The lake of fire – Revelation 20:10

Save us from the fire

Previously:  Fire came down from heaven – Revelation 20:9

The scripture

Rev. 20:10 – The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (HCSB)

The lake of fire

At last we come to the end of the father of lies. John records, “The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (v. 10). The lake of fire and sulfur is, of course, hell, or gehenna in the Greek. The name is drawn from the Valley of the Son of Hinnom just outside Jerusalem, a place where apostate Israelites in Old Testament times sacrifice their children to the pagan god Moloch. Hell is a place of conscious existence where Satan, demons and the wicked spend eternity apart from Christ.

This passage should be seen in light of Rev. 14:9-11, which describes the destiny of the one who worships the beast: “he will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, which is mixed full strength in the cup of His anger. He will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the sight of the holy angels and in the sight of the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment will go up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

Jesus calls hell “the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). People who reject God’s gracious offer of eternal life join Satan and his demons in the lake of fire. Jesus also calls hell “outer darkness” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is place where the worm does not die and the fire is never quenched, meaning that the resurrected bodies of unbelievers do not die and are not annihilated.

Hell is a place to be avoided at all costs, yet a place where no person or demon goes beyond his or her will. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”

A created place

It is important to note that hell is a created place. God made it as the everlasting habitation for Satan and his demons. It is always His intention to cast Satan there, but only after a lengthy period of time in which the evil one tempts Adam and Eve to join his rebellion against God, drawing humanity into a fallen state, and only after being granted access to both heaven and earth, where he prowls like a lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8).

There is no redemption for Satan and his demonic forces, however. Hell is created for them, and they go there at a future time God has determined. It’s different, however, for people. Jesus came in the likeness of fallen humanity, and after living a sinless life He offered it up on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins. By His grace, people receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith. Hell is necessary and inevitable for Satan and demons; not so for human beings.

It is both just and tragic that people spend eternity in hell. All of us are sinners, and all of us deserve the penalty of sin, which is death – not merely physical death, but spiritual death, or separation from God, who made us in His image and desires a relationship with us. It is not God’s will that any should perish; rather, He desires that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Nevertheless, He knows that many will not. That realization does not diminish the love of God for all people nor cheapen the work of Jesus on the cross.

Hell is a just place because God is holy and people are wicked. It is tragic because God sent His Son to pay humanity’s sin debt. There is no reason any person should spend eternity apart from his or her Creator. Nevertheless, they do because they reject the revelation God has given us in creation, conscience, Christ, and the canon of scripture. Having rejected that revelation and choosing to live independently of God, unbelievers knowingly and willfully spend life beyond the grave as they did on earth, perpetually in rebellion against Him.

A humiliated guest

In the parable of the wedding feast for the king’s son (Matt. 22:1-14), the king singles out a guest, has him bound hand and foot, and casts him into “outer darkness” – all because the guest is not dressed appropriately for the wedding. How can this be? The king instructs his servants to invite everyone, and the banquet hall is filled with guests, both good and evil. Yet the king chooses to humiliate one of his guests in front of all the others.

Is that fair? Is that just? Is that gracious? Yes, yes, and yes. While it’s true that the invitation went out indiscriminately to rich and poor, old and young, male and female, bidding all who would receive the invitation to enter the banquet hall, the man hurled into outer darkness rejects the wedding attire kings are obligated to provide – normally a simple white robe. Instead, the rebellious man chooses to enter the banquet hall dressed in the filthy rags of his own righteousness. He dishonors the king and disapproves of the king’s son.

All that he has to do to in order to enjoy the bright lights, music, food, drink and fellowship is stretch out his arms and allow a servant to dress him in a white robe. But he won’t do it. Therefore, to maintain the honor of his son and the enjoyment of his guests, the king removes the rebellious one. What a lesson today for the person who insists that a loving God will not send anyone to hell. In a sense, that statement is true. God does not send anyone there; He simply confirms the choice people make to live eternally independent of the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Is hell forever?

How long does hell last? Some commentators argue that while the fires of hell burn forever, people do not exist eternally there. They either pay for their sins through temporal punishment and then are released, or they cease to exist at death, or they suffer for a time and then are consumed in the flames – that is, annihilated. But that is not what Jesus teaches or the scripture says.

In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus says the wicked “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). He uses the same word – eternal – to describe the length of punishment for the wicked as He does of life for the redeemed. Further, He tells his disciples that in hell “their [the wicked’s] worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-44, 46, 48). In this passage He quotes Isa. 66:24 to emphasize the need for repentance before it is too late, and He underscores the reality of everlasting existence apart from God.

In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the arrogant aristocrat goes into conscious existence in torment while the humble beggar is carried by the angels into a state of blessedness. There is no hint that these eternal states will come to an end or be reversed. Now, in Revelation, we see that Satan is cast into the lake of fire, where the beast and the false prophet are – in other words, they have been consciously existing in hell for a long time before Satan and his demons join them – and then it is made clear that “they” – Satan, the beast, and the false prophet – “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).

