Daddy kissed little Johnny goodbye and went to work. On the way out the door, he told the 5 year old, “Make sure to clean up your room before I get back tonight.” The toddler promised he would.
Arriving at work, the case of one of Dad’s generals was brought to him. The general was leaking government secrets to the enemy. Dad, whose name was Josef Stalin, sentenced the man to life in prison with hard labor.
When Daddy arrived home, Johnny’s room was still messy. He had refused to clean it. What was Daddy’s response? He sentenced Johnny to life in prison with hard labor.
How does a leader arrive at such sentencing? Very simple, everyone is treated the same. If you disobey, then you get life in prison with hard labor. It is easy to memorize and apply, and the punishments are equal.
But, you say, the sentence might be fair for the traitorous general, but it is way out of proportion for the kid. Yes, agrees Stalin, but both disobeyed my orders and I am great. Therefore, each sin is great and deserves great punishment.
You might be wondering, What is the point of this ridiculous little parable? It encapsulates the reasoning for eternal torment used by all the preachers I have heard defending that doctrine. Whether they believe in eternal fire or eternal darkness, they arrive there by Stalin’s reasoning: Because God is infinite and sinners sin against God, therefore punishment must be infinite.
This monstrous reasoning makes God appear to be a monster. Thankfully, it is false. The Love that sacrificed His own soul for sinners, will lovingly put sinning souls to sleep, forever. “The wages of sin is death.” “The soul that sins will die.” According to Scripture, a soul will cease to exist after it suffers the proportional consequences of its own hurtful choices.
Before a soul is created, it did not exist. God then brings that baby into existence by His own choice. No person has a choice whether or not they will be brought to life. It would truly be a demented and grotesque God who creates people against their will then tortures them forever for going against His will!
However, God is a God of freedom. Every person always has the right to return to non-existence. If the life God supplies is not to the person’s liking, then they can return that life to Him and they can return to non-being.
Why can’t a person live his/her own life? Because they don’t have their own life. Creatures are not Creators. None of us have self-existence. None of us have self-immortality. There is God’s life or there is no life at all. There simply are not any other options or sources of life. Considering that God supplies only the best (anything less would be wrong), what is there to complain about? But, freedom is freedom. If someone is not happy, then they are free to go. The two options are nothing, or the best (always getting better).
The error of eternal torment is usually based on the unbiblical belief that the soul is naturally immortal. (Another study for another time.) If that were true, unending torture would make a tiny bit more sense, but “only God has immortality.” (1 Timothy 6:16)
Also, “God is love.” “He will not always chide: neither will He keep His anger for ever.” (Psalm 103:9) If a small, finite sinner is to suffer torture at the hands of an angry God forever, then over time we would all come to conclude that something is wrong with God. We would all grow tired and fearful of His maniacal, insatiable revenge. To keep someone alive just so you can torture them is beyond cruel.
So what is a God of love to do about the sinner who not only wants out of God’s life, but inflicts pain and death on others around himself?
It takes time for a person to come to a firm conclusion that they do not want the infinite good life offered by an infinite good person. During that time they can be very unhappy and misery loves company and misery seeks expression. Shouldn’t there be justice? Shouldn’t there be some kind of restitution before the objector exits existence? Shouldn’t the perfect God who promises a perfect life always getting better do something about it? Otherwise, we are all going to lose faith and life will become hopeless.
As we introduced in book one, we need ultimate justice to bring perfect closure. Only in that way can our faith emerge stronger and our love grow more intense. So now let’s see how God’s justice is both complete and proportional. The soul dies, but it also faces the consequences.
Like spokes meeting at the hub, we will now bring two Bible patterns together to make the central point. We will first trace the pattern of fire, then we will follow the pattern of proportional justice. When they meet together in the last chapters of Revelation, then we will see a picture of fairness and resolution.
