I’d like to devote a few more posts to my book on the Afterlife. I don’t want to steal my own thunder and give away *everything* I will be talking about in the book here on the blog. But I am interested to getting reactions to some of my more important and controversial claims about the Bible. One thing I’ll be arguing is that the idea of hell-fire, taken chiefly from the book of Revelation, is frequently misunderstood. In my view, the book of Revelation does teach the eternal joy that is to come for believers in Jesus; but it does not teach that sinners (and unbelievers) will experience eternal torment in hell. Even though they are thrown into “the lake of fire.”
To explain my views will take at least three posts. To begin I need to explain some things about the book itself and the symbolism found throughout the book. To do that I need to sketch what actually happens in the book. Here is a kind of quick and ready summary of the action (there’s lots of action!)
The book begins with the author experiencing a highly symbolic vision of Christ, “one like a Son of Man,” who tells him to write letters encouraging and exhorting the seven churches of Asia Minor and then to describe all that he is about to be shown – the visions of the heavenly realm that foreshadow what will happen on earth (Revelation 1:12-20).
After John writes the correspondence, the revelations begin in chapter 4, where he is ordered to ascend through a door in the sky to the world above. When he arrives in heaven he sees God in his brilliance, seated on his throne, with flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, surrounded by twenty-four elders wearing white robes and golden crowns, and four creatures representing all living things, worshipping God forever. John then sees in the hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll sealed with seven seals. The scroll contains a written account of what will transpire on earth. The prophet weeps when he sees that no one is worthy to break the seals so as to unroll the scroll. But one of the elders tells him that there is, in fact, one who is worthy. John then sees next to the throne “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” The Lamb, of course, is Christ (4:1-5:14).
The Lamb takes the scroll from the hand of God and …
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The Lamb takes the scroll from the hand of God and breaks its seals, one at a time (ch. 6) With the breaking of each seal, a major catastrophe happens on earth: war, famine, economic collapse, and death. When he breaks the sixth seal, cosmic disaster ensues: the sun turns black, the moon red; the stars fall from the sky and the sky vanishes. You would think that this, now, is the end of all existence, the destruction of the universe. But we are only in chapter six.
The breaking of the seventh seal does not lead to another disaster, but to a new sequence of disasters. Seven angels appear, each bearing a trumpet. As each one blows his trumpet, a new disaster hits the earth. Natural disasters on land and sea and in the sky; the appearances of horrible beasts who wreak havoc; massive calamity and unspeakable suffering (chs. 8-9). The seventh trumpet marks the beginning of the end: the Antichrist appears along with his false prophet (chs. 12-13). But then we are introduced to seven more angels, each bearing a bowl of God’s wrath. Each one pours his bowl out upon the earth in turn, leading to yet more calamities, one after the other: epidemics, universal misery, and death (chs. 15-16).
The end comes with the destruction of the great “whore of Babylon,” the city responsible for the persecution of the saints (ch. 17). The city is overthrown amidst great weeping and wailing on earth, but much rejoicing in heaven (chs. 18-19). There then comes a final cosmic battle between the heavenly Christ, with his heavenly armies, and the Antichrist and the forces aligned with him. It is, in fact, no contest: Christ wins quickly and decisively. The enemies of God are completely crushed and the Antichrist and the false prophet are thrown into “the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Revelation 19:21).
An angel then comes from heaven to capture Satan and bind him for a thousand years in a bottomless pit, while Christ rules the earth with the many, many martyrs who had been killed for their faith. At the end of this “millennium,” Satan is released for a time to wreak temporary havoc on the earth, but then finally he is captured and also thrown into the lake of fire, where with the Antichrist and prophet he would be “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).
Then there is a final resurrection of the dead. Humans are all raised to face judgment. Those whose names are written in “the book of life” are rewarded; those not found in the book are thrown into the lake of fire. The book concludes with the prophet’s vision of a New Jerusalem that descends from heaven to earth, the dwelling place of all saints forever. It is an enormous place, 1500 miles square, made of gold and with gates of pearl; it has no need of light because God himself, and his Lamb, enlighten it. This will be an eternal place of joy, with no more fear or darkness, no pain, misery, suffering, or tears. Good will reign forever and the righteous will forever bask in it its light (chs. 21-22). The prophet John ends the book by stressing his vision is true and Christ is “coming soon” (22:20).
In my next post I will be dealing with the symbolism of the book generally, all with an eye toward what he is describing when he talks about the “lake of fire.” My overarching question is: if most of the book is filled with symbols that are never meant to be taken literally, but figuratively – why should we think the author means for the lake of fire to be understood *literally*?