Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
The three main views on the nature and function of hell each understand the “lake of fire” differently. All agree that anyone whose name is not found in the “book of life” is thrown into the lake, but the important question that separates them is, what comes next?
- The Eternal Conscious Torment answer is that those who are cast into the lake of fire suffer eternal conscious torment.
- The Annihilationist answer is that those who are cast into the lake of fire suffer for a time and are eventually destroyed.
- The Restorationist answer is that those cast into the lake of fire suffer until they repent and call on the name of the Lord, and then, having done so, are reconciled to God through Christ.
But the book of Revelation is written in the apocalyptic genre, which is a very symbolic, stylistic and even hyperbolic, form of literature. The “lake of fire” is neither a literal lake nor a literal fire. The experience of torment is very real — the anguish of the soul — for those who oppose God. How long does it last? “Forever and ever,” English translations say, but the Greek words, tous aionas aionon, have to do with ages or eons. That may be a long time, although the length of an age in the Bible can vary considerably. But it is not the same as eternity or endlessness. If aionas actually meant “forever,” it would be unnecessary to add ton aionon, i.e., “and ever.” A literal rendering would be “to ages of ages,” but whether that indicates endlessness or eternity is a matter of interpretative opinion. (See also, Eternal Punishment, Eternal Destruction?)
The “lake of fire” comes up again in Revelation 21, which is about the new heaven and new earth, and the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven to earth, uniting them. It is the home of the faithful, who are called the victorious and who inherit the city. But in verse 8, we read of the wicked, who have no part in the city: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars — they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” That might seem to be the end of the matter — except that as we continue to read just a few verses later, an interesting development comes to light:
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21:24-26)Who are these nations? Earlier, they are shown being prophesied against (10:10-11), as the angry recipients of God's wrath (11:18), as drinking the “maddening wine” of Babylon the Great (14:8 and 18:3), as those whose cities collapsed in their war against God (16:19), as part of the waters upon which the Great Prostitute was seated (17:15), as led astray (18:23) and as stuck down by the “sharp sword” coming out of the mouth of Christ (19:15). Yet, now they are seen walking by the light of the New Jerusalem. What has happened that accounts for this change?
And who are these kings of the earth? They, too, have been mentioned several times earlier in Revelation. They are chief among those who hid in caves and begged the mountains to fall on them, to hide them from the face of the Lord and the wrath of the Lamb (6:15-17). They are the ones who have “committed adultery” with the Great Prostitute, “intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries” (17:1-2). They “committed adultery” with her (18:3) and mourned over her destruction (18:9). Finally, they aligned with the “beast” and gathered their armies together to wage war again Christ and the saints, but they are defeated and dispatched, destroyed by the “sword” from the mouth of Christ.
These are not nice people, and we should not expect to see them again in Revelation, certainly not in the New Jerusalem — yet that is exactly what we find. They enter into the Holy City, bringing all their tribute with them to honor Christ. Again, what has happened that accounts for this change?
May I suggest that perhaps what has happened to them is the “lake of fire.” The nations and kings of the earth, as wicked as they were, would surely be cast there. But they are not destroyed or consumed by that experience — they are refined. Their anger and rebellion are burned away and they have turned to God and his Christ in repentance and faith. Elsewhere, we see that the judgment of God is for the purpose of correction, not retribution.
The nations and kings of the earth eventually returning to God in faith agrees with the purpose Paul attributes to God, that all things in heaven and on earth be reconciled to God through Christ (Colossians 1:19-20, Ephesians 1:10), that every knee bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:9-10) and that, in the end, God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Whatever the “lake of fire” is or how it functions in the apocalyptic imagery of the book of Revelation, it does not ultimately prevent the reconciliation of all things to God through Christ and his cross.