Hell in the Book of Revelation

This is the twelfth in a 13-part series wherein I give you Hell, a little booklet by the inimitable Dr. Jeff Obadiah Simmonds.

One text which seems to speak of eternal torment is found in Revelation:

“If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of His wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises up for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image… (Rev 14.9-11)

Revelation is, of course, a difficult book to interpret. It is full of apocalyptic images, most of which should not be taken literally. (See Obadiah’s Little Booklet #8 on the Book of Revelation.) One must wonder how literally we should take this burning sulphur (or “fire and brimstone”) when it is said to issue from horses’ mouths (Rev 9.17). This fire is symbolic—it is not literal. We may compare it to a similar image of God’s judgement: “they shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God” (Rev 14.10). Most Christians will recognise that the “wine” is symbolic—though many will still think that the fire of hell is literal.

The figurative—or poetic—nature of Revelation’s imagery should be clear when we read that “death” is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20.14). Obviously death cannot literally be thrown into hell—we are dealing with metaphor and symbolism. Death is symbolically destroyed.

How we are to understand the mark of the beast and the punishment of those who take it is highly debatable. Given the abuse which Revelation has been subjected to through excessively literalistic interpretations we should, at very least, proceed with caution when building doctrines on a passage in a book which is symbolic and figurative.

Revelation says that in the future there will be “no more death, neither sorrow, or crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev 21.4).

We may understand that in heaven there will be no more suffering—but what of those whose loved ones are suffering in hell? When one of my children becomes sick, I am saddened. When my mother-in-law got cancer and died, we suffered, to some extent, alongside her. If Helen, my wife, were to be seriously injured in a car accident, I too would feel pain. If I were to go to heaven and find that some of those whom I love were suffering in an even more severe way, I would not be ecstatically happy—I would feel sorrow and pain. If everyone in heaven knows that people are being eternally tortured by God, including friends and family, how could heaven be a place of bliss? In what way would it be a place of “neither sorrow, nor crying, nor pain”?

And how could we feel love for a God who kept such loved ones eternally alive, merely to see them suffer? And how could such eternal suffering be justified if it is a judgement for deeds committed in ignorance in just a handful of years on earth?

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