Does John’s apocalypse support the eternal conscious torment of those who reject God? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Here are the words in question:
9 Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, 10 they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
The question to ask when reading apocalyptic literature is not ‘what do the images depict?’ so much as ‘what do the images mean?’ I shall try to answer this question as best as I can by first explaining the symbols/language and then putting the concepts together.
The Four Symbols of Punishment
The angel pronounces a judgment on “those who worship the beast and its image” that includes four symbols connected to judgment: the wine of God’s fury and the cup of His wrath, torment from fire and sulfur, the smoke of torment rising forever, and no rest day or night. As previously mentioned in Intro to Apocalyptic Literature, the best way to understand the symbols in Revelation is to go to the Old Testament. According to the NT scholar Bruce Metzger, “other symbols in Revelation can be understood in the light of the symbolism used in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. It is clear that John had studied the Old Testament very thoroughly. Of the 404 verses that compromise the 22 chapters of the book of Revelation, 278 verses contain one or more allusions to an Old Testament passage. John had so thoroughly pondered the Old Testament that when it came to recording the import of his visions of God and of heaven, he expressed himself by using phrases borrowed from the prophets of Israel.”
The Wine and Cup of God’s Fury and Wrath. Edward Fudge has this to say about these symbols:
“The cup of God’s wrath is a well-established Old Testament symbol of divine judgment in the books of poetry (Job 21:20; Ps. 60:3; 75:8) as well as prophecy (Isa. 51:17, 22: Jer. 25:15-38; Obad. 16). The figure points to God, who mixes the drink (Ps. 75:8; Jer. 25:15-38), and also to the staggering effect the potion has on those who quaff (Ps. 60:3; Isa. 51:17, 22). Since God concocts this cup, He can adjust its potency according to His own pleasure, diluting it (as with water) or strengthening in (as with spices or perhaps even poison). To be handed the cup means being singled out for punishment from the Almighty and so entails agony, terror and fear.”(Emphasis mine)
This cup may merely induce a temporary “staggering” from which Israel may recover from (Isa. 51:22), or it may be a cup by which those who drink of it will “drink, get drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more” (Jer. 25:27) and become like those not “lamented, or gathered, or buried…dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer. 25:33). Jesus drinks from a cup similar to the latter example (Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42, Matt 26:39) and drains it empty, thereby tasting death (the penalty for sin: Rom 6:23) for everyone (Heb. 2:9). Later in Revelation, John connects the cup to Babylon (Rome) who, after drinking, will suffer the “torment and grief” (18:7) of “death and mourning and famine” (18:8).
Fire and Brimstone. Though some modern translations render this as “burning sulfur,” this is the ultimate phrase of judgment by which it is determined how ‘hardcore’ a preacher is (I’m thinking of Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” here). This symbol originates from the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah when God “rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (Gen 19:24) and is afterwards used to signify total destruction. One of the curses reserved for Israel if they violated their covenant with God was that their land would become “burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Deut. 29:23). For the wicked man, sulfur is scattered upon their habitations and their roots dry up beneath, their branches wither above, and their memory perishes from the earth (Job 18:15-17, Ps. 11:6). For the king of Assyria, God is said to have lit the sacrificial fires with his breath “like a stream of sulfur” (Isaiah 30:33), an outpouring of the same “burning anger” that manifests itself in a “consuming fire” (v. 27) that shakes “the nations with the sieve of destruction” (v. 28).
This is only a small sampling of the Biblical symbol, yet it is fully representative of its use. “Outside the book of Revelation there can be little question that burning sulfur signifies extinction, destruction, eradication, extermination and annihilation. Sometimes this is explicit; sometimes it is implied. But it is always there.”
