dead Sea” in The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, 1963).
The Symbol in the Old Testament
God has utilized this symbol of his wrath over and over throughout the history of the world. Moses lived about 1400 B.C., 400 years after Sodom was destroyed. Through Moses God warned the Israelites that if they turned their backs on him, the heat of his great anger would turn their land into another Sodom and Gomorrah:
“And that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein, like the overthrow of Sodom, and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim, which the Lord overthrew in his anger, and in his wrath” (Deut. 29:23).
In such a time, it would be said of God’s people, “For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah” (32:32).
Amos prophesied in the mid-700s B.C. concerning the sins and approaching judgment of Israel. God had chastised Israel in several ways, such as by destroying some of its cities through wars or natural calamities. “I have overthrown some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning.” Israel must “prepare to meet thy God” for a final judgment (Amos 4:11-12).
About 750 B.C., Isaiah sorrowed over the apostasy of Judah, and said that the Lord had “a very small remnant” left who served him, lest “we should have been as Sodom” and Gomorrah (Isa. 1:9). Isaiah then compared the brazen wickedness of both the people and the rulers of Judah to the shameless conduct of Sodom and Gomorrah (Isa. 1:10; 3:9). Though God would eventually use Babylon to punish his own people, he would then punish Babylon for its pride and excessive violence “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isa. 13:19). Sodom represents brazen evil followed by the judgment of God from which none can escape.
The prophecies of Zephaniah (about 630-625 B.C.) foretell God’s universal judgments against many nations, including his own people. Turning his attention to the east, the Lord declared, “Surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, even the breeding of nettles, and salt pits, and a perpetual desolation” (Zeph. 2:9). Sodom and Gomorrah represent the horrible punishment brought about by sin, however God may execute his judgments.
During the late 600s and early 500s B.C., when Judah was collapsing and going into Babylonian captivity, Jeremiah said her prophets committed immorality, walked in lies, and caused the people to persist in sin. Such prophets are like Sodom, and the people like Gomorrah (Jer. 23:14). The sin and punishment of Jerusalem are said to be so shocking as to be greater than that of Sodom, which was overthrown “in a moment” without the hands of men (Lam. 4:6). Thus, Sodom symbolizes sudden and divine punishment. God likens his judgments against Edom and against Babylon to the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah: “no man shall abide there” (Jer. 49:18; 50:40). Thus, Sodom symbolizes utter ruin and desolation.
Ezekiel prophesied as Judah went into Babylonian captivity. He emphasized the shame of Judah’s sins by saying she was the sister of Samaria and of Sodom, but her sins were worse than theirs (Ezek. 16:44-59). Judah exceeded “the iniquity of thy sister Sodom” in such sins as pride, materialism, idleness, and abuse of the poor. Such sinful attitudes and conduct led to the “abomination” for which Sodom was finally destroyed (vv. 49-50). Sodom reminds us that such sins always lead downward to destruction.
The Symbol in the New Testament
Jesus taught that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was a literal, historical event, not a myth, parable, fable, or fairy tale. When Jesus stressed the importance of being watchful and prepared for God to exercise judgment, he referred to the historical events of “the days of Noah” and of “the days of Lot.”
“Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all” (Lk. 17:28-29).
Then, he added, “Remember Lot’s wife” (v. 32). Jesus referred to the destruction of Sodom on a specific day (“the same day that Lot went out of Sodom”), by a specific means (“it rained fire and brimstone from heaven”), and with a specific result (“destroyed them all”). Jesus used Sodom to reinforce the lesson that men must take seriously God’s warning of judgment.
When Jesus sent his disciples out on the limited commission, he said of those people who refused God’s Word, “Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city” (Matt. 10:15; cf. Mk. 6:11; Lk. 10:12). Jesus made the same statement concerning cities which heard his teaching, saw many “mighty works” which confirmed the truth of his teaching, and still “repented not.” Capernaum would be brought down from its exalted position to the suffering of the wicked in hades, just as Sodom was (Matt. 11:20-24).
Sodom had heard the truth, and seen it confirmed through Abraham and Melchizedek. This opportunity should have brought Sodom to repentance, but they hardened their hearts against it. The people of Capernaum had heard the truth, had seen it confirmed by Jesus Christ himself, and yet had hardened their hearts. In rejecting the fuller revelation and greater blessings of the gospel, they made themselves worse than Sodom. Such comparisons were designed to impress the people with the shame and disgrace of their sins, and with the certainty of God’s judgment against them.
Notice that Jesus taught that the people of Sodom were not annihilated. They are in hades, awaiting the final judgment. They will be raised from the dead to give an account of themselves “in the day of judgment.” The people of Capernaum and all other people will be there. When Jesus says, “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city,” he does not mean that the Sodomites will be excused and exonerated, nor that hell will be cooler or shorter in duration for them than for others. Sodom is symbolic of the certainty of God’s wrath against sin, and of the utter and awful punishment brought about by sin.
Sodom is the preeminent example of God’s wrath. To say that someone’s sins are worse than Sodom’s, or that it will be “more tolerable” for Sodom, does not make Sodom’s punishment any less certain or severe. It simply underscores the absolute certainty and awful severity of the punishment promised in the comparison!
Jesus came to warn of judgment to come, but also to save us from it. He told his Apostles to preach salvation from sin and eternal torment:
“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:15-16).
“He that believeth not shall be damned” means that hell is real. When Jesus comes again, he will judge the world and deliver his people (Acts 17:31; 2 Thess. 1:7-9).
When Jude warned against the subtle and corrupt influence of apostates and their doctrines, he also warned that they lead men to destruction in the day of judgment. He underscored the certainty and the severity of divine judgment with three examples: the Jews “that believed not” during the wilderness wanderings, the angels who fell and who are “reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day,” and finally Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 4-7).
“Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (v. 7).
Following a similar pattern which points to Sodom as the preeminent example, Peter warned against false teachers and the judgment to come by pointing to three examples: the angels, Noah’s generation, and finally Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:1-8).
“And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an example unto those that after should live ungodly” (v. 6).
When God rained “brimstone and fire” upon Sodom, He literally turned the city “into ashes” (Gen. 19:24; 2 Pet. 2:6). He did it in such a fashion as to demonstrate that this fire came from God, not from man. Whether men like it or not, God destroyed Sodom in such a way as to memorialize for all time his hatred of immorality, especially homosexuality. Furthermore, he sent such a horrible, unrelenting, unquenchable fire as to necessarily imply “the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7). The fire of God’s anger pursued the Sodomites on earth, still torments them in hades, and will punish them throughout all eternity.
The spirit of Sodom is still alive, but is doomed to defeat. In establishing the church, God sent out men to reveal the gospel and to spread it throughout the world. In an effort to destroy the church, Satan killed many of these faithful witnesses to the truth of the gospel. John pictured the scene of this slaughter in these words: “and their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11: 8). The city which serves Satan is immoral and obstinate like Sodom, binds people in sin as Egypt bound the Jews, and rejects the truth and its author. The witnesses and the cause of truth were raised. Christ conquered his enemies, and the city fell. The last book of the Bible reminds us of the symbol given in the first book. The spirit of Sodom is doomed to utter and eternal defeat.
Whether the lusts of Sodom attract us, or its wickedness afflicts us, let us remember that it is “set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7). It is the sign and symbol of eternal torment!
By Ron Halbrook
(For further study, see Halbrook, “Eternal Punishment,” The Doctrine of Last Things: Florida College Annual Lectures, 1986, pp. 114-137.)
[Guardian of Truth XXXV:19 (October 3, 1991), pp. 594-596]
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