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Eternal Torment?

Forerunner, "Ready Answer," April 1996

It is the stuff of nightmares and horror films. Dark clouds hang low and bits of writhing fog slither past. The land, the sky—everything—glows a pale red, the reflection of the fires raging on a huge crater of burning brimstone. The odor of sulfur mingles with the acrid stench of charred flesh. Screams of pain and anguish occasionally drown out the pitiful weeping and the angry blasphemies echoing all around. The biblical Lake of Fire makes Hollywood horror films seem like B-movies.

Since the apostle John experienced the prophecies of the book of Revelation in the late first century, this image has fascinated people. Hell, Hades, Gehenna, the Lake of Fire and similar places of eternal torment have often been the subject of books, poetry, art, philosophy—even humor. Parents and clergy have used it as a threat to pull offenders back into line, while others have even considered it comforting that the "bad guys" will get justice in the end.

Much of this imagery derives from Revelation 19:20 and 20:10, 14-15, where the Lake of Fire is specifically mentioned. This burning lake as a place of final punishment seems straightforward until Revelation 20:10. This verse seems to describe the Lake of Fire as a place where God torments people forever. This raises a few questions: 1) If the Beast and False Prophet are mortal men, why are they still alive after the Millennium when Satan is cast into the Lake of Fire? 2) If they are mortals, how can they "be tormented day and night forever and ever" in an inferno that would soon consume them? 3) What kind of God would devise such a "cruel and unusual" punishment?

Is Man's Soul Immortal?

Before we answer these questions, we must briefly consider whether man has an immortal soul. Our understanding of the Scriptures compels us to maintain that he does not for several reasons:

» Job recognized that man has a spirit (Job 32:8), which Paul shows in I Corinthians 2:11 endows humanity with intellect. This spirit in man comes from God (Zechariah 12:1) and returns to Him when we die (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Acts 7:59). It records our lives, character and personality, which God stores until the resurrection of the dead. However, the Bible never describes this spirit as immortal or eternal; in fact, I Corinthians 2:6-16 explains that man needs yet another Spirit, God's, to be complete and discern godly things.

» The Bible flatly asserts that all people die: "It is appointed for men to die once" (Hebrews 9:27). Ezekiel says clearly that souls die: "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20; see Romans 6:23). Jesus warns in Matthew 10:28 that God can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

» In death, life and consciousness are gone. "The dead know nothing," says Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:5, and he later adds, "There is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" (verse 10). In Psalm 146:4, the psalmist writes about a man's death, "His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish" (see Genesis 3:19).

» Scripture also confutes the idea that people go to heaven or hell after death. Peter says to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. . . . For David did not ascend into the heavens" (Acts 2:29, 34). Our Savior confirms this in John 3:13: "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven." The biblical usage of Sheol and Hades simply means "the grave."

» Men cannot have immortality unless God gives it to them. Paul writes, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). In I Corinthians 15:53 he tells the saints, "This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." At the first resurrection God will give "eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality" (Romans 2:7). If we already had immortality, why should we put it on or seek it?

» Only God has immortality. He is, Paul writes to Timothy, ". . . the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality" (I Timothy 6:15-16). John says of the Word, "In Him was life" (John 1:4), meaning as Creator of all things (verse 3), He had life inherent. Jesus affirms this in John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Men must go through Him to receive eternal life.

With such overwhelming proof, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul proves false. Man is not immortal, nor does he possess any "spark of God" unless God has given it to him through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11). A Christian's hope of life after death rests in the resurrection of the dead (I Corinthians 15:12-23). Conversely, the wicked only await eternal death as recompense for their evil lives.

The Time Factor

To understand Revelation 20:10 correctly, we must put it into its proper chronological context. Once we know when it occurs, much of the confusion about this verse clears up.

Though only twelve verses separate Revelation 19:20 from 20:10, one thousand years pass between their respective events. The Beast and the False Prophet are cast into the Lake of Fire when Christ returns (Revelation 19:11-21). Soon thereafter, an angel imprisons Satan in the bottomless pit for the thousand years of the Millennium (Revelation 20:1-3). When the thousand years pass, Satan is released, and he gathers Gog and Magog to fight against the saints (verses 7-9). After God defeats this futile attempt, He casts Satan, a spirit being, into the Lake of Fire to be tormented forever and ever (verse 10).

Obviously, the flames of the Lake of Fire totally consume mortal men like the Beast and False Prophet. In no way could they survive a thousand years of burning! The laws of nature simply will not allow it.

The translators of the King James and New King James versions render the final clause of the first sentence as "where the beast and the false prophet are." The present-tense verb "are" is not in the Greek; it is an understood verb. In English grammar, such silent verbs take the same tense as the verb in the main clause of the sentence. The translators ignored this rule, however. The primary verb of the sentence, "was cast" (an aorist verb usually translated as simple past tense), demands that the silent verb should be "were cast" (past tense) to agree with the plural subject, "the beast and the false prophet."

