Revelation 19:20 CSB
But the beast was taken prisoner, and along with him and the false prophet who had performed the signs in its presence. He deceived those who accepted the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image with these signs. Both of them were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.
Revelation 20:10 ESV
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 20:11-15 ISV
Then I saw a large white throne and the one who was sitting on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. I saw the dead, both unimportant and important, standing in front of the throne, and books were open. Another book was opened-the Book of Life. The dead were judged according to their actions, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to their actions. Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. (This is the second death-the lake of fire.) Anyone whose name was not found written in the Book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 21:8 ESV
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.
The four passages above are often cited in order to paint a picture of what “Hell” is like. It is a morbid, grotesque and frightening picture. Most of the time, these verses are used as proof that God will torment the unbelieving and ungodly in everlasting fire.
First, in these verses, the only creatures that appear to be in “eternal” torment are Satan, the beast and the false prophet. Even at first glance, without much study at all, it is easy to see that for everyone else, the lake of fire is said to be the second death.
What is the second death?
We will talk about that later. For now, let us just talk about what it is not. It is obviously not eternal torment.
For many years, I read these verses and made the logical conclusion that the lake of fire resulted in death, not torture. This along with statements in scripture such as “the wages of sin are death” led me to the further conclusion that the unbelievers and the ungodly would be brought back to life only to be destroyed in the lake of fire. On the other hand, Satan, the beast and the false prophet would somehow, mystically be kept alive forever in the same lake of fire that would kill the unbelieving sinners for a second and final time.
My conclusion was much more logical than the picture of eternal fiery torment taught in most churches.
However, I had not studied beyond what was obvious. I had understood these verses as a literal declaration of what was to come to be in a physical and tangible manner.
The problem is that the Book of Revelation is a book of prophecy. Biblical prophecy is symbolic. For this reason, prophecy is to be interpreted in light of other scriptures. Otherwise you might come to the conclusion that God will either torment people in eternal fire or that He will destroy them in that same fire.
2 Peter 1:20, CLNT
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture at all is becoming its OWN EXPLANATION.
The verses in Revelation show us a group of people who are to be judged “according to their actions” in fire. There is one other passage and only one other passage that sounds similar. It is the only other scripture that can be used to help us interpret the Revelation account of the lake of fire.
1 Corinthians 3:6-15 ISV
I planted, Apollos watered, but God kept everything growing. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is significant, but God, who keeps everything growing, is the one who matters. The one who plants and the one who waters have the same goal, and each will receive a reward for his own action. For we are God’s co-workers. You are God’s farmland and God’s building. As an expert builder using the grace that God gave me, I laid the foundation, and someone else is building on it. But each person must be careful how he builds on it. After all, no one can lay any other foundation than the one that is already laid, and that is Jesus the Messiah. Whether a person builds on this foundation with gold, silver, expensive stones, wood, hay, or straw, the workmanship of each person will become evident, for the day of judgment will show what it is, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s action. If what a person has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If his work is burned up, he will suffer loss. However, he himself will be saved, but it will be like going through fire.
What kind of crop did Paul plant?
Just like the companion passage in Revelation 20, the language is figurative.
The crop mentioned here is the fruit of the spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
The passage starts out calling believers “God’s farmland” and then calls us “God’s building.”
We are neither a literal farm nor a literal building. This is symbolic just as Revelation 20 is symbolic.
Paul goes on to talk about the materials with which we would continue to build on the foundation, which is Jesus Christ. Then, on judgement day, each building (each person’s actions and fruit), will be tested in fire. If what a person has built endures the flames, he or she will receive a reward. If not, they will suffer loss in having had their work burned up. However, he or she will be saved through the fire.
Hebrew 12:29 tells us that our God is a consuming fire.
The Revelation 20 passage and the 1 Corinthians 3 passage are both full of metaphors.
Are we to believe that we are an actual garden or an actual building?
No, that is ridiculous.
Why then do we think the fire is literal?
God is not a literal fire.
The revealing of each man’s actions and works as described in 1 Corinthians 3 does not happen through real fire. Nor, is the lake of fire in Revelation 20 an actual lake of fire. These passages have a spiritual meaning. God is trying to teach us a deeper meaning.
Let us take a closer look at the lake of fire.
In a previous post, Forever and then Some, I discussed the meaning of the phrase “forever and ever.” Therefore, I will not do that here. Instead, I just want to focus on the lake of fire itself.
What is the lake of fire or what does it symbolize?
The lake of fire represents God Himself in His dealings with sin and death.
What purpose does the lake of fire serve in the lesson that God is trying to teach us about Himself?
The phrase, the lake of fire in Greek is “limne tou pur.” The word “limne” can be translated as “lake” or it can be translated as something smaller such as “pond”. The word “pur” can be translated as “fire, heat of the sun, lightning, strife or trials.”
Since the lake of fire is symbolic and figurative, we should understand it to have a figurative meaning such as strife or trial while also being symbolized by its literal application of fire.
The true meaning of the lake of fire is revealed through the usage of the substance that has been added to the fire, sulfur.
Why would anyone add sulfur to fire?
Is the purpose to make the fire burn hotter to cause more pain?
No, that is not the reason.
In the ancient process of refining precious metals, metallurgists would add sulfur to PONDS of molten metal contained in vessels called crucibles. The sulfides within the sulfur would bond with impurities in the metals and would draw them to the surface in the form of dross, which would be smelted away until all that remained was pure.
The lake of fire is a crucible and its purpose is to refine people so that after the process is completed, all that remains is pure gold.
Consider these verses:
Isaiah 48:10 ESV
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
Malachi 3:3 ESV
He will sit as the refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold or silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.
Job 23:10 ESV
But He knows the way that I take; when He has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
Proverbs 17:3 ESV
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.
Psalm 66:10 ESV
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
Isaiah 1:25 ESV
I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove your alloy.
Proverbs 25:4 ESV
Take away the dross from the silver, and the smith has material for a vessel.
The Refiner’s fire comes in the form of corrective, remedial trials.
Some of us will be refined in this life by the fire of the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and reveals our actions, smelting away our dross and impurities. Others will not submit in this life and will be refined after the resurrection. However, once they have “come out as gold” they too shall enjoy the presence of God and the happiness He has prepared for us all.
What then is the second death?
It is the death of death and of sin.
Some of us through the conviction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit have died to self, putting to death the sin nature of our old selves. Others will experience the death of their sin nature through the second death in the crucible of God’s refining fire after the resurrection.
Here are just a few of many verses that deal with the process of dying to one’s self in this life:
Galatians 2:20 ESV
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Galatians 5:24 ESV
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Luke 17:33 ESV
Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.
2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Colossians 3:3 ESV
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Colossians 3:5 ESV
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Romans 6:11 ESV
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
1 Peter 4:1-2 ESV
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.
Romans 6:1-14 ESV
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Consider these quotes for some early church leaders:
Diodore of Tarsus, 320-394 A.D.
For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetural, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them...the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave sins are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be showed to them.
Gregory of Nyssa, 332-398 A.D.
Wherefore, that at the same time liberty of free-will should be left to nature and yet the evil be purged away, the wisdom of God discovered this plan; to suffer man to do what he would, that having tasted the evil which he desired, and learning by experience for what wretchedness he had bartered away the blessings he had, he might of his own will hasten back with desire to the first blessedness ...either being purged in this life through prayer and discipline, or after his departure hence through the furnace of cleansing fire.
Origen, 184-253 A.D.
So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him "all," and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is "all in all." And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be "all in all.”