The Apocalypse’s Lake of Fire

The almost universal traditional view of hell in the Christian church is that it is a lake of fire, that it will last forever and ever and that the wicked will be conscious and tormented endlessly. So Edward Fudge, in his Hell: A Final Word , sketches what we find in the lake of fire text in Revelation.

The Lake of Fire in Revelation in Revelation 20:14-15:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

First, the lake of fire is probably related to Daniel 7′s river of fire, a fire that destroys evil world leaders (the Beast and the False Prophet).

Second, in Revelation the Beast, the False Prophet and Satan/Serpent are thrown into the Lake of Fire. The place for the unholy trinity of evil. They are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Only they are said in the Bible to be tormented endlessly.

Comment: Yes, Fudge is right; no one else is said to be tormented forever. But wicked humans are tossed into the same Lake of Fire in the next chapter. But Rev 14 has humans with much the same finality — humans, the smoke of their torment, endless.  More importantly, God is thereby now theologically and logically connected to endless torment. The unholy trinity may be upgradings of sin and evil and wickedness but they are still said to be tormented endlessly. Fudge appeals next to a human — Hanns Lilje — but this is an argument from a human or an authority or an experience. It doesn’t for me wipe away the glaring reality of an endless torment administered by God. The problem of endless torment is now officially connected to a theological problem.

Death is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14). Hades is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14).

The Lake of Fire is the Second Death. The death of the age to come. Lake of Fire is defined by Second Death, meaning that Second Death is the ruling image.  The two options are life (eternal, city of God) and death (final, second death, Lake of Fire). Humans enter the Lake of Fire, the Second Death: Rev 21:8.

So for Fudge all texts dealing with endless torment are explained, destruction is seen as the ruling image, Death is the outcome, and the absence of life is the outcome for the wicked. For Fudge the emphasis — undeniable — in the Bible is a fire that consumes or destroys, not a fire that purges or that torments. Edward Fudge makes the best case of anyone alive today for the annihilationist viewpoint.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://Whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    Great series! It sounds like you’re unpersuaded that the Apocalypse has an annihilationist eschatology, even if Fudge is right about other texts. Have I read you right there?

  • Andy

    I’d also love to hear your perspective and where you personally stand on this topic.

  • http://matthartke.wordpress.com/ Matt

    I agree that Revelation 14 is definitely the most difficult text (perhaps the only difficult text) for annihilationism to deal with. But it makes more sense to me when I go back and look at the two OT passages which John is echoing here: Isaiah 34:8-17, and behind that Genesis 19:24-29. The phrase “fire and brimstone” comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the fate of which became the prototype for the judgment of God against pagan nations throughout the Old Testament.

    Isaiah, in particular, echoes the fate of those cities with reference to Edom, declaring that “its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone; its land shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night or day; its smoke shall ascend forever. Its smoke shall ascend forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it.” Of course, we all know that Edom isn’t still burning. That wasn’t Isaiah’s point. His point, which he expresses in the most potent and evocatively poetic language, is that Edom’s desolation will be total and irreversible.

    John uses that same type of language in Revelation 14:11 with respect to those who worship the beast. It is not the language of individual destinies that he uses, as has regularly been assumed, but rather the biblical terms proper to the destruction of a city. He uses the same language again in Revelation 19:3 with respect to the great city Babylon: “Again they said, Alleluia! Her smoke rises up forever and ever.” The same as Isaiah 34, the point there is not that Babylon will burn perpetually for eternity, but that its destruction will be permanent: “Thus with violence the great city Babylon shall be thrown down, and shall not be found anymore” (Rev 18:21).

    How can the city burn forever without being consumed and yet “not be found anymore”? The two images are completely contradictory; much like the mutually exclusive images of brightly burning fire and outer darkness. The point, I think, is that they weren’t intended to be taken literally. But they each express, in their own ways, the reality of total destruction and separation from God. The ultimate fate of the wicked, in John’s apocalyptic framework, is the lake of fire which is “the second death”, i.e. extinction and total oblivion (Rev 20:14).

  • Percival

    When we have so many verses throughout the Bible that indicate permanent destruction as the final destiny of the wicked, and then we have a few passages (like this) that COULD be interpreted as an ongoing everlasting punishment, we need to let what is clear help us interpret that which is not clear instead of vice versa.

