Friday, August 9, 2019

The Second Death (Part Four)

The lake burning with divine?”

The fact that the lake of fire is said to be “burning with sulfur” is also thought by some to suggest that it should be understood figuratively rather than literally. Proponents of this position claim that, in light of its ancient religious usage, sulfur can be understood as symbolic of purification. The original literal meaning of the term – i.e., “divine” – is sometimes appealed to as well (with the lake of fire being understood to symbolize “divine purification”). The problem with this view is that, unless a few verses from Revelation are to be understood as the sole exceptions, we never find sulfur being referred to in Scripture as a symbol for the purification or refinement of sinners. And in Revelation the term translated “sulfur” is always used as a noun to refer to the literal chemical element (rather than as an adjective meaning “divine”).

Concerning this subject, A.E. Knoch wrote the following in his book, The Unveiling of Jesus Christ: 

It has been pressed that the lake of fire is a purging process, a disinfecting agency, calculated to rid the sinner of his sin and make him fit for God's presence. This, of course, is the purgatory of Roman Catholicism, with little modification. Its great fault lies in that it provides a substitute for the sufferings of ChristLet us be clear on this: no sufferings of the sinner can purge his sinsThat is accomplished solely by the sacrifice of Christ. Besides the sinner has been judged at the great white throne, so why continue the infliction for the whole of that tremendous eon?

The word theion, brimstone, sulfur, has been seized and given its literal signification, divine, to support the thought of a figurative lake of fire. But the word is always used as a noun in Scripture, and we are not warranted in the rendering divine fire. Literally it is of fire and divine, which makes no intelligible sense. The fact is that sulfur got its name from the religious use made of it in heathen lustrations. Fire and sulfur was supposed to be a purifying agent. Indeed, it is a good disinfectant, and is so used today.

Needless to say, the idolaters did not purify by plunging the person into fire and sulfur, nor did they even apply it to their bodies. Only one who has been burned by sulfur knows how malignant such a sore is. It seems to defy healing. The ancients assuredly did not purify by any such means. Their method was rather to sprinkle sulfur on a torch and carry the flame thrice around the place or person to be purified. Hence they called sulfur by the name divine. But no such thought is ever attached to it in the Scriptures. Sodom and Gomorrah were not purified by sulfur. They were condemned. We should never allow ourselves to be driven to such exigencies even if it be to support a precious doctrine. The truth needs no prop.

Whenever the judgment of human beings is said to involve “fire and sulfur,” the end result is the destruction of those with whom the fire and sulfur comes into contact. For example, in Luke 17:29 we read, “Yet on the day in which Lot came out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rains from heaven and destroys them all.” The fire and sulfur that God rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah did not, of course, begin to eternally torment the citizens of these cities. But neither did it begin to refine them and transform them into more godly, loving people. Rather, the fire and sulfur was intended by God to bring about their destruction. Any torment that the people of these cities suffered during this judgment would’ve been relatively brief, for its ultimate purpose was to bring their mortal existence on the earth to an end.

Interestingly, the first time that fire and sulfur are mentioned together in Revelation, they are said to be the means by which the death of the people exposed to them is brought about. In Rev. 9:13-18 we read the following:

And the sixth messenger trumpets. And I hear one voice out of the horns of the golden altar which is before God, saying to the sixth messenger who has the trumpet, “Loose the four messengers who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” And loosed were the four messengers, made ready for the hour, and day, and month, and year, that they should be killing a third of mankind. And the number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred millions-I hear their number. And thus I perceived the horses in the vision, and those sitting on them, having cuirasses fiery and amethystine and sulfurous; and the heads of the horses are as the heads of lions, and out of their mouths is issuing fire and fumes and sulfur. By these three calamities were killed a third of mankind: by the fire and the fumes and the sulfur which is issuing out of their mouths.

It may be objected that, in the next reference to fire and sulfur in Revelation, it’s associated with the torment (and not merely the death/destruction) of those exposed to it. Here is Rev. 14:8-11:

And another, a second messenger, follows, saying, "It falls! It falls! Babylon the great has made all nations drink of the wine of the fury of her prostitution!" And another, a third messenger, follows them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone is worshiping the wild beast and its image, and is getting an emblem on his forehead or on his hand, he, also, is drinking of the wine of the fury of God, blended undiluted in the cup of His indignation, and he shall be tormented in fire and sulfur in the sight of the holy messengers and in the sight of the Lambkin. And the fumes of their torment are ascending for the eons of the eons. And they are having no rest day and night, those worshiping the wild beast and its image, and if anyone is getting the emblem of its name.

