Maxey - Thrasher Debate

Eternal Destiny of the Wicked
Perpetual Torment or Ultimate Extinction
(An In-Depth Biblical Discussion)

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Comments by Al Maxey on
Thrasher's Last Response,
Destiny of the Wicked, Undying Worms,
Forever Ascending Smoke of Torment


About all I can say after having reviewed brother Thrasher's eighth submission to this discussion is -- he and I differ on just about everything. I suppose that is, in part, why we are having this discussion. However, I personally have a far greater interest here than in just having a public dialogue with Thomas Thrasher. Our discussion is merely a means to a far greater end. My ultimate purpose is to utilize this opportunity to share with the public God's marvelous Truth with regard to the nature of man and the final destiny of the wicked. That glorious Truth has been so suppressed by the false teachings of the past that it was virtually unperceivable to men today. It is time to strip away the garbage to reveal the treasure beneath. It is this I have sought to do via this venue.

For this reason I have indeed raised some of the traditional arguments for the false teaching Thomas embraces, even though Thomas himself may not have raised those particular points in the course of this discussion. They are arguments the readers likely have heard before, and would likely have heard from Thomas at some point in our dialogue. They have been paraded before the unperceiving public long enough; it is time to refute them. Yes, Thomas, I have indeed put forth arguments you yourself had not yet made (and perhaps would not have), but they are the arguments proffered by the traditionalist camp and thus must be addressed in any reasoned response to and refutation of that position.

This discussion between us is with the readers in mind .... at least, it is for ME. I am under no illusions that I will convict you of your error, as you are likely under no illusions that you will sway me from my own convictions. However, there are readers literally all across the globe who are reading this exchange in the hope of finding something that might help them better understand exactly what God teaches on this subject. There is tremendous confusion in the world on this topic, and thus we both have a responsibility to the readers to take this exchange seriously, and to stand securely behind Truth rather than Tradition.

We also have a responsibility to the readers to present God's Truth in as timely and responsible a fashion as we possibly can. This will indeed require sacrifices on our part, but Truth deserves no less .... and so do our readers. Some delays in our responses to one another are obviously unavoidable; some, however, are blatantly irresponsible. Thomas and I are both very, very busy men with many responsibilities. I would place my schedule against his any day, and we can both very easily demonstrate that there just aren't enough hours in the day! Yet, we both gladly embrace these challenges and seek to serve the Lord to the best of our abilities and opportunities.

I do not question my friend's zeal and devotion to the Lord, but I do have some serious doubts about some of his tactics with regard to this dialogue between us. When he intentionally delayed his previous post to this list, and then submitted it just prior to midnight, that was most disturbing because it evidenced a willingness to deprive the readers to spite an opponent. I was not the only one to notice this, and it generated not a few private posts to me. It was suggested that I put this possible spirit of pettiness to the test to determine if indeed this is what was happening, or if that delay was simply a fluke. After all, the Bible tells us to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). Thus, on advice, I stated at the end of my last post:

The advice was: If indeed there is a spirit of pettiness at work here, the next post will not appear until day 40 at the very last minute possible. I held out hope that this would not be the case, but I agreed it needed to be tested. My opponent's credibility needed to be determined.

Sadly, on day 40 (yesterday) Thomas wrote a very brief statement to me in which he simply said, "I think today is the end of your 40-days of patience. I will be sending my article." That was in the early morning. His article showed up after midnight that night. As predicted, he waited until the last possible moment. Readers, this is nothing less than premeditated pettiness. It evidences a spirit of spitefulness for one's opponent, and little to no regard for responsible presentation of Truth or concern for those readers eagerly searching for enlightenment. It truly grieved my heart to see this prediction prove true. I had hoped for better from Thomas, a man who professes to be a leader in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

However, I shall not allow this to deter me from my commitment to my God and to these readers to responsibly present the Truth on this vital subject. After all, Paul even gave thanks when some were "preaching Christ from envy and strife .... thinking to cause me distress" (Philp. 1:15, 17), because it still provided an opportunity for Truth to be heard.

I found little in Thomas' eighth article that necessitates a response beyond what I have already provided in-depth previously. Again, it is obvious we agree on very little. Thus, I shall proceed with a presentation of what I believe God's Truth to be on the ultimate destiny of the unredeemed, and in so doing enter the final phase of our dialogue on this topic.


