Includes excerpts from Chapter 9 of “Heaven for Skeptics © 2009 by Bert Gary for FaithWalk Publishing
In John’s vision in the Book of Revelation he mentions six times a “lake of fire.” So what is it? Here are five of them.
Revelation 19:20b These two (the beast and the false prophet) were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.
Revelation 20:10 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.
Revelation 20:14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire;
Revelation 20:15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."
I can’t interpret John’s entire revelation in one blog.That’s why I wrote a chapter doing that in an upcoming book, and that’s why I’ve begun a commentary on it that I hope to publish next. But I can try to give insight into John’s purpose while I try to define the lake.
If the lake of fire is a portrait of an afterlife hell (See my blogs Hell Defined 1 and Hell Defined 2) as some insist, then note that “hell” is in heaven. “Hell” is not separated from God underground somewhere, but is in the throne room in front of the Lamb, under his all-seeing seven eyes, subject to his all-powerful seven horns.
Revelation 14:10b “. . . and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” (emphasis mine)
I want to make sure you see this. In the five verses that mention the lake of fire above, they speak of torment in fire and sulfur. In 14:10b (immediately above), this torment with fire and sulfur is in the presence of the lamb and the holy angels. This is a clear reference to the lake of fire, and the lake is in the presence of the lamb and the angels. Where are the lamb and the angels in John's vision? They are in the throne room of God in heaven. This vision of the throne room of God is in Chapter 4, and before the throne is a "crystal sea."
Revelation 4:6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Revelation 15:2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. (emphasis mine)
The the sea of glass mixed with fire (or the lake that burns with fire and sulfur) in the heavenly temple is the mirror image of the earthly "molten sea" in the earthly temple (1 Kings 7:23). This holy fire represents God's glorious purifying love. Our God is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29). Jesus' eyes in John's first vision are as a flame of fire. His feet are like bronze hot from the furnace. The angels' feet are like pillars of fire. The seven spirits of God are described as torches. The Spirit of God falls on the disciples at Pentecost as tongues of fire.
[It may not be a coincidence that the Sea of Galilee is also called the Lake of Gennesaret, and the Dead Sea is also called Lake Asphaltites. In John's vision of heaven we apparently have a sea that is also called a lake; the sea of glass is also called the lake of fire.]
So, as I've shown, in John’s vision, the lake is surrounded by angels in heaven.“Hell” isn’t far away from Jesus the Lamb and his Father. It’s in their presence, at the feet of the throne of God and the Lamb:
Revelation 5:6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered,having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
There is no separation. There is no dualism. The kingdom is all in all, as Jesus is all in all (1 Cor 15:28; Eph 1:23). If we just look at the vision as John presents it, it creates lots of problems for literalists, but one of them is quite provocative:“Hell” is up. “Hell” is before the throne of God. “Hell” belongs to the Lamb and the Father. Imagine that!
But John tells us it’s a vision.
Revelation 1:1-2 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what mus soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
Revelation 1:10-11 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me aloud voice like a trumpet 11saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches,to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea."
John tells us his vision reveals (is a revelation of) Jesus Christ. His vision tells us about Jesus, who he is, what he’s accomplished, and what he purposes for his kingdom. It’s about Jesus, period. It reveals him,though not in gospel stories or doctrinal letters, but in apocalyptic pictures. It is successive, varying images of Jesus. So the reader should look for him.The reader should try to discern what John is telling us about Jesus in figures.
And John tells us not to take his vision literally. He tells us that each image stand for something else. And sometimes he specifically tells us what they mean. For example, the Son of Man stands among seven lampstands holding seven stars in his right hand.These are not literal lampstands and stars. How do I know? Because John says so. In the final verse of chapter one, John, for the first time but not the last, tells his readers what his visionary images represent.