Deceived by the false doctrine of the immortal soul, the translators had to deny nature and break the rules to make this verse fit their understanding! On the other hand, we can confidently assert that our teaching agrees with Scripture, nature and grammar!

Who Is Tormented?

Before the explosion of modern translations, the final sentence of Revelation 20:10 roused no one's skepticism. But the newer versions bring out the fact that the verb here (basanisthesontai) is plural and is correctly rendered "they will be tormented." Who are "they"? Does this indeed include the Beast and False Prophet? Does God torment the wicked eternally? There are two ways to explain these questions:

1) We have already seen that the Bible denies any idea of men having an innate immortality. These wicked leaders of men in the last days will die and burn to ashes soon after being thrust into the Lake of Fire, their souls and bodies destroyed by Him who is able to do this in Gehenna fire (Matthew 10:28). This fact would exclude any human from being described as "tormented day and night forever and ever."

The only group left is the fallen angels—Satan and his demons. Jesus says in Luke 20:36, "Nor can [a resurrected saint] die anymore, for they are equal to the angels." Created spirit beings, angels, cannot die! Earlier, Satan was bound in the bottomless pit, but after his subsequent rebellion, God decides that eternal torment in the Lake of Fire is a just punishment for one so evil. If men choose not to repent, God can mercifully snuff out their existence. Fallen angels, however, must live eternally with the consequences of their sins.

But, one may counter, "the devil" in Revelation 20:10 is singular, and "they will be tormented" is plural. How is this reconciled? In this case, "the devil" is used in a figure of speech called metonymy. Technically, it is "the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated." More simply, one part of a thing represents the whole. Thus, "the devil" represents in himself all of the group we call demons, devils, fallen angels, angels that sinned, etc.

A parallel verse in Matthew 25:41 says that sinners will be cast into "the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." This shows that the Lake of Fire's primary purpose is for the eternal torment of demons, but it will also be used as the means of execution for the wicked among humans. While men will be completely annihilated, the unkillable demons will simply suffer.

2) If we understand "they will be tormented" to include the Beast and the False Prophet, we must explain the phrase "forever and ever" (eis tous aionas ton aionon). Literally, this means "to the ages of the ages," and would seem to imply perpetuity. However, we must be careful with the word aion. Its range of meaning runs from "a space or period of time" to "a lifetime" to "an age" to "eternity." As in all such cases, the context must give the sense.

Having rejected the immortality of the soul, we have no recourse but to understand aion here in the sense of "as long as conditions exist" or "as long as they live." Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words concurs:

AION . . . signifies a period of indefinite duration, or time viewed in relation to what takes place in the period. . . . The phrases containing this word should not be rendered literally, but consistently with its sense of indefinite duration. (p. 43)

Thus, the Beast and False Prophet will be tormented forever until they die, probably within a few minutes or a few hours. The demons, however, not able to die, will suffer torment without end, receiving a cruel fate that is just payment for their deceptions and murders throughout history.

The Perfect Judge

This scenario illustrates God's mercy and justice working together. Humans who reject God get their deserved eternal punishment—death—but it is swift. God made man of dust so his existence could be permanently erased, and he would not have to suffer endlessly the penalty of his transgressions.

On the other hand, the fallen angels, who originated the evil by which men are deceived and lost, receive everlasting torment without mercy. Made of spirit and given powers and gifts beyond human imagination, they have more natural ability to choose to follow God and produce righteousness. Their failure demands a harsher punishment (Luke 12:47-48).

Our Savior is the great Judge of all (II Timothy 4:1). His judgments are perfect; He demonstrates perfect justice and mercy at all times. Though the punishments that the wicked and the demons receive are ghastly, they fit the crimes. As Christ's disciples, we can look forward to an eternity of peace and security, of never-ending joy and growth because He will remove all evil from the domains of the sons of God. As Peter writes, let us diligently live holy and godly lives, hastening the coming of that day (II Peter 3:11-12, 14)!

[The following story from the Associated Press appeared in The Charlotte Observer on January 18, 1996.]

Inset: Hell not torment for eternity but non-being

LONDON—A Church of England commission has rejected the idea of hell as a place of fire, pitchforks and screams of unending agony.

Instead, hell is annihilation for all who reject the love of God.

"Christians have professed appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster and left searing psychological scars on many," said a report by the church's Doctrine Commission, titled "The Mystery of Salvation."

"There are many reasons for this change, but amongst them have been the moral protest from both within and without the Christian faith against a religion of fear, and a growing sense that the picture of a God who consigned millions to eternal torment was far removed from the revelation of God's love in Christ," the report said.

"Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completelely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being."

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Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Part Two)