This is part of a series on the Bible’s teaching on hell. Here, you can find the first and second parts. The following Commentary is from Glenn Miller of the Christian Think Tank and my own commentary on these and other passages from the book of Revelation should be up in a few days. As you can imagine, I don’t necessarily agree with everything that follows. It is long, but worth reading and mostly made up of Bible passages. The original article is here.
First Revelation 14.9f:
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.”
And the second is Revelation 20.7ff:
And when the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
For some twenty years, these were the proof-texts I used to demonstrate to others that hell consisted of eternal, conscious, active torment. Over the last two years, I have abandoned using these verses in any such way. The problems with (a) understanding them at all(!); and (b) developing a doctrine of hell from these two verses are insurmountable in my opinion, and I simply gave up using them for this.
Let me mention some of the difficulties for taking these verses in the traditional way.
First, the Rev 14 passage:
- The torment is said to be in the presence of Jesus (not in hell, but actually in the heavenly throne room).
- The torment is a ‘city type’ of torment (e.g., Sodom, Edom), NOT an individual type. See especially Rev 19.3, where this described Babylon.
- The “eternal” aspect of this is said by traditionalists to reside in the “eternal smoke” image, but this image was used of VERY finite annihilations/judgments in the OT—events which were not even REMOTELY ‘never-ending torment’
Compare specifically the OT origin of this image—Is 34 on the judgment on Edom:
”For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah and a great slaughter in Edom.
And the wild oxen will fall with them, the bull calves and the great bulls. Their land will be drenched with blood, and the dust will be soaked with fat.
For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause.
Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch!
It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.
The desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there. God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation.
Her nobles will have nothing there to be called a kingdom, all her princes will vanish away.
Thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds. She will become a haunt for jackals, a home for owls.
Desert creatures will meet with hyenas, and wild goats will bleat to each other; there the night creatures will also repose, and find for themselves places of rest.
Look in the scroll of the LORD and read: None of these will be missing, not one will lack her mate. For it is his mouth that has given the order, and his Spirit will gather them together.
He allots their portions; his hand distributes them by measure. They will possess it forever and dwell there from generation to generation.”
Notice that the images are quite unlike our traditional views of hell. The entire land is said to be eternally on fire (including the water!), but a whole host of flora (thorns, nettles, brambles) and fauna (desert owl, screech owl, great owl, raven, jackals, hyenas, goats, falcons) find ‘rest’ there and grow families (presupposing a much wider range of wildlife and vegetation and water supply)…and the animals possess this place “forever” and “from generation to generation”. One of these images cannot be literal—either the fire one is figurative (probably of war, cf. Amos 2.1ff) or the animal one is figurative. And this matter is settled by the later prophecy of Jeremiah 49, building on the one in Isaiah. In this passage, the punishment on Edom is explicitly related to conquest and dispersion (by the Babylonians):
“Concerning Edom. Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Is there no longer any wisdom in Teman? Has good counsel been lost to the prudent? Has their wisdom decayed? “Flee away, turn back, dwell in the depths, O inhabitants of Dedan, For I will bring the disaster of Esau upon him At the time I punish him. “If grape gatherers came to you, Would they not leave gleanings? If thieves came by night, They would destroy only until they had enough. “But I have stripped Esau bare, I have uncovered his hiding places So that he will not be able to conceal himself; His offspring has been destroyed along with his relatives And his neighbors, and he is no more. “Leave your orphans behind, I will keep them alive; And let your widows trust in Me.”
For thus says the LORD, “Behold, those who were not sentenced to drink the cup will certainly drink it, and are you the one who will be completely acquitted? You will not be acquitted, but you will certainly drink it. “For I have sworn by Myself,” declares the LORD, “that Bozrah will become an object of horror, a reproach, a ruin and a curse; and all its cities will become perpetual ruins.”
I have heard a message from the LORD, And an envoy is sent among the nations, saying, “Gather yourselves together and come against her, And rise up for battle!” “For behold, I have made you small among the nations, Despised among men. 16 “As for the terror of you, The arrogance of your heart has deceived you, O you who live in the clefts of the rock, Who occupy the height of the hill. Though you make your nest as high as an eagle’s, I will bring you down from there,” declares the LORD.
“And Edom will become an object of horror; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss at all its wounds. “Like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah with its neighbors,” says the LORD, “no one will live there, nor will a son of man reside in it. “Behold, one will come up like a lion from the thickets of the Jordan against a perennially watered pasture; for in an instant I shall make him run away from it, and whoever is chosen I shall appoint over it. For who is like Me, and who will summon Me into court? And who then is the shepherd who can stand against Me?”
