When Christ returns, only God’s people will receive eternal life.

This is an article in the series on Death, Eternal Life, and Eternal Torment.

SUMMARY

In the traditional view, all people have immortal souls and
the unrepentant will suffer torment in hell forever. In contrast, this article shows that the unrepentant will not suffer eternally but die an eternal death. In other words, people do not have immortal souls and do not have eternal life inherently. This is justified as follows:

THE APOSTLE PAUL

Paul taught as follows:

(1) Only God’s people will receive eternal life (e.g., Rom 2:5-8).

God promises to give eternal life ONLY when Jesus returns and ONLY to those who persevere in doing good (Rom 2:7). This means that people are not currently or inherently immortal. It also means that the unrepentant will not become immortal, which implies that they will die.

(2) Paul never wrote that sinners will suffer in hell for eternity.

He does NOT use the word “hell” even once. Rather:

(3) Paul consistently warns the unrepentant that they will die.

For example, “if you are living according to the flesh, you must die” (Rom 8:13) or “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

(4) Paul contrasted this death with eternal life (e.g., Rom 6:23). 

In other words, the death that these people will die is not the temporary death that faces all people, but an eternal death; that awful and irreversible death which only the unrepentant will suffer, which Revelation refers to as “the second death.”

JESUS CHRIST

Jesus warned about “the fiery hell” – “the unquenchable fire,” “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”  This is often understood to mean that the wicked will be tormented eternally.  What people often do not realize is that Jesus quoted these words from Isaiah 66:24, which explicitly refers to “the corpses of the men.” In other words, it is a symbol of death; not of eternal life in torment. 

To explain: In ancient times people sometimes destroyed corpses by fire, but when wood was in short supply, the body might not be fully consumed. And due to the hot, dry conditions, the corpse sometimes dried up and the worms died before the corpse was fully consumed. 

In contrast, Jesus said that the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” because God will destroy the body and soul in hell (Matt 10:28). These beings will be completely annihilated.

REVELATION

In Revelation, “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:15) “where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10, 15) “and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev 14:9-11). 

This article shows that this is symbolic language:

    • Revelation is a book of symbols.
    • The beast is not a person that can be tormented.
    • They will be tormented in the presence of the Lamb (Rev 14:10). Literally interpreted, this means that Jesus Christ will remain forever in hell.
    • Babylon’s smoke will also go “up forever and ever,” but she is not a person.
    • The lake of fire is twice explained as “the second death.” 

– END OF SUMMARY – 


THE APOSTLE PAUL

ETERNAL LIFE

Immortality and eternal life, according to Romans 2:5-8, is not something that people already have but is something which God, on “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom 2:5), “will render to those who by perseverance in doing good” (Rom 2:7)

The following are further indications that people do not yet have immortality, and that only believers will receive eternal life:

 “We believe in Him FOR eternal life“ (1 Tim 1:16).

We are heirs according to the HOPE of eternal life“ (Titus 3:7).

“Take hold of the eternal life
to which you were CALLED
“ (1Tim 6:12).

“God … PROMISED eternal life long ages ago” (Titus 1:2).

Since eternal life is promised only to those who persevere in doing good (Rom 2:7), such verses imply that “those who obey unrighteousness” (Rom 2:8) will NOT live eternally.  In other words:

SINNERS WILL DIE.

Paul never wrote that sinners will suffer in hell for eternity. He never uses the word “hell” but always warns sinners that they will die. For example:

Unrighteousness, wickedness, greed …
those who practice such things
are WORTHY OF DEATH
” (Rom 1:29-32).

 “If you are living according to the flesh,
YOU MUST DIE;
but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body,
YOU WILL LIVE
“ (Rom 8:13).

You are slaves of the one whom you obey,
either of sin RESULTING IN DEATH, or of
obedience resulting in righteousness”
(Rom 6:16).

The WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH  (Rom 6:23).

ETERNAL DEATH  

When traditionalists read such verses, their minds automatically switch “death” into “eternal torment.” However, in Paul’s writings, the OPPOSITE of the death, which sinners will die, is explicitly and always eternal life:

As SIN REIGNED IN death,
even so GRACE WOULD REIGN … to eternal life
” (Rom 5:21).

You are slaves … either of SIN RESULTING IN death, …
But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God …
THE OUTCOME, eternal life.
” (Rom 6:16, 21-22)

The wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God is eternal life
” (Rom 6:23).

Our Saviour Christ Jesus abolished death
and brought life and immortality to light
” (2 Tim 1:10).

(“Life and immortality” mean the same as “eternal life.”)

The one who sows to his own flesh
will from the flesh reap corruption,
but the one who sows to the Spirit
will from the Spirit reap eternal life
” (Gal 6:8).