    I think that Matt’s (#3) interpretation of this is very plausible while I recognize that some who still hold to ECT will think he is stretching things to fit into an Anhilationist framework. It makes sense to look at where else these images are used in scripture and let this be our guide. And since we have these OT scriptures to help us interpret the image, and the text itself tells us explicitly that this is ‘the second death’ his interpretation is not a stretch at all.

    Rev. 14:11 does speak of these human worshipers of the beast rather than just the non-human personages of the aforesaid unholy trinity, but given that this is figurative apocalyptic literature, and given that hyperbole is not unknown in the scripture, and that the OT passages that use the same language are not literal descriptions, it seems that this passage is very shaky ground on which to build a doctrine of ECT.

    On the other hand, if we must assume that the human soul is immortal, as many early church fathers did, it is natural to reinterpret all the Biblical death and destruction verses to mean banishment and torture instead. And incidentally, if we assume, as Rob Bell and Calvinists do, that God eventually gets what He wants, it is natural to head toward Universalist interpretations.

  • Norman

    In my opinion Matt #3 has nailed the concept correctly for understanding. This understanding also makes so much more sense if we realize that Revelation was written before AD70 and the anticipated destruction of Jerusalem in Judgment according to Matt 24 and that generation.

    There was an eternal finality to what is coming to a climax in Revelation which means that a juridical judgment was about to occur, which is exactly at the root theme of the OT concerning ongoing Jewish rebellion against God. Babylon the Harlot is the old city Jerusalem (Eze 16) and after its annihilating judgment, an eternal standing before God occurs for those who remained faithful to Christ and an eternal and permanent covenant excommunication occurred to those who never accepted Him. This language is very similar to Christ speaking to the leaders of the Jews when he said that others would sit at the feast Table but those sons of the Kingdom are cast out. Again this is simply hyperbolic excommunication language.

    Mat 8:11-12 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while THE SONS OF THE KINGDOM WILL BE THROWN INTO THE OUTER DARKNESS. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    The problem of timing is what causes so much confusion. Since IMHO it’s not about the physical end of planet earth and popular end times theories. Instead it is simply a letter of encouragement and reaffirmation to those who Trusted Christ to fulfill his promises of Kingdom deliverance to those who were standing before him when He spoke of these things. Much of Revelation follows the Pattern of Matt 22 through 25 consistently concerning the bridegroom, wedding feast, the reluctant guest, the guest without wedding clothes and unprepared brides maids.

    Rev 19:7-8 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”– for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

    The eternal fire acts as a warning to future generations of the finality of what has occurred and it’s not going to be readdressed again.

  • http://www.ill-legalism.com rick

    Back in the 90′s I had a lengthy e-mail exchange with Edward (I was a subscriber to his gracEmail at the time) and he was the most congenial author I have had the good fortune to correspond with. He recommended his books and patiently answered questions and objections, that in retrospect, I’m sure he’d heard a hundred times or more before I got involved. He was always kind, patient, and never argumentative. I was as convinced of annihilationism by his spirit of discourse as I was by the strength of his arguments.

    One of the most kindly convincing things he said is to ask what is the most memorized verse in the Bible. Of course it is John 3:16. He asked what is the alternative to everlasting life in that verse? Is it everlasting torment? No. It is perishing. He said that verse alone should be enough to convince us, but that the whole weight of scripture is behind conditional immortality. It took a while, but I came to understand the the “eternal” part of punishment was not its duration, but it’s consequent effect. Once a soul has perished forever, it’s never going to be “un-perished.” And that condition will last forever.

  • http://theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    A detail which is missed regarding the lake of fire is the use of the word theio or theion. It’s translated as sulfer. Theion was the sulfer incense used in the ancient world to purify or consecrate things to the divine. It’s root word is Theo – God. It is also the root for the verb theioo which according to Liddell/Scott means “to hallow, to make divine, or to dedicate to a god.” The people to whom the Book of Revelation was written would have understood the lake to be a lake of divine purification or consecration which gives these passages a completely different flavor.

    Also, in Revelation 14 and elsewhere, the translation of “forever and ever” is simply wrong. The phrase in the original Greek is “eis aionas aionon”. To the age of the ages. Aion is used to describe everything from the time Jonah was in the large fish (3 days) to the life of a man to time beyond measuring, but unlike, say, adialeiptos doesn’t mean eternal. It is used by known annihilationist like justin Martyr and universalists like Origin and Clement of Alexandria in the same way we find it used in scripture. Which demonstrates that they did not understand it to mean eternal, but according to its common usage in what was after all their native tongue – that being for an age (or eon which aion is the root word for).

