The reason put forward for eternal conscious torment seemed more to reflect the inequality and injustice of Feudal society than God’s own law or character.
But arguments like the above can go back and forward endlessly. The matter finally comes down to, what does the scripture say? And this of course requires interpretation, because people reading the same scripture can come to very different conclusions. So what are the main issues in interpretation?
Two issues are:
1. What is the style of text we are reading?
2. What was the historical significance of these texts to the people in the day the texts were written?
The issue in some people’s mind is, are we dealing with a god of irrational anger? This is sometimes answered by saying, it is not for us to judge, we are just to accept what God says. This is obviously very true. Our own understanding is very limited. But on the other hand, God does not expect us to suspend our common sense of justice. Nor does God act against the common light he has given to humanity. Rather, he asks us to see his justice and love and to copy it, to reflect his character in our lives towards others. If we see a god who has such enduring hatred towards his enemies, this will certainly reflect in the character of the church towards our “enemies.” I have heard, on many occasions, this view of eternal conscious torment, being used as an excuse for our own violence.
The Old Testament
Ok, what does the scripture say? Let’s start in the Old Testament. There is no teaching there of eternal conscious torment in fire. Isaiah 33:14 asks, “Who will endure everlasting burnings?” This is about the chaff that Israel keeps bringing forth for the fire it has ignited by itself. This is important, when we later consider the book of Revelation. God does not light the fire that consumes his enemies. People light it by their own works. Once again, as in the book of Job, there are other passages that say God brings forth the fire, but the plain meaning of this, in Hebrew text, is that this is God’s judgement, not that he does it directly himself.
When we read the whole of Isaiah 33, it is clear that it is not speaking about hell, in our modern sense of the term. It is not speaking about conditions in an afterlife. It is speaking about a fire that continually consumes their nation, about the righteous who will endure this fire, and it shows that in the end the wicked disappear from the earth. 35 Isaiah 66:24 is also often cited, where the worm eats the dead bodies. We will speak of this further below, but this is speaking of “dead bodies”, not living torment, unless we change the wording of the text.
The Old Testament speaks of the grave, where we get the word sheol, or hell from. The grave was a place of destruction, meaning where the body rots and decomposes, like God said to Adam and Eve, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” There are repeated texts all through the Old testament that speak of the destruction of life in the grave: e.g. Deut 29:20, 32:22, Psalms 1:4, 6, 2:9, 9:6, 34:16, 21, 37:2, 9–10, 20, 27, 34, 38, 50:22, 58:7-8, 69:28, Proverbs 8:36, 10:25, 12:7, 24:20, Isaiah 1:28, 30–31, 5:24, Dan 2:35, Nahum 1:10, Malachi 4:1.
This destruction came to be represented by symbols such as fire and darkness. The fire represented the destruction of the grave; it consumed fully all who entered it. The darkness represented the hopelessness of the grave; we would be cut off from the living, never to see our descendants again. When the New Testament speaks of being assigned to fire or to outer darkness, these images come from the Hebrew Old Testament culture concerning the grave, meaning destruction. We are not to apply a foreign Greek idea to these phrases of conscious torment in an afterlife. The weeping and gnashing of teeth Jesus spoke referred to the sorrow and anger of those assigned to destruction.
The destruction of Sodom in Genesis serves as a prominent early paradigm for judgement. It comes with sulpha and pitch and this is the background to the lake of fire imagery in the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation is symbolic, so, for example, symbols of everlasting torment in Revelation depict everlasting destruction, as we see in the Sodom account. We don’t use the symbol to interpret the rest of scripture, but the rest of scripture (i.e., the Sodom and other accounts) to interpret the symbol. The judgement upon Sodom was a complete destruction. The theme God established there as a paradigm for judgement, wasn’t eternal conscious torment, which was not mentioned, but destruction. This is how we interpret the symbols of destruction in Revelation.
Jude said the destruction of Sodom was an example of God’s eternal fire. In Genesis it says “fire from the Lord in heaven” fell upon Sodom. In the Hebrew tradition, this didn’t mean the fire literally came from heaven, but that it came from the heavenly judgement. We saw in a previous chapter what this means in Old Testament texts. It means that God removed his hedge of protection, which allowed destruction to follow.
In the same way “eternal fire” means fire from God’s eternal throne, which has eternal consequences: an everlasting judgement of destruction, from which there is no return. The biblical paradigm is destruction, not eternal conscious torment. The fire “consumes.” As Peter said, “… he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly…” Peter said the judgment was destruction, annihilation. And he also said this is the example God gave us of his judgement.
There are parables of destruction in the Old Testament. One of the them is in Isaiah 14, where the king of Babylon dies. The grave is personified and speaks to him as he enters it: “Have you become weak, like one of us?” This is Hebrew poetic text. It is not a Greek text about a living underworld of the dammed. The Greek developed this mythology in their wars. Their myths came from the violence of their gods and from hatred for their enemies.