Rising Smoke. This symbol often overlaps with symbols of fire and sulfur, and it also originates with Sodom and Gomorrah. After the cities are burnt, Abraham “looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace” (Gen. 19:28). Rising smoke is afterwards used as a reminder of a past judgment involving the dreadful punishment of the “consuming fire.” After the fire has consumed everything in sight, the smoke remains. Isaiah 34 depicts the destruction of Edom by using this image. After proclaiming that Edom will be turned into sulfur and a “burning pitch” (v. 9), Isaiah says Edom’s “smoke shall go up forever” (v. 10). Isaiah then goes on to describe the total destruction that will befall Edom, making it clear that the rising smoke is a permanent testament to its destruction. (More on this later…Isaiah 34 is incredibly important to understanding Rev. 14)
No Rest Day or Night. In using the phrase “day or night,” John means to indicate that those who worship the beast will not enjoy any break or rest from experiencing God’s judgment. Their “torment” is not merely a daytime or nighttime action but an action that continues regardless of wherever the sun happens to be in relation to the Earth’s rotation. This expression is used numerous times to indicate something that will occur without stoppage, though in most cases this is exaggerated (such as Paul working and praying “night and day”; 1 Thess. 2:9; 3:10). This phrase says nothing about the duration of an action, only that it will continue without break as long as the duration of the action.
Putting the Symbolism Together
To understand this passage, there are several things that need to be noticed from John’s use of symbolism:
- The word “torment” modifies the symbols of sulfur and smoke. In the OT, fire and sulfur are said to annihilate, whether literally or metaphorically, whatever is subjected to it. John, however, writes, “they will be tormented with fire and sulfur,” as though the symbol of judgment, beyond merely destroying (or instead of destroying), also torments its victims. Concerning the symbol of rising smoke, John has the smoke proceed from their torment itself rather than from their destruction. Now, I know what you are probably thinking here. ‘Wait, Ty…aren’t you actually supporting the tradition view of hell? Can you not see the holes forming in your castle wall, the water leaking from a breach in your ship hull?’ I know, I know. BUT, acknowledging that John modifies these symbols with the word “torment” does not immediately sink my case. There is one last question to ask: does John use the concept of “torment” as a symbol for destruction? (I answer this further down in the post…and the answer is yes, he does!) If one can reasonably substitute the word “destruction” for “torment,” then Rev. 14:9-11 reads consistently alongside the entirety of the Bible.
- Three out the four symbols John uses in this passage typically support the annihilation of the wicked. The cup, fire and brimstone, and rising smoke are all used throughout the Bible to indicate death and destruction. In the most extreme case, the unmixed and undiluted cup Jesus drinks leads to his death. The other two symbols originate from Sodom and are used by the prophets (including Jesus) to pronounce and/or describe a punishment similar to this first event.
- Isaiah 34 largely serves as the source imagery for John’s prediction of the beast’s and Babylon’s destruction.Verses 9-11: “And the streams of Edom[a] shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. 10 Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever. 11 But the hawk[b] and the hedgehog[c] shall possess it; the owl[d] and the raven shall live in it.” Both Rev. 14 (the beast’s destruction) and Rev. 18 (Babylon’s destruction) share similar imagery, specifically the symbols of rising smoke, night and day, and fire, with Isaiah 34. Isaiah 34 describes the destruction of Edom and therefore shares a similar context with Rev. 14 (which describes the destruction of the Emperor of the Roman Empire) and Rev. 18 (which describes the destruction of Rome). Thus John viewed Isaiah 34 as the perfect source for what he wished to communicate. Richard Bauckham recognized this connection and observed that “Isaiah 34:8-17 is a major source for John’s oracle against Babylon . . . and also supplies the imagery of the judgment of the worshippers of the beast (Rev. 14:10b-11: Isa. 34:9-10a) . . .. Clearly John read Isaiah 34 as a key property of the eschatological judgment of all the nation, led in their opposition to God’s kingdom by Rome (Edom).”
- The Annihilationist Reading of Rev. 14:9-11 best fits the immediate context. In Rev. 14:9-11, an angel merely announces (though there is some description inherent in the announcement) the coming judgment. John then moves on to describe this judgment in 14:14-20. This description involves a sickle that reaps the earth, after which the vines are thrown into the wine press of God’s wrath. The result is truly a gruesome picture. “And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press…” (v. 20). John’s words here are just as much of a testament to the destruction of the wicked as his use of smoke and sulfur earlier in the chapter.