It should be noted that, in the immediate context, the focus seems to be on those within Babylon who are “worshipping the wild beast and its image” (v. 8). In other words, it is the fate of those within this particular city that is in view. A comparison of this passage with what we read in Rev. 18 (which focuses on the destruction of Babylon) confirms this understanding. What we read in Rev. 18:1-10 should, I believe, make the connection between the above passage and the judgment of Babylon clear:

And I hear another voice out of heaven, saying, "Come out of her, My people, lest you should be joint participants in her sins, and lest you should be getting of her calamities, for her sins were piled up to heaven, and God remembers her injuries. "Pay her as she also pays, and double the doubles, in accord with her acts. In her cup in which she blends, blend double for her. As much as she glorifies herself and indulges, so much torment and mourning be giving her, for she is saying in her heart, 'I am sitting a queen, and am no widow, and mourning I may by no means see.' Therefore in one day shall her calamities be arriving; death and mourning and famine. And she shall be burned up with fire, for strong is the Lord God Who judges her. "And the kings of the earth, who commit prostitution and indulge with her, will be lamenting and grieving over her whenever they may be observing the smoke of her conflagration, standing afar off because of the fear of her torment, saying, 'Woe! Woe! that great city! Babylon, the strong city! for in one hour your judging came.'

Notice that, before God brings judgment upon Babylon, he first exhorts his people to come out of the city, so that they will not suffer the same fate as the rest of her citizens (who, presumably, are all worshippers of the wild beast and its image). Notice also that the judgment is said to involve not only death and destruction but also “torment.”[1]

We also read the following concerning the judgment of Babylon in the first three verses of chapter 19:

After these things I hear as it were the loud voice of a vast throng in heaven, saying, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power is of our God, for true and just is His judging, for He judges the great prostitute who corrupts the earth with her prostitution, and avenges the blood of His slaves at her hand." And a second time have they declared, "Hallelujah!" And her smoke is ascending for the eons of the eons.

Just as we’re told that the “fumes” of the torment of those worshipping the wild beast and its image will be “ascending for the eons of the eons” (Rev. 14:11), so we’re told in this passage that the smoke of Babylon will be “ascending for the eons of the eons.” In conjunction with the explicit reference to the fall of Babylon in Rev. 14:8, the strikingly similar language used in Rev. 14:11 and v. 3 above strongly implies that the worshippers of the wild beast referred to in Rev. 14:9-10 are the citizens of Babylon. This would mean that the fire-and-sulfur-caused torment referred to in Rev. 14:10 is that which will be suffered by the citizens of Babylon while the city is being destroyed (which means the torment of these worshippers of the beast should be understood as something that will precede their imminent destruction, and not as something that will literally continue “for the eons of the eons”). In other words, the torment that will be suffered by the wicked citizens of Babylon will be occurring while the city is being destroyed by fire and sulfur.

The Three Exceptions

For every human who is to be cast into the lake of fire, it will be, for them, the second death. That is, the lake of fire will be the place in which (and the means by which) those not found written in the scroll of life are executed (rather than tormented for any length of time). But what about the two entities referred to as the “wild beast” and “false prophet,” who are said to be the first entities that are to be cast into the lake of fire? For in Rev. 20:10, we’re told that these two entities – along with Satan himself – are going to be “tormented day and night for the eons of the eons.” If everyone else cast into the lake of fire is going to be destroyed, how is it that these three beings are going to be tormented while in the lake of fire? In order to understand how this will be the case, we need to have a better understanding of the nature of these three beings.

What I think every student of scripture can agree on is that these beings are described throughout Revelation as if they are conscious, intelligent entities. But are they simply being personified (like death and hades in Rev. 20:13-14)? This seems unlikely. First, it’s significant that, in contrast with the wild beast, the false prophet and Satan, death and hades are not said to be tormented in the lake of fire after being “cast” there. This fact suggests that, unlike death and hades, Satan and his companions should be understood as personal beings (and not merely impersonal things that are being personified by John).

Further support for this understanding is found in Rev. 19:17-20, where we read the following:

And I perceived another messenger, standing in the sun. And he cries with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which are flying in mid-heaven, “Hither! Be gathered for the great dinner of God, that you may be eating the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of the strong, and the flesh of horses and of those sitting on them, and the flesh of all freemen as well as slaves, and of small and of great.”