Therefore hear the plan of the LORD which He has planned against Edom, and His purposes which He has purposed against the inhabitants of Teman: surely they will drag them off, even the little ones of the flock; surely He will make their pasture desolate because of them. 21 The earth has quaked at the noise of their downfall. There is an outcry! The noise of it has been heard at the Red Sea. 22 Behold, He will mount up and swoop like an eagle, and spread out His wings against Bozrah; and the hearts of the mighty men of Edom in that day will be like the heart of a woman in labor.
Notice in the above passage that the items in bold related both to the ‘wasteland’ image of Isaiah AND to warfare, indicating the figurative nature of the ‘fire’ image. (Notice also, that there would be survivors in the orphans and widows, that God would care for.) Also, this judgment (esp. the “lion” image) is applied to Babylon in Jer 50.44, which referred to the military victory of the Medes/Persians over them.
And, just to make the point of discontinuity even MORE vivid: the passage in Jer 49.14 says that Edom’s cities will be “everlasting” ruins (heb. Olam). But ‘everlasting’ doesn’t mean a whole lot in this context, for Judah is said to be in “everlasting ruins” in Jeremiah 25.9 (as a result of the exile). The Psalmist in 74.3 prays to YHWH to look at His temple—an “everlasting ruin”—right before YHWH begins the rebuilding program, and in Is 58.12 the “everlasting ruins” of the nation are promised to be rebuilt by God. We know that “everlasting” is often used hyperbolically like this (indeed, George Foot Moore suggests that the ‘eternal contempt’ of Dan 12 might be hyperbolic, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol II. P. 297).
What this does to our ‘smoke rises forever’ image is drastically reduce its force—it is neither fire, smoke, nor forever…it IS judgment, to be sure, but to make this image into something not intended by the biblical authors is misguided
Pushback: “Well, Glenn, I agree that most people DO understand the imagery to be full of non-literal symbols, but the reality behind the symbols must be MUCH, much worse. Therefore, your downgrading of this is obviously false.”
Actually, in the Biblical literature, the OPPOSITE is true–the symbols are much, much worse, and hyperbole and exaggeration were the norm in public discourse. This can be easily seen from just a couple of genres.
1. Jewish oracles/poetics of judgment in the OT, the symbols are much worse than the reality. Judgment is spoken of in massive terms, and even small battles over small villages and kingdoms (Edom was the smallest nation in the area!) are described in geo-astronomical terms (e.g., earthquakes, tidal waves, sun being darkened, stars falling from the sky, powerful fires).
Let me give just a few examples (there are many, many of these):
a. Ezekiel 20.45ff we read:
“The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward the south; preach against the south and prophesy against the forest of the southland. Say to the southern forest: ‘Hear the word of the LORD. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. 48 Everyone will see that I the LORD have kindled it; it will not be quenched.’” Then I said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD! They are saying of me, ‘Isn’t he just telling parables?’”
Notice how sweeping the images are:
1. the fire will consume ALL the trees
2. the blazing flame will NOT BE QUENCHED (sound familiar?)
3. EVERY face will be scorched by this NEVER-QUENCHED flame
And notice that the audience ASSUMED it was parabolic(!)–and this might be an important clue to us, when confronted with such imagery and language.
This passage is followed in the biblical text by a “more literal” version of it (according to most commentators) in 21:
“The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, set your face against Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuary. Prophesy against the land of Israel and say to her: ‘This is what the LORD says: I am against you. I will draw my sword from its scabbard and cut off from you both the righteous and the wicked. Because I am going to cut off the righteous and the wicked, my sword will be unsheathed against everyone from south to north. Then all people will know that I the LORD have drawn my sword from its scabbard; it will not return again.’ “Therefore groan, son of man! Groan before them with broken heart and bitter grief. And when they ask you, ‘Why are you groaning?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that is coming. Every heart will melt and every hand go limp; every spirit will become faint and every knee become as weak as water.’ It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
8 The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy and say, ‘This is what the Lord says: ”‘A sword, a sword, sharpened and polished— sharpened for the slaughter, polished to flash like lightning! ”‘Shall we rejoice in the scepter of my son Judah? The sword despises every such stick. ”‘The sword is appointed to be polished, to be grasped with the hand; it is sharpened and polished, made ready for the hand of the slayer. Cry out and wail, son of man, for it is against my people; it is against all the princes of Israel. They are thrown to the sword along with my people. Therefore beat your breast. ”‘Testing will surely come. And what if the scepter of Judah, which the sword despises, does not continue? Declares the Sovereign LORD.’
