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People use the term “fire and brimstone” to conjure up a graphic image of the punishment which awaits sinners in Hell. This term is most commonly used in the Christian tradition, referencing several passages in the Bible in which these items figure prominently, although not all Christians favor the idea that God has hideous punishments in store for sinners. In fact, some people use the term pejoratively to describe a specific style of preaching in which the officiant harps on the theme of terrible punishment.
Fire is fairly self explanatory, but many people do not know what “brimstone” is. “Brimstone” is simply an antiquated term for sulfur, a material that is commonly associated with volcanoes. The words conjure up an image of an erupting volcano or a fiery Hell in which sinners are subjected to divine wrath. Sulfur's notable stink is often associated with the Devil in Christian traditions, and the Devil is sometimes described as “stinking of brimstone,” referencing the idea that he lives in an area where sulfur is widespread.
The Book of Revelations in particular features a number of references to fire and brimstone. God rains it down on sinners, false prophets are thrown into lakes of it, and “abominable” people, among others, await punishment in “a lake which burneth with fire and brimstone,” according to Revelation 21:8. Historically, many Christians took the idea literally, believing that Hell was a real place and that people who had sinned would endure physical punishment there.
The threat of fire and brimstone was used in attempts to encourage sinners to mend their erring ways, and it was used as a tool for conversion, with some missionaries suggesting that a failure to convert would be like buying a ticket straight to Hell. Modern Christians are split on the concept of Hell, with some people regarding it as a metaphorical place that is visited after death, while other sects cling to the idea that people are literally brought to Hell or Heaven after death. The fact that the Earth's crust floats on a sea of magma certainly lent credence to the idea that Hell is a real place in the past, and undoubtedly early Christians were inspired by violent volcanic eruptions when they were struggling to visualize Hell.
Ministers who preach a lot on the nature of sin, God's wrath, and punishment are sometimes known as “fire and brimstone preachers” or “pulpit pounders.” Baptists in particular are famous for their fiery preaching. Other Christian sects prefer a less terrorizing approach. Quakers, for example, prefer to discuss God's love, rather than His wrath.
It seems to me that a "Wise Geek" would know that the book of Revelation is not plural. Possibly some editing of the text on this website might be in order?
Moderator's reply: The article has been corrected. Thanks for catching this and for visiting wiseGEEK.com.