It is undeniable that the Bible records instances of God using literal fire, brimstone, lightning, and thunder to destroy evil and get people’s attention. However, those were only earthly, temporary illustrations to warn transgressors about the ultimate judgment to come. That judgment will not cleanse the universe with forest fires or flame throwers. Something much more powerful is needed. Our first hint is given in Genesis 3:24.
God “placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” This flaming sword is clearly not the standard issue medieval metal blade with a ivory handle.
Millennia later, “the angel of the LORD appeared unto [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:2) Again, this is clearly no ordinary, earthly fire.
Soon after, God led the people of Israel through the desert by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Did the Israelites feed this fire by chopping down entire forests? I think not!
Centuries later, “behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both apart; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11) Obviously, this is heavenly fire taking the prophet to heaven.
Isaiah was another prophet who experienced divine fire. “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.” (Isaiah 6:1-7)
The temple was not filled with black, choking smoke or the angels would not be singing. Fire makes smoke, but the word “glory” is used here instead. Heaven’s fire and smoke and coals are much different than earth’s. What charcoal briquette can erase sin and grant pure speech?!!
Chapters 1, 8, and 10 in Ezekiel describe “a fire enfolding itself,” and a Being with fire emanating from His belly both upward and downward. These are clearly illustrations of self-existence. The same scene reveals angels and “living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.”
Daniel’s picture of the throne room shows God’s “throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him.” (Daniel 7:9-11) Was God burning His attending angels or was He enlightening them with His glory? Heaven is truly beyond our comprehension!
Daniel also tells the story of regular fire without regular effects. We need to take note of this for later. "Because the king's commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flames of the fire slew those men that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished and rose up in haste, and spoke and said unto his counselors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God. Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spoke and said, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, you servants of the most high God, come forth, and come here. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire. And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king's counselors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was a hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them." (Daniel 3:22-27)
In the New Testament, Mount Sinai is replaced by the Mount of Transfiguration. “Jesus takes Peter, James, and John his brother, and brings them up into a high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his clothing was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elijah talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if you will let us make here three tabernacles; one for you and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. While he yet spoke, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear you him." (Matthew 17:1-5) The visual is the same, but “fire” and “smoke” are replaced by “white light” and “bright clouds.” This is a hint of things soon to come.
At Pentecost “there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them." (Acts 2:3) Candles and torches on the apostles’ heads? I think not!
Skipping many more examples, let’s jump to Revelation where Jesus appears. “And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and wrapped about the chest with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.” (Revelation 1:13-15) For the third time in this pattern, we see the glorified Christ, this time with a mix of language but painting the same picture. God’s fire is not man’s fire!
Finally, we arrive at Revelation 20 and introduce our punchline. “Fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.” The rejectors of God’s grace are consumed by fire. Both earthly fire and heavenly fire are capable of doing this, but read the text again and notice the source. God’s fire from heaven kills the wicked.
Why not just use regular fire? The answer is found in our second pattern because ultimate justice is needed to bring complete closure.
When God established the nation of Israel, He gave them laws such as, “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” (Exodus 22:1) “And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbor as he has done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he has caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that kills a beast, he shall restore it: and he that kills a man, he shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:19-21)
It is the right of a person to forgive and turn the other cheek, but for national law and order these rules cannot be improved because they are based on fairness and proportionality. When crime is overlooked or rewarded, all of society suffers. This is also true when Stalin’s iron fist comes down hard and cruel on every minor infraction. When mountains are treated as molehills and molehills become mountains, then the people cry out, protest, and demand justice.
This is why God applies justice in proper proportion. “That servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” (Luke 12:47-48)
He commands us to do the same. “If you forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain; If you say, Behold, we knew it not; does not he that ponders the heart consider it? and he that keeps your soul, does not he know it? and shall not he render to every man according to his works?” (Proverbs 24:11-12)
This theme of corresponding rewards or punishments is often repeated. “I will repay them according to their deeds, and according to the works of their own hands.” (Jeremiah 25:14)
“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” (Matthew 16:27)
Even the angels are subject to this principle. “Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.” (2 Corinthians 11:15)
“Reward her even as she rewarded you, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she has filled fill to her double.” (Revelation 18:6) Doubling is often used, but it is still proportional. It seems to imply the transgressor will suffer the natural consequences as well as paying for those that he hurt.
“Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert. Because they regard not the works of the LORD, nor the operation of his hands, he shall destroy them, and not build them up.” (Psalms 28:4-5) This text brings us back to our focal point in Revelation 20. The wicked are punished according to their deeds, then they are destroyed until nothing is left to rebuild.
“And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and surrounded the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” (Revelation 20:9-13)
The executive summary is given in the first verse where we are told the wicked are destroyed by God’s fire. Then it is expanded in the rest of the chapter to give us the details that all suffer according to their works. Then everyone dies. Then, even death itself is destroyed, nevermore to threaten a purified, immunized universe.
“And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” (Revelation 20:14)
Notice that this is the second death. Jesus spoke of two resurrections and two deaths. (Matthew 10:28; John 5:29) This second death kills both body and soul and death itself. Every trace of evil is eliminated. Every shadow of suffering is replaced by the light of life.
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
The glory of heaven is painful and undesirable to the stubborn evildoer. The unselfish life they resist in this world becomes the visible and omnipresent standard of eternity. They would perpetually be filled with shame and guilt as well as hatred, anger, and jealousy.
How do we know this? Not only are there many examples of people collapsing in the presence of God’s holiness, but the finally impenitent resist the glory of God in the lake of fire. Remember, they will be destroyed, but not by the fire and brimstone around them. Like the three Hebrews in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, they were preserved from earthly flames. Meanwhile, God’s glory descends like refining fire and communes personally with each individual. He who is “longsuffering towards us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” (2 Peter 3:9) repeats His offer of life. For every sin, He shows Himself forgiving. But each gracious offer is refused. Those with more sins, refuse more. Thus, their pain and guilt is more. The greater the darkness, the greater is the needed light. And every time light meets darkness, darkness feels pain.
Selfishness cannot survive nor be comfortable in the presence of self-sacrifice. If God really wanted to torture the wicked, He would sit them on stools close to His throne for all eternity.
The rebellious welcome death as a dark refuge from the Light of Love. Their bodies burn and turn to ash. (Malachi 4:1) The earth is made new. The universe is populated only by those filled with faith, hope, and love for each other and their God.
“The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness has surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walks righteously, and speaks uprightly; he that despises the gain of oppressions, that shakes his hands from holding of bribes, that stops his ears from hearing of blood, and shuts his eyes from seeing evil.” (Isaiah 33:14-15)
Who will dwell in everlasting burnings? Who will live with Eternal Fire? The saints. Hellfire is the glory of God. Only the Father’s true sons and daughters will live with Him and in Him, for God’s glory is both fire and life.
No earthly fire is hot enough to burn up evil. No earthly fire is hot enough to dry up all tears. No earthly fire is hot enough to wipe away suffering, separation, and death. Only the cool touch of Christ’s blazing glory is able to bestow and maintain everlasting immortality and eternal happiness. Only God’s glorious goodness can make plain the failed deception of evil.
Before sin arose, no one knew any of this, but looking out from the walls of the city on the vast lake of fire the saints see the ultimate rejection of love by rebels who can see and feel the goodness of everlasting life within their reach. Yet, they choose to resist it in spite of a lifetime of effort to save them.
This final, visible experience convinces the children of God that every decision has been freely made. Friends and family have chosen death over life, separation over unity. The saints let them go. Then they turn their faces to their Father and Savior and walk together into eternity.
In your words:
What if your favorite pet gradually became rabid and kept biting people, and no treatment in the world could cure it? Would you put it to sleep? Would you cry while you did it? Would you still love that pet? Would you be exercising both mercy and justice? If your best friend betrayed and persecuted you and they still refused to repent in the lake of fire, what emotions would you feel? What emotions might God feel?