(The Greek word translated as “corruption” in this verse is phthora. Strong’s concordance defines this word as “destruction, corruption.” )

CONCLUSION

Paul, therefore, taught that:

    1. People do not yet have immortality.
    2. Only believers will receive eternal life, namely when Christ returns.
    3. Sinners will die.

Since Paul also taught that the opposite of the “death” which sinners will die is “eternal life,” this is not the temporary death that faces all people. It is, rather, eternal death; that awful and irreversible death which only the unrepentant will suffer, to which Revelation refers as “the second death” (Rev 20:14).

JESUS CHRIST

It should, therefore, be abundantly clear that Paul taught that the unrepentant will die an eternal death. But traditionalists claim that Jesus taught the eternal torment of sinners.

Christ often mentioned “hell” (Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:5). He warned of “the fiery hell” (Matt 5:22; 18:9); “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48).

It is often assumed that Jesus, with these words, taught that the wicked will be tormented in hell for all eternity, but this is not what He said:

Firstly, He said that the worm and the fire are immortal. He did not say that people are immortal.

Secondly, these are symbols. In ancient times, when people attempt to destroy corpses by fire, wood may be in short supply and the fire goes out before the body is consumed.  And due to the dry conditions, corpses sometimes dry up and the worms die before the corpse was fully consumed. Therefore the expression, the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched,” simply means that nothing will remain; “both soul and body” will be consumed (Matt 10:28).

Thirdly, Jesus, like Paul, also contrasted eternal life with death:

He who … believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life,
and does not come into judgment,
but has passed out of death into life
” (John 5:24).

In John 5:28-29, Jesus said that all people who ever lived will be resurrected. Some will be resurrected to “life,” which is the eternal life of verse 24. But the others will be resurrected to “judgment,” which is the “death” of verse 24. Since life here is eternal, death here is also eternal.

Fourthly, Jesus said that God “is able to destroy BOTH BODY AND SOUL in hell” (Matt 10:28). In other words, God is able to annihilate human beings. This means that souls are not immortal. Some counter that God is “able” to annihilate body and soul but that does not mean that He will not do it. But why would Jesus say this unless God would also do this?

Fifthly, and perhaps most important, Jesus quoted “their worm will not die And their fire will not be quenched” from Isaiah 66:24, which explicitly refers to “the corpses of the men.” In other words, it is a symbol of death; not of eternal life in torment. 

REVELATION

Arguably, the strongest evidence for eternal torment comes from the book of Revelation. It says that any person who “worships the beast and his image:”

“… will be TORMENTED with fire and brimstone
in the presence of the holy angels
and in the presence of the Lamb.
And the smoke of their torment goes up FOREVER AND EVER;
they have no rest day and night
” (Rev 14:9-11). 

This “fire and brimstone” refers to the “lake of fire and brimstone” (Rev 19:20) where “the devil … the beast and the false prophet … will (also) be tormented day and night FOREVER AND EVER” (Rev 20:10) and into which these people are thrown (Rev 20:15). How do we reconcile this with Paul’s consistent view that sinners will die, and with Christ’s statement that God will destroy body and soul in hell?

Our response is that Revelation is a book of symbols and that the following shows that the eternal torment in Revelation is symbolic:

(1) SMOKE RISES FOREVER.

What is eternal in Revelation 14:9-11 is the smoke of their torment; not their torment. Babylon’s smoke will also go “up forever and ever” (Rev 17:18; 19:3), but she is not a literal person that can be tormented. Babylon is a symbol of the anti-God religious system that has ruled over the kings of the world of all ages. 

Furthermore, the “ten horns … will burn her up with fire” (Rev 17:16), which means that Babylon will be fully and completely destroyed.  

The ever-rising smoke is, therefore, a symbol. It means that God and the saved will never forget the awful destruction of people who they loved. People will remember it for as long as they live, and they will live “forever and ever.”

(2) BEAST TORMENTED FOREVER

As a further example of the figurative nature of this eternal torment, the beast will also be “tormented day and night forever and ever” in “the lake of fire and brimstone” (Rev 20:10), but the beast is not a literal person. One of the articles on this website identifies the beast as the mainstream church of Christianity. The beast, therefore, cannot literally be tormented forever in an eternal hell. This must be understood as symbolic language.

(3) THE SECOND DEATH

The lake of fire is twice called “the second death” (Rev 20:14; 21:8). This means that this death is different from the first death. All people are resurrected from death (Rev 20:5; John 5:28-29). Therefore, all people live twice. But the worshipers of the beast also die twice (Rev 19:21; 20:9). After the judgment of the dead (Rev 20:11, 12), their death becomes final and irreversible when Hades is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14-15).