  • Joel Black

    If annihilationism is not true, then the unbelievers will not perish but have everlasting life. If annihilationism is true, then only the believers will not not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16) Agree?

  • Mark Edward

    Matt’s post on Revelation 14 and 20 beat me to it, but just a little word-substitution can really make the point against the traditional view of hell: what did Paul say?

    ‘For the wages of sin is eternal conscious torment.’

    Quote Paul’s statement like this and most Christians will instantly tell you, ‘That’s not right, that isn’t what he said.’ Because even the least studied Christians know that ‘death’ is not a synonym for ‘eternal conscious torment’. So if everyone will quickly correct this mistaken quotation of Paul, why do they simultaneously ACT like that is what Paul said?

  • Sherman Nobles

    Following on what Rebecca @7 wrote, it’s also interesting to note that in the Rev. 14 passage those with the mark of the beast are tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the Lamb and the holy angels. The word “torment” (basanizo) is related to the purification and temporing of metal by fire. And being in the presence of the Lamb (revelation of the atonement) and the holy angels (revelation of the supernatural providence and word of God) seems to me to imply a remedial connotation; and it reminds me of Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord when a coal (brimstone?) was taken from the altar and used to purge Isaiah and empower him to be a spokesman for the Lord. Even the sleep deprivation mentioned in the passage can be see as a means of breaking down a person’s defences so that the truth can be revealed. This pictures something terrible, but ultimately for the good of the person, I think. It illustrates in very graphic terms the terrible judgment of God against evil.

    Of course, that’s one of the challenges of interpreting apocalyptic literature, it’s like interpreting a painting or a movie clip. Revelation is a funny book in that some people make everything of it and others make nothing of it. Personally, I tend to view Revelation through the lense of what I see in the rest of scripture – every knee bowing in worship, every tongue confessing, proclaiming allegiance to God, all of creation being reconciled to God. But I could be wrong and maybe Jesus is not really the savior of all but is only the savior of some.

  • Craig Wright

    I also agree with Matt #3. Because I had studied and taught Isaiah before teaching Revelation, the correspondence of Rev. 14:11 and Is. 34: 5-10 jumped out at me right away. Something interesting, though, is Dan. 11: 41 mentioning the later rescue of Edom. What are the implications of that. These things make me tend towards universal reconciliation, along with Sherman Nobles.

  • Mark Edward

    Craig (#11),

    Daniel 11.41 seems to be a reference to a few of the extraneous nations active in Israel’s history during the war between Antiochus IV of Syria and the Maccabean rebels. The book of 1 Maccabees echoes the language of Daniel 11 on multiple occasions. How exactly the writer of 1 Maccabees understood Daniel 11.41 is in the air, but 1 Maccabees 5.1-6 mentions those same three nations in the same order (it is speculated that ‘Baean’ is a contraction of Baal Meon or Beth Meon, a location in Moab; the people of Baean are mentioned in-between the people of Idumea/Edom and the people of Ammon, which is where Moab was geographically). Either way, in context, the most Daniel 11 seems to be saying is that these three people-groups would not be subjected to Antiochus’ anger.

    The Prophets seem to have a generally negative view on Edom’s fate… Obadiah and Amos each have Edom being destroyed and incorporated into Israel. Malachi 1.2-5 suggests Edom’s attempts to rebuild will be met disfavorably by God. Joel leaves Edom desolate entirely.

  • Craig Wright

    Thanks, Mark. That was a lot of good research, but in contrasting the destruction of Edom as “forever” with its being rescued, there seems to be some difference as to finality. Dt. 23: 7 says, “You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is you brother. ” Dan. 11: 41 mentions Edom, Moab, and Ammon, who are all cousins of Israel. Amos 1: 11-12 tells of God’s judgment on Edom, yet 9: 12 tells of possessing the remnant of Edom (which the LXX quote in Acts 15: 17 saying that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord). Since I am teaching the minor prophets these days, I would appreciate your insights, but this also seems to reflect on the topic at hand of God’s judgment and grace.