“So then, son of man, prophesy and strike your hands together. Let the sword strike twice, even three times. It is a sword for slaughter— a sword for great slaughter, closing in on them from every side. So that hearts may melt and the fallen be many, I have stationed the sword for slaughter at all their gates. Oh! It is made to flash like lightning, it is grasped for slaughter. O sword, slash to the right, then to the left, wherever your blade is turned. I too will strike my hands together, and my wrath will subside. I the LORD have spoken.”
Notice how a traditionalist commentator explains this (EBCOT):
“Having surveyed the history of Israel’s rebellion and found the nation deserving of judgment in Ezekiel’s day, God announced and described the judgment that he was about to bring on Judah. Four messages described God’s judgment by Babylonia (cf. vv. 45; 21:1, 8, 18). The first message consists of a parable (vv. 45-49) and its explicit interpretation (21:1-7). The parable described a forest fire in the southern forests that burned every tree, whether green or dry (vv. 46-47). Each person would see that God kindled the unquenchable fire (v. 48). The parable emphasized the “south” by using the three most common Hebrew terms for that direction (cf. Notes). The southern forest referred to the southern kingdom of Judah, a forested area in biblical times, even into the upper Negev.
“Verse 49 provides a transition between the parable and its interpretation. Ezekiel’s hearers were frustrated. Ezekiel, the old parabolic speaker, was at it again. This was another one of those parables they did not understand. Therefore, God would give the interpretation.
“1-5 The parable’s interpretation was revealed in these verses. Ezekiel was instructed to “set [his] face toward the south” (20:46). The south was defined as Jerusalem, its sanctuaries, and all the land of Israel (which was then Judah) (v. 2). The fire in the parable (20:47) represented a sword of judgment (v. 3), i.e., the sword of Nebuchadnezzar and his armies (cf. vv. 18-27). The green and dry trees symbolize the righteous and the wicked, respectively. God’s judgment would be comprehensive. When God would pour out his wrath on the sinner, the effects would cover the entire land from north to south. Each person would be touched by the sword of his fury (vv. 4-5; cf. 20:47). Both the righteous and the wicked would experience the land’s devastation. Everyone would know that the Lord was the one who brought the judgment (v. 5; cf. 20:48).
“6-7 The effects of God’s wrath on Judah would also be devastating. The people would lose strength. Ezekiel communicated these emotional responses to the people by groaning as one who was in emotional distress and in bitter anguish. When the exiles inquired as to the cause of his grief, he would tell them that he was a sign of the emotional distress they would have when God’s judgment would come. At that time their hearts would melt, their spirits would faint, and their hands and knees would become weak like water (vv. 6-7). This would happen. This was not just a scare tactic. God declared that this judgment would “surely take place.”
Here was case where the symbol of unquenchable fire burning down the entire forest and scorching everyone’s face was worse than the actual Fall of Jerusalem itself (literally).
b. Deut 32.22f:
For a fire has been kindled by my wrath,
one that burns to the realm of death below.
It will devour the earth and its harvests
and set afire the foundations of the mountains.
“I will heap calamities upon them
and spend my arrows against them.
“The result of the Lord’s anger (v. 22) is described as a world-embracing cataclysm of fire adversely affecting three entities: the realm of death (whether the afterlife or the grave for dead bodies), the earth and its harvests (its productivity), and the very foundations of the mountains (Ps 18:7). In its context this is hyperbolical language to represent the frightful carnage to which Israel will be exposed because of infidelity to the Lord. The calamities of v. 23 are those experiences that affect men adversely. These disasters or calamities will be heaped on Israel, and the Lord’s arrows will be used up against his people.
c. David’s psalm in 2 Sam 21 (Psalm 18) after having been delivered in battle from the Philistines and from Saul:
In my distress I called upon the Lord, And cried to my God for help; He heard my voice out of His temple, And my cry for help before Him came into His ears.
7 Then the earth shook and quaked; And the foundations of the mountains were trembling And were shaken, because He was angry.
8 Smoke went up out of His nostrils, And fire from His mouth devoured; Coals were kindled by it.
9 He bowed the heavens also, and came down With thick darkness under His feet.
10 And He rode upon a cherub and flew; And He sped upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness His hiding place, His canopy around Him, Darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies.
12 From the brightness before Him passed His thick clouds, Hailstones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens, And the Most High uttered His voice, Hailstones and coals of fire.