The parable in Isaiah 14, means that the king who lived on high, in power and strength, in oppression of the people, in the end has become weak like everyone else. His power could not help him in the grave. This is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which Jesus applied to the oppressive, rich class of Jewish people in his day. Jesus was virtually quoting Isaiah 14. 36
There is also the parable about the destruction of Edom, in Isaiah 34. Isaiah said, Edom will burn with pitch, which is molten tar, or bitumen. The judgment shows that the people were consumed, not tormented after death. Isaiah said the smoke of the burning of Edom would go up forever. Edom was destroyed. If you visit the region today the smoke isn’t still rising.
This, rather, is apocalyptic speech, common in the prophets, especially when the scriptures speak of judgement. This is why we get speech like this in Isaiah, in the parable about Lazarus, in Jesus’ descriptions of judgment, and in the book of Revelation. They all follow this Hebrew pattern of apocalyptic language; which means everlasting destruction.
Apocalyptic language uses symbols to portray God’s judgements upon earth, not in an afterlife. The Hebrew were interested in God’s justice for this world, and how he is going to rid this world of evil and renew the world. This is what the imagery portrayed. The Hebrew were not interested in judgements in an afterlife. That was for Greek speculations.
The symbol of eternal fire in Isaiah 34 means that the destruction of the people of Edom would be everlasting, and that there would be no hope of life for them again. “Eternal fire”, here or in the Sodom and Gomorrah passage, means total destruction, from which there is no hope of restoration. This is the symbolism that comes out of Old Testament sentiments about the finality of the grave.
Other symbolism that entered the Jewish consciousness included the concept of Gehenna. This stems from the reign of King Hezekiah, and the Assyrian attack on Jerusalem. The entire Assyrian army died overnight outside the walls of Jerusalem, and their bodies were thrown into the valley of Gehenna, just outside the city, where the bodies were consumed by the fire and worms. The Assyrians became known by the symbolic term Gog and Magog, which symbolised, in the time of Jesus, “the enemies of God.”
In Jewish thinking, all God’s enemies would be burned by fire, meaning they would be destroyed, they would perish. This didn’t mean eternal conscious suffering, but expulsion from the eternal kingdom of God. This is what happened to Edom. They were cast out of God’s kingdom, of his current reign in this world. The Jews were expecting a new kingdom that would renew the world. Their concepts of judgement were about who would enter this kingdom, and who would be burnt up and consumed and be excluded from eternal life.
We can see form the Old Testament that concepts of judgement were about destruction and expulsion from this world, from the realm of the reign of God, to cleanse and renew the world. None of these judgements depicted eternal conscious torment. They all depicted final and everlasting destruction of the wicked, to rescue and heal God’s creation.
The New Testament – Lazarus and the Rich Man
There are two issues here of primary importance, as stated above: the literary style of Hebrew text, and the historical context of Jesus’ comments.
As stated earlier, this is a parable in the Hebrew apocalyptic tradition. The torments of the rich man represent the consuming powers of the grave, the destructive forces of death. The rich man is taken to be a representative of the Jews, to whom Jesus has been speaking at length about their lack of care for those in need, or for those they regard as their enemies. Jesus’ conclusion is that they will 37 be excluded from the covenant, from the kingdom of God, and instead go down to the pit. This judgment is the context of much of Jesus’ teaching. From John the Baptist, to Jesus speaking about what will befall that generation, the topic is the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. This is what the parable portrays.
We generally take Jesus’ whole teachings and ministry ahistorically. This means we take him out of his historical context, as though Jesus didn’t even live or minister in an historical setting. We divorce all he said from the times and events into which he was speaking. We apply all his teaching to some “spiritual” issues in our own mind, without any reference to the lives and consequent history that was about to unfold in that day. This way of reading the text isn’t honest. Jesus was very clearly illustrating the judgment that was poised to hit that generation and showing how they had brought it upon themselves.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man personifies death, just as Isaiah 14 did. The rich man is living in the same tradition as the kings of the earth. He lives in style and cares not at all for the suffering. Jesus was speaking straight into the selfish lives of the wealthy classes of Jerusalem. The parable gives a name to its main character, because Lazarus means “God is my help.” When the rich man dies he has no help before the ravages of death. They consume him. But God helps Lazarus and gives him the inheritance of Abraham. There isn’t an actual place called “Abraham’s bosom,” but the term here means Lazarus is included in God’s kingdom, to reign with him in resurrection, in a renewed earth, the Garden of God.