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.co.nz Blessed Economist

    With respect to Rev 20:10, the fate of the devil, the beast and the false prophet seems to be different from that of spirits. I wonder if the reason is that they are spiritual entities created in such a way that they cannot be destroyed. They seem to have had eternal life since the creation, but have lesser freedom (there is not reference to an angel dying). They are different from humans, who seem to have greater freedom, but can have their lives snuffed out.

    If this is correct, the devil, the beast and the prophet cannot be destroyed, but will have to hang round forever in a creation that is perfectly good and with no scope for evil. The devil and his mates would be powerless to corrupt the creation. Living in a perfect world for eternity would be torment for them.

    Maybe the devil and his fallen angels do experience ECT from living in the presence of goodness, and being unable to harm creation and the people living in it. It would be ironic if the devil had persuaded Christians to believe in ECT for humans that do not experience, when it is solely the fate of him and his fallen spirits.

  • http://kingwatch.co.nz/Times_Seasons/hell.htm Blessed Economist

    With respect to Rev 14:9-11, it is the smoke that rises forever, not the torment. When a fire has gone out, having totally destroyed its fuel, a pall of smoke often hangs round for several days. It is a reminder of what the fire has done.

    I grew up on a farm. When the wheat harvest was complete, we would burn the stubble and the straw that came out of the back of the combine harvester (great fun for children, but not good for atmosphere). The wheat paddock would be totally black, leaving no evidence that a wheat crop had even been there. However, smoke would hang round the hills during the weeks after the harvest was complete. It was a reminder of the crops and a sign of the harvest that was complete.

    Even if it is quick and merciful, final destruction will be enormously painful for those who have received a resurrection body equipped for eternal life at the general resurrection. Watching these people disappear will be painful for those who have received life in Christ. Some will be friends, relatives and acquaintances. The memory of those who are lost, and the regret for lost opportunities, will last forever as a torment
    .
    The smoke rising forever could be is a reminder of what the fire has destroyed. It might represent the memory of those who have gone to destruction and who are lost to eternity. A warning that we will remember these people forever with pain and regret should be a great spur to preaching the gospel.

  • Michele

    I’m sorry, but spending an eternity with pain and regret doesn’t sound much like heaven to me.

  • http://kingwatch.co.nz/Times_Seasons/hell.htm Blessed Economist

    Michele #16 What we are in heaven will be partly shaped by what we have been on earth (1 Cor 3 10-15). We will carry our memories with us. Amongst other things, they will prevent us from ever using our freedom to rebel again God again. If that was all, heaven would be dismal, as you suggest. But it is not all. Jesus will be there, too. The joy of his presence will far outweigh any pain and regret that we bring with us.

  • Jeff

    There are a few things annihlationism runs into problems with:

    1. Rev. 20 talks about “being tormented forever” whereas Isaiah 34 uses “the smoke will rise forever”. The question then becomes why did John not use that language of Isaiah which actually makes sense if it is instant death.

    2. If everyone is annihilated at once, that is not fair because some are worse than others as the Gospels testify to when they say that certain places will receive worse punishment than others

  • Mark Edward

    Jeff,

    Regarding 2, many who believe in annihilation do not see it as ‘instant’ or ‘at once’. I know others do, but of the major proponents of the last so many years that I’ve read, I haven’t encountered any who argue that annihilation is absolutely immediate. (And even if it was, there are other ways of measuring ‘fairness’ than duration.)

    Regarding 1, this can fairly be seen as a problem, but it mostly depends on how much weight the reader gives to John’s language as literal or symbolic, and which part is given precedence over the other. John treats Death and Hades as persons throughout the book, but despite never breaking character we still interpret John as doing so symbolically, using personification. This, in addition to holding John’s visions up to the internal explanations provided for the readers. Tormenting fire is the symbol, permanent death is the reality behind the symbol.

  • Jeff Martin

    Mark Edward,

    I don’t know but we might have talked about this before, but symbols must have some ground in reality. So the phrase “smoke will rise forever” makes sense, but “tormented forever” does not.

    Also,do tell, what other ways of measuring fairness would there be if annihilation was immediate?

