Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Notes on Hell: the Lake of Fire

It would seem that when most people talk about hell, what they are really talking about is the lake of fire. 

So, when we talk about the eternal destiny of people, we're referencing whether they spend forever with God or in the lake of fire. Interestingly, hell gets thrown into the lake of fire!

What is the lake of fire? What is the eternal destiny of those who get thrown into the lake of fire? Who goes into the lake of fire? What does this teach us about hell?

The phrase lake of fire shows up five times in the Bible, all in Revelation.
Revelation 19:20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.

Revelation 20:10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Revelation 20:14-15 Then Death and Hades (hell) were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

What can we surmise from these five references? The beast, the false prophet, and the devil are thrown alive into the lake of fire where they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Death and Hades are also thrown also into the lake of fire. It is called the second death. Anyone's name who is not found in the book of life, along with the cowardly and faithless, are also assigned to the lake that burns with fire.

It's not clear how the lake of fire is the destination of Death and the cowardly. The author says that the lake of fire is the second death - does this mean that lake of fire is a metaphor for a reality - Second Death? Is this death a different kind of death then Death and Hades death? It must be - but what kind of death is it? And what determines if someone is cowardly? Once? The end of their life? Always? Occasionally? There is no mention of faith in Jesus Christ or rejection of Jesus Christ in these references to the lake of fire. And clearly the lake of fire is the destination of hell, not hell itself.

So what happens to the people that had been in hell?
Revelation 20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades (hell) gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.

Throughout the Bible, sheol and hades, along with gehenna, have been referred to as hell. Gehenna never gets mentioned in Revelation, only hades. If hades gives up its dead, that implies that hell gives up its dead, which means that hell is not a place you go to forever. Whatever hell is, it is not a person's eternal destination. From our study, it seemed that hades was just another name for sheol - which means it was just another name for the grave. If we take into account Greek myths, hades is possibly a place where spirits have a shadowy existence.

Either way, it doesn't come across as a place of torture. Hell - if it is hades/sheol - is a temporary existence (either as a corpse in the ground or/also spirit in the netherworld). Hell is emptied through resurrection of the dead, and then hell/hades gets thrown into the lake of fire - it exists no more. [The description of Hades given by Jesus in Luke 16 does not carry enough weight to determine clearly that it is a place of torment. The parable's point is not a literal description of hades, but of how the rich ought to treat the poor.]

The people that do not have their name found in the book of life - and who are cowardly and faithless, etc. - they also get thrown into the lake of fire. One text said that the beast, false prophet, and devil will be tormented forever and ever - but the text does not say that for the people who are thrown in. Are we to assume they have the same experience as the devil? Or, does the lake of fire totally consume the people who are thrown in, and they cease to exist? The text doesn't make it clear. 

A reference in Revelation 14 says that the smoke of the torment goes up forever and ever - that of those who worshipped the beast. The smoke goes up, but does that imply the torture of the people is eternal, or just the smoke from their destroyed corpses? The text doesn't make clear.

So what is the lake of fire? Is it like lava from a volcano? Is it like the flaming Gulf of Mexico saturated with crude oil? Is it like a vast forest fire, the massive heat shimmering far into the distance? Is it like a shattered naval fleet, flotsam and jetsam burning across the littered sea? Is it like a gigantic fiery furnace?

It's interesting that in Gehenna/the Valley of Hinnom there are pools. The word for lake in Greek can also be translated pool. If the Valley of Hinnom was renamed the Valley of Slaughter, if the valley became a place of death and destruction, the pools would be filled with rotting blood and burning corpses. Is that part of the background to the image of the lake of fire? Does it imply a pool of fire? A place of judgment? Of destruction?

Here's another idea that may also give background to the idea of the lake of fire, it's found in Daniel 7:9-11
"As I looked, thrones were placed,and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
"I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire."

Here you have judgment for rebellion, a stream or river of fire which is used to kill and destroy and burn. If this judgment and destruction occurred in the Valley of Hinnom, the streams of fire would run through the Valley of Slaughter, collecting in the pools, forming a lake of fire. Interesting possibility, but nothing definitive can be declared for certain.