With this particular post I want to begin what might be called "an introduction to the conclusion." In other words, what does the Bible teach us with regard to that final day when the Lord returns, when the dead are raised, and when judgment occurs? What will be the ultimate destiny of both the wicked and the redeemed?

Scripture informs us that the dead, both righteous and wicked, sleep in the dust of the ground awaiting the trumpet blast which will awaken them on that final day. The prophet Daniel speaks of that day in which "those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). The prophecy of Daniel ends with this promise to the righteous, "you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age" (Daniel 12:13).

Jesus promised, "I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done" (Revelation 22:12). The "rewards" to be dispensed to all men (both righteous and wicked) will not occur until Jesus returns. Then, on that day, a great judging and separation will occur among those raised from the dead. This does not occur in some intermediate holding area prior to the coming of Christ. Our Lord's "reward" comes with Him, it is not given out beforehand.

"For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and THUS we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). The manner in which we shall encounter our Lord is declared to be through a resurrection from the dead, and a gathering up to Him. It is not through some trapped spirit-being flying instantly off to glory at the moment of physical death. It is at the resurrection that we are gathered to our Lord and receive our reward .... not before. It will occur "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet" (1 Corinthians 15:52). At that time we shall be changed; this mortal will "put on" immortality, and "THEN will come about the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory'" (1 Corinthians 15:54).

We experience the victory over death, the final enemy, at the resurrection when we are changed by the putting on of immortality, which is a gift of God to the raised redeemed on the last day. The victory isn't won experientially at the moment of physical death; the victory is won at the last trumpet when we are raised up out of the grave and given life everlasting.

The fate of the wicked, however, is less enviable. They too shall be raised from their graves in the dust of the ground (or from wherever their physical remains may have been scattered). Some shall come forth from the depths of the sea, for example (Rev. 20:13). But all the dead shall be raised up for the purpose of final judgment. The righteous, as already noted, shall be gathered up to Christ and shall put on immortality. Thus, LIFE shall be imparted unto them, and they shall always be together with the Lord in the new heavens and earth.

The wicked, however, have no such promise. The promise to them is that they shall experience the full and final outpouring of God's wrath. It will be a day in which God, a Consuming Fire, will utterly consume them in His fury. It will be such a complete destruction that it is described in the most fearful terms throughout Scripture.

The destruction of the wicked is likened unto the burning up of chaff. All it leaves is ashes. This certainly does not depict continued life for the wicked, but an ultimate extinction of life. Peter declared that "the present heavens and earth ... are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" (2 Peter 3:7). Since the earth, and all within it, is to be destroyed in such a manner, "what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?" (vs. 11). The fate of the righteous will not be a "burning up" along with the present heavens and earth, but rather a preservation and an everlasting dwelling in the "new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (vs. 13).

The fire that consumes the old heavens and earth will also consume the wicked who lived upon it and devoted themselves to it (2 Peter 3:7). A new heavens and earth will be prepared for the righteous, one in which righteousness dwells, and we shall forever dwell in sweet fellowship there with our Lord and His other children. The wicked will be nothing more than ashes under our feet. In other words, the figure portrays the reality that they are gone forever.

This, admittedly, is just an overview of the final destiny of all men (both redeemed and unredeemed). I have not gone into great depth of detail, but will reserve that for future posts in response to almost certain challenges by Thomas. In the above I merely sought to give a sketchy scenario of what I believe the Bible teaches on this matter. We shall flesh the skeleton out in subsequent exchanges.

Where Thomas and I obviously differ greatly is with regard to the nature of the ultimate destiny of the wicked. Thus, the title of our debate: "The Eternal Destiny of the Wicked -- Perpetual Torment or Ultimate Extinction?" Thomas believes the wicked will be mercilessly and everlastingly tortured by God. I believe the Bible teaches the wicked will experience death rather than life, and that it will be a death and destruction from which there will be no future resurrection or restoration. It will be the permanent cessation of life, not the preservation of life for the purpose of inflicting endless torture. The remainder of this debate will focus on this theological difference.


As one examines the many biblical examples of God's dealings with the wicked, it will be quickly perceived that not one single time in all of recorded biblical teaching is the punishment for sin against God ever declared to be torture. The ultimate punishment, instead, is always declared to be death. Thus, if indeed God's final punishment for the wicked is endless torture (as Thomas maintains), it is a fate completely without biblical precedent. Nowhere does God ever use torture as divine punishment. Not even once!

