Why we should contain rather than extinguish the fires of hell

Read time: 10 minutes

I have written rather a lot about the doctrine of “hell” on this site, for several reasons. It bothers people. It is one of the least pleasant aspects of conservative-fundamentalist expressions of Christianity. It continues to be misunderstood by its detractors and defenders alike. It draws on narratives and concepts that are not marginal to the argument of the New Testament but lie at its core. And addressing the texts is a simple and effective way of illustrating the point of the narrative-historical hermeneutic.

Essentially, I maintain that most of those narratives and concepts pertain not to what happens to people in some sort of conscious existence after death but to the hardships and horrors of historical calamities experienced—as divine judgment—by communities, cities and nations. I have adopted a policy of narrative-historical containment.

However, I had trouble recently pointing someone to anything useful on the association of torment with the lake of fire in the closing chapters of Revelation. This is an attempt to plug that hole. It roughly traces, in summary fashion, the connection between judgment and fire from John the Baptist to John the author of the book of Revelation. If I’ve left out anything important, let me know.

Judgment of Israel by fire

Judgment on Israel is associated with fire in the Synoptic Gospels.

John the Baptist says to the Jews who come to him for baptism that every tree that does not bear good fruit is “cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10; cf. 7:19); the chaff and the weeds of unrighteous Israel will be burnt with “unquenchable fire” at the end of the age of second temple Judaism (Matt. 3:11; 13:40). The imagery has been adapted from Malachi’s description of judgment against the wicked in Israel: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1). If chaff and weeds are thrown into a fire, they are destroyed. The word “unquenchable” (asbestos), however, points elsewhere.

Jesus warns that unrepentant Israel will be thrown into the “Gehenna of fire”. Here the fire is “unquenchable”; “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (sbennutai)” (Mk. 9:43, 48). The word geenna evokes Jeremiah’s dreadful prediction that when the Babylonians besiege Jerusalem, the bodies of the dead will be thrown into the surrounding valley for lack of space in the city to bury so many (Jer. 7:32-33; 19:1-13). Isaiah describes the corpses of that generation of Jews which had rebelled against YHWH strewn on the earth outside the city, unburied: “their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched (sbesthēsetai) and they shall become a spectacle to all flesh” (Is. 66:24 LXX). It is a prophetically heightened picture of the aftermath of war—a reminder to the living of the consequences of revolt.

The Gehenna of unquenchable fire, therefore, was not “hell” as we typically imagine it. It was an image for the foreseen horror of the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans and for the significance of the memory of the event for future generations. It powerfully symbolised, in solid prophetic fashion, the “hell” of war and slaughter that awaited an “evil and adulterous generation” of Jews at the end of a broad road leading to destruction.

Judgment of the nations

When the nations are judged at the parousia of the Son of Man, those who ill-treated Jesus’ emissaries—“the least of these my brothers”—are consigned to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). This is not the fire of a dramatic historical event that will constitute judgment on a city or a people. It is the alternative to participation in “the kingdom prepared… from the foundation of the world” in the age to come (Matt. 25:34).

The question then is: What is this kingdom? What is the age to come? If the kingdom is heaven or life-after-death, then we reasonably suppose that the “punishment of the age” is a punishment-after-death. But if, as I would maintain, the kingdom of God envisaged in the New Testament is the historical life of God’s people in the age-to-come, after their reformation and the judgment of the pagan nations, then the “punishment of the age” should be understood in similar historical terms. Some righteous Gentiles will be included in the life of God’s rule over the nations; others will suffer exclusion from it (cf. Rom. 2:6-10).

The imagery of fire in this context may owe something to Daniel 7:9-12, which we’ll come to in a moment. But effectively, the punishment corresponds to the casting of the bad fish into the “fiery furnace” at the end of the age, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:49-50).

The smoke of their torment

After the vision of the 144,000 on Mount Zion, who have been redeemed from the earth as “firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Rev. 14:1-5), John sees three angels flying overhead. The first, with an “eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth”, calls the pagan nations to worship the living creator God. The second announces the impending fall of Babylon the great—that is, of Rome. The third loudly declares that anyone who worships the beast, which represents something like Roman imperial aggression against God’s people in particular, will “drink the wine of God’s wrath” (Rev. 14:9-10):

he will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment (basanismou) 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. (Rev. 14:10–11)

The imagery of “drinking the wine of God’s wrath” aligns this judgment with standard Old Testament narratives. For example, Isaiah assures the afflicted in ruined Jerusalem that the Babylonians will suffer what they suffered: “Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more; and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors…” (Is. 51:22–23). Jerusalem will again suffer destruction, this time at the hands of Rome, but in due course her tormentors will themselves suffer torment. Only fair.

When the fall of Rome is described in detail later, we are told that the kings of the earth will “weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning”. They will “stand far off, in fear of her torment (basanismou)” (Rev. 18:9-10; cf. 19:3). The language recalls the Old Testament story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. …and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. (Gen. 19:24–25, 28)

This, of course, became an archetype for judgment both on Israel and on the enemies of Israel.

If Israel sins, calamity will come upon the nation, and the whole land will be “burned out with brimstone and salt…, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in his anger and wrath” (Deut. 29:22–23).

In the book of Jubilees Isaac warns his sons Esau and Jacob that if they “devise evil” against each other, there will be hell to pay: “on the day of turbulence and execration and indignation and anger, with flaming devouring fire as He burnt Sodom, so likewise will He burn his land and his city and all that is his…” (Jub. 36:10).

Similarly, on the day of God’s vengeance against Edom “her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever” (Is. 34:9–10).