Revelation 1:20 “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
A well known television evangelist said in a documentary interview, “I do not believe the Book of Revelation is metaphorical. I do not believe it is symbolic. I believe it is literal. For example, I believe there are coming four literal horsemen (He was referencing Revelation 6:1-8.) who represent. . . .” He went on to explain who and what future events he believes that the four horsemen represent. But did he not use the word “represent”? Wouldn’t literal horses and horsemen have to be real, actual horses and horsemen? Isn’t that what “literally” means? The evangelist contradicted himself. He is adamant that the horsemen are literal,yet in the same breath he interprets what they represent. He is interpreting Revelation symbolically while insisting that he’s taking it literally.
How can we possibly take anything in this apocalyptic vision literally when John didn’t? He writes that the seven lampstands and stars are figures. They represent something else. They are symbolic. It’s safe to assume that virtually everything in the Book of Revelation is symbolic unless otherwise noted by John.
This is so important. For example, in Revelation 5 there is a slain lamb standing. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is not a literal dead lamb standing there with seven eyes and seven horns. That would look pretty ridiculous.
But John isn’t showing us livestock. He is showing us Jesus, the one who was crucified and resurrected,slain and yet standing, dead and yet alive forevermore, all seeing (seven eyes) and all powerful (seven horns).
So if the lamb is Jesus, the red dragon is Satan, the great whore is Rome, and the seven lampstands are John’s churches, then shouldn’t the lake of fire be a symbol of something else too? Yes. John shows us how to interpret his vision. It is,after all, his vision. He says to do it symbolically, not literally.
John’s vision gives us the gospel of Jesus Christ in pictures. Each image symbolizes something unless John tells you otherwise. So if the slaughtered yet living lamb represents Jesus, what does the lake of fire represent? Here’s the key verse (again) for me:
Revelation 20:14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire;
John is trying to tell us something important. Death (Thanatos) and the Grave (Hades) are destroyed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. The symbol John chooses for Jesus’ destruction of Death and the Grave is a lake of fire. No wonder the fire is before the Lamb. It’s his fire! It’s the Lamb’s holy fire for finally, joyously destroying sin, death, and the grave. These are the holy things he accomplished on earth. Yet in his second coming he will mercifully wrap it up by allowing evil to burn in his eternal grace and love.
Everything in the holy of holies of heaven must, by definition and common sense, be holy. Therefore, the lake of fire (the crystal sea) must be not an evil thing or an evil place, but a holy thing and a holy place.
“The very fires of Hell are the love and joy of God experienced as wrath and torment by the soul that hates the light and its purifying fire.” Peter Kreeft, ". . . Heaven", p. 206
“Though the damned do not love God, God loves them, and this is their torture. The very fires of Hell are the love of God!” Kreeft, p. 234
“Thus Heaven and Hell are the very same objective reality, the only one there is, the only game in town: the fire of God’s love, which is his essential being.” Kreeft, p. 235
You may doubt this, and if so, I understand. Bear with me and look at this verse again.
Revelation 19:20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.
John shows us in ever evolving images Jesus’ defeat of the enemy. He beats them with the gospel truth and the blood of his cross. The truth has a mixed response in Jesus’ world, in John’s world, and in the world today. It gladdens some hearts while it hardens others. The gladdened enter Life. The hardened enter death. Rome, with its emperors and emperor cults, will be defeated, John insists, and the blood of martyrs will be avenged by the Word of God who speaks the word of God (Life– John 12:47-50) in truth. With the blood of Jesus and the martyrs as an iron rod, God “beats” his opponents into submission.
Will a literal dragon, a literal beast, and a literal beastly-false-prophet be thrown alive into a literal blazing lake? Of course not. Specifically John was symbolizing the defeat of Satan, Rome/Emperor, and the idolatrous emperor cult. But John also is saying that the evil that Jesus already defeated will in The End be disposed of—period—because evil defeats itself. Evil inevitably self-destructs. But what is it that “tortures” evil in“the lake”? How about this:
The Lamb’s holy fire of love before his throne tortures evil. The Lamb’s mercy burns Satan like the sun burns Dracula! Mercy’s eternal truth is eternal agony for any score-keeping liar, especially religious ones! Don’t you love it?