After examining a great many of the types and shadows of the OT which speak of God's dealings with the wicked, brother Curtis Dickinson observed, "It will be noted that in each case the thing that was threatened was DEATH, not incessant torture. The types and shadows in no instance teach the idea of an immortal soul or eternal spirit being tortured as the punishment for sin. In ALL cases they show the penalty for sin to be the death of the person" (What The Bible Teaches About Immortality and Future Punishment, p. 20).

Again, there is simply ZERO biblical evidence in all the many examples of God's dealings with the unrepentant wicked of His punishment for sin ever constituting incessant torture. Such a penalty, as evidenced in God's many dealings with man, is entirely absent from the Scriptures. Thus, again, if God's final punishment is indeed perpetual torture, it is a punishment without precedent. Death and destruction, on the other hand, is a punishment with enormous biblical precedent. It should also be noted that the language of Scripture easily lends itself to this destiny of the wicked. Note the following list of NT expressions regarding the final disposition of the wicked (which is taken from Leroy Edwin Froom's monumental two volume, 2000 page study The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers):

"If God intended for us to understand something other than total death for the wicked, certainly He could have found the means in the marvelous Greek language to express such. Instead He used the plainest terms indicating destruction of the whole man" (Curtis Dickinson, What The Bible Teaches About Immortality and Future Punishment, p. 21). Leroy Edwin Froom observes, "The OT uses 50 different verbs in the Hebrew language to describe the final fate of the wicked, and they all signify different aspects of destruction" (The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 106).

Brother Dickinson continues: "The Old Testament presents four great events which portray two principal facts of Judgment Day: (1) The deliverance of God's own people, and (2) The certain destruction of His enemies. The events are:

  1. The Flood, in which the basic punishment and sentence was the death of all except those safe in the ark.

  2. The destruction of Sodom and Gommorrah, in which the punishment was total destruction by fire, which Jude plainly reveals is an example of the final fire of Judgment (Jude 7).

  3. The destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, which was sudden and final (and which Moses sang that they were 'consumed' and 'swallowed up' --- Exodus 15).

  4. The destruction of Jericho from which none -- not even women and children -- escaped except the household of Rahab who had become an obedient believer.

None of those prototypes of Judgment Day give the slightest support to the idea of punishment by torture" (What The Bible Teaches About Immortality and Future Punishment, p. 37). In addition to the above, suggested by brother Dickinson, one should also not overlook:

  1. The destruction of the Edomites --- Obadiah 15-21. Because of their wickedness, they "will become as if they had never existed" (vs. 16). They will be "cut off forever" (vs. 10). "Then the house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame; but the house of Esau will be as stubble. And they will set them on fire and consume them, so that there will be no survivor of the house of Esau" (vs. 18). "By 100 AD the people of Edom had become lost to history," brother Homer Hailey points out (A Commentary on the Minor Prophets, p. 30). A man by the name of D. Stuart Briscoe observed, "If you travel today in the region of Edom, you will find nothing but the most stark wilderness and the most isolated emptiness ... it is one of the most formidable, forsaken spots on earth."

  2. The destruction of Nineveh --- Nahum 1. This city, because of its wickedness, will experience "His wrath poured out like fire ... and the burning of His anger" (1:6). "He will make a complete end of it" (1:8-9). "They are consumed as stubble completely withered" (1:10). "They will be cut off and pass away" (1:12). "You will be hidden" (3:11). Their place will not be known (3:17). By using these figures, the prophet is foretelling the total destruction of Nineveh, and that did indeed come to pass. About 200 years later, Xenophon the Athenian and "the Ten Thousand," backing out of their entanglement in Persia, passed by the site and noted that there was no evidence a city had ever stood there! In modern times the site was not discovered until 1842. Today, the site is covered by fields, a local dump, and a cemetery!

"Everywhere we find the notion of a final cessation of being, of a return to a state of unconsciousness, never that of a perpetual life in suffering" (Emmanuel Petavel, The Problem of Immortality).

My opponent will make an effort to try and demonstrate that our loving, compassionate, merciful God will be content with nothing less than the perpetual, never diminishing, horrific torture of the vast majority of mankind. Not only is that not what the Scriptures teach, it has the distinct disadvantage of portraying our God as a Monster the likes of which the human mind cannot even conceive. It is to proclaim a God foreign to the inspired revelation. Thus, it is a mockery of Truth and a blasphemy against Deity.


