This is the fourth part of a series on hell. You can find the index here.
I would like to start by making a point about the Revelation to John. It is most clearly illustrated in the first chapter of the book.
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
“Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
If you cannot see it, the problem I have with the book is its blatant symbolism. This is just the beginning. If you continue, you see the four horsemen, bowls of wrath and the woman and dragon. In fact, the whole book is one torrent of apocalyptic imagery. There’s nothing wrong with imagery per se, but I think it is obvious that we ought not to read a book that is so flagrantly symbolic literally. When we read it, we can either find the main point of the narrative or say “this is what I think all these pictures mean”. What I am saying, in plain English, is that the statement “the damned will spend eternity in a lake of fire because the book of revelation says so” is a careless one. The book says a lot of things, the vast majority of which are not meant to be taken literally. If you wish to argue that the book’s description of hell should be taken literally, do so. But don’t say it as if it’s obviously true.
“Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.” Revelation 19: 19 – 21
This refers to the judgment of the beast and his false prophet. They are both defeated and thrown into the ‘fiery lake of burning sulfur’ while their followers are killed. I have no idea who the beast and prophet are supposed to be, so I’ll leave them alone and just think about the lake of fire which I’ll come back to later.
“When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth —Gog and Magog —and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Revelation 20: 7 – 10
Considerable time has passed since the judgment of the beast – a thousand years. Now, Satan is judged and thrown into the same lake of fire. This passage goes on to say that Satan, the beast and the false prophet would be tormented forever.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20: 11 – 14
Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire. Death and Hades aren’t people, so this probably just means that death and hades will be abolished; that is, there will be no more death. Then the people are judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. Finally, everyone whose name is not written in the book of life is thrown into the lake of fire.
Note 1: People are thrown into the lake of fire, not based on what is written in the other books, but based on whether their names are in the book of life. What then is the point of looking at the other books?
Note 2: The lake of fire is called ‘the second death’, which could mean a number of things.
“He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars —they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” – Revelation 21: 6 – 8
Once again, the lake of fire is called the second death.
I’ll look at more Bible verses in a second, but so far I want to point out the things I think are important to understanding the doctrine of hell.
1. The ‘second death’
On its face, this word could mean annihilation (the damned cease to exist). It could also mean that the judgment they face is some kind of death in the tradition of Jesus and Paul where ‘death’ is used as a symbol for certain things e.g. we died in Christ. I don’t know what it means and I am loathe to consult a commentary because of their usual biases.
2. The fiery lake of burning sulfur
Like I pointed out in the beginning, I doubt that this is an actual lake of sulfur. At the very least, I don’t think one should assume that it is. Satan, the beast and the false prophet are thrown into it and tormented forever, but Death and Hades are thrown into it and this can only mean annihilation for them. So, the lake seems to be different things for different entities. Those whose names are not written in the book of life are also thrown into it.
3. The word ‘torment’
A quick glance at several translations reveals that a small minority translate that word as ‘torture’, which is a synonym according to blueletterbible.org (http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G929&t=KJV) Torment/Torture is obviously a very strong word. There is more about it here for those interested in reading about it: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/torture/
Now, on to the last passage
‘A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, 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. 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.” This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.’ Revelation 14: 9 – 12
- This specifically refers to those who worship the beast and its image. Since the lake of fire does different things to different people (as it seems), it is perfectly possible that they will have this punishment and everyone else will have another. That would be supported by the passages that describe some people as being punished more than others although it is not said in this passage
- It says that they will be tormented/tortured in the presence of the Holy Angels and the Lamb. That seems to mean “in the throne room”. If it said “in God’s presence”, then that could be anywhere. But it would be odd to describe any place but the throne room as the presence of the angels… maybe. Maybe it means that the angels and the Lamb will be able to see it. Torment there is the same word I referred to above.
- The smoke of their torment will rise forever. They will have no rest day or night. Normally, I would interpret those statements in a certain way, but I came across another verse that brought some confusion.
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 or 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 lie down
and find for themselves places of rest.
The owl will nest there and lay eggs,
she will hatch them, and care for her young
under the shadow of her wings;
there also the falcons will gather,
each with its mate.
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. – Isaiah 34: 8 – 17
Edom was supposed to burn forever, and never be quenched and a host of animals was supposed to possess it forever too. Edom clearly isn’t burning now and if it was, the animals couldn’t live there – obviously. I suspect it was all just hyperbole. While that cannot be used to interpret the book of revelation – different writers, different times, but the same genre – it did alert me to the fact that a book of prophecy might as well be hyperbolic. In fact, it probably is. The issue here is stripping away the literary devices and determining how serious the actual thing is.
And that’s what worries me. In writing this, I have worried over the fact that I might be reading the book too literally or not literally enough, or that I might be interpreting it wrongly or trying to make it fit my biases. In the end, all I came up with was some more information on specific things, but more confusion on the whole topic of hell altogether. In the end, what I believe about hell will be determined by the theory that most fits the Biblical evidence. Or that’s what I hope. But I’ll steer clear of trying to make up any kind of doctrine of hell from the book of revelation. It’s just too vague and confusing.