So what is the lesson? The lesson is that God helps those we don’t help, and he doesn’t help those who help themselves. This is the theme in God’s judgment of humanity, “I was hungry and you fed me…” It’s unfortunate when we take this parable’s language as literal and argue about details of hell or of some “interim state” before the resurrection. We think that our “orthodoxy” on such matters is what is important. This was Jesus’ point. The Pharisees’ interest was in their “orthodoxy”, not in serving. The main point of Jesus is that we are to serve those in need. Has this parable changed our lives, or do we just argue about it and condemn our detractors, and the poor, who we say “God has cursed?”
Mathew 25 – Everlasting Fire
Let’s try to deal with Matthew 25 now. Jesus spoke about being seated on his throne and the nations coming before him, where he would judge the world on the basis of our care for others. Those who care inherit the kingdom, those who don’t care for others are cast into everlasting fire – they suffer the same fate as Jerusalem did by Rome. This coming judgement on Jerusalem was very much on the mind of the disciples when Jesus was sharing about his rule in this parable. In this parable, people and nations come under the same self-inflicted judgement as Jerusalem. Being “cast into everlasting fire” is an Old Testament term for the destruction of people or a nation. We can see Jesus clearly depicting his rule over the world today, in our current time, in accord to how we treat others.
We have often taught that this passage is about Jesus’ second coming. But when we look at it in relation to the Old Testament, it seems to be saying something else in addition to that. Jesus was quoting from Daniel 7, in which “one like the Son of Man” ascends to heaven to be seated on his throne, in the presence of the heavenly Father and his angels. He is given power over all nations, in order that the world may be renewed. This is describing the ascension of Christ into heaven after his resurrection. This is when he sat upon his throne in glory. This is when that rule he was speaking 38 about began. Being “in heaven” means he is on the seat of power. This is what heaven represents, the place of power over earth: rule over the nations of the world.
This passage in Matthew 25 is employing the usual Jewish apocalyptic language to describe the reign of Christ’s kingdom in this world today. Once again, this passage is very interesting in the historical context of Jesus’ time. Rome claimed that they were the kingdom of God that Daniel 7 spoke of, with divine sanction to rule over the whole world. The Roman Senate actually passed a decree making Caesar this “Son of Man” in Daniel 7. This Roman form of rule, or of global “justice”, came about by brute oppression.
In Matthew 25, Jesus was depicting what true kingdom rule is actually like. He was contrasting his reign for the weak, with Roman greed and force: a completely different form of government and worldly logic on power. Jesus’ transforming rule comes to the world through people who care for the weak. His reign is among the poor. This is where his throne actually is, meaning where his rule actually operates from, rather than from a worldly palace. He is with the poor, so that when we serve them we are serving Christ. He doesn’t transform the world through worldly strength, but through renewed people who care for others. This is what subdues the nations. It is the cross, selfgiving, not power.
The people and nations who don’t care for the weak are cast into eternal fire. I spoke about the wrath of God in the previous chapter, and how it works. God removes his restraining grace, or hands us over to our own wills. This is what happened in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. They refused to help others, so their selfishness is actually what brought destruction to their city. God didn’t do it.
“Casting into the eternal fire” means that when God judges us he allows us to go our own way. A nation that doesn’t care for others will bread such bad grace within its own community that it will rot and decay and eventually self-destruct. This is a clear warning to any of us today. How we care for the orphan, the foreigner and refugee, actually matters. This is the basis of what forms the character of our nation, which forms our future welfare or otherwise as a people.
Taking the parable in Matthew 25 this way aligns it with the message of the Prophets of the Old Testament. This is how they warned nations about ruling with the meekness of God in caring for others, or becoming proud and self-destructive and casting themselves out of the reign of God over his people on earth. In Jesus’ kingdom, this is how he fulfils his gospel and covenant mandate in renewing the world, and bringing every enemy under his feat. His people become a transforming community, renewing the powers of the world through kingdom living and witness. It is through this self-giving witness, that the self-taking logic of worldly power is confronted and renewed.
When we take the view in this passage of a violent god casting people into everlasting torment in flames, personally inflicting everlasting torture upon people, we are reading it completely opposite to what Jesus is portraying. Jesus is speaking about his grace rule, his new people laying down their lives to serve, his peacemaking mission to heal the world. He is not portraying the kingdom of God like Roman brutality which destroys its enemies. The destruction in the passage represents what nations who fail to serve bring themselves into. Isn’t this what happened to Rome? They persecuted the weak and God’s people and they brought themselves to destruction. God’s people inherited the kingdom and the world when Rome fell.
In both of these New Testament sections above, Lazarus and Matthew 25, there is a common thread on what is distinctive about the kingdom of God: service. This is the distinction in all Jesus’ teaching. This is the Old Testament apocalyptic prophecy coming through into Jesus’ teaching. Those people and nations who won’t serve the weak are excluded from God’s everlasting kingdom reign over 39 heaven and earth. They go into destruction, not by the hand of God, but by their own greed and violence which in the end they inflict on themselves.