As we see in Rev. 20:15, the resurrected wicked dead are thrown into the lake of fire – the same place where Satan, the beast, and the false prophet are. There is no exception for any person whose name is not found written in the book of life; nor is there any indication that only Satan, the beast, and the false prophet are the only ones to spend eternity in torment.

Real or figurative?

Among evangelicals, there are differences of opinion as to whether hell as a place of suffering is described with literal language, figurative language, or a combination of both. “Some believe the Bible teaches that hell is real, but the language used to describe it is figurative,” according to the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. “This is an approach consistent with one taken by many concerning John’s descriptions of heaven in Revelation. As heaven is more magnificent than the description in Revelation, also hell is so terrible that human language falls short.”

The dictionary continues, “However, there is strong evidence to indicate that literal language is used and that the Bible does in fact teach literal fire and other sufferings. The parable of the tares in Matt. 13, which discusses eternal judgment, is helpful here. The Son of man, the world, children of the kingdom, the children of the wicked one, the  devil, the end of the world, the angels, the gatherings – all are literal figures in the parable. It is then natural to conclude that the burning of the tares should also be taken literally. Few would question that the Bible reveals hell as a place of spiritual and emotional torment for the finally impenitent. Since man is a physical being (body) as well as emotional and spiritual (soul and spirit, it is most consistent with Scripture to conclude that physical suffering is also a part of the destiny of the lost. It is no wonder why ‘it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 10:31), and why the emphasis on evangelism is what makes the Great Commission Great” (pp. 745-46).

All of this should compel unbelievers to repent while there is still time. That is Jesus’ point in Mark 9 as He urges His followers (figuratively) to cut off their hands or feet, or to gouge out their eyes if the wicked these body parts do keeps them from eternal life. The cry throughout scripture is to repent today – while there is still time, and while God’s grace and mercy are extended to us, for the day is coming when all of us will stand before Christ in final judgment. Beyond the grave are everlasting and irreversible consequences. As the writer of Hebrews emphasizes, “it is appointed for people to die once – and after this, judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

One final note on hell is expressed by R.J. Utley and concerns the purpose of hell: “Most of God’s judgments had redemptive purposes; that is true of the OT and the NT. Hell has no known redemptive purpose. It fulfills God’s promise to restore justice and righteousness. As horrible as hell is for mankind, it is worse for God. By allowing His highest creation, mankind, to have a choice (one aspect of the image of God in man), God knew that a significant percentage would choose self and sin. Hell is an open, bleeding sore in the heart of God that will never be healed. Hell is a tragic mystery of the paradox of the eternal love and the justice of God!” (Hope in Hard Times – The Final Curtain: Revelation, Study Guide Commentary Series, p. 140).

Three views of the 1,000 years

We have been comparing four major views of Revelation as we summarized each segment of our study, but beginning with Revelation 20 we must change our approach. Steve Gregg, editor of Revelation: Four Views, from which much of the summary information is taken, explains: “The four categories considered throughout our treatment thus far cannot be applied to these final chapters (just as it could not in the opening three chapters)…. Our problem arises from the fact that none of the four approaches [preterist, historicist, futurist, idealist/spiritualist] treated in the earlier chapters monolithically adheres to a single interpretation of Revelation 20, which is unique among the chapters of the Bible in that it speaks of the 1000-year reign of the saints, commonly called the Millennium” (p. 458).

The major schools of thought have taken their names from the timing of the millennium with respect to the Second Coming. Therefore, at the end of each segment of our study from this point forward we will summarize three views: a) Premillennial, meaning Christ’s return precedes the millennium; 2) Postmillennial, meaning the return of Christ follows 1,000 years of peace; and 3) Amillennial, meaning the references to the 1,000 years are to be seen symbolically so that there is no millennium.

With this is mind, let’s summarize the views of each camp regarding the meaning of the 1,000 years in Rev. 20:1-10:

Premillennialists believe the 1,000 years is a literal period of time in the future when Christ reigns on earth from Jerusalem. Satan is bound in the abyss throughout this period, only to be released briefly at the end of the 1,000 years to lead a final revolt against Jesus and His people, which is quickly put down. The resurrection of the wicked takes place after the millennium. The wicked stand in final judgment before the Great White Throne and are cast into hell. Finally, the Lord creates the new heavens and earth.

Some Postmillennialists believe the 1,000 years are literal, while others do not; but they agree that this is a future glorious age prior to the Second Coming in which the gospel enjoys widespread positive impact. Some see Satan’s binding as symbolic, with the gospel overpowering the works of the evil one; others believe it to be a future event that effectively reduces Satan’s influence to nothing. In any event, Satan is loosed for a short time at the end of the age, but his revolt fizzles. At the return of Christ, there will be a general resurrection and judgment of all people.

Amillennialists see in the binding of Satan the victory of Jesus over the powers of darkness. The 1,000 years are symbolic of a lengthy, indeterminate period of time corresponding to the present church age. Satan is loosed briefly near the end of the age to foment evil and persecute the church. The fire coming down from heaven and consuming the wicked (Rev. 20:9) is symbolic of Christ’s return in power and glory, which is followed by general resurrection and final judgment of all people, and then creation of the new heavens and earth.

Next: A great white throne – Revelation 20:11