John writes about a first and second death. Here’s a quick definition. The first death is when you die—meaning medically dead. The second death is for the “beast-worshipers” who reject Life—the Life that Jesus spoke and gave, the Life that he is. For those rejecting Life, it’s standing in the presence of the eternal Life that you won’t have. It’s torture in the lake before the Lamb. But remember, the lake is Jesus’ fire of Life. Don’t go assuming that Jesus (or any Person of the Trinity) is a merciless torturer.Jesus hasn’t changed in John’s vision. He’s still the flaming fire of Life. God is still love. And that love and Life brings great joy to those who desire it. But to Satan, his minions, and the beasts he employs to persecute and kill Christians, the flame of Jesus’ Life and the fire of the Father’s love feels like being burned alive.
The miraculous thing, according to John’s vision, is that the baddies remain in Jesus’ presence. (Everything is in Jesus’ presence.) That’s their punishment! They hang themselves on Jesus’ Life line. They drown themselves in Jesus’ baptism of forgiveness. They cut themselves on his sword of loving truth. Baddies aren’t tortured forever in a literal afterlife lake of fire. They are self-condemned Life-rejecters who writhe in the presence of the one who forgives them and offers them Life. “Hell” too is relational.
Also remember that the Book of Revelation is intensely concerned about the relentless pursuit of the church's Roman persecutors, not to torture them,but to win them over. How many delays did they get? How many warnings?
The invitation to Life is presented to them again and again by myriad means in John’s vision. God died for them. God forgave them. God would not give them up without a fight. If John is right, today, even still, he has not given up. His passion for his lost sheep is boundless.
Remember this too: Jesus nullified the first death for everyone. That battle was over a long time ago. John is telling us with his vision that the Life-embracers see neither the first nor the second death. But Life-rejecters see both. As the first and second resurrections are one, so the first and second deaths are one. There is a huge implication here.
Why are Christians today so preoccupied with the afterlife when Life is the point biblically? Life is a person who is alive forever, say the Scriptures. The Bible emphasizes not a place but a person who is Life. In this sense, evil-bent unbelievers are already participating in the second death, for it’s a spiritual death. In this way the second death,ironically, precedes the first. Here’s an example:
To a would-be disciple who wants to wait until his father’s death to follow Jesus, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60 – For more on the context of this saying, see Jesus Unplugged, Chapter 2, pp. 27-35) You can be biologically alive and spiritually dead. You can live in Gehenna (See my blogs: Hell Defined 1 and Hell Defined 2) before the first death, if you so choose, as this man’s relatives did apparently. On the other hand, however, if you embrace the Life (his kingdom of God/heaven) that you (and all) have been given in him, you bypass both the first and the second death.
John 5:24 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
John 8:51 “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word (His word is Life – John 12:47-50) will never see death.”
Revelation 2:11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.
Revelation 20:6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power,
So what happens to Thanatos (Death) and Hades (the Grave)? John’s envisions them thrown into the Lamb’s holy lake of fire.
Revelation 20:14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
I know. It’s hard to stop literalizing and futurizing. We want to find in Revelation 20 the afterlife “hell” we all know and love. (Pardon my sarcasm.) But in 20:14, John envisions Death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire. So Hades definitely doesn’t equal the lake of fire. It can’t. Why? Because Hades is thrown with Death into the lake. If Hades equals the lake, how can you throw something into itself? Likewise, if Hades and the lake of fire equal our modern concept of hell, how can hell be thrown into hell? Therefore Hades can mean nothing more here than the Grave, as elsewhere throughout the New Testament. (See Ch. 4, p. 143, 169-173; Ch. 5, p. 194, 214; Ch. 6, p. 243) That’s what John saw in his vision: Death and the Grave being annihilated by the lake of fire, the fire of the Lamb’s eternal Life, Jesus’ own fire of Life, his presence as the fire of love. The white-hot fire of Life and love consumes everything that is not Life and love. God is love, and his love is a fire.
NKJ Deuteronomy 4:24 "For the LORD your God is a consuming fire.
