Everlasting torment for the wicked is the prevalent belief of orthodox/biblical Christians. However, there is a significant minority of orthodox dissenters who believe the Bible teaches differently. While liberals might propose universal salvation or, perhaps, that the afterlife is a myth, this dissenting view is not one that dismisses biblical revelation. Instead, it believes the Bible teaches annihilation of the wicked. The following essay is a critical look at the biblical prooftexts most commonly cited by those who believe in everlasting torment.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is usually recognized to be a parable or, essentially, an extended metaphor. This story is often cited as a torment prooftext because the rich man is plainly described as being in hell, tormented by fire. The irony of the citation is that conservative scholars agree that parables are stories designed to teach particular lessons but which produce misleading ideas when they are dissected into smaller portions. Using the parable as a source of information about hell is simply irresponsible exegesis; it must be dismissed out of hand as a prooftext for such. For a careful exegesis of the Rich Man and Lazarus, please refer to the article, “Lazarus Revisited”. The story is a brilliant and important teaching presented by Jesus, but it is not about the nature of hell.
The second common biblical reference, which is actually multiple references, is the phrase, “Everlasting fire”. For example, Matthew 25.41,46 reads: Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . .” and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
The common interpolation of this verse goes something like this: “Depart, you cursed people, into the great fire where the devil and his angels are going. There you all will roast forever.” But this is not a particularly rational understanding of these verses (and all the verses like them). The word “eternal” modifies the word, “fire”, emphasizing the power and durability of the fire. When humans are thrown into such a fire what should we expect? One thrown into such a fire would be consumed, much as is the case when bodies are cremated after people die. Whether thrown into a fire dead or alive, the result is ashes.
Some, recognizing this difficulty, argue that the passage is talking about the spirit of a person and that the spirit has been thrown into a spiritual fire. This is a questionable dodge. It is always a red flag when it’s necessary to read something into a passage in order to make it work. If we look at the fuller context of these verses, Matthew 25.31-46, what we see is a judgment scene in which all people are gathered before the enthroned Son of Man. While physical state is not the emphasis of the passage, there is no hint that those assembled are mere spirits. Certainly the Lord Jesus must be embodied and no distinction is revealed among those gathered. Rather, the picture suggests embodied creatures, able to enter into discussion with the Judge.
In the end he pronounces, “…these will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” The phrase, “eternal punishment,” does not mean that the punished will be eternally tormented but that the punishment is final. The fire does its work and it cannot be undone. There is no remedy. There is no purgatorial redemption. There is no reincarnation. There is no opportunity for repentance. It is a severe and final judgment…but it is not about torment or torture.
The Devil’s Torment
There is really only one passage in the Bible that seems to speak decisively of everlasting torment. That verse is Revelation 20.10: And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Note first of all that this verse is not discussing humans. The devil is Satan. There is much debate about the “beast” and the “false prophet,” with some identifying individuals, and others seeing these as representing institutions. In any case, these are not ordinary sinners but greater powers who/that have been dedicated to the business of making humans miserable, as well as leading them into destructive behavior.
The book of Revelation is, in many particulars, very difficult to understand. However, broadly speaking, its message is clear. It is an exhortation to the Christian Church. More specifically, the author, John, addresses the seven churches in Asia. While John’s exhortations are historically specific, his addresses, taken together, are understood to apply to the Church as a whole, both then and ever since. The exhortation is that the Church remain faithful to the Lord. Revelation makes it clear that Babylon, Satan, and his minions are doomed. “Don’t envy the Wicked,” Revelation says. The Wicked will be judged for their evil deeds, and the judgment against them will be severe and final. Jesus is Lord and will ultimately put and end to wickedness, rescuing his Church and delivering it to an existence devoid of corruption, where the people, with God, will live harmoniously and abundantly forever.
