The lake of fire in John’s apocalypse is the misunderstood angst-y teenager who everyone gossips about but few actually take the time to get know beyond the stories commonly shared over school lunches and microwaveable hot pockets. To the gossipers’ credit, the lake of fire is shrouded in mystery and takes a little bit of work to understand, unlike, for example, Jesus’ unquenchable fires and undying worms. Those symbols are fairly easy to understand but end up being verbally abused and bullied. Concerning our understanding of the lake of fire however, we must examine any biblical backgrounds and parallels available, look at what (or who) will be thrown into it, and ask ourselves what John says the lake of fire symbolizes.
Old Testament Background and Parallels
The only relevant Old Testament parallel to the lake of fire is Daniel 7. In Daniel 7, Daniel records a vision of the Ancient of Days taking his seat on a throne of “fiery flames” (v. 9), whose “wheels were burning fire” (v. 9), and from Him a river of fire flowed forth (v. 10). God’s court then proceeds to pronounce judgment on the four beasts of Daniel’s vision. These four beasts represent kingdoms. The majority of interpreters view these kingdoms as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. A minority of interpreters (though this number might be considered a majority among more critical scholars…I am not certain of this) view these kingdoms as Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece. The fourth beast is “killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire” (v. 11) and is “consumed and destroyed to the end” (v. 26). If John intends us to make a connection between the fourth beast in Daniel 7 and the beast in Rev. 19:20, then this passage reinforces the idea that the lake of fire is a symbol for annihilation and destruction.
Gehenna is another possible parallel, as the cursed valley was viewed as a symbol for punishment and was often mixed with the symbol of fire for double apocalyptic points among certain Jewish circles. Though some Jews writing during the intertestamental person depicted Gehenna as a valley of torment, Jesus time and time again invoked the valley when speaking of the eventual death and destruction of sinners. Their fate, according to Jesus, would be Gehenna, the valley of fire, a symbolic fire that spelled the permanent end of its victims. This may also illuminate our understanding of the lake of fire, but it is incomplete without examining John’s own words about the subject.
What is Thrown into the Lake of Fire:
The Beast and the False Prophet (Rev. 19:20). These two entities represent the Roman Empire and the Emperor Worship required by the Imperial Cult (the Roman state religion).
Satan (Rev. 20:7-10). Literally “The Adversary”. Satan is the former prosecutor in God’s court and the seducer and oppressor of humanity.
Death and Hades (Rev. 20:11-14). Death itself will be thrown into the lake of fire.
Sinners (Rev. 20:15, 21:8). Those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the fire. John mentions this register of the elect people of God five times in Revelation (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27), and this idea, as with most of John’s imagery, finds its origin in the OT (Ex. 32:32-33, Ps. 69:28, Dan. 7:10, Mal. 3:16).
What Does the Lake of Fire Symbolize?
Twice, John writes the lake of fire is “the second death” (Rev. 20:14, 21:8). We should be careful to not get this backwards. John’s symbol is “the lake of fire.” John’s interpretation of the symbol is that the lake of fire is “the second death.” So many interpreters mess this up by defining John’s interpretation, “the second death” by the symbol of fire, a symbol that, according to commonly held pre-conceived notions, indicates a fire of everlasting torment. Even more common, the word “death” is redefined to mean “final and complete separation from God” out of the notion that the Bible teaches that man is composed of a body-soul dualism. If it true that the first death involves the separation of soul from body, then the second death should also involve a separation, so say the promoters of everlasting torment.
Even if dualism is true, these approaches to “the second death” are barely anything more than an evasion of what John actually wants to communicate in the text. In nearly every biblical instance where punishment and judgment is mentioned, the symbol of “fire and sulfur” (which is what the lake burns with in Rev. 20:8) is used to indicate total destruction. Why should John mean anything different here? Besides, even if we do have souls, both body and soul are thrown into the lake of fire together. If God imbued our souls with immortality (something the Bible never teaches), there is no reason whatsoever that God cannot take this immortality away. Furthermore, Jesus strictly warns his listeners to “not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matt. 10:28, Luke 12:4-5) Acknowledging that dualism is true for the sake of argument, Jesus warns that both parts of man—body and soul—can (and will) be destroyed. There really is not any good reason to redefine the annihilating power of the lake of fire to something that kills the body but leaves the soul in torment when Jesus himself warns that the destruction of both body and soul will be the eventual fate of sinners.
The concept of abstract entities being thrown into the lake of fire further reinforces our understanding of the lake of fire as a symbol for annihilation. These abstract entities include the Roman Empire and the Imperial Cult followed by Death and Hades. Surely an abstract entity cannot literally be tormented. Rather, John intends to communicate that these things will meet their end in the lake of fire. They will be utterly destroyed. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 15:26, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Is Satan Tormented?
In Rev. 20:7-10, John writes:
7 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
I could honestly fall on either side of this question, though I lean towards the conclusion that Satan will be annihilated rather than tormented forever. There are several reasons why I think this is the better conclusion of the two possibilities:
- Abstract entities are “tormented” alongside Satan. According to verse 10, the beast and the false prophet will also be tormented; yet, as I have previously acknowledged, these symbols represent the abstract entities of the Roman Empire and Emperor Worship. These things cannot actually suffer torment, much less suffer torment “forever and ever.” Should we read the torment of Satan any more literally than the torment of the beast and the false prophet?
- John uses “torment” as a symbol for the destruction of Rome in Rev. 18. Therefore, we cannot be certain that John does not actually mean “destruction” when describing the torment of Satan. The phrase “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” could easily mean they will be destroyed permanently, with the remaining signs of their destruction lasting forever as a reminder of God’s justice.
- The phrase “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” could simply be hyperbole. I am sure John would appreciate our recognition that he was human too and therefore spoke divinely inspired words and ideas through the human medium of writing. The practice of exaggeration is not limited to middle school ‘yo momma is so fat’ jokes but rather a nearly universal practice, and more specifically a practice that was widely used in ancient Semitic cultures.
- Verses 8 and 9 build on the imagery of Ezekiel 38 and 39, where “Gog and “Magog” are consumed by fire from heaven. The fire of Ezekiel totally devours the armies that surround Israel. In John’s version of this, Satan is singled out for a different punishment in the lake of fire. Yet, the lake consists of the very symbols (fire and sulfur) that are said to consume their victims in every other occurrence, including Ezek. 38,39. It would be reasonable to conclude, despite John’s words in verse 10, that he intends to say that Satan will be likewise destroyed. (I realize that one could argue that Satan is a spiritual being and therefore would not suffer destruction in the lake of fire but rather continue to exist in agony. Though I do not find this argument very convincing since the fire appears to destroy anything and everything, I will agree that this is certainly possible.)
The lake of fire is the ultimate symbol of annihilation. It is the conclusion to which the entire Bible points to, the climax of God’s justice and His victory over human, spiritual, institutional, and political evil. It is the consuming fire of God, shown without blemish or stain. Though this may not be a hell of eternal torment, we should resist the temptation to lessen God’s penalty for sin. Death is not something to sneer at, and I do not doubt that the realization that one missed out on the kingdom of God will be a greater source of pain than the death sentence itself. If all of the language describing this fate is of any value to our understanding, then this death will be an awful, wretched death. Only God’s reconciling grace and our faithful response to His gift can deliver us from our rightful punishment.
 Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. pg. 97