The Bible teaches a different reality for the wicked. They will be consumed in the fire, not preserved. There is no question but what the lake of fire will be a horrific experience. An execution is not a pleasant event, and degrees of torment are involved for the one being put to death. As one who stood inside the death chamber at the side of a man (not two feet away) who was executed by the State of New Mexico on November 6, 2001, and who looked into his eyes as he breathed his last breath, I can assure you that weeping, gnashing of teeth, and deep torment accompany the death experience. However, the ultimate punishment is DEATH itself, not the DYING process.

Nowhere has our God prescribed incessant torture as the "wages of sin" or the penalty of lawlessness. Consider the following passage as representative of this perspective --- Matthew 3:10, 12.

Trees with bad fruit are burned (Matthew 7:19), and so are unfruitful vines (John 15:6) and useless weeds (Matthew 13:40). These figures are all employed to depict the fate of sinners at the final reckoning. They will be cast into "unquenchable fire." This is the Greek word "asbestos" which means "inextinguishable." It describes a fire which burns without interruption; it is an enduring fire which none can extinguish no matter how hard they might try. It is important to notice here, however, that it is the fire that Jesus describes as enduring, NOT that which is cast into it. To try and transfer the quality of endurance from the fire itself to that which is cast into it is completely unwarranted either grammatically, logically or theologically.

That which is cast into the fire will BURN UP. This is the Greek word "katakaio" which means "to burn up; consume." It signifies to completely, utterly, totally destroy with fire. It is enlightening to us in this study to note that this word is used in the LXX (Septuagint) in Exodus 3:2 where Moses beholds a burning bush --- "The bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was NOT consumed." This particular bush was preserved in the fire (what Thomas assumes will happen with the wicked), yet Jesus disagrees with Thomas. Jesus informs us that sinners will NOT be preserved in the fire (like the burning bush was), but rather will be "burned up" --- just the opposite of preservation. Thus, the view of final punishment promoted by Thomas is actually in direct opposition to the teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus says the wicked will NOT be preserved in the fire, Thomas says they WILL. Jesus says they will be consumed in the fire (unlike the burning bush), Thomas says just the opposite (that they will endure without being consumed, just as the bush did). I don't know about the readers of this debate, but I will choose to embrace the teaching of Jesus over that of Thomas!

I'm reminded of the words of Edward White, in his classic work Life In Christ, in which he emphatically stated, "My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying 'destroy' or 'destruction,' are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this."

Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29; Deuteronomy 4:24), and nothing unholy will long remain when He unleashes his fiery wrath at the last day. It will be consumed, not preserved, in the outpouring of His wrath. In the apostle Peter's second recorded sermon, for example, he alludes to Deut. 18 and declares to his hearers, "And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people" (Acts 3:23). "That prophet," of course, is a reference to Jesus Christ. Those who do not heed Him will be called to account. The penalty for their rejection of Him will be "utter destruction."

This is the Greek word "exolothreuo" which appears only here in all the New Covenant documents. It means to "exterminate; utterly destroy" (The Analytical Greek Lexicon); "to slay wholly" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words); "to destroy utterly; extirpate -- complete extermination" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon). The Expositor's Greek Testament says that if this passage has "any eschatological bearing, it would support the theory of annihilation!" In other words, this term is just that emphatic a declaration of extermination and annihilation. At the very least, it is hardly supportive of the view of Thomas Thrasher, who suggests the wicked will not be utterly destroyed, but rather preserved alive forevermore for the purpose of perpetual torture.

At the risk of elevating Thomas' blood pressure, I'm going to provide a rather lengthy excerpt from brother Edward Fudge's marvelous study The Fire That Consumes. I believe the following puts the issue into perspective, and reflects my own thinking quite well. Thus, I will let him express my own convictions at this point:

Some have suggested this view of final punishment "endangers the faith." Henry Constable, over a hundred years ago, answered this charge this way, "Does it imperil our faith in God? What attribute of His is attacked? His love? Is it the part of love to inflict eternal pain if it can be helped? His mercy? Is it the part of mercy never to be satisfied with the misery of others? His holiness? Is it essential to holiness to keep evil forever in existence? His justice? Can justice only be satisfied with everlasting agonies? NO; we do not endanger faith. We strengthen it, by allying it once more with the divine principles of mercy, equity, and justice. It is the Augustinian (traditionalist) theory which endangers faith, and has made shipwreck of faith in the case of multitudes, by representing God as a Being of boundless injustice, caprice and cruelty" (Duration and Nature of Future Punishment, p. 166).