The verse in question, Revelation 20.10, is one of many verses that speak to the doom of Satan and those who follow him. Specifically, the verse seems to say that Satan, the beast, and the false prophet are doomed to everlasting torment. Such an interpretation is the easiest and most obvious, which usually makes it the best interpretation. But I hesitate to accept the easiest understanding in this case because to do so undermines numerous biblical themes and teachings. The book of Revelation, itself, gives good cause for hesitation.
Revelation 11.18, for example, says: The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth. Who are the destroyers of the earth? All of the wicked, I assume, but certainly this would include Satan, the beast, and the false prophet—the chiefs of destruction. This verse makes a plain statement that God, in his wrath, intends to destroy the destroyers. The word, “destroy” is a word of finality. Destruction may take a second, or it may take an extended period of time. World War II and the battle against Nazi Germany lasted six years, for example. But unconditional surrender was demanded of Germany and that was the end of the Third Reich. Similarly, for Revelation to talk of the destruction of the destroyers is to signify their end. This verse also points to the appropriateness of the punishment: destruction for destroyers, which describes a principle we will visit later, i.e., proportionality. Let the punishment fit the crime.
Revelation 17.8 speaks similarly and specifically about the beast: The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction.
In Revelation 15.1 we read, Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished. If the wrath of God is, indeed, finished, then how would God continue forever to be engaged in an act of torment against the wicked?
John writes about Babylon as a great prostitute. Babylon was an oppressor of Israel in its history, and in the book of Revelation the term is representative. Babylon represents wicked society and all its inclinations that conflict with God’s people, both in terms of oppression and temptation. It is likely that John would have been thinking specifically of the Roman Empire as having taken up the Babylonian mantle. It certainly would have been safer for the Christian church to possess a letter that talked of Babylon’s doom than one that spoke to of Rome’s doom.
Pay her [Babylon] back as she herself has paid back others, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed. As she glorified herself and lived in luxury, so give her a like measure of torment and mourning, since in her heart she says “I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.” For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her. And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning.They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city, Babylon! For in a single hour your judgment has come.” Rev. 18.6-10. Notice that Babylon’s punishment is measured (double that of her evil deeds), and that it is swift. This is reinforced in Revelation 19.3: Babylon the great prostitute is destroyed in a moment and yet, “The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.”
Pay particular attention to the juxtaposition of a momentary destruction against smoke that continues to go up “forever and ever”. Satan and his lieutenants are said to be in torment “forever and ever,” as well. But perhaps the “forever and ever” is not a reference to their torment but to their sentence, as is clearly the case for Babylon.
We read the following in Revelation 14.9-13: And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
Again we have verses that refer to smoke going up forever and ever. Cross-referencing this with the punishment of Babylon provides us with an understanding of a short-term destruction, followed by the smoke. What is the smoke, anyway? The most common interpretation has been, “Well, if the smoke keeps on, the fire must still be burning, and if the fire is burning, it must be the bodies of those being punished.” On a literal level this is problematic. In order for bodies to burn eternally they would have to be eternally reconstituted. In short, while the redeemed are raised incorruptible, the damned must be raised super-corruptible. I won’t say that God can’t do it—he will do what’s best. That is our only hope and consolation. I will say that such activity by him seems utterly bizarre, cruel and pointless—and it is certainly never specifically proposed in the Bible. A much easier interpretation of the smoke, especially in light of the punishment of Babylon, is that the smoke is a symbol. The symbol of it rising forever suggests there is someone paying attention. It seems to me that all those who make up the Kingdom of Heaven would have zero interest in the ongoing torment of the wicked. On the other hand, retaining a memory of the wicked and the consequences of wickedness is of perpetual value. The point is made in 11.18 where the ones sentenced to destruction are sentenced because they are destroyers. This is fundamentally what sin is, after all. Sin damages and destroys. God’s punishment, then, amounts to letting the wicked have what they want, namely their independence. But there is no life independent of the sustenance of God. To be granted independence from God is to embrace death. Those in the Kingdom will be filled with this understanding. The smoke is the understanding within the hearts of the redeemed of where sin leads.