14 And He sent out His arrows, and scattered them, And lightning flashes in abundance, and routed them.
15 Then the channels of water appeared, And the foundations of the world were laid bare At Thy rebuke, O Lord ,At the blast of the breath of Thy nostrils.
16He sent from on high, He took me; He drew me out of many waters.
Strictly speaking, this psalm is a ‘spoof’ of Caananite deities–all of whom YHWH has conquered in David’s battle, but the imagery is also consistent with most of Israel’s ‘numinous’ language.
d. David’s prayer for victory (after an apparent setback) in Psalm 60:
O God, Thou hast rejected us. Thou hast broken us; Thou hast been angry; O, restore us.
2 Thou hast made the land quake, Thou hast split it open; Heal its breaches, for it totters.
3 Thou hast made Thy people experience hardship; Thou hast given us wine to drink that makes us stagger.
4 Thou hast given a banner to those who fear Thee, That it may be displayed because of the truth. [Selah].
5 That Thy beloved may be delivered, Save with Thy right hand, and answer us!
“There are sad moments in the history of the people of God. God has promised to be with his people; but in his own inscrutable wisdom, he seems to abandon them. This psalm raises the issue of divine abandonment and challenges the godly to abandon themselves to the love and compassion of a wise God. According to the superscription, this psalm alludes to David’s success in Aram Naharaim, Aram Zobah, and Edom (cf. 2 Sam 8:1-14; 10:16; 1 Chronicles 18:1-13). Apparently the successes were not always immediate, as this psalm is a community lament in which the people pray for God’s success after an apparent defeat.
“It is evident that adversity has strained the covenant relationship between God and his people. The people feel that God’s temporary abandonment of them has brought them nothing but trouble. Seven verbs emphasize the divine initiation: “you have rejected … [you] burst forth … you have been angry…. You have shaken … and [you have] torn it open…. You have shown … you have given” (vv. 1-3).
“Rejection, even though for a brief time, is serious (v. 1; cf. v. 10; 44:9, 23; 74:1; 77:7; 89:38), because it results from God’s anger (v. 1; cf. 2:12; 79:5; 1 Kings 8:46). His anger is like “wine that makes us stagger” (v. 3; cf. 75:8; Isa 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15-29); its impact is felt throughout. God’s people live a meaningless existence without his presence. They take defeat seriously, because divine abandonment is the most miserable condition. The psalmist likens abandonment to a state of war (v. 1; NIV, “burst forth”; cf. Judg 21:15 [NIV, “made a gap”]; 2 Sam 5:20; like the breach in a wall; cf. Isa 5:5), to an earthquake (NIV, “you have shaken … torn it open;… it is quaking,” v. 2; cf. 18:7; 46:3, 6; Isa 24:18-20), and to a state of intoxication (v. 3; cf. 75:8; Isa 51:17, 21-22).
e. The locust invasion of Joel 2 (foreshadowing the invasion of Assyria, as well):
At the sight of them, nations are in anguish; every face turns pale. 7 They charge like warriors; they scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course. 8 They do not jostle each other; each marches straight ahead. They plunge through defenses without breaking ranks. 9 They rush upon the city; they run along the wall. They climb into the houses; like thieves they enter through the windows. 10 Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 11 The LORD thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?
Since the images in Revelation are taken dominantly from the images in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, this alone should caution us about making the images carry too much ‘detailed’ and ‘sweeping’ content.
2. In addition to contexts of judgment (the actual context of OUR discussion), there are literary contexts of hyperbole and overstatement, with which the Bible and the Gospels are filled. Stein has collected many instances of this, and even formulated guidelines for detecting exaggeration in the teachings of Jesus (DSIG). It was quite standard practice in biblical Israel, the rabbinic writers, and on the lips of Jesus.
Just a partial listing from Stein of the cases he adduces should demonstrate this (many of these have rabbinic parallels or analogs):
q Matt 7.3f: And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. [Logs don’t fit in eyes]
q Matt 5.29f: And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. [ Self-mutilation doesn’t solve lust problems, especially if you leave one eye in!]
q Matt 6.6: But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. [Jesus was not opposed to public prayer!]
q Mark 13.2:Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.” [There are some of the foundation stones still visible today.]
q Matt 5.23: If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. [A Galilean, leaving a live goat at the temple in Jerusalem, until he had made a trip back to Galilee to seek reconciliation there, would likely not find his goat there when he returned in a few weeks…]
q Matt 26.52: Then Jesus *said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. [Not all soldiers die violently.]
q Mark 10.24: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” [Obvious, but I should point out that the story of the Needle Gate is a apocryphal story made up in the Middle Ages. Also, there are several rabbinic parallels about elephants going through the eye of a needle.]