And I perceived the wild beast and the kings of the earth and their armies, gathered to do battle with Him Who is sitting on the horse and with His army. And the wild beast is arrested, and with it the false prophet who does the signs in its sight, by which he deceives those getting the emblem of the wild beast, and those worshiping its image. Living, the two were cast into the lake of fire burning with sulfur.

There’s no good reason to understand the “kings of the earth and their armies” referred to in these verses as anything other than literal individuals who will be “gathered to do battle with [Christ]” at the time of his return to earth. And since we’re told that the “wild beast” (and, apparently, the false prophet as well) will be accompanying these kings and armies at this time, it’s reasonable to understand the “wild beast” and the “false prophet” as individual, intelligent beings as well. However, in contrast with the “kings of the earth and their armies,” there is good reason to believe that the “wild beast” and “false prophet” are something other than mortal, flesh-and-blood beings.

Based on what we’re told elsewhere in Revelation, it would seem that these intelligent entities are actually non-human beings belonging to the same category of spiritual beings as Satan himself (see, for example, Rev. 11:7, 17:8 and 16:13-14). And this would put them in a separate category of beings than those who we’re told will be delivered from death and hades in order to be judged before God in Rev. 20:11-15.

At this point, some will object that a literal interpretation of the lake of fire forces us into a dilemma regarding the (eonian) destiny of the three beings who we’re told will be tormented in the lake of fire. Here, again, is L. Ray Smith:

“If the beast and false prophet are humans, then a real lake of fire would BURN THEM UP making it impossible for them to be tortured for ever and ever! If the beast and false prophet are supernatural, superhuman, or spirit in nature, then physical fire CANNOT HARM THEM in any way. So, if the fire is literal, it can serve NO useful purpose!”

In response to this objection, I must first point out that I am in complete agreement with Mr. Smith concerning the fact that the purpose of the lake of fire will not be to torture anyone “forever and ever.” Rather than being “forever and ever,” the torment of the wild beast, the false prophet and Satan is said to be (literally) “for the eons of the eons” (for more on this important subject, see my articles “The Translational Inaccuracy of “Forever and Ever and ”The Meaning of Aion in the New Testament”). But assuming that these beings will be unable to be physically harmed by the fire and sulfur with which this lake will be burning, how are we to account for their eonian torment?

I believe that their torment will be derived from the fact that their freedom (as they experienced it, at least) will have been greatly restricted, and that this state of affairs will be continuing for a long period of time (“for the eons of the eons”). Being incarcerated – and thus stripped of the great experiential freedom and influence they once enjoyed before being cast into the lake of fire – will be bad enough. But the relatively lengthy period of time during which they must remain incarcerated will likely be an equal (if not greater) source of torment for them. It would seem that Mr. Smith did not consider this possibility when he wrote that a literal lake of fire could “serve no useful purpose” for supernatural beings who couldn’t be harmed by the fire.

Based on the earliest reference to the lake of fire, then, we can conclude that it will be the location where certain wicked spiritual beings who will be playing a central role in the drama that is to unfold at the close of this eon will be incarcerated and chastised during the eons of Christ’s reign. Moreover, the non-human (and non-mortal) nature of Satan, the wild beast and the false prophet would also account for why the lake of fire is not referred to as “the second death” when they’re described as being cast into it. For these three beings, the lake of fire won’t be the second death (and we can therefore understand this fact as further confirmation that the lake of fire will result in the destruction/extermination of the humans cast into it, rather than their torment).

Some have wondered how these three beings can be tormented “day and night” in the lake of fire during the last eon when we’re told in Rev. 22:5 that “night shall be no more” during this time. There is no inconsistency here, for in Rev. 22:5 John was referring specifically to the conditions within the new Jerusalem (compare with Rev. 21:25). It is for those dwelling in the new Jerusalem that “night shall be no more,” and it is in this city that there shall be “no need of lamplight and sunlight.” John gives us the reason why this will be the case in 22:5: “the Lord God shall be illuminating” everyone who will be living in this city. This fact does not mean that day and night will not continue or be experienced by those living or travelling outside the walls of the city.

Moreover, we’re specifically told just three verses before (Rev. 22:2) that the “log of life” will be “producing twelve fruits, rendering its fruit in accord with each month.” “Each month” implies that day and night will continue during the final eon, since a “month” is a measure of time that corresponds to the period of the moon’s revolution (the CLNT Keyword Concordance defines “month” as “the period from one new moon to the next”). There will simply be no daily period of darkness (or “night”) in the new Jerusalem, since it will be continuously illuminated by the light radiating from God himself. However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of the earth (i.e., everywhere outside of the new Jerusalem) will be equally illuminated by God’s glory.