This is confirmed by the fact that, in Revelation, once a being is cast into the lake of fire, he is never again seen doing anything. For example, the beast and the false prophet “were thrown alive into the lake of fire” when Christ returns (Rev 19:11). Thereafter they never again do anything in Revelation. One thousand years later, the devil and the people with the mark of the beast are cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10-11; 20:15) and are never again seen. 

(4) THE PRESENCE OF THE LAMB

Revelation 14:10 says that the worshipers of the beast “will be tormented … in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.”  Literally interpreted, this means that the Lamb and His angels will remain in hell forever, which is ridiculous. God gave Christ “authority to execute judgment” (John 5:27), and this is what He will do. 

The pain of hell is not that God torment people as retribution for their sins. God does not work that way. Everything that God does, He does from love (1 John 4:7; 1:5). But He promised a universe with perfect peace and joy. Therefore, eventually, God must annihilate evil and the consequences of evil. In the process, He has to do certain things that will cause pain. To understand a bit about these larger issues, I recommend Why Satan thought he could win and The Seven Seals of Revelation.

CONCLUSION

The idea of immortal punishment results from the concept of the immortal soul. That man has an immortal soul came from the Greek philosophical view in the world in which Christianity arose. Although it is foreign to Judaism and Christianity, it soon became accepted in the church and is today defended in the Church as orthodox. However, it is actually the first lie recorded in the Bible, when the serpent said to Eve, “You surely will not die” (Gen 3:4).  

The concept of an immortal soul is rebellion against God. The promise of the Bible is a resurrection from death, which depends on God’s miraculous power, but the concept of the immortal soul says that we do not need God.

For further discussion, see the other articles in this series.


OTHER ARTICLES

Symbolically, the smoke of their torment will rise forever (Rev 14:9-11).

This is an article in the series on Death, Eternal Life, and Eternal Torment.

Abstract: People with the mark of the beast will be tormented in fire and brimstone and the smoke of their torment goes up forever (Rev 14:9-11). This is symbolic language. For example, They will be tormented in Christ’s presence and He will not remain forever in hell.

Purpose

Revelation does not use the word “hell,” but the third angel (Rev 14:9) warns the people of the world (Rev 14:6) that a person who accepts the mark of the beast:

10 … will drink of the wine of the wrath of God,
which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger;
and he will be TORMENTED with fire and brimstone
in the presence of the holy angels
and in the presence of the Lamb.

11 And the smoke of their torment
goes up FOREVER AND EVER;

they have no rest day and night”
(Rev 14:10-11)

How do we reconcile this with Paul’s consistent view that sinners will die (e.g. Rom 6:23), and with Christ’s warning that God “is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28)?

The most powerful arguments for eternal torment come from the book of Revelation. According to Robert Peterson (The Case for Traditionalism, 160), the third angel’s message is one of the three “most revealing biblical passages on hell.” Like many others, he concludes that these verses teach that hell entails eternal conscious torment for the lost. The argument is that, if their smoke goes up forever, then the unsaved must burn forever. The purpose of this article is to oppose this view. A number of objections will now be discussed:

Revelation is a book of symbols.

It is telling that the strongest argument for the doctrine of eternal torment is drawn from the book of Revelation; a book that is replete with symbolism. This alone should send off alarm bells, if for no other reason than the fairly common-sense judgment that clear Scripture should be used to interpret less clear Scripture; not the other way around.

The following shows that the eternal torment in the angel’s warning is symbolic language:

Tormented in the presence of the Lamb

Revelation 14:10 says that the worshipers of the beast “will be tormented … in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Literally interpreted, this means that the Lamb and His angels will remain in hell forever, which is ridiculous. God gave Christ “authority to execute judgment” (John 5:27), and this is what He will do. “The end” will only come “when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24).

If they “will be tormented … in the presence of … the Lamb,” then they will not be tormented forever.

Prophecy Against Edom

The Book of Revelation is replete with the Old Testament language and imagery. “No book of the NT is more thoroughly saturated with the thoughts and language of ancient Scripture than the book of Revelation” (JR Michaels, “Old Testament in Revelation” 850-851). For this reason, the Old Testament is where we will find clues to the meaning of various symbols in Revelation.