So, the actual data of the biblical text leads me to believe the OPPOSITE of the slogan “the reality is worse than the symbol”
Okay, back to the discussion on Rev 14 and 20…
A relevant case in point would be the “eternal worms” and “unquenchable fire” images used sometimes of gehenna by our Lord. This image derives from Isaiah 66, in the section on the New Heavens and the New Earth:
“For just as the new heavens and the new earth Which I make will endure before Me,” declares the Lord, “So your offspring and your name will endure. 23 “And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the Lord. 24 “Then they shall go forth and look On the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, And their fire shall not be quenched; And they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.”
This description of the New Jerusalem (cf. Rev 21-22), with its reference to burning and rotting corpses (in full view of the redeemed/the world), seems at odds with the image of the unredeemed being cast ‘bodily’ into the lake of fire in Revelation (not part of the New Heavens and Earth). The image in Isaiah is clearly one of ‘exclusion’ from the benefits of the New Creation, and this exclusion motif is carried on in the Revelation passages as well:
And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 And the nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it. 25 And in the daytime (for there shall be no night there) its gates shall never be closed; 26 and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; 27 and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 21.23)
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. (Rev 22.14)
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, 4 and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” 5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” 6 And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. 7 “He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Rev 21.1ff)
Notice the emphasis is on exclusion from the ‘good stuff’ (in Isaiah and in Revelation)–NOT some pain from the immortal worms or refuse fires. This would argue that Jesus’ use of this vivid image is consistent with the ‘thrown outside’ images He generally used to portray the final judgment (noted above). ]
Stein [DSIG:35] identifies this image of Isaiah as hyperbole as well:
“To have the worm present in the description of the judgment of the unrighteous is understandable; to have unquenchable fire present is likewise understandable; but to have both present together is not, for the fire would kill the worm. To claim that Isaiah conceived of a new kind of worm, an asbestos worm as it were, is to miss the point. The worm and the unquenchable fire are two well-known metaphorical portraits of judgment. Placing them side by side simply reinforces Isaiah’s proclamation of the certainty of the judgment.
- The traditionalist, evangelical, pre-millennialist commentator in EBCOT points out that this is rather inconclusive in this verse:
”John’s imagery conveys a sense of finality and sober reality. It is not clear whether the imagery points only to permanency and irreversibility of God’s punitive justice or whether it also includes the consciousness of eternal deprivation”
Next, the Rev 20 passage:
- The eternal torment mention is applied only to the Devil, the Beast, and the False Prophet—not to their followers (who are said to be devoured by fire from heaven in verse 9). The devil is clearly an angel, but the Beast is difficult to identify as being an individual human or a group of humans or a nation or a “movement” or a spirit (the biblical data in Revelation and the other Johannine literature is all over the map on this one). Indeed, Alan F. Johnson, a traditionalist, points out in EBCOT this lack of precision:
“The description John gives (in chapter 13) of the beast from the sea does not describe a mere human political entity such as Rome. Rather, it describes in archetypal language the hideous, Satan-backed system of deception and idolatry that may at any time express itself in human systems of various kinds, such as Rome. Yet at the same time John also seems to be saying that this blasphemous, blaspheming, and blasphemy-producing reality will have a final, intense, and, for the saints, utterly devastating manifestation.
“Yet the same paradox found in chapter 12 also appears here in chapter 13. While the dragon (ch. 12) is, on the one hand, defeated and cast out of heaven, on the other hand, he still has time and ability to wage a relentless war against the people of God. Likewise, the beast (ch. 13) has been dealt a fatal blow by the cross of Christ and yet still has time and ability to wage war against the saints. He appears to be alive and in full command of the scene; his blasphemies increase. What the sea beast cannot accomplish, he commissions the earth beast to do (vv. 11 ff.). All three–the dragon, the sea beast, and the earth beast–though distinguishable, are nevertheless in collusion to effect the same end: the deception that led the world to worship the dragon and the sea beast and the destruction of all who oppose them… It is this description that leads to the fourth reason why identifying the beast exclusively with any one historical personage or empire is probably incorrect. In John’s description of the beast, there are numerous parallels with Jesus that should alert the reader to the fact that John is seeking to establish, not a historical identification, but a theological characterization (though in this there is no implication against the historicity of Jesus): Both wielded swords; both had followers on whose foreheads were inscribed their names (13:16-14:1); both had horns (5:6; 13:1); both were slain, the same Greek word being used to describe their deaths (sphagizo, vv. 3, 8); both had arisen to new life and authority; and both were given (by different authorities) power over every nation, tribe, people, and tongue as well as over the kings of the earth (1:5; 7:9; with 13:7; 17:12). The beast described here is the great theological counterpart to all that Christ represents and not the Roman Empire or any of its emperors. So it is easy to understand why many in the history of the church have identified the beast with a future, personal Antichrist.
