There are two passages in the book of Revelation that are often cited as alleged proof for eternal conscious torment for the wicked. However, what we will discover is that these passages are not intended to be understood literally, and the figurative language used can actually be used as further evidence of complete destruction for the wicked and not eternal conscious torment. With that in mind, let’s get right into these two passages.
We must first understand that the bulk of Revelation is a book that is written in apocalyptic language. That means that many of the graphic and bizarre descriptions are not meant to be taken literal. This is agreed upon by Bible scholars of all beliefs and backgrounds. This book was written in symbols and signs (See: Rev. 1:1; Dan. 2:28-30, 45; Gen. 41:25). For example, the ten horns and seven heads of the beast in Revelation 13 are interpreted by the angel as symbolizing hills and kings. Therefore, these descriptions are not meant to be taken literally, rather, they should be understood as symbolizing something else. Let’s now turn our attention to the first passage.
The first passage that some point to in order to defend the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is Revelation 14:9-11. It reads as follows:
“Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
In this passage you will notice three key elements. First, there is a torment involving fire and brimstone. Second, there is smoke ascending forever and ever. Finally, it is said that those who worship the beast and his image will have no rest day or night.
If one wanted to take this passage literally, then they would also have to argue that only people who receive a literal mark on their forehead or hand would be punished. Furthermore, it would not be all of the wicked, but only the wicked who worshiped the beast and his image. So even taking this passage literally, one could still not use it to teach the doctrine of eternal, conscious torment for all the wicked. But as stated earlier, this passage is highly figurative and should be understood through figurative language. Therefore, what does the passage mean?
In Revelation 18, similar language is used to describe Babylon, the harlot mystery (18:4-9, 18; 19:3). At the beginning of the next chapter, smoke rises forever from the harlot, just like it does from chapter 14’s beast-worshipers (19:3). This phrase is defined for us in the Old Testament using the same apocalyptic language, the same kind of language used in Revelation. The everlasting smoke that rises which will not be quenched day or night comes straight from Isaiah 34:8-10. It reads as follows:
“For it is the day of the LORD’s vengeance, the year of recompense for the cause of Zion. 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…”
Isaiah 34 is speaking of the destruction of Edom, but Edom is not still literally burning to this day. There is no smoke still rising from its remains. The language used in Isaiah meant that Edom’s fire would not be limited to just a day or night. It burned constantly and continually…but it didn’t literally burn forever. It only burned until it had consumed all that was there.
In the same way, the meaning in Revelation is that the wicked under consideration here will have no rest or be able to escape, instead, they will be destroyed. This is the same symbolic language designed to communicate the permanency of Edom’s destruction in Isaiah 34. The same conclusion would then be true in Revelation since we are dealing with the same Jewish apocalyptic language.
Therefore, the day and night torment and everlasting smoke of the torment of the beast-worshipers rising forever is Jewish imagery communicating permanent destruction, and not eternal conscious torment.
The second passage often quoted to allegedly prove eternal conscious torment for the wicked is Revelation 20:10. It reads:
“The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
Just like Revelation 14, there is no reason to take this text, which is highly figurative and apocalyptic, and apply it literally. Of course, even if one wanted to press this passage literally, there are several problems in attempting to use it to teach eternal, conscious torment.
First, only the devil, the beast and the false prophet are seen as being tormented forever in this verse. Therefore, if pressed literally, this verse could not be used to defend the doctrine of eternal conscious torment for wicked humans.
One must also consider that John said that death and hades would be thrown into the same hell fire (Rev. 20:14). Yet, death and hades are abstractions, incapable of being tormented to begin with. Clearly, this is figurative. Therefore, whatever happens to death and hades in Revelation 20:14 is the same thing that will happen to the wicked described in Revelation 21:8 for they are going to the same place.
What exactly is the final punishment and outcome of anything thrown into this lake of fire? It is a permanent destruction. Revelation interprets that this lake of fire represents the second death (Rev. 20:14; 21:8). Furthermore, it contrasts those who will face the second death with those who were in the book of life and will live forever (Rev. 3:5; Rev. 20:12, 15).
Those found in the book of life will be able to partake of the tree of life and live forever.
“To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).
For the faithful, the curse of death will finally be defeated and destroyed once and for all.
“In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life…the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him…And they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:3, 5).
Some still argue that the Bible in Revelation 20:10 uses the word “forever” in regards to the false prophet, the beast and the Devil’s torment. What does the word forever mean? It can mean the obvious. It can mean everlasting time without end, but it can also mean “age-lasting,” or until the time under consideration is finished/complete (http://biblehub.com/greek/165.htm). In fact, this is a common meaning, especially when you are dealing with figurative language as we have already seen from Isaiah 34.
For example, things such as the sprinkling of the blood at the Passover, the Levitical Priesthood, Caleb’s inheritance, Solomon’s Temple, the period of a slave’s life, Gehazi’s leprosy and many other situations are describes as being “forever” or “everlasting” when they were in fact temporary (Ex. 12:24; 29:9; Lev. 3:17; Josh. 14:9; 1 Kgs. 8:12, 13; Deut. 15:17; 2 Kgs. 5:27; etc.).
Does this mean that the Bible contradicts itself? Of course not. It means that the word forever doesn’t always mean time without end. It can mean a time that will continue until the purpose is completed, a set duration of time which will be fulfilled.
Consider this: Petavel notes that at least 70 times in the Bible this word forever or everlasting is used to qualify objects of temporary and limited nature so that it signifies only an indeterminate duration of which the maximum is fixed by the intrinsic nature of the persons or things (Fudge. The Fire That Consumes, p. 39-44). In other words, it speaks of unlimited time within the limits determined by the thing it modifies.
This is exactly the way it is used in the same type of symbolic language in Isaiah 34:10. As noted earlier, the smoke that ascended forever from the destruction of Edom only lasted a short period of time even though it can rightfully be said it was “forever.”
Therefore, I believe that the meaning of this passage and the lake of fire is symbolic and should be understood as the second death, also known as final destruction and extinction where God will destroy both body and soul (See: Revelation 20:14; 21:8; Mt. 10:28).
Furthermore, I have no problem saying that there will be a determined age-lasting or “forever” period of torture before the wicked are finally destroyed (Mt. 10:28). Jesus Himself, I believe, implicitly taught this (Mt. 11:22-24; Lk. 10:13-15; Mt. 12:41; Lk. 11:29-32; etc.). This can further be demonstrated in Jesus’ own death. Jesus came to take the penalty we deserve. The ultimate penalty we deserve is death as a final fate (Rom. 6:23), but a period of suffering was included in God’s wrath and justice (See: Isa. 53:5).
Before Jesus’ actual death, He was tormented for the sins of the world and then He died (1 Pet. 2:23-24; Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:20-21; Isa. 53; etc.). Therefore, there is certainly a great possibility of a “forever” age-lasting and determined period of time that will be fulfilled for God’s wrath to be poured out on the wicked through suffering before finally destroying the soul forever (Mt. 10:28; 2 Thess. 1:7-9).
Context is key when determining the meaning of a passage. One must also consider that a doctrine should never be built upon one or two figurative passages, but must be built upon the whole context of the Bible and nature of God. Consistently and continually throughout both the Old and New Testament, the Bible teaches that the righteous are the only ones who will have eternal life while the wicked will be destroyed.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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