Revelation 20:10...a Devil of a Dilemma for Advent Christians

Revelation 20:10...a Devil of a Dilemma for Advent Christians

by Corey McLaughlin

Revelation 20:10 – A Devil Of A Dilemma For Advent Christians

Every theological system I have studied has at least a few unruly texts that scratch and claw like a cat being pushed into a bathtub whenever someone tries to clean them up and fit them into their particular theological framework (e.g. we might think of 1 Jn. 2:2 for five point Calvinists, or, Acts 13:48 for staunch Arminians).[1]  Of course, few within the system ever admit as much, for them there are no complications.  Yet, for those who seek truth through prayer and fasting, seeking after understanding, they recognize there is no single perfect understanding of all of Scripture on all topics.  We simply do the best we can with what we have and depend on the Lord of Grace in the process to make exegetical decisions which we hold with a confident humility.  So, let us pull back the curtain (shower curtain in this analogy) on one single text today and admit, at least momentarily, that it does not like the warm inviting water of conditionalism as much as we may want it too:

Rev. 20:7 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.

 

This is hands down the most explicit verse in the entire Bible concerning the concept of eternal conscious torment (ECT).  True, the text itself is not speaking about all humanity here, or all the reprobate, but is rather focused on three main characters:  the devil, the beast, the false prophet.  Robert Peterson says this text “unequivocally teaches” that they will “endure eternal torment.” [2]  In fact, if one can connect this verse to unbelievers in Rev. 14 and then back to Matthew 25 it serves as a strong line of argumentation in favor of the traditionalists Hell. 

The beast and false prophet had previously been thrown into the lake of fire (19:19-20) and now, a thousand years later they remain still alive though having been punished for that duration.  Then we are told, “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  Here no appeal to the Greek adverbs of time (as Fudge does legitimately in Rev. 14) can help the situation.  Edward Fudge himself admits, “There is no easy solution.”[3]  Harold Guillebaud confesses, “There is a margin of uncertainty.”[4]

 

So what do CI advocates propose?  David Dean quotes Article 4 of the Declaration Of Principles in his work Resurrection Hope and then provides evidence to support it, but does not answer the Rev. 20:10 counter argument.[5]  Barton does reference the Rev. 20:10 text along with a few others and concludes sweepingly, “Nothing in the words themselves requires that the process of conscious punishing be unending” (104).[6]  Edward Fudge offers three counter arguments to prove Rev. 20:10 actually refers to annihilation.  This same line of thinking is followed by many Advent Christians, yet, as we will see, much of it should be discarded as poor exegesis or logic stretched thin.  Fudge’s three proofs are summarized as follows[7]:

1.     The highly symbolic nature of the book makes a literal interpretation impossible.

2.     The lake of fire should be interpreted by the phrase, “second-death,” which, since the first death is extinction (according to Fudge), means the second-death is likewise extinction thus defining the lake of fire as total annihilation.

3.     Death and Hades are abstractions that are annihilated when thrown into the lake of fire, likewise, the beast and false prophet are “persecuting civil government and corrupting false religion,” so also abstractions, neither of which can experience conscious pain therefore the lake of fire imagery must convey annihilation as well.

Argument #1:  Rethinkinghell.org picks up the reasoning above insisting, “consistency demands that everything thrown into the fire experiences the same fate, so that of the devil, beast, false prophet, and risen wicked should be annihilation in reality, even though some of them are depicted in the imagery as eternally tormented” (emphasis added).[8]  Doctor Oral Collins would concur, describing the terminology of “forever and ever” as “a figure of speech,” “hyperbole,” “an idiom,” all rightly understood to mean “an extraordinary long time.”[9] 

