This has to be the verse most frequently pointed to when one is trying to prove that sinners will burn in hell fire for ever. But there are a couple of points we want out opponents to consider when it comes to this verse.
We’ll begin by comparing…
In our study The Achilles Heel of the Eternal Torment Doctrine we learned that John tells us that that whoever hates his brother is a murderer (1 John 3:15), and that the Devil himself, according to John, is a murderer (John 8:44). A murderer, he says, “hath [no] eternal life abiding in him.” This means that the devil will not live forever, whether in flames, in darkness, or whatever, for the only way to live forever is to have the life, Jesus Christ, abiding in your heart (1 John 1:2, John 3:16). The Devil, along with every lost individual, will eventually lose their souls simply because they don’t have Jesus Christ. How therefore can this same author then contradict himself in his fourth book, the book of Revelation, and say that in fact sinners will life for ever in flames and yet continue to be an inspired prophet of God? To interpret Revelation 14:10-11 in the manner in which believers in the Eternal Torment doctrine do would mean to cause the author to contradict himself, rendering the bible, or at least John’s writings, as uninspired.
Most Christians aren’t ready to do this. In fact the wise Christian will understand that there is no need to cause such a contradiction, for all of it is in harmony when we understand a couple of facts, the first being the…
It’s generally understood by most that the book of Revelation contains both literal and symbolic imaging, the symbolic, or course, being in the majority. We also know that in order to understand those portions of Revelation which are obviously symbolic we must let other portions of the bible interpret its words, allowing an explanation of such portions. Let’s first explain why this verse must be understood as, not literal, but symbolic.
In the context within verses 10 and 11, we have the following symbols:
(10) The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall 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 ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.
(1) “… drink of the wine of the wrath of God…”
(2) “… cup of his indignation…”
(3) “… who worship the beast…”
(4) “…and his image…”
Or course, God will not pour out wine upon the wicked nor will be fill a literal cup with his indignation. The Beast, we know, comes up out of the earth, had two horns like a lamb and yet speaks like a dragon (Revelation 13:11). I’m positive you don’t believe such a Beast literally exists, for less a speaking statue, or image.
However, when we enter the next verse, verse 12, we have literal language, for there will be faithful saints in the time of the end who will “keep the commandments of God,” which literally exist (Exodus 20:1-17) and will definitely have the faith of Christ.
Thus we know when in Revelation the vision is depicting something literal or symbolic, by the language being used. Why would our critics insist that, in the midst of all the symbolism in verses 10-11, the smoke must be literal?
When comparing the words of verses 10-11 with other portions of scripture, we learn that this is simply a way of explaining how lost the wicked will actually be. Consider for example how similar his words are to those of Isaiah the prophet:
Isaiah 34:2, 8-10
(2) For the indignation of the LORD is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter.
(8) For it is the day of the LORD'S vengeance, and the year of recompences for the controversy of Zion.
(9) And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch.
(10) It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.
In context the Lord is pronouncing judgment upon Idumea, which is another name for Edom. The language used by the prophet is the same as that of John the Revelator. Both speak of:
(1) The indignation of God
(3) night nor day
(5) Go up, or ascendeth
(6) For ever and ever
This was not a conditional prophecy either, it literally happened, because the Lord promised it:
(16) Seek ye out of the book of the LORD, and read: no one of these shall fail, none shall want her mate: for my mouth it hath commanded, and his spirit it hath gathered them.
We note also that Isaiah, like John, uses both literal and symbolic language in his prophecy. The obvious is this… Edom is not still burning today. In fact, in the same prophesy we’re told what the end result will be:
(13) And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls.
(14) The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest.
(15) There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.
Despite saying that it’s smoke would go up for ever and ever, the result we read is verses 13-15. It literally disappeared. It became a desert. To suggest that it is still somehow burning today would mean to contradict these verses.
The same is seen in the prophecies of John. After the description of the smoke which ascends for ever and ever, we read of a “new heaven and a new earth…” –Revelation 21:1. Note the fire was kindles upon the earth:
(9) And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.
As the burning and ascending smoke of the wicked of Edom resulted in a complete change in its environment, so the burning and ascending smoke of the wicked of the earth will result in a complete change thereof.
Then to continue to aid us in understanding this verse a bit more, we seek the assistance of…
In speaking about this burning smoke, the prophet David tells says:
(19) They shall not be ashamed in the evil time: and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied.
(20) But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the LORD shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away.
Again we find the language of John the Revelator set in the context of complete annihilation. Yes, there will be smoke, and there will be fire, but all this will result in their being “consumed away.” They will literally “perish.” Notice also what we find in the book of Genesis:
(24) Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;
(25) And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
(26) But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
(27) And Abraham gat up early in the morning to the place where he stood before the LORD:
(28) And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.
Once again we find the same language used by John in Revelation 14:10-11. See what happens when we let the bible interpret itself? Notice the words here that John also used in his description:
(1) Brimstone and fire
(4) went up (or go up, ascendeth)
And were not really missing the words “for ever and ever” when we take into account Jude’s explanation of this event:
(7) Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
Although these cities were burned with smoke that ascendeth up for ever and ever, Peter tells us that they became “ashes.” -2 Peter 2:6.
In light of all of this, we can conclude that the language John uses was to simply express how terrible and eternal the destruction of the wicked will actually be. This can be further proven by…
This is the word translated “ever” in Revelation 14:11. Notice the definitions Thayer’s gives us:
Thayer Definition for aiōn:
1) for ever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity
2) the worlds, universe
3) period of time, age
Part of Speech: noun masculine
A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: from the same as G104
The third one says it can mean “a period of time.” This could be either a long period of time, or a short period of time. Its usage is found for each definition as well. In Matthew 6:13, for example, it must literally mean forever. In Matthew 13:39, it must mean “the world” as we read of in the second definition. But in a couple of verses, like Colossians 1:26, Matthew 21:19 and Ephesians 2:2 (here translated “course”), it must hold the means of a “period of time.” Take Colossians 1:26 for example:
(26) Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages (aion) and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:
The mystery, which is Christ in us according to verse 27, was hid for “ever,” or from aions. But that was only for a “period of time” because it has been “made manifest to his saints.”
With all this wealth of information we can now conclude by…
We must choose the third definition, a “period of time” for the word “ever” in Revelation 14:11 for the many reasons gathered up in this study. I will briefly summarize these point below:
First: John would not contradict himself in saying in one book that the enemies of God, especially the Devil, will never have eternal life, and yet say in the other that they will live for ever and ever in flames.
Second: The language used to describe their destruction is symbolic; the same language used in other portions of scripture where we’re told the result was total annihilation.
Third: The bible literally explains for us what such language means. In Psalm 37:19-20 we’re told the result will be that the wicked will “perish.”
Fourth: The language used in Revelation is the same used by other prophets in the rest of scripture, indicating that it is language used to indicate that the result of the burning is what’s perpetual, and not the actual burning itself, like Edom and Sodom Gomorrah.
This makes much more sense, and is in harmony with all of the bible. Ezekiel 28 teaches that the devil will be annihilated, while Malachi 4:3 says they wicked will be put to “ashes.”
As such, letting the bible interpret itself, we find that John was not teaching that the wicked will literally burn for ever, but rather that they will be “destroyed” for ever.
For further study, see:
-Ezekiel 28: The King of Tyrus? Or Satan?
-2 Thessalonians 1:9: Everlasting Destruction?
-The Achilles Heel of the Eternal Torment Doctrine