This principle of “if we find our life” (become aligned with the self-serving logic of Caesar) “we will lose it” … but if we “lose our life” (become aligned with the self-giving orientation of the new kingdom rule) “we will find it” applies to us as individuals and as nations.
Gehenna – Unquenchable fire and the worm that doesn’t die
It is often said that Jesus mentioned hell more than any other person in the scriptures. He did so mainly in respect to his teaching to the Jews. And a lot of this teaching was about the judgment coming upon Jerusalem in that generation. Jesus’ teaching continued in the same vein as the Prophets and we shouldn’t assign a Greek context to his words. He was speaking about that generation, how many of them would be cast out of God’s kingdom rule.
This would include death in this life, the destruction of their city and nation, and eternal death or separation from God’s kingdom. Conversely, there would be forgiveness for those who turn to him and their covenant with God, and a new baptism in God’s Spirit that would renew their hearts, empowering them, with suffering, to become God’s new kingdom people healing the nations. In this context Jesus spoke of Gehenna, which the Jews knew to be a valley just outside Jerusalem. They knew that this was where the bodies of the Assyrian army were cast, to be consumed by smouldering fire and eaten by worms. It was a judgment upon the Assyrians in King Hezekiah’s time. Jesus was warning Jerusalem that the same judgment was coming to them. So here we see the usually Hebrew view of judgement that we see in the Old Testament. Many in Jerusalem would be killed, that is, removed from this world as God renewed and healed the creation, in this instance, set the Christians free from their early persecution, to carry the gospel into the world.
But there was more to the Hebrew background in Jesus’ teachings than the initial judgment that was about to befall Jerusalem. In Jewish expectation, the eternal kingdom of God was about to come. This would be ushered in by the resurrection of all people. Then those who were worthy would go into the eternal rule of God in a renewed heaven/earth joined creation. But those who were not worthy would then be destroyed everlastingly. We see this in Daniel 12. They would go into everlasting shame and contempt.
This doesn’t mean eternal torment. In Jewish culture, shame and contempt were associated with the grave. It meant that the people had fallen short and missed out on God’s promise and plan for his creation. Instead of ruling over God’s creation, as Genesis 1 states, they had become unfit for it. The everlasting shame wasn’t an everlasting conscious experience they would have, but the reputation of shame. Daniel calls this everlasting shame and contempt, because it would be eternal. In the second death, there would be no way back
So the second death is the ratification of God’s earlier earthly judgements. People are raised and judged and the earthly judgement is then ratified as eternal. This is the second death. So Jews in Jesus’ day, expecting the kingdom of God, knew that this resurrection and judgement were coming. And they knew the results of it if they perished. They would face eternal exclusion from the kingdom of God, which means everlasting destruction. They would not just face the destruction of their body in the Gehenna of Jerusalem, but the destruction of both their body and soul forever. This was clear to those people Jesus was speaking to.
So when Jesus was speaking of Gehenna, he was speaking both of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in that generation, and of God’s eternal judgment at the resurrection. But the judgement is the same on each occasion. In the first instance, Rome burnt the Jews, great numbers of them, in Gehenna, outside Jerusalem, just as Jesus warned. In the second instance, Jesus said body and soul would be destroyed, not eternally tormented. Destruction is the Jewish theme of judgement.
Why then do we think that Jesus was speaking of eternal torment? His parable about the harvest tells us that the weeds will be burned up, consumed, destroyed, as in an oven. In the case of the second death, this isn’t a literal fire. It means that God doesn’t grant the people eternal life. He doesn’t save them. They are not part of his covenant. They face destruction. There are just a couple of words of Jesus that people use to apply a Greek concept of eternal torment to his teaching. These are “where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die.”
Now, whether Jesus was speaking about the fire and worms in the valley outside Jerusalem, that their dead bodies would be thrown into, or the metaphorical fire and worms that destroy both body and soul in the eternal judgement, the meaning was the same. In both cases the meaning was destruction, not torment. In the valley outside Jerusalem the fire kept burning and the worms kept eating until the bodies were completely consumed. This is the same vision that is applied to the eternal destruction, one where the body and soul are fully consumed.
This is taken from Isaiah 66:24, a passage about the destruction of Jerusalem in that day by Rome. This is one of the sections of the Old Testament that Jesus was teaching from. Isaiah said, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” This is a picture of the destruction of the bodies of the dead in Gehenna outside Jerusalem. It isn’t a description of the torment of the dead. It is also an apocalyptic description of the second death: the dead are consumed, not tormented.
There are other passages that speak of unquenchable fire. Like this one from Ezekiel: “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. All flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.” (Ezek 20:47)
Here, Ezekiel was speaking of the judgment coming against Jerusalem, just as Jesus said. He said the fire would be unquenchable. This means God will send war against Jerusalem. Nothing would stop this judgement from taking place. Nothing would be able to put this fire out, there would be no escape from it, until its task had been completed. “Not quenched” means that there will be no defence against the armies coming against Israel.