I would like to conclude this present post by simply noticing a couple of the more prominent passages the traditionalists seek to employ in an effort to promote their "perpetual torture" theory. Thomas will undoubtedly raise additional passages which we will examine in-depth later in this exchange. One of the more popular references in the "arsenal" of the traditionalist is the "undying worm."

In speaking of Gehenna, Jesus describes it as a place "where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). Some versions repeat this phrase in verses 44 and 46, although there is little textual evidence for such. Thus, most translations, based on a superior Greek text, include it only in verse 48. What is Jesus suggesting here? Is He really describing a place where maggots are immortal? Or is this merely an allusion to symbols and figures found in the OT writings? I believe the latter is clearly the case. Or, to use the wording of the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, this passage "is purely figurative" (Vol. 5, p. 969).

Jesus is referring to the prophecy of Isaiah. In the final statement of this book of prophecy we find a judgment scene, and we see the joy of God's people as they behold His righteous judgment on their behalf against His (and their) enemies.

Please note here that the text says the Lord will SLAY these ungodly ones, it does not declare the Lord will TORTURE them. Notice also that the redeemed will be able to witness the RESULT of this destruction carried out by God against the wicked:

Please note once again that there is absolutely NO MENTION of the wicked being tortured alive forever and ever!! Indeed, just the opposite. The only thing the redeemed behold are CORPSES. The wicked are DEAD. They have been SLAIN by the fury of God's fire and sword. Thus, all that the redeemed see is evidence of death and destruction. It is one huge scene of abhorrence and shame. It is a giant garbage dump composed of the dead corpses of the wicked. They are not writhing in pain and screaming out in anguish. They are not being tortured in endless misery. They are dead!!

What is all this a figure of? If one studies the history of armies and warfare during ancient times one will discover a very common practice of those who were the conquerors. They would lead the people they had set free (and even those they had captured) out to the scene of the battle, and there they would make them look upon the bodies of the defeated army. In some cases this was to strike fear into the conquered people; to let them know their army was gone and could no longer fight for them. In other cases, it was to instill disgust in the hearts of those who beheld these slain ones. It also served as an occasion of joy for those who had been liberated from the ravages of this now defeated and destroyed army. The liberated would behold the lifeless corpses of those who had oppressed them, and they would see these slain ones being consumed by maggots (the "worms") and by the fires that had been set to burn them up so as to prevent the spread of disease. "Corruption (the worm) and burning (fire) are mentioned together as the two most common ways of disposing of dead bodies" (Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 7, p. 454).

Barnes is quick to point out, however, that this is figurative language, even though it draws from literal historical practice. He writes, "It is not to be supposed that there will be any 'real' worm in hell." It merely represented the truth that the consumption would continue until the destruction was complete. Kittel writes, "The worm does not die until it has completed its work and the bones as well as the flesh of the dead are consumed, so that all hope of restoration to life is extinguished. The expression thus denotes total destruction."

W.E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of OT & NT Words, stresses that "the statement signifies the exclusion of hope of restoration, the punishment being eternal." In other words, our Lord is referring to the final punishment of the wicked, and He is indicating it will be a destruction and death so complete and total that there will never, ever be any hope of restoration to life. The wicked will be utterly consumed by actions that can't be stymied by the victims; the "worm" and "fire" will continue unabated as they consume completely that which is committed to them.

In commenting on the passage in Isaiah 66:24, The Expositor's Bible Commentary states, "A comparison with Jeremiah 7:32 - 8:3 strongly suggests the prophet has the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna, in mind. Mark 9:48, in its context, applies this to eternal punishment" (Vol. 6, p. 354). I agree that Jesus has this location outside the walls of Jerusalem in mind, and that He is using it figuratively to convey a message of doom for the godless.

Part of this valley was committed to use as the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It is reported by writers who lived at that time that there were always fires burning or smoldering in the dump, and that numerous maggots ("worms") could be found there consuming the waste. At times notorious criminals were cast DEAD into the garbage outside the walls of Jerusalem (sounds like a scene in Revelation, doesn't it? --- the wicked being cast into Gehenna which is outside the walls of the New Jerusalem). The bodies of these criminals were allowed to lie there (instead of receiving a proper burial, something cherished by the Jews) and to be consumed by the maggots and the fires that were always present in that foul and loathsome place. It was a scene of abhorrence and shame. Few wanted to end their days cast into the garbage to become food for maggots and fire.