So again, John’s dependence on the Old Testament leads us to think that the “torment” of the worshippers of the beast has to be understood as a consequence of, and as an aspect of, the defeat of pagan Rome. In real or historical terms, it had to do with the extreme discomfiting of those who were most fiercely committed to the pagan-imperial system. The “torment” was something that could be watched from far off by the kings of the earth. Nothing in the text points to post mortem suffering. The smoke of their torment “goes up for ever and ever” because, despite the best efforts of the emperor Julian to revive classical paganism, there was no way to undo the wrath of God against a corrupt, blasphemous imperialism. There was no going back.

The lake of fire, which is the second death

The fire of Rome’s overthrow is distinct from the “lake of fire that burns with sulphur”, which first appears in Revelation 19:20, when the beast and the false prophet are thrown into it. At the end of the thousand years, the devil is also cast into the lake of fire and sulphur, and the three of them “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).

These are symbolic or supernatural figures. The beast is a redeployment of Daniel’s fourth beast—the worst of a series of empires—that is killed and its body “given over to be burned with fire”—presumably in the “stream of fire” which arose in front of the fiery throne of the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:9-12; cf. 1 En. 14:18). “The false prophet represents the role of false religion in persuading people to worship the antichristian power” (R.H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 358).

Their fate is contrasted with that of the kings and their armies which fought alongside the beast against the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:17-19). These were “slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Rev. 19:21). Despite having sided with the beast, they are not thrown along with it into the lake of fire.

This is all symbolic language for the victory of Christ over the pagan nations. The feast is John’s version of Ezekiel’s feast for the birds and beasts of the field that will accompany YHWH’s judgment of the nations: “I will set my glory among the nations, and all the nations shall see my judgment that I have executed, and my hand that I have laid on them” (Ezek. 39:21). The imagery is gruesome, but what John describes is not the sort of military destruction that Jesus predicted for Jerusalem but the collapse of the whole political-religious edifice of Roman imperialism because of the faithful witness of the churches to the lordship of Christ.

At the final judgment the lake of fire is identified with “the second death” (Rev. 20:14-15; 21:8). Nothing further is said about torment. Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire so that “death shall be no more” (Rev. 20:14; 21:4). The “second death” will have no power over the martyrs who were resurrected following the overthrow of Rome (Rev. 20:6), but “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”; “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 sulphur, which is the second death” (Rev. 20:15; 21:8).

So to conclude…

The imagery of torment and destruction by fire conforms to the general three horizons pattern of New Testament eschatology: judgment on Jerusalem and the renewal of God’s people, judgment on Rome and the renewal of empire, and a final judgment and renewal of heaven and earth. Suffering is certainly part of the narrative, but it belongs to the first two historical horizons: it has to do with the living experience of God’s wrath against a community, city or nation. Ultimately, the lake of fire is an image for the destruction of everything that is contrary to God’s good creation. As Paul says, the wages of sin is death. Death can be extremely unpleasant, but that is the end of it.

Alex Dalton | Wed, 03/14/2018 - 16:26 | Permalink

Excellent. I really think this is the way to go with all of this hell business and I’d like to see these views spread. Unfortunately there is such a strong tradition of eternal conscious torment associated with the Christian message.

Brian Midmore | Tue, 03/20/2018 - 08:07 | Permalink

When you mention Rom 2. 6-10 you say that those who do not obey the truth will suffer exclusion from eternal life. Paul says that they are not only excluded but that they will suffer indignation, wrath, tribulation and anguish. Is this for all eternity? Their righteous counterparts enjoy eternal life so it might not be assumed that this indignation was eternal? This is some sort of hell surely if not a fiery one.

@Brian Midmore:

Brian, thanks for this. A good consideration.

Paul says that Jews and Greeks who seek glory, honour and immortality by patiently doing good work will receive the life of the age (zōēn aiōnion). The language is difficult to pin down, but I would argue that the “life of the age” is the life of the new age that would follow the restoration of God’s people and, from this perspective, the triumph of Christ over the pagan gods.

At least some of the righteous dead would participate in this new age by resurrection, on the strength of Daniel 12:2 LXX: “And many of those who sleep in the flat of the earth will arise, some to everlasting life (zōēn aiōnion) but others to shame and others to dispersion [and contempt] everlasting.” Paul probably expected them then to reign with Christ in heaven rather than on earth, as in Daniel’s vision.

But the Daniel passage also suggests that some of the unrighteous dead (in Daniel’s case apostate Jews) would be raised to face, according to the LXX, shame and dispersion (diasporan). Again, some adjustments have to be made to fit this to Paul’s outlook, but I think we can say that what he had in mind was not “hell” but exclusion from the new social-religious-political order that would be replace classical paganism—in other words, exclusion from the concrete historical life of God’s people in the age to come.

Wrath, fury, tribulation and distress (thipsis kai stenochōria) are not post mortem pains. They define the suffering of a living people under divine judgment: “in your desperate straits and in your affliction (en tēi stenochōriai sou kai en tēi thlipsei sou) with which your enemy shall afflict you” (Deut. 28:53 LXX; cf. 28:55, 57); “they will look up to heaven above, and they will observe the earth below, but look: affliction and distress (thlipsis kai stenochōria) and darkness” (Is. 8:21–22). The exclusion and affliction of these opponents of God may have been everlasting, but that does not mean that individuals consciously suffered eternal torment in some metaphysical state after death.

@Andrew Perriman:

Of course Paul does not say that the consequence of unrepented sin is hell but rather death, which we can say is essentially exclusion from the age to come. I suppose the confusion has arisen since the two alternatives are eternal life and hell and since it is called eternal life it was assumed that hell was for ever. Might this be another example of neoplatonic thinking where these two places became a dichotomy and therefore equal and opposite. Everlasting bliss versus everlasting torment. This avoids the rather messy Biblical reality.