Origen of Alexandria was one of the first theologians to compose a thorough defense of Christian theology against the attacks of Pagan philosophy. The Platonic philosopher Celsus had argued against the supposed cruelty of the Christian idea of God as a “consuming fire” that tortures sinners. Origen, eager to defend the goodness of God, argued against Celsus that God only punishes in order to correct and save.
The divine word says that our God isa consuming fire,and thatHe draws rivers of fire before Him;nay, that He even enters in asa refiner’s fire, and as a fuller’s herb,to purify His own people. But when He is said to be aconsuming fire,we inquire what are the things which are appropriate to be consumed by God. And we assert that they are wickedness, and the works which result from it, and which, being figuratively calledwood, hay, stubble,God consumes as a fire. The wicked man, accordingly, is said to build up on the previously-laid foundation of reason,wood, and hay, and stubble.If, then, any one can show that these words were differently understood by the writer, and can prove that the wicked man literally builds upwood, or hay, or stubble,it is evident that the fire must be understood to be material, and an object of sense. But if, on the contrary, the works of the wicked man are spoken of figuratively under the names ofwood, or hay, or stubble,why does it not at once occur (to inquire) in what sense the wordfireis to be taken, so thatwoodof such a kind should be consumed? For (the Scripture) says:The fire will try each man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work be burned, he shall suffer loss.But what work can be spoken of in these words as beingburned,save all that results from wickedness? Therefore our God is aconsuming firein the sense in which we have taken the word; and thus He enters in as arefiner’s fire,to refine the rational nature, which has been filled with the lead of wickedness, and to free it from the other impure materials, which adulterate the natural gold or silver, so to speak, of the soul. And, in like manner,rivers of fireare said to be before God, who will thoroughly cleanse away the evil which is intermingled throughout the whole soul. But these remarks are sufficient in answer to the assertion,that thus they were made to give expression to the erroneous opinion that God will come down bearing fire like a torturer. (Origen, Against Celsus IV, 13)