This is the image Jesus is presenting to us in His statement. A day will come when the Lord will appear in judgment against His enemies. He will SLAY them with fire and sword, and their dead bodies will be cast into the garbage dump (Gehenna) outside the walls of the New Jerusalem. There the righteous will witness the effects of this great destruction --- the dead will be piled high in testimony of the victory of God over the forces arrayed against Him, and these corpses shall be utterly consumed so that they will never pose a threat to the people of God again.

Please note that absolutely nothing whatsoever is said, either by Jesus or Isaiah, about the bodies of the wicked being either conscious, alive or tortured. They are dead. They are corpses. They have been slain. The only thing mentioned which "does not die" is the worm. If Thomas is looking for something immortal in these passages, the only thing he might find is maggots!! Both the fire and the worms are said to be enduring. Such is NOT stated with reference to their victims.

Even if one allows that maggots might truly be immortal (which, of course, they are not), it says nothing about that upon which they feast. Indeed, the OT Scriptures, from which the "worm" figure is drawn, declare these maggots feast upon corpses .... not upon the living. These are really not difficult figures to interpret if one will simply take note of the type of literature one is seeking to interpret, and if one will further recognize that the interpretation of many of these figures is to be found within the inspired writings themselves, and not in the false fancies of paganism.

A careful exegesis of these passages in which mention is made of the "undying worm" will reveal they do not support the false doctrine of perpetual torture of the unredeemed. Indeed, sound exegesis demonstrates just the opposite reality. They portray the utter consummation of the unredeemed.


"If anyone worships the beast and his image,
and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand,
he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God,
which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger;
and he will 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 goes up forever and ever;
and they have no rest day and night, those who worship
the beast and his image, and whoever receives
the mark of his name."

The above passage has long been employed as "proof positive" that the wicked will experience perpetual torture at the hands of a just and merciful God following the final judgment on that last day. Without question there are a few words and phrases in this passage that, on the surface, tend to suggest such a scenario. A deeper, more responsible exegesis, however, will demonstrate such teaching to be without foundation. "These dogmatic interpretations of Revelation 14:9-11 as proof of a literal, eternal torment reveal a lack of sensitivity to the highly metaphorical language of the passage" (Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? -- A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 211).

As previously noted in this debate, if one fails to perceive the unique nature of the literature of Revelation, one will completely fail to perceive and correctly interpret the meaning of the passage in question. Brother Curtis Dickinson wrote, "The apostle John used language and symbols familiar to the people to whom he wrote, yet veiled to the world which was persecuting them. The Christians were familiar with Old Testament Scripture, so much of the Revelation utilized events recorded there" (What The Bible Teaches About Immortality and Future Punishment, p. 32). Understanding that this is highly figurative apocalyptic literature, largely based on OT imagery, is critical to sound exegesis. Therefore, we must carefully examine the four primary statements made with regard to the punishment of the wicked:

  1. Drinking unmixed the wine of God's wrath.
  2. Torment with fire & brimstone in the presence of the angels & the Lamb.
  3. The smoke of their torment rising forever.
  4. Lack of rest day and night.

ONE --- "...he will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger" (vs. 10). The symbol of a cup of wine, representing the fierce anger of God, is common to OT literature. When a nation or people drink of this cup the result is destruction at the hand of God. The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah, "Take this cup of the wine of wrath from My hand, and cause all the nations, to whom I send you, to drink it. And they shall drink and stagger and go mad because of the sword that I will send among them" (Jeremiah 25:15-16). "Drink, be drunk, vomit, fall, and rise no more because of the sword which I will send among you" (vs. 27).

This is a destruction which would be absolute!! "They will drink and swallow, and become as if they had never existed" (Obadiah 16). Just two verses later the prophecy changes to the figure of fire as the agent of punishment. The house of Esau is likened unto "stubble." It will be "set on fire and consumed," and "there will be no survivor of the house of Esau" (vs. 18).

"In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; He pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs" (Psalm 75:8). To drink this down to the dregs symbolizes a complete, total punishment, not just a partial one. It is a full and furious outpouring of wrath. Let not the wicked think they shall escape this fate, for "the cup in the Lord's right hand will come around to you" (Habakkuk 2:16). Job prays that the wicked may "drink of the wrath of the Almighty" (Job 21:20).

These are passages which speak of destruction and extinction as a result of experiencing the wrath of the Almighty. It is not torture but termination that is consistently in view. It speaks of no survivors, of chaff being burned up in fire, and of the wicked becoming "as if they had never existed." The wrath of God will be unmixed (undiluted), full and furious, and FINAL. How could one possibly survive such an encounter? "But who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears?" (Malachi 3:2). The answer is: NO ONE!!