This passage is not speaking of an eternal torment. It’s like a fireman that rushed to save a house and says the fire was unquenchable. He didn’t mean it burns forever. He means he could do nothing to save the house. It’s the same with the worm. It means there will be no salvation from its destructive power.
Another verse in the Old Testament that speaks of unquenchable fire is Jeremiah 17:4, “for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.” This again, rather than proving eternal torment, proves the opposite. Looking through Jeremiah it is clear that the fire is to destroy Jerusalem. This destruction is described in great detail, and it is always about their lives and dwellings on earth. Nothing at all is said about after-life torment. John Gill said about the term “shall burn forever” in Jer 17:4, “here it only means until these people and their country were consumed by the enemy.”
The same chapter of Jeremiah confirms this: “If you do not listen to me … I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.” This means that the fire will not go out until it has completed the destruction. Likewise, Amos 5:6 says, “Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel.” Here, unquenchable fire means, until it has destroyed. There is no doubt what unquenchable fire means in the Old Testament.
So when Jesus was speaking of the fire of Gehenna, he was speaking of both the fire outside Jerusalem that would consume the victims of Rome, and the eternal fire of God’s eternal judgment to cleanse his everlasting kingdom. In both cases Jesus was speaking of destruction. In in neither case was he speaking of a fire that God ignites as the primary source. It is a destruction that comes forth from our own sin and destroys us, unless God saves. But God doesn’t save if that destruction is our own final will.
In the Jewish mind of that time, death without resurrection to life meant that people would be excluded from the eternal reign of God’s kingdom. The common thread in Jewish theology was the imminent coming of God’s reign to earth. The righteous would be raised to enjoy that kingdom. The wicked would not. God’s judgement would exclude them from the gift of life. Instead, the wicked would perish. This was the nature of the discussion in Jesus’ time. They weren’t having a Greek discussion about heaven and hell, as we may often have the discussion today. Their discussion was about entering God’s eternal rule or not entering it. This was the discussion that Jesus entered into, as he debated with them.
This is a long subject to go into here, but in Western theology the debate has shifted to be about whether we go to spend eternity in heaven or hell. This debate has arisen from the Greek heritage perspective, brought into the scripture. It isn’t the Hebrew background to the texts. For the main part, it wasn’t what the Jews were thinking in Jesus’ day. As we look at this in other notes, the promise to the Jews was about the kingdom of God, or sometimes called the Promised Land (about our land and nations in this world, rather than just being spiritual), or God’s renewal of earth.
It’s called the New Heavens and the New Earth, meaning the conjoining of heaven and earth, in one restored whole creation. This is what the Jews were anticipating when Jesus came. This is what Jesus was preaching about. The scriptures are speaking about the question the Jews were asking then: “Who will go into this eternal kingdom and who won’t?” The concept of suffering in an eternal torment wasn’t in their thinking and wasn’t something they were asking about. It isn’t in the discussions of the scripture. We are just not used to looking at scripture in this Jewish sense.
Ok, now one of the big ones: the book of Revelation. Our main sources for believing in eternal conscious suffering normally come from this book. So let’s have a go at this. Firstly, the book is symbolic. This shouldn’t need to be said. It is clearly stated in the opening and is clearly seen throughout the book, yet people still take statements literally and then use them as proof sources for doctrines.
Second, and this is so prevalent, people deny the first century context of the book. Rather, people often apply the book directly to today’s world events in a completely arbitrary way, claiming some kind of spiritual authority to do so. These claims are always proved false. But the result is we cease considering the book’s message in a valid manner. 42 The book traces the persecutions of the church during the first century. It promises victory, as the church follows the Lamb, refusing to imbibe the violent, self-centred nature of the beast and the world: this is what it means to overcome the world. This victory doesn’t come by God’s personal acts of violence against the wicked, but by their own acts of brutality coming back upon themselves. The enemies eventually fall.
This victory is portrayed in battle type language, which is common also in the Old Testament, but when this symbolism is unfolded, the battle that the Lamb and his people fight is one of self-giving witness – the cross – and this witness prevails over the darkness. All prophetic language in scripture about God’s battle is about the victory of the cross of the Lamb. It is never about any acts of killing or brutality on the part of either God or by his people. We will look at this language more closely in another chapter.
There are different opinions about the identity of the beast and the false prophet. My view is that these represent Rome, led at that time by Nero, and Jerusalem. Jerusalem was also the whore, the unfaithful bride, leaving their faith in God to commit fornication with Rome for power, security and wealth. Rome and Jerusalem were then the main sources of persecution for the early church. These themes continue throughout history. Either we side with the Lamb and care for the weak, or we side with power and destroy the weak directly or indirectly. We either lose our life to find it, or we hold on to it to lose it. The message of Revelation is just as real to us today as it was in the first century.