Thus, what we read in Rev. 22:5 concerning the duration of the torment of Satan, the wild beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire is perfectly consistent with their torment occurring during the last eon, and not terminating until the consummation (although it’s quite possible that one or more of these beings will be delivered from their state of torment in the lake of fire before the last eon concludes).

Cast into the lake of fire: cruel and unusual punishment?

I realize that some people – especially those among my believing brethren who affirm the truth of the salvation of all – may find it difficult to believe in a divine judgment that will involve living humans being cast into a literal lake of fire. How can we reconcile such a judgment with what we know of the loving and merciful character of our God and Father?

First, it needs to be kept in mind that we don’t know how, exactly, this event is going to unfold, since we haven’t been provided with much detail (for example, we’re not told who, exactly, is going to be casting people into the lake of fire).[2] We’re given just enough information to know that at least some who are to be judged at the great white throne will, after being judged, be cast into the lake of fire. Among the particulars not specified in this passage is whether or not those who are to be cast into the lake of fire will be conscious as they’re being executed. For all we know, God will cause them to lose consciousness sometime before they’re cast in. We simply don’t know.

But let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that those cast into the lake of fire will not lose consciousness before being cast into it. Let’s assume, in other words, that those not found written in the scroll of life will – after being judged – be brought to the lake “kicking and screaming,” and that they won’t lose consciousness until they die. Even if this is going to be the case, I’m not sure how this would be somehow inconsistent with what know of God and his past dealings with the wicked, as revealed in Scripture. Was God “cruel” when he drowned nearly every living human being (and land-dwelling animal) on earth by means of a flood? Was God “cruel” when he destroyed the inhabitants of several cities by means of raining fire and sulfur upon them? Was God “cruel” when, after having already brought nine terrible plagues upon the inhabitants of Egypt, he killed the firstborn of Egypt? Should these (and numerous other) instances of divine judgment involving both human suffering and the termination of human life be considered “cruel” and “out of character” for God?

What about every “natural” disaster and death that has occurred throughout human history? If God “is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) – and he is! – then God is the one who is ultimately and absolutely responsible for each and every death that has already occurred, no matter the circumstances or how young or old the person was when they died. In light of this fact, I’m not sure one could, with any consistency, argue that God’s having certain humans returned to a state of death by means of their being cast into a lake of fire is any more “cruel” or “less merciful” than everything God is already responsible for. If every human death that God is already ultimately responsible for shouldn’t be viewed by believers as cruel, then why can’t the same be said for any future termination of human life as well?

Moreover, in contrast with Satan, the wild beast and the false prophet, there is no indication that God will be casting mortal humans into the lake of fire to torment them. With regard to the humans whose names will not be found written in the scroll of life, the purpose of the lake of fire will clearly be to return them to a second state of lifelessness (it is, after all, referred to as the “second death”). So we have good reason to believe that, as far as humans go, there won’t be any life or consciousness occurring in this lake. That is, we have no reason to believe that any human being cast into the lake of fire will remain alive (even for a few seconds) after being cast into it. Instead, we can reasonably infer that the lake of fire will “do its job” by instantly returning those mortals who are to be cast into it to a state of lifelessness (rather than keeping them alive for any length of time).

[1] It may be objected that the torment of those referred to in Rev. 14:11 is described as if it will continue both “day and night,” while the judgment of Babylon is said to be of a shorter duration than this. However, in Rev. 18:8 we’re simply told that it’s “in one day” that Babylon’s calamities shall “be arriving.” Similarly, in v. 10 we’re told that the kings of the earth – while observing “the smoke of her conflagration” (and “standing afar off because of the fear of her torment”) – will say that Babylon’s judging came “in one hour.” But this is referring to the suddenness with which the judging of Babylon begins, and not the length of time during which those within the city are tormented (who we’re told will have “no rest day and night”).

[2] There is, however, scriptural precedent for believing that God’s holy angels/messengers could very well be the ones responsible for this task (there are numerous examples in scripture of angels/messengers functioning as “agents of judgment” on behalf of God; the following are just a few examples: Gen. 19:13; Psalm 78:49; Isaiah 37:36; Acts 12:22-23; Matt. 13:49-50; 2 Thess. 1:7).

No comments:

Post a Comment