The smoke of their torment

9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a great voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand,

10 he also will drink from the wine of the anger of God, mixed unmixed in the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented in fire and sulphur before holy angels and before the lamb;

11 and the smoke of their torment rises for an age of ages, and they do not have rest day and night, those worshipping the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.

I suggested recently in a discussion about the supposed “hell” passages in the New Testament that Revelation 14:9-11 is arguably the “only passage in the whole of scripture that speaks of an endless torment of ordinary people”. The language and context of the passage, however, make it abundantly clear that what John is describing here is not a place of punishment for the godless after death but—in symbolic terms—the consequences of an impending, this worldly judgment on pagan Rome. This is apparent both from the immediate context (the three angels of 14:6-11) and from its relation to the account of judgment on “Babylon the great” in Revelation 18.

The three angels

The first angel proclaims an “everlasting gospel” or a “gospel of the age” to “those sitting (kathēmenous) on the earth”, to “every nation and tribe and language and people”. The use of kathēmenous may imply specifically a people “sitting” under judgment (cf. Is. 9:8 LXX v.l.; Jer. 32:29 LXX; Matt. 4:16; Lk. 1:79; 21:35). This is not a “gospel” of personal salvation. It is an announcement to the nations that the hour of God’s judgment has come; it is a call to the pagan world, in effect, to abandon idolatry (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10) and to worship the God “who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water”.

This is exactly what Paul asserts in rather different terms in Romans 1:18-23: the wrath of God is revealed against a religious system that disregarded the natural evidence for a Creator and chose instead to worship images of created things. This is an impending judgment: in the foreseeable future God will overthrow this obsolescent system in the same way that he overthrew the Assyrians or the Babylonians.

The words of the second angel make it clear that this is at heart a judgment on Rome: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, who gave all the nations to drink from the wine of the passion (thymou) of her immorality” (14:8). These are not, therefore, all the peoples of the whole earth throughout history: it is the nations that have participated in the immorality of the city of Rome—the kings who “committed sexual immorality” with her, the merchants who “became wealthy through the power of her sensuality” (18:3).

The third angel warns that those who worship the “beast and its image” will “drink from the wine of the anger (thymou) of God… and… will be tormented (basanisthēsetai) in fire and sulphur before holy angels and before the lamb; and the smoke of their torment (basanismou) rises for an age of ages, and they do not have rest day and night, those worshipping the beast and its image…” (14:9-11).

The fall of “Babylon the great”

What the angels predict in chapter 14 is described at length in the vision of the fall of “Babylon the great” in chapter 18. Here it is again stated that all the nations “have drunk from the wine of the passion of her immorality” (18:3). God’s people are called to “come out of her… lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (18:4). To the same measure that pagan imperial Rome “glorified herself and lived in sensuality”, she will suffer “torment (basanismon) and mourning” (18:7). Her plagues will come “in a single day”: “death and mourning and starvation”; and “she will be burned up in fire”. This will be the “judgment” of the mighty God of Israel on the corrupt and idolatrous city of Rome (18:8).

Then the “kings of the earth” who participated in the immorality of Rome will “weep and mourn over her when they see the smoke of her burning”. They will “stand far off out of fear of her torment (basanismou), saying, “Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city, because in a single hour your judgment has come” (18:9-10).

Finally, when the judgment of Rome is celebrated in heaven, it is again stated that the “smoke from her rises for an age of ages” (19:3).

The smoke of their torment

The “eternal conscious torment” that is described in Revelation 14:10-11, therefore, belongs firmly within an apocalyptically constructed narrative of divine judgment on the corrupt pagan city of Rome. As I noted before:

It is one apocalyptic detail amid the garish apocalyptic symbolism of John’s visionary account of judgment against Rome: one like a son of man sits on a cloud and orders an angel to swing his sickle and reap the harvest of the earth, and the “blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia” (14:14-20 ESV).

