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.