Additional Questions (That Need to be Asked)
- Does John use the concept of “torment” as a symbol for destruction? In Revelation 18, a passage very similar to Revelation 14, John describes the destruction of Babylon. The fall of Rome involves “plagues” (v. 4), “torment and mourning” (v. 7), and “death and mourning and famine” (v. 8). Additionally, “she will be burned up with fire” (v. 8). Later, “the kings of the earth…will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. They will stand far off, in fear of her torment…”(Emphasis mine)(v. 9-10). In John’s vision, these kings weep and wail at the sight of Rome’s destruction, a destruction expressed by the word “torment” (v. 7, 10). In other words, John uses the word “torment” to describe the sight of Rome undergoing the process of destruction. John later repeats the imagery in verse 15, where the merchants stand far off “in fear of her torment,” all the while exclaiming, “For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste.” (v. 17) Later in verse 17, sailors stand far off (a repetitive expression) “and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning”. All throughout this chapter, we see John use the word “torment” interchangeably with other symbols to describe the destruction of Rome. As we can observe, this destruction involves torment, but the torment does not last forever. The implications of this are huge for our reading of Rev. 14:9-11. Since both passages share thematic elements and a common OT source for their imagery, it is reasonable to conclude that John meant for “torment” to also be read in a similar light—that is, “torment” is a symbol of the destruction of the beast and those who worship him.
- Why would John use “torment” as a symbol for destruction? Any answer to this question is speculative, but I think we can guess that John perhaps saw this torment in his vision, yet interpreted the torment as leading to eventual destruction. There are very few ways one can die that do not involve the torment of suffering in some form or fashion, and it is also plausible that John did not anticipate us reading into his words the idea of the eternal conscious torment of unbelievers. Regardless of the reason, John did not have modern readers in mind when he wrote this letter and it is bound to be confusing.
- Does the change in the order of the symbols affect the meaning and reflect the intention of John to distinguish his vision from Isaiah’s words? In Isaiah 34, Edom is first burned with sulfur, then the fire does not stop night or day, then the smoke goes up forever. This presents a straightforward logical progression of the destructive process. In contrast, Rev. 14:9-11 presents an order of fire and sulfur, then smoke ascending forever, then no rest day or night for those who worship the beast. This reversal of the order of the imagery might appear at first glance to support the idea of eternal torment, but this conclusion does not take into account the fact that John is employing an inverted parallelistic structure (a chiasmus)—”a verbal pattern (a type of antithesis) in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed.” An example of a chiasmus would be “Don’t sweat the petty things–and don’t pet the sweaty things.” According to D. A. Carson, “It has often been shown that those who spoke Semitic languages commonly framed chiasms as part of their speech patterns. . . .”
What this inverted parallelistic structure reveals is that the center of the structure is also the climax, the final element of the punishment. Like Isaiah 34, John also sees the rising smoke as the end game of God’s wrath. If the seems like a stretch, letters such as John’s apocalypse were meant to be read out loud to groups of people, and therefore the person who “performed” the letter was able to add his own inflection to the reading to add or subtract emphasis wherever needed. Since chiasmi were common speech patterns, the pattern would have probably been recognized by John’s listeners.
In conclusion, John, through the use of a chiasmic structure, depicts the destruction of those who worship the Roman emperor. In his description, he uses several symbols of destruction found in the OT, including fire and sulfur, rising smoke, and the cup of God’s wrath. All of these symbols point towards annihilationism in their Biblical usage. The phrase “day or night,” rather than alluding to an eternal process, alludes to a process that continue without rest or break for as long as the duration of the process. Furthermore, John uses Isaiah 34, a prophetic passage describing the destruction of Edom, as the source for his imagery. Though John modifies two of the symbols (“fire and sulfur” and “smoke”) with the “torment,” we see from John’s description of Babylon’s destruction in Rev. 18 that “torment” serves as a symbol for destruction. Therefore, the entire passage seems to support the eventual destruction (annihilation) of those who worship the beast, not their eternal torment.
 Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. pg. 13
 Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. 2e, pg. 295
 Fudge, 297
 R. Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1993), 318. as quoted by Ralph G. Bowles in Does Revelation 14:11 Teach Eternal Torment? Examining a Proof-text on Hell. The Evangelical Quarterly, pg. 5
 D. A. Carson, ‘Approaching the Bible’, in D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. France, J. A. Motyer and G. J. Wenham (ed.), New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), 13. as quoted by Ralph G. Bowles in Does Revelation 14:11 Teach Eternal Torment? Examining a Proof-text on Hell. The Evangelical Quarterly, pg. 26
 Ralph G. Bowles in Does Revelation 14:11 Teach Eternal Torment? Examining a Proof-text on Hell. The Evangelical Quarterly, pg. 27 http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/2001-1_021.pdf