Devotees of Rome’s bestial imperialism are tormented by the same “fire and sulphur” with which other corrupt cities were destroyed, Sodom and Gomorrah being the archetypes (cf. Gen. 19:24; Deut. 29:23; Is. 30:33; 3 Macc. 2:5). Significantly, Jude 7 speaks of the historical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as a “punishment of eternal (aiōniou) fire”. Judgment on Edom, on a “day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion”, will be with fire and sulphur: “Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up for ever” (Is. 34:8-10 ESV).

There is an underlying historical realism to these narratives of divine wrath that must be allowed to define the nature of the torment: worshippers of the beast suffer within the context of a decisive judgment on pagan Rome; they drink from the same cup of God’s anger; the “smoke of their torment”, which rises for ever and ever, is the smoke of Rome’s torment, which rises for ever and ever. None of this is located beyond death; apocalyptic speaks of the material and mundane fate of cities, peoples, tribes, nations, civilizations.

Andrew, great comment as ever. (Would you be interested in writing a Grove booklet on what the Bible says about hell and judgement...?)



I had noticed that this language seemed to mean something other that how I had understood it when I was reading the Book of Isaiah where the land is scorched forever by fire. It made me pause and rethink how this language is used in the Book of Revelation. While I am not sure if I follow all your conclusions I do think you have pointed out something very important. 

peter wilkinson | Fri, 04/01/2011 - 17:53 | Permalink

Andrew - I think this is an over-enthusiastic exclusive identification of Babylon with 1st century Rome. Various other features of your interpretation puzzle me too.

I am puzzled about kathēmenous. Without having my Greek interlinear NT at hand to check it, Strongs gives sitting (dwells, live) verse 6, as from the verb katoikeo, which means to house permanently, reside, dwell. It is not related to sitting or judgement words.

If this is correct, the 'eternal (aiōnios - perpetual, eternal, everlasting) gospel' is not to be understood as judgement, which is about to come, but freedom from judgement.

Unless we have reason to think otherwise, the Babylon of 14:8 is the same Babylon of Revelation 17-18. While the term 'Babylon' does encourage an association with 1st century Rome, it does not necessitate an exclusive association. Babylon is also associated with Jerusalem: the purple, scarlet, gold and precious stones of the woman's dress (18:4) echoing the gold, purple, scarlet and precious stones of the High Priest's ephod and breastpiece in Exodus 39:2-14, which had become in later days the emblems of a corrupt priesthood. "The great city" in Revelation 11:8, "figuratively called Sodom and Egypt", is associated not in the first place with Babylon as Rome, but with Jerusalem, where the two witnesses have just been killed. Elsewhere in Revelation, it always Babylon that is dscribed as 'great'.

Apocalyptic symbolism encourages us to view Babylon as a type of Jerusalem, Rome, all cities as symbols of unregenerate mankind pursuing a worldly agenda, and ultimately the overthrow of the world system underlying that agenda, which is prefigured every time "the Word of God" - Revelation 19:13 (identifying closely Jesus as the Word of God - John 1;1,14, with "the word of God" as the gospel preached - throughout Acts and the letters) speaks as "a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations". It will also be the spoken "word of God" as the final triumph of Jesus over all opposing systems and people. The evangelion always has a double-edged effect - of freedom for those who receive it, and judgement for those who do not. It always brings redemption and judgement.

There is no overriding reason to limit Revelation 14:8, or any other reference to Babylon in Revelation, exclusively to the imperial city of Rome, although 14:8 would have been a particular encouragement to believers suffering Roman persecution, as an assurance of the ultimate and possibly imminent downfall of their persecutors.

The appeal to faithful followers of Jesus to "Come out of her (Babylon) - so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues" - Revelation 18:4, had obvious relevance to believers in Jerusalem in the Jewish wars, when they literally removed themselves from the city to escape the siege. The appeal may also be taken figuratively, as a message to believers in Rome and the Roman Empire not to identify themselves with the sins of Rome. The appeal is also a message to believers at all times, to have a different agenda for their lives than the self-seeking systems of the societies and nations in which they live, ultimately that of all societies, metaphorically described as Babylon.