There is nothing whatsoever in the figure of the cup of the wine of God's wrath that suggests perpetual torture of the wicked. Indeed, the OT references strongly suggest just the opposite: a fearful destruction which is total and complete; one from which there will never, ever be any restoration or recovery or survivor.

TWO --- "...and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (vs. 10). This statement immediately brings to mind the fate of Sodom & Gomorrah. "Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven" (Genesis 19:24). The overthrow of Assyria is also depicted in similar language: "The breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire" (Isaiah 30:33). If you read the entire context (vs. 27-33) you will see God's tongue characterized as "a consuming fire" .... God is "burning in His anger, and dense is His smoke" .... His judgment against Assyria will "be seen in fierce anger, and in the flame of a consuming fire."

God also warned Edom that "a day of vengeance" was coming in which "its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night or day; its smoke shall go up forever" (Isaiah 34:8-10). This would also be the fate of Gog, as prophesied by the prophet Ezekiel. "And with pestilence and with blood I shall enter into judgment with him; and I shall rain on him, and on his troops, and on the many peoples who are with him, a torrential rain, with hailstones, fire, and brimstone" (Ezekiel 38:22).

It is very obvious that the passage in Revelation (14:9-11) has its roots firmly grounded in Old Covenant history and literature. Each of the four aspects of the punishment specified are taken directly from the pages of the OT Scriptures. They are symbols. Nothing more. They symbolize a fearful judgment in which God will pour out upon His enemies His full and final wrath, a wrath so consuming that all will vanish away before it. They will be completely consumed like stubble in an unstoppable fire, like chaff in a molten river. Nothing will be left but ashes (Malachi 4:1-3).

Is there "torment" involved in death by fire? Absolutely!! Men recoil in horror at the thought of perishing in a fire. Few prospects instill as much terror in the hearts of men. Thus, God employed this figure repeatedly to show the seriousness and wretchedness of the fate awaiting those who oppose Him. The wicked will indeed experience "torment" (and indescribable torment, at that) when they are consumed in the fury of His wrath.

The figure of "fire and brimstone" is used repeatedly in the OT Scriptures to represent utter destruction. It is never used to convey perpetual torture. Yes, those being destroyed utterly will experience torment as they are being consumed by the wrath of God. Suffering is a natural part of the process of destruction. However, there is nothing in these figures that suggests God preserves the wicked for the purpose of endlessly heaping upon them unimaginable tortures and torments. Yes, there is pain associated with death & destruction, but it is the latter that is the true punishment, not the former.

In Revelation 18 we see depicted the fall of Babylon (which again is pure symbolism, and is not speaking literally of the ancient city of Babylon). The merchants and kings and others who consorted with her see "the smoke of her burning" and they stand at a distance because of the fearfulness "of her torment" (vs. 10, 15), and yet we know that "in one hour she has been laid waste" (vs. 19) and "will not be found any longer" (vs. 21). Yes, there is the presence of torment in the destruction of the wicked, and it will be a fearful thing to behold. But when the chaff is burned up it will be "found no more." The figures are not figures representing perpetual torture. On the contrary. They represent utter destruction. A destruction witnessed by the angels and the Lamb. "Angels who through the ages had watched the unfolding and revealing of God's eternal purpose and the conflict between good and evil, now see the consummation of that purpose and final consequence of evil" (Homer Hailey, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 310).

THREE --- "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever" (vs. 11). When God poured out His fiery judgment upon Edom, the land would become desolate and "its smoke shall go up forever" (Isaiah 34:10). Is smoke still rising in that area? Of course not. This is figurative language. It conveys utter destruction. Nothing is left. The smoke is a testimony to the enduring destruction caused by the consuming fire. It is a visible witness of the powerful destruction that has been effected by the outpouring of God's wrath. The sword of God had descended "in judgment on Edom, the people I have totally destroyed" (vs. 5).

When Abraham arose the next morning and looked out over the area which had previously contained the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, "he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace" (Genesis 19:28). Were those cities still there? Were the inhabitants still there being tortured in that fire from out of heaven? No, of course not. They were gone!!! All that remained was the testimony of the smoke; a witness to the power of God's consuming fire!! The cities and their inhabitants had been "reduced to ashes" (2 Peter 2:6) when they experienced the "punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7). They thus serve as an example of the fate of the wicked (2 Peter 2:6) at the final judgment, who will also be reduced to ashes by the outpouring of God's wrath in a consuming fire (2 Peter 3:7f; Malachi 4:1-3).

