by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
It is the stuff of nightmares and horror films.
Dark clouds hang low, and bits of smokey fog writhe 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.
Ever since the apostle John experienced the visions 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 the justice they deserve 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 ostensibly describes the Lake of Fire as a place where God torments people forever. This assumption raises three questions:
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?
Before answering these questions, we must briefly consider whether human beings have an immortal soul. For several biblical reasons, our understanding of the Scriptures compels us to maintain that they do not:
1. Job recognizes that man has a spirit (Job 32:8), which the apostle 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 upon death (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Acts 7:59). It records an individual’s life, 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 to discern godly things. According to Ecclesiastes 3:21, animals also have a spirit, “which goes down to the earth,” suggesting that it ceases to exist at the animal’s death.
2. The Bible flatly asserts that all people die: “[I]t is appointed for men to die once” (Hebrews 9:27). Ezekiel says distinctly 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, a type of the Lake of Fire.
3. In death, life and consciousness are gone. “The dead know nothing,” says Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:5, and he later adds, “[T]here 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 men’s death, “His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish” (see Genesis 3:19).
4. 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 pit” or “the grave.”
5. 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; emphasis ours throughout). In I Corinthians 15:53 he tells the saints, “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”; that is, immortality is not inherent in us. 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 seek it?
6. 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.” In other words, humans must go through Him to receive eternal life.
With such overwhelming proof, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, believed by so many, 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 elapse 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 afterward, a strong angel imprisons Satan in the bottomless pit for the thousand years of the Millennium (Revelation 20:1-3). When the thousand years are about to 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 the Devil, a spirit being, into the Lake of Fire to “be tormented forever and ever” (verse 10).
Obviously, the flames of the Lake of Fire will utterly consume mortal men like the Beast and False Prophet. The apostle Peter describes the end-time fire as an all-devouring holocaust: “[T]he elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (II Peter 3:10). In no way could the Beast and False Prophet survive a thousand years of such high-temperature 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 of Revelation 20:10 as “where the beast and the false prophet are.” The present-tense verb “are” is not in the Greek text; 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 understood verb should be “were [cast]” (past tense) to agree with the plural subject “the beast and the false prophet.”
Deceived by the unbiblical 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. However, the newer versions bring out the fact that the verb here (basanisthēsontai) is plural and is correctly rendered “they will be tormented.” Who are “they”? Does this include the Beast and False Prophet? Does God torment wicked human beings eternally? There are two ways to explain these questions:
1) We have already seen that the Bible denies any idea of men having 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 can do this in Gehenna fire (Matthew 10:28). This fact would preclude 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. But, one may counter, “the devil” in Revelation 20:10 is singular, and “they will be tormented” is plural. How can we reconcile this plural pronoun referring to a singular antecedent?
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, or angels who sinned.
A parallel verse, Matthew 25:41, says that sinners will be cast into “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Jesus intimates that the Lake of Fire’s primary purpose is for the punishment of demons, but it will also be used as the means of execution for the wicked among humans, those people who unrepentantly live as demons do.
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 aiônas tôn aiônôn). Literally, this means “to the ages of the ages” and would seem to imply perpetuity. However, we must be careful with the word aiôn and its various forms. 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 aiôn 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)
Moreover, aiôn can also be rendered as “unto the ages of ages,” “until the eternal age,” or even “up to the vanishing point”! As should be plain, a precise definition of this Greek word proves extremely difficult. Dogmatism on it is not advisable.
Thus, the Beast and False Prophet will be tormented “day and night”—unceasingly—for an indeterminate period until they die, probably within a few minutes or a few hours, which is about as long as a human being can live in a fire. As long as they remain breathing, they will suffer excruciating pain as their just reward, and in an indefinite time, they will pay for their sins with death.
What About the Demons?
If we accept that “they will be tormented” refers to Satan and his demonic followers, we must also accept that “forever and ever” may not necessarily imply that these once-angelic creatures will suffer torture and pain eternally. True, Jesus does say in Luke 20:36, “Nor can [resurrected saints] die anymore, for they are equal to the angels,” which some assume means that both godly angels and sinful demons possess eternal life. However, Jesus—or for that matter, the Bible—never explicitly makes such a statement. Our Savior may be referring only to those angels who remain His faithful servants, to whom He has granted continuing life.
Regarding “the angels who sinned” (II Peter 2:4), the Bible asserts that “God did not spare” them, meaning that He has not pardoned their sins, just delayed their punishment. The verse goes on to say that, in the meantime, He has “cast them down to hell [tartaroo] and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.”
E.W. Bullinger writes that their prison, Tartarus, “is not Sheol or Hades, . . . [but] denotes the bounds or verge of this material world” (A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, “hell,” p. 370). Tartarus, then, is a holding place—this material world—where the demons are awaiting their final judgment. Their ultimate penalty is not “chains of darkness” or “everlasting chains under darkness” (Jude 6), but something far more permanent to be rendered in “the judgment of the great day.” This appointed time of judgment still awaits them (see Matthew 8:29).
As mentioned above, Paul writes unambiguously that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God also says in Ezekiel 18:4, 20, “The soul who sins shall die.” Scripture does not stipulate that this applies only to humans (soul means “living being”—even God is a soul; see Leviticus 26:11, 30; Isaiah 1:14; Jeremiah 6:8; Zechariah 11:8; Matthew 12:18; Hebrews 10:38; etc.), nor does God’s Word ever say that sin can be paid for by a lengthy, even eternal, imprisonment (as many speculate will be the demons’ fate). According to these verses, all sin requires death for expiation, and since the Bible does not indicate that demons will repent of their sins and accept Jesus Christ’s death to pay for their transgressions, only their own deaths will cover their many terrible sins.
So, can demons die? The evidence of Scripture does not disallow it. Indeed, Ezekiel 28:11-19—a well-known passage describing Satan’s origins, character, rebellion, and fate—prophesies in verses 18-19:
Therefore [because of your iniquities] I brought fire from your midst; it devoured you, and I turned you to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all who saw you. All who knew you among the peoples are astonished at you; you have become a horror, and shall be no more forever.
Many people believe this applies to a physical “king of Tyre” referenced in verse 11, but the context describing the one who became Satan—“the anointed cherub who covers” (verse 14), who was “the seal of perfection” (verse 12) and “in Eden, the garden of God” (verse 13)—continues without interruption through verse 19. Taken at face value, this passage tells us that God, who created the angels who chose to sin, can extinguish their lives through an annihilating fire. Trying to explain verses 18-19 as a metaphor for Satan and his demons being imprisoned in darkness forever makes a mockery of their plain sense. In fact, the words of Ezekiel 28 sound amazingly like death in the Lake of Fire.
(For more complete information on this subject, please see “Do Angels Live Forever?” by John W. Ritenbaugh in the January-February 2017 issue of Forerunner.)
Thus, if those suffering torment in Revelation 20:10 are Satan and the demons, they, too, will experience the torture and excruciating pain of the fervent heat of the Lake of Fire. Perhaps with them, being composed of spirit, it will last for a longer, though still indeterminate, time before they expire. The Bible’s use of aiôn makes the length of their torment vague. Perhaps they will suffer some form of torment while imprisoned in the abyss (see Isaiah 24:21-23). In any case, we can understand their torment “day and night forever and ever” to indicate unstinting thoroughness—that God will not shirk in giving them the most painful and complete punishment, as they rightfully deserve.
The Perfect Judge
Our Savior is the great Judge of all (II Timothy 4:1). His judgments are flawless; He demonstrates perfect justice and mercy at all times. Though the punishments that the wicked and the demons will receive may seem ghastly, they fit their crimes. There is no unrighteousness with God (Romans 9:14).
As Christ’s disciples, resurrected to eternal life in God’s Kingdom, we will be able to look forward to an eternity of peace and security, of never-ending joy and growth, because He will have removed all evil from the universe. Peter tells us that once God purifies all things, only righteousness will dwell in the new heavens and new earth (II Peter 3:13). There will be no taint of sin anywhere in creation, which can be true only if God has completely erased the existence of all sin and all sinners, including the Adversary and his demons.
As Peter writes in the same passage, we must soberly consider God’s perfect judgment for sin and His wrath against it. We are living through our time of judgment right now, and falling away and falling under God’s wrath are still possibilities if we fail “to make [our] call and election sure” (II Peter 1:10). Knowing God’s perfect judgment should spur us to live holy and godly lives, “hastening the coming of the day of God” (II Peter 3:11-12, 14).