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