Prooftext for Hell?

Prooftext for Hell? June 5, 2015

In a 2001 article in Evangelical Quarterly, Ralph Bowles argues that Revelation 14:10-11 does not teach that the wicked are eternally punished in hell, as many have thought. The text says that beast-worshipers will be tormented in fire and brimstone and “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” and they “have no rest day and night.” Bowles offers several arguments for thinking that this is not a prooftext for eternal torment. I address only one of those arguments here.

He points to parallels between this passage and Isaiah 34’s prophecy against Edom. Both include judgment by fire and sulphur, endless punishment, and smoke arising forever. The order is different in the two passages, however. In Isaiah 34, it is fire-punishment-eternal smoke, which Bowles says is “a natural order for a depiction of destruction – the judgement descends in fiery force, unremitting and quenchless while it destroys Edom, and then all that is left is the sign of the destruction – the smoke, a memorial of God’s wrath executed against his enemy” (26). This is a symbol of “perpetual desolation” but not an image of “endless life in pain” (26).

Revelation 14 puts the sequence in a different order: fire/sulphur-smoke-torment. That, Bowles suggests, is a sign that the passage is structured literarily, chiastically (p. 27):

(A) If anyone worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, (9) 

(B) he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, (10a) 

(C) he shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. (10b) 

(Ci) And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever, (11a) 

(Bi) and they have no rest, day or night, (11b) 

(Ai) these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. (11c).

From this he concludes that “the final element in the depiction of judgment is the smoke rising after the judgment has been completed, as is the case in Isaiah 34:9, 10.” On the other hand, the “climactic element is the central position in this structure – the tormenting judgement that destroys utterly.” The other descriptions indicate the intensity of pain during the course of the judgment – no rest, wrath poured. God’s wrath is poured out in full strength, leaving no escape or rest, “when the judgment is operating”; it is a “quenchless, unremitting and overwhelming assault,” like the London Blitz. Unremitting until it ends (27-8).

To this there are a couple of objections. One is that Bowles confusingly reads the chiasm as both chiastic and linear. Structurally, the fire and brimstone are parallel to the smoke; one might take that to mean that they occur together, or at least are being thematically linked without any indication of their temporal relation. Bowles reads the text linearly, and so distinguishes the eternal smoke from the temporary fire and brimstone and torment.

Second, and more damaging: this structural analysis doesn’t take sufficient note of the repetition of “torment” (noun and verb). A slight modification of the chiasm brings this out:

C. he will be tormented 

D. with fire and brimstone

E. in the presence of the Lamb

D’. and the smoke 

C’. of their torment goes up forever and ever.

On this reading, “torment”encloses “fire, brimstone . . . smoke.” The smoke is as much related to torment as the fire and brimstone; it is the smoke of their torment. To be sure, the only indication of the duration of the punishment is in connection with the smoke; the fire and brimstone are not said to go on “forever and ever.” But since the torment is by fire and brimstone, and the smoke is the smoke of torment, it seems best to take the “forever and ever” phrase with all three. And that also means that we can’t distinguish as readily as Bowles would like to do between the outpouring of wrath and the restlessness of the idolaters on the one hand, and the forever-and-ever smoke on the other. If the smoke is the smoke of their torment, and the smoke keeps going forever, then it seems that their torment goes on forever as well – the torment that involves drinking the wrath of God and suffering restlessly day and night.

All that said, the immediate context doesn’t support the notion that this is a straightforward prooftext of eternal punishment. Not all the wicked, but only beast-worshipers and mark-bearers are tormented. This judgment pertains specifically to the first-century situation, and that fits the allusions to Isaiah 34. The text may still contribute to a theology of eternal punishment taught in other passages, but it isn’t a knock-down prooftext for that doctrine.

(Ralph G. Bowles, “Does Revelation 14:11 Teach Eternal Torment? Examining a Proof-text on Hell,” Evangelical Quarterly 73:1 [2001]: 21-36.)

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