It is extremely important to notice what is NOT said in the above statement. It does NOT say the wicked are tormented forever and ever. It says the SMOKE of their torment GOES UP forever and ever. That is a major distinction. It is not the destroying process, torturous though it will be, that is depicted as being enduring. Rather, it is the testimony and evidence of that utter destruction that is enduring. When God completely and permanently destroys the wicked, that will be a judgment forever noted in the hearts and minds of the redeemed. NO MORE will the wicked be found to oppress them. They are gone, and gone forever, and they are assured of that reality forevermore!! This is the significance of the "forever ascending smoke" --- it is a forever testimony to the enduring judgment of God against all that opposed Him and His people. Like the rainbow, it is a forever, visible reminder of God's judgment. Now, whether there will literally be smoke visible to the saints throughout eternity, or whether this is merely a symbol of the reality of that blessed assurance, is arguable. I personally tend to think that the smoke will not be literally present, but God is merely suggesting by this symbol that the evidence of the utter destruction of the wicked will be evident to us in some way, and we need never again doubt that their destruction has been forever accomplished.

Again, absolutely nothing is said about the torment being "forever and ever" in this passage. Rather it is ascending smoke that is said to be an enduring testimony. One may perhaps assume the torment continues, but to do so flies in the face of the remainder of Scripture, and contradicts the OT allusions employed. Thus, it is an assumption with no basis in biblical teaching. "The wicked will perish, and the enemies of the Lord will be like the flowers of the pastures; they vanish -- like smoke they vanish away" (Psalm 37:20).

FOUR --- "...and they have no rest day and night" (vs. 11). "The phrase 'they have no rest, day or night' (Rev. 14:11) is interpreted by traditionalists as descriptive of the eternal torment of hell. The phrase, however, denotes the continuity and not the eternal duration of an action" (Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? -- A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 213).

This particular phrase refers to uninterrupted continuity until a desired goal is achieved. There will be no breaks, no reprieve, no relaxing, no respite until the purpose has been accomplished. Some people, for example, when trying to break a world record (like riding a roller coaster) will take regular breaks in order to go to the bathroom or to catch a quick nap. There will be no breaks for rest, neither by day nor by night, when destruction is poured out upon the wicked. It will continue until completed!!

Dr. Harold Guillebaud correctly explains that this phrase "certainly says that there will be no break or intermission in the suffering of the followers of the Beast, while it continues; but in itself it does not say that it will continue forever" (The Righteous Judge: A Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment, p. 24).

This can clearly be seen, and this interpretation substantiated, in the destruction of Edom. This nation would experience the fire and brimstone of the Lord's fierce wrath, and "it shall not be quenched night or day; its smoke shall go up forever" (Isaiah 34:10). We know for a fact that the "fire and brimstone" spoken of with reference to Edom did indeed cease when its "work of destruction" had been accomplished. Thus, the idiomatic phrase "not quenched night or day" (a Hebraism) clearly referred to continuity, not perpetuity. I see no exegetical reason to suggest otherwise with the passage in Revelation 14.

This expression is found repeatedly in the OT writings (from which Revelation draws very heavily). "You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life" (Deut. 28:66). It would be an unrelenting dread; one which never lessened. Just as the wrath of God would be unrelenting upon those who experienced it. There would be no break, no "time out," no letting up. In Psalm 32 David described the torment he felt over his sin -- "For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer" (vs. 4). The picture here is of unrelenting torment of the inner man; God's hand heavy upon him. God did not relent until the desired result was achieved -- repentance! His hand was heavy upon him day and night, without rest, until he was brought to the desired goal of repentance.


I again plead with my brother in Christ, and fellow leader in the churches of Christ, to join with me in evidencing a spirit of genuine concern for our readers and for a responsible, reasonable and timely presentation of our respective views. This dialogue is not about one of us besting the other, it is about a quest for ultimate Truth. If we will just keep that uppermost in our hearts and minds then perhaps we can glorify our God in this exchange and help our readers come to an educated conviction as to the nature of Truth.

Thomas, let's bring this dialogue to a positive and noble conclusion as befits two dedicated servants of the Lord. God is neither honored, nor our readers edified or educated, by a spirit of pettiness.

May God richly bless each of you in your quest for greater understanding.

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