So I identify Babylon the whore with Jerusalem in the first century. Its fall is spoken of in Revelation 17 to 19, which includes many quotations from passages in the Old Testament that speak about the fall of Jerusalem: e.g. the voice of the bride groom not being heard, and the light of the candle no longer being seen, are from Jeremiah, where God’s final judgment on Jerusalem is foretold. Other people see Babylon as foretelling the fall of ancient Rome. Our slightly different views here are not the main point. The point is about power. What side of worldly power are we on, the Lamb’s, the beast’s or the false prophet’s, the group who claims to be of God, but who isn’t following the Lamb?
So this brings us to Revelation’s description of the torment of Babylon. One passage says, “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.” (Rev 14:11) This is almost an exact quote from Isaiah 34, which we looked at earlier. There, Edom was destroyed.
The smoke would rise day and night forever, but that communicated the finality or the everlasting nature of the destruction, not a torment in an afterlife. This is clear, because when Edom was destroyed the fire went out, though the effects of the fire in destroying the people’s lives remained. Isaiah was using poetic language to warn the people of the permanence of the judgement. This is what “everlasting” or “eternal fire” means in this apocalyptic language: fire whose destructive effect is eternal. The imagery in Revelation is saying the same thing.
Let’s have a look at the Isaiah quote concerning Edom, which John uses in Revelation, “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.” (Isaiah 34:10). Here again is an unquenchable fire. The term “day and night” is used. Its smoke is said to rise forever. These are all the same symbols we see in the Revelation. In Isaiah, they refer to the period in which the city is being destroyed. The day and night are during the destruction. The eternal smoke is the same, during the period of the city’s destruction. The unquenchable fire, again, refers only to the period of the city’s destruction.
These are all symbols for eternal destruction, not eternal torment. At the end of this destruction, the city is still. The smoke ceases, the fire ceases, the unease of the fire “day and night” ceases, and 43 what is left is a barren wilderness. Destruction is the theme. This is how the symbols are used in Revelation.
The description of Babylon’s destruction is carried on in Rev 18-19. Rev 18:9, 18 speak of the “smoke of her burning”; 18:10, 15 speak of her ongoing “torment” as the city is being destroyed. The chapters define the torment to represent the destruction of the city. It is not speaking of a torment in an afterlife. This destruction is described again in 19:3, “her smoke rose up forever and ever.” The plain meaning of this, from the perspective of the onlookers, is that the smoke did not stop until the city had been consumed. The city will be found no more. (18:21) This is what “forever and ever” meant. It lasted until the destruction was complete. It is traditional Hebrew apocalyptic language for a final destruction for those people. It is not speaking of eternal torment.
Rev 19:20 sees the beast and the false prophet taken and thrown into the lake of fire. The beast and the false prophet are not individuals. They represent powers, such as Rome and Jerusalem. Although these consist of individuals, the institutions are more than just Nero, or one of the High Priests. The vision of these powers being thrown into the lake of fire means the loss of their dominion over the saints. You can’t torment institutions in a lake of fire. This vision depicts the destruction of these institutions.
This vision in Rev 19:20 is taken directly from Daniel. In Dan 7:11, this same beast was “destroyed” by the burning flame. In Dan 7:26 it says the court shall sit and the dominion of the beast shall be taken away and the beast shall be consumed and destroyed. Again, the apocalyptic language of the beast being tormented forever means its final and eternal destruction. It is not speaking of the beast’s state in an afterlife.
The same shall happen in history to all beasts (Dan 7:12), as God’s kingdom continues on, renewing our creation. Revelation isn’t just for the edification of the early church, but also for us all, and shows us the ongoing victory of the Lamb, as “the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ,” through the same process of serving renewal. The way the church overcame the first beasts, by not loving their own lives, even to death, by loving and caring for others, including our enemies, is the way we overcome all beasts and renew the world. This is the message of Revelation: we overcome the beasts and their violence by following the Lamb and his cross.
When Revelation speaks of the devil being thrown into the lake of fire and being tormented day and night, the symbolism is the same as is discussed above. The “he shall be tormented day and night forever and ever” is the same language used in Isaiah 34 for the destruction of Edom. There is only a slight variation in the words. In Isaiah 34 it is the “fire will not be quenched day and night … forever.”
In Rev 20:10 it is “lake of fire and brimstone … and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” In the Isaiah passage, the fire burns day and night forever, and in the Revelation passage the torment is day and night forever. There is no difference between these passages. Even the lake of fire and brimstone is the same. Isaiah 34:9 reads, “Its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone.” In Isaiah 34 this same language we find in the Revelation was said to represent destruction, not afterlife torment.
