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I want to drive home the point that we must be careful so that we donít ground major doctrines on texts that wonít support their weight. The "traditional" view of hell is that it is eternal and ceaseless torture inflicted by God on the finally impenitent. A major text used to support this view is Revelation 14:11. Revelation 14:9-11 is the declaration of judgement that is to come on the worshipers of the beast and the picture associated with that judgement is sulphurous fire, smoke that ascends for ever and agony that allows no rest. All of this is said to occur in the presence of the Lamb and the holy angels.
It doesnít seem to matter that throughout the book battles are described that arenít literally battles, that plagues are described that arenít literally fulfilled, that losses are sustained that arenít literally sustained. When it comes to 14:11 weíre told it will happen as described. (Of course we begin to qualify that when we notice that the text, if taken as it sits, would locate "hell" in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.)
Iím satisfied that Revelation 14:9-11 isnít able to support the traditional view. We should take seriously 1:1,3 and 22:6,10, along with the description of the plagues and the different descriptions of the wars and the judgements. If we did, I think we would conclude that Revelation is a pictorial proclamation of the victory of God over the Dragon as it was played out in the churchís war with the Roman empire. (See Daniel 7 and the discussion of the 4th beast.)
The book is about the dismantling of the Roman world and it is saturated with Godís acts of "uncreation". The plagues (following the Exodus dismantling of the Egyptian world) are acts of "uncreation". Instead of blessing, God brings cursing and attacks the Roman skies and seas and trees and rivers. This is customary biblical speech when God judges nations for their evil. Former judgements and prophetic figures and events are called on to describe (not literally) the nature of the judgement that will fall on the current tyrant and his followers.
In Isaiah 34 the prophet speaks of Edom in particular, though she well represents any enemy of Israel. When other oppressors took a rest Edom, Israelís brother, continued to attack and humiliate her so God finally steps in. Edomís destruction as a kingdom is described in three different ways and all three come under the heading of "uncreation". In the first scene Edomís heavens and earth are attacked, deluged with blood and dismantled (34:4). Genesis 1 is undone. Everyone knows this didnít (couldnít) literally occur or we wouldnít be here.
The second scene is a lake of fire. God turns Edomís land into bitumen and torches it (34:8-10). Had we flown over Edom as itís described here, we would have seen nothing but black smoke rising into the sky though every now and then through the smoke we would have seen the entire country as one big lake of fire. Had we seen any people in the middle of that they would have been writhing in agony--tormented. The fire doesnít go out and the smoke forever rises into the air. (There are no prizes for recalling the Sodom and Gomorrah destruction as the model. Do see Jude 7, though the NIV rendering is misleading.)
The third scene is one of desolation, Edom is a wilderness where the wild animals live (34:11-17). As Brueggemann and others have taught us, wilderness is the enduring witness to curse and is "uncreation" exemplified (contrary to Genesis 1).
The point I want to make is that here is a prophetic judgement on Edom described in three "contradictory" ways and not one of them is to be understood literally. Had the heavens been rolled up thereíd be no earth. Had the land become a lake of fire no animals could have lived there.
It makes no sense to say, "Thatís how itís pictured therefore thatís how it happened." No one would say that, of course. We wouldnít say it because everyone would see it as nonsense. The book of Revelation is filled with OT prophetic images of "uncreation" and lakes of fireójudgement language. Iím sure itís a mistake to acknowledge that almost all of Revelationís images are to be understood non-literally while clinging to one verseóactually a part of that one verseóto base the doctrine of eternal conscious torture on.
Read Isaiah 34 for yourself. If that judgement could take place (and it did!) without a literal fulfilment maybe Revelation 14:9-11 isnít to be understood literally.