It is also important to consider the idea of rest in the passage above. Of the wicked it is said that they have no rest day or night. Rest has always been a sign of God’s blessing.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Psalm 127.2. In fact, even God rested from his creative work. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. – Exodus 20.9-11. Jesus himself remarked: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, making it clear that it was always meant as a gift. The writer to the Hebrews picked up on the idea of Sabbath rest, equating it with entering the kingdom of God. We who have believed enter that rest…so then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works, as God did from his. Hebrews 4. 3,9,10. Seeing rest in this greater context suggests that the phrase in Revelation is not a description of endless torment but a clarification that they have been denied the glorious gift God intended for them.
One might argue that pulling this sense of rest into the context is akind of cherry-picking, but this passage that talks of no rest for the wicked also talks of the righteous coming into a rest. The context does, indeed, call to mind the great theme of biblical rest.
Looking, too, at Revelation 20.10, where the wording is: they will be tormented day and night forever and ever, might this denial of the Lord’s rest be the real point, in spite of the wording? “Day and night” means there is no break. We live our lives, every night taking rest and then waking in the morning. Rest has been integral to our existence. Here we have words that suggest that times of rest have come to an end. I wonder if a better rendering of the verse might be: “their torment will be the knowledge that for them there will forever be no day and night.” In other words, the torment begins when their suppression of God’s truth is overwhelmed by reality. The torment is the realization of foolishness, the realization of the loss of God’s great gifts, and the realization that their end has come. It is the Final Death Row, with no more opportunities for appeal.
I offer this interpretation, not based on my skill with ancient Greek. Far from it. In fact, every translation of the Bible that I’m acquainted with, has settled on “eternal torment” or something similar. So, I’m clearly swimming up stream here. However, I dare to suggest a variant interpretation for two basic reasons. One is that this verse is an outlier, which makes its current interpretation suspect. And, two, which is similar to one, is context. I have a friend who puts it this way: “A verse taken out of context is just…wrong.” The context of the book of Revelation seems to be saying something different than what this verse is saying. More importantly, the full context of the Bible stands in heavy opposition to it, as well.
The final argument I will make about Revelation context is the phrase, “second death”. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20.14,15. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. – Revelation 21.8.
Christians generally understand that all people must experience a bodily death but that all will also be raised to stand before God’s judgment. The Christian will be judged as possessing the merits of Christ (this is the shocking grace of the Faith), while unbelievers will be judged on the basis of their deeds. The second death, then, refers to the punishment assigned by God to those who fail to trust and obey him.
Both of these passages tell us that the lake of fire is the second death, which is to say, the cause of the second death. Death is the end of life. This should be obvious. Death is not a state of continuous torment. That which continues is not death. So, if the lake of fire is the place where living beings experience a second death, then it would seem that the second death would also come to Satan, the beast and the false prophet. The everlasting fire, as it is called elsewhere in the New Testament, can also be rendered “unquenchable” fire. It is an enormous, super hot fire. Think, the sun. This fire will do its work and no created being can withstand such a fire.
Revelation 21:4 says, He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. This verse is generally understood to apply to those who have entered the Kingdom of Heaven. No argument here. But this verse, too, provides context. And this is important context. What the last chapters of Revelation talk about is a new reality, a reality that is no longer ruled by conflict, and no longer tormented by corruption, whether physical or spiritual. In the new reality the spiritual and the physical, for all of God’s creation, will finally arrive at the longed-for integrity of being.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. – Romans 8.18-21.
I have often heard Christians define hell as the absence of God, or the place he has utterly abandoned. But it is clear that for beings to exist in everlasting torment they must be re-made into super-corruptible beings and, as in the case of all God’s creations, maintained by his power. In other words, the created universe, in the view that includes everlasting torment, remains forever divided. This is not the vision given in Romans 8; it is not the vision provided in Revelation, chapters 21 and 22. Any view that sees God’s creation as ever-divided and ever in a state of rebellion, fails to recognize the glory of what God has promised, and fails to recognize the power of Christ’s work. On the cross, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished!” This is the Big Context.