In Revelation torment means the process of destruction. The only way we can say it means torment in an afterlife is to interpret Revelation on the basis of some other worldview apart from the Hebrew Old Testament worldview. And there is no proof that will enable us to do this.
People may protest that it isn’t fair if the devil gets destroyed. They may argue the same about people who don’t repent. “How is that justice?” We have a very unhealthy idea of justice. Justice is normally seen from the perspective of what is good for ourselves. In the devil’s case we are not told how long this process of destruction is. We aren’t told much at all. We are just told what the final outcome will be: a universe cleansed of evil forever. Evil has been destroyed. This is comforting.
The grave and death also are thrown into the lake of fire. This confirms the imagery. The grave and death are not people, but powers that afflict God’s people and creation. They can’t be tormented in an afterlife, but they can be destroyed. Revelation is speaking of the final conquest, the destruction, or death, of death. It is taken out of God’s creation forever, along with Apollyon, the Greek god of destruction. Destruction is destroyed. We end up with a creation without destruction, but only life.
This vision is an encouragement to the weak and to the people of God, and to all who do what is right, but who are mistreated by the powerful of the world. It is saying to us that we should continue in well doing, in patience, keeping ourselves from the world’s corruption, violence and selfenrichment, but rather help others. The encouragement is that evil shall not prosper in the end. The Lamb, his cross and righteousness shall overcome all these things and the creation shall be filled with goodness only. All wickedness shall perish from God’s eternal order.
“Blessed are the meek, for they inherit the earth.”
“Woe to you, destroyer (the Assyrian, Gog and Magog) … our eyes will see the King in his beauty and view a land that stretches afar (lit: a vast creation full of goodness). In your thoughts you will ponder the former terror: “Where is that chief officer? Where is the one who took the revenue? Where is the officer in charge of the towers?” You will see those arrogant people no more…” (Isaiah 33:1, 17- 19)
This is the vision John had in Revelation. A renewed land. A creation without evil, conquered by the Lord, without using evil to achieve it. God conquers through the Lamb and those who follow the Lamb.
Some Final Thoughts
The concept of eternal conscious suffering is based on the assumption of the unconditional immortality of the soul. This concept can’t be found anywhere in scripture. Immortality is conditional. Immortality was promised to Adam and Eve, as depicted by the tree of life. They were not created immortal, but with the potential of immortality in the plan of God.
After the fall of Adam and Eve, God said to them, “From dust you have come and to dust you will return.” And he drove them out of the Garden, lest mankind should eat of the tree of life and live forever, in their sinful condition. It has sometimes been claimed that because man was created in God’s image that this means unconditionally immortality. That is an assumption. The scriptures don’t say that. According to Genesis 1, the image of God was about mankind’s rule over God’s creation. This was lost in the fall and is restored in the gospel.
We could say that immortality is one of the goals of creation. God is fighting death with his kingdom, overcoming it with life. Death shall eventually be overcome in his entire creation. This is what the symbols of Revelation mean. Through the resurrection of Christ, God grants eternal life to all who inherit it. Martin Luther called the idea of the unconditional immortality of the soul one of five “monstrous opinions” held by the church of the Middle Ages.
The most common view in the early church fathers was unconditional immortality and that sinners would be excluded from eternal life by annihilation. See the usual fathers for this for comments that tend in this vein, such a Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and others. Some scholars believe that unconditional immortality came into the church through the later Greek fathers, from the Platonic school. The unconditional immortality of the soul was a firm Greek idea. It was from these fathers that it began to take root in the Western church, especially through Augustine, heralded by the Catholics and by the later Reformers.
The Hebrew tradition about the afterlife looked to the resurrection, followed by judgement. After death, the next event in our lives would be resurrection. The future the Hebrew saw, from Daniel 12, for example, was resurrection, judgement and inclusion in the kingdom of God, in a joined heaven/earth restoration, or perish. In some of the Jewish literature outside the scripture, there was mingled some Greek/Persian ideas about an interim period, say of suffering in hades before the judgement, or of enjoying a preliminary paradise.
But these ideas were not Hebrew in origin, and do not feature in Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus teaches of the future, he speaks of resurrection, followed by judgement. This is spelled out in his discourse in John 5. All shall be raised from the dead and go to this judgement, and from there, some will go to a resurrection of life and others to a resurrection of condemnation.
The reason for this Hebrew position stems from their view of creation. They saw from the first verse in scripture, Genesis 1:1, that God made heaven and earth to be his conjoined temple, and he dwelt with Adam and Eve in the Garden. This is the view of a conjoined creation that we see at the end of Revelation, 21-22. The Hebrew saw that God made mankind for earth, for his soul and body to be united in one holistic life. They didn’t see mankind living in an existence separate from earth, separate from his original destiny, even if just for an interim period. This “interim period” suits more the Greek position, where the spirit and body of man are separated; the Greek even believed it is better if the spirit is separated from the body, and many denied the bodily resurrection altogether.
