The Bible tells us relatively little information about the Lake of Fire. The world, however, has lots to say. If we describe the Lake of Fire as that place in Gary Lawson’s comic strip, The Far Side, Dante’s Inferno, or really any number of teachings of the medieval ages, then, yea, I’ll agree that unbelievers don’t go there.
The Popular View
Here are some intriguing pictures of what the Lake of Fire looks like to some people:
Above is the false prophet, Muhammad, in the 8th circle of hell from Dante’s Inferno. Quite a speculation considering that the Bible does not mention circles of hell and that Muhammad was born several centuries after the Bible was written.
Several medieval depictions of hell show Satan and the demons delighting in the torture of the unsaved, despite the biblical indication that they will be tormented as well:
For some reason, medieval illustrators loved to depict Satan eating unbelievers. In fact, just for good measure, Martin Luther made sure to feed the Pope to Satan:
My personal favorite is Satan’s fidget spinner that shows up in a couple of marginalia:
None of these fantasies have any biblical basis whatsoever. Maybe Satan stole the idea from the Roman Catholic Church?
Ok, maybe that was a low blow bringing the Spanish Inquisition into it…
None of these depictions of hell and the Lake of Fire are biblical, yet they are prominent among evangelicals. In fact, this view of hell as an unbearable place of torture has become so popular, that several more views that are equally unbiblical have emerged in response.
The Grammatical-Historical Approach vs. The Reactive Approach
One recurring topic that we have on this blog is hermeneutics, that is, how to read and interpret the Bible. We apply grammatical-historical hermeneutics, which is a fancy way of saying that we read the Bible as though it is without error and as if God reveals His message plainly rather than under layers of hidden meaning.
There is a theory called, “Annihilationism,” which supposes that God will destroy the unsaved at the final judgment so that they will not be conscience in eternity in the Lake of Fire. Other views are Universalism, which teaches that everyone is saved, or the postmortem conversion theory, which teaches that people will be able to be saved after they die. I believe that these doctrines are in conflict with direct and plain statements in the Bible about unbelievers’ eternal destiny and I think we need to maintain the grammatical-historical hermeneutic across the board if we want to understand the Bible as God wants us to.
Now, a single blog post will not resolve this long-running dispute, but I would like to answer one particular objection that Annihilationists and the like have against the grammatical-historical approach to eternity. The objection is that sending people to the Lake of Fire sounds like a mean thing that a loving God cannot do.
As a grammatical-historicist, I do not like to retreat to allegory when people ask tough questions about the Bible. Instead, I like to dig into grammar and context. Let’s take a look at what the Bible does (and does not!) say about the torment in the Lake of Fire:
What is “torment?”
The Book of Revelation describes the eternal destiny of unbelievers (specifically, unbelievers in the Tribulation):
he will be tormented with fire and sulfur […] And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night […] (Rev 14:10a-11a ESV)
Notice, first of all, that the smoke is eternal (and where there’s smoke, there’s fire), and also notice that the people will be conscious, having no rest day or night. This is not annihilation.
The words, tormented and torment, in the above passage are basanizō and basanismos (βασανίζω and βασανισμός). These words certainly do not mean comfort, but they don’t necessarily imply being thrown head-first into a pool of hot glue, where demons will poke you with a rake for all of eternity, either.
To describe paralysis:
“Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” (Matt 8:6 ESV)
To describe Lot’s distress in Sodom:
[…] righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked […] lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard (2 Peter 2:7-8 ESV)
To describe sailing a ship in a storm:
But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. (Matt 14:24 KJV)
And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them (Mark 6:48a KJV)
To describe childbirth:
Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth. (Rev 12:2 NKJV)
None of these situations is pleasant, but if the word describing the torment of hell can also be used to describe waves of the sea or the distress of being around evil people, then perhaps we can’t use Rev 14:10-11 to say that God is sadistic if the Bible is taken literally.
One more detail: at the final Great White Throne Judgment, unbelievers are sent to the Lake of Fire if they are not written in the Book of Life, but first other books that include their works will be considered. John doesn’t say exactly, but it’s possible that unbelievers with less evil works will spend eternity in a less unpleasant area of the Lake than those who were more evil. In other words, not everyone will necessarily be on par with Hitler in there.
I believe that Annihilationism is anti-biblical, but that does not mean that it is heretical. If you know someone who is an Annihilationist, please do not break fellowship with him over the matter. I recommend hearing him out, then doing your own study to present him with the evidence for a literal Lake of Fire.