The above passage has long been employed as "proof positive" that the lost 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).
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 above passage. 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 final punishment of the lost:
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 utter 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. It will be as if they had never existed.
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 under consideration (14:9-11) has its roots firmly grounded in OT 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" (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. "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Paul did not say the wages of sin is everlasting LIFE in perpetual torture.
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. The biblical figures consistently 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). And what is the reaction of these angelic beings when God's wrath is poured out upon the unredeemed? --- "They deserve it!" (Rev. 16:6).
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 forever 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 Rev. 14:11. It does NOT say the lost 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 enduring. Rather, it is the testimony and evidence of that utter destruction that is said to be 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 the redeemed 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 visible reminder of God's judgment, as well as a reminder of His gift of life to those who escaped the punishment of the fire. Thus, the smoke is for the living, not the dead. 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 that God is merely suggesting by this symbol that the evidence of the utter destruction of the wicked will be known to us in some way, and we need never again doubt that their destruction has been forever accomplished.
Again, absolutely nothing is said in this passage about the torment itself being "forever and ever." Rather it is the 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 it contradicts the very OT allusions employed. Thus, it is a false 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. Bacchiocchi, p. 213).
This particular phrase refers to uninterrupted continuity until a desired goal is achieved. There will be no break, no reprieve, no relaxing, no respite until the intended 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. Men who torture other men will not infrequently pause during the infliction of their torments so their victims may recover sufficiently to be tortured again. There will be no such breaks for rest, neither by day nor by night, when destruction is poured out from God upon the wicked. It will continue until the "wages of sin" has been realized -- DEATH. God is not the ultimate sadist, inflicting horrible torments upon creatures He keeps alive for no other reason than to torture them forever. God has promised death to those who choose to reject His offer of life. It is thus death that they experience, painful and torturous though it will be, not eternal life in ceaseless miseries. The wages of sin is a loss of life, not a life of loss; destruction, not preservation.
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 thus 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, a passage which draws from these very same OT figures.
This expression in Revelation is found repeatedly in the OT writings. "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. The torment ceased when its intended purpose was realized. The wages of sin is not torment, it is death. The process by which that promised result is achieved will be torturous. An execution is never pleasant, either for the victim or the executioners. As unpleasant and tormenting as the dying process is, the true punishment inflicted is death, not the process by which it is realized. Although the one being executed will suffer as he is dying, his true punishment is death -- the loss of life! So it will be for the lost on the day of judgment.
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, thank you for your article Reflecting on Hades. I have wrestled with the concept of an immortal soul and Hades and Purgatory for years. Your explanation of the literary history of Hades was fascinating and explains much. I have heard statements made at funerals about the departed experiencing the joy of being united with Christ at that moment which I think were well-intended statements made to comfort those left behind, however, after reviewing the Scriptures and your comments, I too reject the idea of an immortal spirit separate from the body. My father passed away a couple of years ago and I have thought about this a lot since then. Thank you for helping me to understand this confusing concept.
If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. I would also welcome
any questions or comments from the readers.
The Archives for past issues of Reflections is: