Just in time for Halloween

It is my belief that Revelation’s Lake of Fire/Fiery Sulfur was never intended to be read as an actual geographic location (even in the spiritual realm), but was a colorful apocalyptic image meant to depict and dramatize final termination of various sorts, including punishment. The key indicator of this is that the sulfur imagery and its concomitant punishment is not shown with much internal consistency. We need to look at the three references to this lake.

The first time it’s mentioned in 19.20 it’s only the beast and false prophet who are thrown “alive” into it, in obvious contrast to all the people who were killed by “the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider of the horse” and were devoured as carrion (v. 21). Do note that if too fine a point is put upon it, this contradicts 14.9-11, which calls for those deceived to also receive torment with fire and sulfur, which scholars usually take to be borrowing imagery from Sodom’s destruction in sulfur and fire in Gen 19.24. Note here that if the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, a definitive punishment thought to be so complete as to have left almost no trace, was indeed being alluded to, then using that imagery to refer to eternally continuing punishment in Revelation would be a somewhat foreign, counterintuitive intrusion.

Then in 20.10, the devil is thrown into the Lake of Fiery Sulfur along with the beast and false prophet, where “They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever,” the only explicit reference to eternal conscious torment in the Bible, used specifically of the unholy trinity. But then again, given Revelation’s over-the-top and sometimes melodramatic imagery and expressions, even this may be a bit of hyperbole. Note that here again, the humans involved receive a different fate: they are devoured by heavenly fire (no sulfur mentioned).

Finally, in 20.14-15, we find our first and only example of the Lake of Fire being used for humanity. Jesus’ statement in Mat 25.41 that those on his left would be sent to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” corresponds well with this passage, in which those whose names were not found in the Lamb’s book of life would be thrown into the Lake of Fire. But how can this be a reference to eternal conscious torment, when even things that have never been conscious, namely “death and Hades”, are thrown in alongside? Are we to assume that death and Hades (Sheol) suffer for eternity? For that matter, even when personified, what’s Sheol done wrong? It served its purpose, and we’re never given any indication that this purpose is at odds with God’s purposes. So why is it being punished and tormented? I can anticipate the objection, “Well, you can’t be too literal here,” but that’s exactly my point: to be “thrown into the Lake of Fire” is not a literal description of anyone’s fate. It means simply to be consumed and to cease to exist, as happens with anything else that is burned. Now, I grant that the following is highly speculative, but notice that this is the only instance where it is called “the Lake of Fire” instead of “the Lake of Fiery Sulfur”; what if the sulfur aspect was omitted in this instance because, unlike the other two instances, there was no aspect of torture to highlight (the foul, noxious fumes of burning sulfur are legendary)?

So a brief recap: the devil, beast, and false prophet are the only ones said to be tormented day and night for ever and ever, and this is just as likely to be hyperbolic as the other imagery of Revelation. The “Lake of Fire/Fiery Sulfur” was a multipurpose apocalyptic picture of termination that, considering the various types of things being thrown into it, was given more than one meaning within the three passages in which it is mentioned. Revelation can be used to defend eternal conscious torment only when literalized in a way most expositors find uncomfortable elsewhere in the book, and even then it requires a leap of logic from the unholy trinity receiving it to all the ungodly receiving it.

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