What was Peter feeling when he said this to Jesus:
Luke 5:8 “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
God’s power is in his love, biblically speaking. That love is pure fire. It always and forever burns. Either we surrender to the purifying fire—as painful as its pure truth may be initially—and receive Life, or we cling to our hate and experience his love as something that it is not nor was it ever intended to be: torture. Jesus loves the world. But those who cling to their darkness experience the exposing light of love like Dracula in a tanning bed.
Given that the Lamb did all the work for us, it’s not surprising that some of us resent being bailed out. But the fire of universal love tortures scorekeepers. I suppose each of us has a tendency to want to stand on our own record. Each of us tends to keep a record of our moral achievements, too. We’d rather not be rescued. (I was rescued from drowning once. Believe me, it’s embarrassing.) We’d rather save ourselves. You can try to do that if you like, says John. You can lean on your own record rather than the Lamb’s. Go ahead. Knock yourself out. Count on the record of your “works” (Rev. 20:12-13) to make you righteous. But the Scriptures have a warning for you. The religious road to righteousness is wide and crowded with people striving to get there by their own merit. Jesus calls that “the road to destruction.” (Matthew 7:13) But—I might add by way of warning—the foundation of all religious fervor is arrogant denial. Your pride says you can make yourself good. Your pride keeps score and thinks you’re better than others. But there’s The Liar’s trap. You can’t make yourself good. Ever. But fear not. You are made righteous by the Lamb or not at all, says John (and the rest of the New Testament). That’s true of everybody else too, whether you approve or not. Letting go and leaning on the Lamb’s gift of righteousness is not merely a viable option, says John. It’s the only option, if you want Life real and free.
John warns and laments in Revelation 21:8, as he did over the tragic fall of Rome (14:8; 18:2), that those who continue in cowardice, faithlessness, pollution, murder,fornication, sorcery, idolatry, and lies, says the voice from the throne, will have rejected Life. They will experience the Lamb’s fire of mercy as judgment.They will choose for themselves the first and second deaths that those who lean entirely on the mercy of the Lamb will never see. Yet notice the tense that the voice uses: “their place will be in the lake.” Even to the end, even now, the door is open from heaven’s end to all of us. Because the warning still stands, then the possibility of entering Life still stands, even in the last portrait in the last gallery of John’s magnificent vision of Christ. The Lamb fights to The End for his sheep.
Matthew 18:14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
So what happens in The End? Death (Thanatos) is swallowed up in victory by the Lamb’s lake of fire. The Grave (Hades) is annihilated in his Life-flame. The sea of chaos from whence all evil comes is no more. And Satan and his buddies writhe together in the flames of the love-wrath of the Lamb.
The implications of God Emanuel are huge, aren’t they? Can you imagine not having to watch your back anymore? Can you imagine an end to spiritual warfare? “No evil” means no evil intentions remain. No grief, sorrow, or pain of any kind means no more tears (compare 7:17 to 21:4—The End) It’s all over, again and finally. But don’t try to relegate this victory to the future only. Jesus did all this already. The Lamb is victorious. His yoke is easy now. One can live unguarded now. Spiritual victory is won now. Eternal Life is present and given now. Living water is available now. Spirit and truth are at work now. New Birth is present now. The Apostle Paul agrees: Newness of life is available now (Romans 6:4), and the new creation is being born now (Romans 8:19-23). We died, rose, and ascended with him now (Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1). Death’s sting is gone now (1 Corinthians 15:55). We are in the birth pangs of the new heaven and new earth now.
So the symbols John uses, like the river of Life and the tree of Life and the lake of fire, are not literal descriptions of places or things. They are images of Jesus the Lamb, Jesus the Resurrection, Jesus the Way, Jesus the Truth, Jesus the Life. He is the sun and moon, the bright and morning star, the lamp, the Faithful and True Rider, the radiant Son of Man, and together with God the Father he is the Temple in the New Jerusalem. And the New Jerusalem is the Lamb’s Bride representing his church. Jesus is our husband and our home. He is the ever-burning fire of love. He is the personal and present and coming kingdom of heaven.