“But the question must remain open as to whether John in the Apocalypse points to a single archenemy of the church–whether past or future or to a transhistorical reality with many human manifestations in history. Thus the imagery would function similarly with regard to the image of the woman of chapter 12 or the harlot of chapter 17. If such is the case, this does not mean that John would have denied the earthly historical manifestations of this satanic reality; but it would prevent us from limiting the imagery merely to the Roman Empire or to any other single future political entity.
The False Prophet has a similar imprecision. It is identified with the ‘land beast’ in ” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). Like the other ‘beasts,’ it can be understood as impersonal (and even identical with the other Beast). So EBCOT:
“While recognizing that no view is without problems, the following discussion takes the position that the land beast is John’s way of describing the false prophets of the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:24; Mark 13:22). This identification is consistent with the previously stated view of the sea beast as describing not just a specific political reality but the world-wide anti-God system of Satan and its manifestation in periodic, historical human antichrists. The land beast is the antithesis to the true prophets of Christ symbolized by the two witnesses in chapter… If the thought of a nonpersonal antichrist and false prophet seems to contradict the verse that describes them as being cast alive into the lake of fire (19:20), consider that “death” and “Hades” (nonpersons) are also thrown into the lake of fire (20:14).
Accordingly, I don’t get a very good feeling about even the referents in this verse, much less what its imagery means (other than the finality and factuality of final judgment on the forces of evil, which may be the ONLY point of the image, as in the one-major-point parables.)
- In Verse 14, “death” and “hades” are said to be thrown into this lake of fire. I can find no other reasonable explanation of these images OTHER THAN their ‘annihilation’ (“death shall be no more”, the “last enemy to be destroyed is death”). I have difficulty even imagining what John saw as he described this. Were these the Death and Hades horse riders from chapter 6.7 (“And when He broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” 8 And I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. And authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.”). If so, what is the content of the immediately preceding verse 13: “and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them”?
- The dead are judged and some are thrown into the lake of fire, but there is no indication of never-ending torment (or existence for that matter) for them, and, since this event follows the description of death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire, it might indicate an annihilation, as G.B. Caird in his commentary on Revelation argues (both 14 and 20, bold is his):
“These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire, which, although they must share it with their human followers, to whom it means annihilation, means something different for beings seemingly incapable of death.” (at 14.20)
“John has allowed for the possibility that a man’s name may be expunged from the look (iii.5), that human disobedience may in the end prove impregnable to the assaults of love. For such people the presence of God could be nothing but a horror from which they, like the earth they made their home, must flee, leaving not a trace behind. For them there remains only the annihilation of the second death. In justice to John let it be noted that the lake of fire is not for men, as it is for the demonic enemies of God, a place of torment.” (at 20.12)
- Even the “geography” of this lake should warn us about pressing this too closely. The images STILL focus more on exclusion than on torment. This “lake” is called the Second Death in 20.14. In 21, the New Heavens and New Earth are described, along with the New Jerusalem:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, 4 and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” 5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” 6 And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. 7 “He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
Notice in verse 8 the excluded ones are NOT residents of this new place, but rather are consigned to the lake/second death.
And in 21.14, the theme comes back to exclusion:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.
- The fact that this lake is ALWAYS called “the second death” when dealing with humans (as opposed to angels or demons) leads me to question the traditional understanding of this verse. The use of ‘second death’ here by John brings to mind the various “not perish” passages in John (e.g., 3.16; 10.28), Paul (Rom 2.12; 1 Cor 1.18; 15:50; 2 Cor 2.15; 4:3; 2 Th 2.10) and Peter (2 Pet 3.9), which are generally contrasted with continuing existence (cf., e.g., John 3.16; 6.27; 10:28; Heb 1.11). This data, although not conclusive in itself, seems to not warrant using this passage as an support for never-ending conscious torment of normal humans.
There are other exegetical issues here, but these are enough for me to ‘back off’ from understanding these this way any long.
Accordingly, I cannot in good conscience use these verses to support the traditional view.