The other question is: do the few mentions of eternal torment in Revelation outweigh the more numerous references of fire being destructive and all-consuming? (Like in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah - the imagery of which is obviously alluded to in the usage of lake of fire.) It is clear that the devil and his trio are tormented forever, but it is not specifically declared that it is eternal torment for those that worshipped the beast. Maybe it is implying that the state of destruction in the lake of fire is eternal. Second death implies similarity to first death - and if first death is rotting corpse in the ground with promise of resurrection, then second death is destruction of the body with no promise of resurrection.

Revelation is the primary source for most popular notions of hell. A lot depends on how you interpret the content of Revelation, and how you relate the context of Revelation to the rest of Scriptures. If you read what is in Revelation, in context with what else the Bible has to say about hell/hades/sheol/gehenna - you won't necessarily come up with the common versions of hell.

Jesus never talks about a lake of fire. He talks about being thrown into the fires of Gehenna - but that is something different. He talks about people going down to hades - though sometimes it is a reference to sheol. He talks about people being thrown into a fiery furnace. He says some will be thrown into an eternal fire along with the devil. There is only one verse where Jesus says someone will be with him in paradise. Does John change the image of fire from what Jesus referred to in the Gospels? We have no idea what he definitively means. Our imaginations want more clarity then the Bible provides on what happens after death.

It's interesting what Jesus has to say in the final chapters of Revelation.
22:12"Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." 
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. 
16 "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

It's hard to determine what is chronological in all these visions. But following the visions of the New Heavens, the New Earth and the New Jerusalem, of God's throne issuing a river of water by which the tree of life gives forth leaves for the healing of the nations, of a city with gates that never shut, only the pure and unashamed can enter - there is this statement above from Jesus. If there is any kind of chronological semblance to these visions, it seems to imply that even in the New Heavens and New Earth, there will be "dogs" hanging around outside the New Jerusalem. 

These dogs are beckoned to enter the gates - the Spirit and the Bride and all who hear say, "Come!" Anyone who is thirsty is invited to enter - the gates are always open, the leaves of the tree of life are there for the touching.  It would seem that either these "dog's" have yet to be thrown into the lake of fire, or, this is what it means to be thrown into the lake of fire - to be always outside the gates of the New Jerusalem but never having the courage to enter. They are too cowardly.

Another way to translate torment is torture. Not only physical torture, but internal torture. Another word is vexation. To be too ashamed to enter the city where God and the Lamb fill the place with shalom and light - to hear the words, "Come!" and not believe it. It would seem that the invitation is unending. Or, the lake of fire is the destination eventually of those who will never be willing to enter.

Maybe it is that the visions are overlapping, and each one presents a new angle to the future reality of all people. All people are resurrected, all people are judged. Some are found to be righteous, others found to be wicked. The righteous are welcome to enter the New Jerusalem. The wicked are invited as well - if they are willing to wash their robes. To repent. To trust the words of Jesus. To believe Jesus.

In summary: there is nothing conclusive to say what is the lake of fire - other than it is called the second death. The lake of fire could refer to the fire of Gehenna - the Valley of Slaughter. The lake of fire could imply total destruction of whatever is thrown into it. The lake of fire could refer back in part to the Daniel vision. The lake of fire could be a way of describing irrevocable judgment. It could be similar to the fiery furnace Jesus talked about in the Gospels, or the eternal fire for the devil. The lake of fire could be literal or it could be a metaphor pointing to something else very real. The text does say that hell/hades is thrown into the lake of fire, so hell is not the same as the lake of fire.

So is there any more clarity that we can gain on who goes into the lake of fire? How does one get your name into the book of life? What is the book of life? What is the correlation between being cowardly, faithless, etc and having one's name missing from the book of life? What is the connection between Jesus and the book of life? What about forgiveness of sins, repentance, grace, and reconciliation with God? What about the teachings of Jesus and Paul - how does that connect with the book of life and being thrown into the lake of fire?

That's what we'll attempt to examine in the final study.

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