  • Sherman Nobles

    In discussions with friends concerning universal reconciliation, I’m amazed at their call to interpret literally Revelation’s lake of the fire and the brimstone and interpret literally the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and yet not take literally Jonah’s testimony of being in rebellion, drowning and from Sheol, in torment, crying out to God and being saved, even restored to life and put on the right track because of God’s love for the people and animals of Nineveh. They also seek to not take literally Peter’s affirmation that Jesus preached the Gospel to the dead, spirits in prison, even the most wicked of all generations, the generation of Noah whose every thought was evil. Peter says Jesus preached the Gospel to them so that they might be judged according to the flesh but live according to the Spirit. The one is a personal testimony and the other is presented as a statement of fact; but these are not to be interpreted literally, but the parable of Dives and Lazarus and some of the apocolyptic visions of John are to be interpreted literally. The “all” in the universalistic passages cannot mean “All”, but “unto the ages of ages” must mean “forevever without end” though of course the beast might not be literal. I think John’s visions need to be interpreted, not literally but metaphorically, not technically but artistically. Interpreting Revelation from the preterist, historical and spiritualist perspectives seem to me to be the more solid, in that order. And to me the futurist perspecitve is the most illusive and open for vastly differing interpretations.

    I mentioned this on another thread, so forgive me for restating it here; but to me it seems that if ECT were true then it would have been clearly, repeatedly, and specifically warned of throughout scripture. Surely it would have been warned of in the creation story, but it wasn’t. And if not there, surely ECT would have been warned of in the teachings/Law of Moses, but it wasn’t. And the prophets would have used that threat as a powerful call to turn the people from idolatry, but they didn’t. And surely Jesus would have named such clearly, likely using the Greek concept of Tartarus to warn the wicked of what awaited them if they did not repent, but He didn’t. He wouldn’t have warned of being cast into Hinnom Valley, a place pregnant with meaning to the Jews of the destruction of Jerusalem. And surely Paul would have spelled out that the wages of sin is ECT, and would have surely warned of Tartarus, but he didn’t. And John would have warned of such clearly in his evangel and in his letters, not leaving such to just briefly mention in his book of visions. For me, it was studying what scripture affirms concerning the punishment of sin that actually freed me to believe that Jesus really is the savior of all, especially we who believe.

  • http://www.cfrpublishers.co.uk Roger Penney

    The Isaiah passages are about Babylon. How can it be Jerusalem? Babylon is in Iraq. The centre of world power and commerce is moving and will continue to move eastward. Western Europe will be involved. The Coming Prince of Daniel is a Roman ruler. May it not be that the old religion of the fertiltiy gods and goddesses as Isis, Ishtar and Eostre, Baal, Tammuz and Baldur, with Krishna and Sarasvati will be worshipped until Satan’s Christ destroys all religion to draw all worship to himself.
    The Lake of fire is indeed endless, that is for ever, that is eternal. It is prepared for the devil and his angels. These are beings of wind and fire, as Psalm 104:4 tells us. Since there can be no salvation apart from the Lord Jesus then those who reject Him and those who reject the light they are given must inevitably when they die find their souls in Hades and then in the Lake of Fire with all the beings whose lies they have chosen to believe. Would they be happy in heaven? Would Dawkins and other blasphemers be happy in heaven even if God did let them in? The Lord Jesus said, “I am the Way…no man comes to the Father but by Me.” We do have free will and therefore we do choose. All of us have sinned and therefore to accept the sacrifice made by the Lord Jesus however simply, is to pass from death to life.
    The Lake of Fire is not annihilation. It is for ever and of necessity involves torment. Remember Abraham saying to the rich man, “son remember”. There is torment for you, always to be aware that the remedy was there and yet you refused it. In hating God you would have taken the side of the “wicked spirits in the heavenlies”. It is therefore right that you spend for ever with them. God does not do the punishing. People choose it for themselves.

  • scotmcknight

    Roger, you are preaching on a soapbox.

  • Mike

    Thanks so much, Scot. Any time we press too hard on these passages from Revelation I think of the t-shirt: “The misuse of literally drives me figuratively insane.”

    As one caught between “the fire that destroys” and “the fire that purifies” (tilting toward the latter), I have deeply appreciated this good series. Ed is an incredible, gentle man. I love the irony that one of the leading scholars on “hell” is a person of such humble kindness.

  • kjkjcsimps

    C. S. Lewis calls Hell “God’s last mercy to the unrepentant sinner.” The worst punishment God could impose on any being is not hell, but forcing the God-rejectors to spend eternity in His presence (Heaven).


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