Conversely, we are made for our bodies, and with them we are made to rule on earth, in the presence, or in the fellowship of God. This is our only identity in the Hebrew view. The gospel is about our restoration to this position, not being disembodied, or receiving a different body for heaven, rather than for earth. Contrary to the Greek view, the Hebrew saw life, heaven, earth, our souls and bodies, all in one purpose and plan of God, and they did not image life out of this plan, say in heaven alone, even for just an interim period.
One of our confusing areas is to do with the “interim state,” the time between death and the resurrection. Many of us have developed rigid doctrines in this area, based entirely upon our traditions, especially the way we interpret certain New Testament passages, such as Paul, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” or, “I know that when I put off this present tabernacle, I have a tabernacle prepared for me in heaven.”
We could interpret these in different ways, according to our tradition. They could mean Paul goes to heaven for spiritual existence, or that he goes straight to the resurrection. The body prepared in heaven, means by the heavenly decree and power. This would be the Hebrew meaning of the term. When we look at church history, and even different branches of the global church today, we find many different biblical expressions of faith in this area. We need to be tolerant of each other.
My view is that the scripture teaches that “it is appointed to man once to die, and after that the judgement.” (Heb 9:27) This means the resurrection comes after death, as the body is necessary for us to stand judgment in our fully human identity, and “receive what is due for what we have done in 46 our body,” (2 Cor 5:10) There is no judgement without the body being present. Paul speaks of this resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15; we who are in Christ have our body made alive, immortalized, empowered by the Spirit. This is not reinterpreting the texts, but it is going back to the early fathers, before the infusion of Greek ideas.
When we look at Acts, which we might say is the most evangelical book in the Bible, eternal conscious torment isn’t mentioned once. We may believe that “eternal conscious torment” is necessary, or people won’t “repent.” This is unfounded. And many people are put off by the “gospel” of such a monstrous god. Paul spoke of the terror of the Lord, meaning death, from which Christ has redeemed us (2 Cor 5:14); Rom 6:23, “The wages of sin are death,”; 2 Thes 1:9, “everlasting destruction.” In John 3:16, it is “perish.” In Jude it is, “utter darkness,” what the Old Testament calls death, e.g. Job 10:21, 17:13-16.
Paul didn’t say we come to Christ to escape everlasting torment, but for transformation, so that our works may change for good, and so that from them we may reap life instead of destruction. This is his teaching throughout Romans., e.g. Rom 8:13. Death is not something God inflicts upon people, but it is the fruit of the way people live. The atonement is not an insurance policy, but the way in which God changes our lives to change our fruit, so we reap life. The teaching in Acts was that those who didn’t repent would be “cut off,” “destroyed,” and that these people “counted themselves unworthy of eternal life.” Evangelism, preaching the good news of eternal life, in Acts, was highly successful, without eternal conscious torment once being mentioned.
Just a final note about admitting people’s “spiritual experiences” into the question. I have listened to many testimonies. Some people have gone to a “Catholic hell” (purgatory) and some to a “Protestant hell.” Others have gone to a Catholic heaven, to return to tell us the message they received was we aren’t worshiping Mary enough. Others have gone to an “end-times” heaven and returned to tell us the date Jesus is coming.
Others have gone to a Word of Faith heaven and come back to tell us that God wants us rich. These visions generally suit the tradition of the people. Some people straight deceive others, some people are deceived by experiences themselves and others just have a vivid imagination. It’s not for me to judge any person. But that is the point. I only have scripture to go by in the end, “the more sure word of prophecy,” and only on this will I form such views as these.
I do not accept these testimonies. In my view they are false. They are also damaging to people, and bind them in fear, and give them a very false picture of God. People elevate such visions to be equal or above the word of God, and this is a very poor basis for our faith. They are false food and they distort our spiritual lives.
The scriptures do not portray a God of anger and violence, who inflicts torment of people for all eternity. They portray God through Jesus Christ, who lays down his life for his enemies and pleads for their repentance. They portray a God of grace who forgives, and a God of justice, who finally, and in much displeasure to himself, hands people over to the fruit of their own self-centred and destructive works, if that is what those people finally choose.
And God isn’t even the one who destroys them in hell. We only think it is him because we don’t know how to read Hebrew scripture. God is not the destroyer. It is Apollyon in the Greek, or Abaddon in the Hebrew. The destroyer destroys people lives, in this life and in eternity. God doesn’t 47 even destroy Abaddon. Abaddon destroys Abaddon: “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” Hell is a symbol of this self-destruction. God has no part in the violence. “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. God is love. Love does not hate. God cannot be tempted with evil, neither does he tempt any man.”