Revelation 14:10-11 is no exception. Revelation never quotes the Old Testament. It only alludes to it. But Revelation 14:10-11 is one of the strongest allusions to the Old Testament, namely to the prophecy against Edom in Isaiah 34. Both the third angel and the prophecy against Edom predict punishment with fire and brimstone, causing smoke to go up forever. However, nobody suggests that Isaiah 34:9-10 predicts eternal torment of the inhabitants of Edom because the prophecy interprets its own symbols as extinction, namely that Edom “will be desolate; none will pass through it forever and ever:

Isaiah 34:9 Its streams will be turned into pitch,
And its loose earth into brimstone,
And its land will become burning pitch.
10 It will not be quenched night or day;
Its smoke will go up forever.
From generation to generation it will be DESOLATE;
NONE WILL PASS THROUGH IT FOREVER AND EVER.
(NASB)

The language of endlessness here (fire never quenched, smoke rising forever), therefore, does not portray eternal misery. Rather, the “smoke will go up forever” is parallel to “none will pass through it forever,” symbolizing the permanence of Edom’s destruction.

The third angel does not say that sinners will be tormented forever and ever. The only thing that is eternal in Revelation 14:9-11 is the rising of “the smoke of their torment.” It goes up “forever and ever.” But the prophecy against Edom, where smoke also goes up forever, explains this as symbolic language, namely that the destruction of the people with the mark of the beast is total and irreversible.

Babylon’s smoke also goes up forever.

In Revelation 17, the harlot named Babylon sits on a scarlet beast (Rev 17:5, 3). She symbolizes false religion that has ruled over the kings of the world of all ages, with the emphasis on false Christianity. (See Your merchants or Babylon the great.) The beast on which she sits symbolizes the rulers of the world. (See Scarlet Beast.)

Similar to the message of the third angel, Revelation 19:3 predicts that “the smoke from her (Babylon) goes up for ever and ever.” But, for at least three reasons, that does not mean that she will be tormented forever:

Firstly, Babylon is not a literal person that can be tormented. Babylon is a symbol of false religion.

Secondly, false religion will not always exist. When Christ returns, all traces of false religion will be destroyed. He who sits on the throne said: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Thirdly, we are explicitly told that Babylon will be completely and utterly destroyed:

The great city of Babylon will be thrown down,
never to be found again
” (Rev 18:21). And

The beast … will hate the harlot
and will make her desolate and naked,
and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire
” (Rev 17:16).

Since Babylon will be annihilated, the ever-rising smoke is not literal but symbolizes complete destruction. The ever-rising smoke from the torment of the followers of the beast in the warning of the third angel, therefore, symbolizes that they will be annihilated. God’s people will live “forever and ever,” but all that will remain of the people who accepted the mark of the beast is smoke; the remembrance of their horrible fate. The horrific destruction of people, who are loved by God and His people, will never be forgotten. 

The winepress of the wrath of God

The third angel warns the people of the world that the followers of the beast “will drink of the wine of the wrath of God” (Rev 14:10). These verses do not describe the people actually drinking that wine. After some further warnings (Rev 14:12-13), the last part of Revelation 14, which describes the return of Christ (Rev 14:14), does describe the outpouring of God’s wrath:

At His return, the people with the mark of the beast, symbolized by “the vine of the earth” (Rev 14:19), will be thrown “into the great wine press of the wrath of God” (Rev 14:19). “And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles” (Rev 14:20).

The context demands that the wine press, which refers to Christ’s return, symbolizes “the wrath of God” which the third angel warns about.

The traditional eternal torment reading of the angel’s warning has a tension between the eternal torment supposedly predicted in Revelation 14:11 and the picture of final annihilating destruction that follows at the return of Christ (Rev 14:14-20).

But if Revelation 14:11 is interpreted as eternal destruction, then there is no tension between the third angel’s warning of final judgment (Rev 14:9-11) and the description of final judgment in Revelation 14:14-20.

The Seven Last Plagues

The seven last plagues are called “the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished” (Rev 15:1). This implies that the wrath of God, about which the third angel warned (Rev 14:10), will be finished during the seven last plagues.

These seven last plagues are poured out in Revelation 16. The next two chapters interrupt the flow of events. The seventh plague continues in Revelation 19 (compare Rev 16:19 and 19:2), culminating in another description of the return of Christ (Rev 19:11) which also mentions “the wine press of the fierce wrath of God” (Rev 19:15) which we saw at the end of Revelation 14.

Since the seven last plagues culminate in Christ’s return, and “because in them the wrath of God is finished,” it is concluded that “the wine press of the fierce wrath of God,” which symbolizes the destruction of the lost at the return of Christ (Rev 19:21), is the wrath of God which the second angel warned about (Rev 14:10-11). As stated in the description of His return in Revelation 19:

The rest were killed
with the sword which came from the mouth
of Him who sat on the horse,
and all the birds were filled with their flesh

(Rev 19:21).

Conclusion

The ever-rising smoke in the third angel’s message symbolizes permanent destruction.


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