Your interpretation of Revelation 14 allows for a mixture of historical realism and "garish apocalyptic symbolism".  This would equally apply to 17-19. The question then really is where does historical realism end and apocalyptic symbolism begin? Symbolism implies a representation of something, and not just the provision of a theatrical backdrop for dramatic effect only. This applies to the references to "everlasting torment" in 14:10 and 11. Who is to make the call that "everlasting torment" is only a way of describing the immediate distress of those about to experience destruction in the 1st-4th centuries? I'm keeping my interpretation open, just in case.

Peter, you’re writing more on this blog than I am.

The point about “sitting” was that the word appears to be used commonly in contexts where it speaks of a people under judgment or under straitened circumstances.

If this is correct, the ‘eternal… gospel’ is not to be understood as judgement, which is about to come, but freedom from judgement.

“Gospel” in Revelation is not necessarily the same as “gospel” elsewhere. In 10:7 the reference is to an announcement of judgment. In 14:6-7 the angel explicitly makes it announcement of coming judgment on the nations. People are not called to repent and believe in Jesus but to fear God, give him glory, worship the creator. Nothing about freedom from judgment. It is modern evangelicalism that has taught us to think that “gospel” always and everywhere means a gospel of personal salvation through Jesus Christ.

Apocalyptic symbolism encourages us to view Babylon as a type of Jerusalem, Rome, all cities as symbols of unregenerate mankind pursuing a worldly agenda…

Of course, that’s how it appears from our perspective. But John was speaking about the particular “Babylon” which was Rome. The symbolic connection with the city is detailed; the usage is well established in Jewish apocalypticism of the period. There is no need to push the argument beyond the natural historical frame of reference of the early church. I think it’s unlikely that John was also thinking of Jerusalem at this point, but if he was, that would only reinforce my general hermeneutic point, which is that Revelation addresses the immediate eschatological crisis facing the churches in Asia Minor and perhaps across Europe generally.

That’s all I have time for right now. I’m off to Damascus.

Andrew - off to Damascus - seems appropriate?

Sitting (under judgement). The word isn't used in Revelation 14:6, is it?

Gospel - evangelion means good news. In Revelation 10:7, the bad news is judgement on God's enemies, but the good news is that "the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he wil reign for ever and ever" - Revelation 11:15 (the seventh trumpet). This is "the mystery of God (that) will be accomplished" - Revelation 10:7.

The gospel in 14:7 must be the opportunity for those to whom it is proclaimed not to come under the judgement which is about to fall on Babylon. It's nothing to do with modern evangelicalism - it is to do with the consistent meaning of words.

The symbolic connection of Babylon with Rome in Revelation has always been in question. We are not in a position to read John's mind about his intentions. We can only judge from the way language is used, and whether history bore out the force of the apocalyptic symbolism. There is at least as good a case for saying that the fall of Babylon implied more than events which scarcely reflected the magnitude of this catastrophe in the years immediately following the prophecy.

I'm not really disagreeing with you; I'm mainly using these posts to clarify what I think. This is what I think.



The gospel in 14:7 must be the opportunity for those to whom it is proclaimed not to come under the judgement which is about to fall on Babylon. It’s nothing to do with modern evangelicalism - it is to do with the consistent meaning of words.

But the understanding of “gospel” that we find in modern evangelicalism would not normally include the thought that the announcement is made to the pagan world and to Rome in particular that God is about to judge this civilization and install his Son as king. The element of judgment is inseparable from the “gospel” (cf. Rom. 2:16). But the real issue here is the level at which this proclamation is made. Is it to individuals or is it to a society? Is it an announcement about personal salvation? Or is it an announcement about political-religious transformation—to which individuals must respond appropriately?

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