Are not conditionalists playing with a double standard here?[10]  Elsewhere they rightly argue from the vocabulary of destruction used through the Bible that the symbolism of becoming “dust” or a root being “burned up” ought to be taken seriously.  Their main charge is that ECT advocates take straightforward symbolism and turn it into ECT proof texts.  But are not conditionalists doing the very thing they decry here, turning a clear ECT symbol into a conditionalists proof text?  The argument as it stands is disingenuous at best.  Fudge is more honest and consistent recognizing that perhaps the lake of fire does NOT treat Satan, a fallen supernatural angel, the same way it treats humanity: “Whatever the case with Satan, the final punishment of the wicked is a different subject.”[11] 

Argument #2:  When John writes that the lake of fire is the second-death are we to take the former as the definite and known concept and the latter as indefinite (so traditionalism)?  Or, is the latter the known, clear, concept that must be used to interpret the former (so  conditionalism)?  Fudge argues that the pattern in Revelation is to state a symbol and then to define it by the phrase that follows and therefore we should do the same here and use “second-death” (that which is clear to him, i.e. annihilation) to interpret lake of fire (the symbol which is unclear).  But he admits that “such a formal observation is not conclusive,”[12] and rightfully so since Rev. 21:22 among others do not fit this pattern, nor does Greek grammar support his observation here.[13]  The historical fact is that whatever the usage and background, the phrase “second-death” remains opaque and cannot be used as any kind of a clear symbol to aid in interpretation outside an appeal to context (however scant that might be).[14]

The greater issue is Fudge’s assumption that the first “death” equates to extinction and therefore the second-death must likewise be the same.  Fudge assumes that the first death itself is extinction when he says, “death itself will die,” and “what a powerful thought it is that annihilation will be annihilated!”[15]  He devotes 3 pages under the title “Jesus’ Death Involved Total Destruction” just in case his assumptions were not clear.[16]  Yet, this is not a tenable line of logic for Freeman Barton who declares in no uncertain terms, “the first death is not annihilation.”[17]  Nor, we suggest, should it be for Advent Christians in general either.  The arguments here deserve no more attention from us.  Erect a gravestone and do not leave flowers.

Argument #3:  Death and Hades are indeed abstractions, and if we grant for the moment that the beast and false prophet are abstractions too[18], we are left only with Satan, a real personal being whom Fudge has no idea what to do with, but who, by all logical necessity must remain in the lake of fire to be “tormented day and night forever and ever.”  This is inescapable.  It also means then that “Hell” or the lake of fire must therefore continue to exist for all eternity with at least one occupant, the Prince of Evil himself.  This fact alone indicates that the conditionalist interpretation of Christ becoming “all in all” and thus causing evil and Hell to cease to exist may be a bit suspect.  More questions are raised when we consider that the lake of fire was specifically “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41) not humans, indicating that their fate will be qualitatively different than the rest of us (more on this in a moment).

            In fact, our contention here is that the beast and false prophet are neither merely humans nor institutions.  They are not institutions because…

A.   John describes them as being thrown into the lake of fire “alive” (Rev. 19:20) in clear contrast to the slain, using a term that applies to persons.

B.    The beast and false prophet continue to exist even a thousand years later instead of instantly being snuffed out of existence as in the case of actual abstractions like Death and Hades.

C.    The beast and false prophet share the same fate as Satan, a personal being, “tormented day and night forever and ever.” 

D.   Logically, the appeal to “abstract entities” does not further Fudge’s case.  When God promises to punish Israel (or Babylon, or Edom) an abstract identity, what He means is that He plans to punish the constituent parts that make up the whole.  So, one could surmise that if the beast and false prophet represent an evil institution than those who follow the beast and false prophet are the ones who will suffer the fate of eternal torment (which ECT advocates connect to Revelation 14).[19] 

Nor are they merely humans or “recurring individuals, culminating in supreme manifestations of their type, rather than mere symbols that cannot experience pain.”[20]  They are quite clearly presented to us as demonic agents.  Rev. 17:8 says the beast came up out of the abyss.  That is not a human entity, but a demonic one.  Rev. 13:11 refers to the false prophet as “another beast” indicating that he is similar in kind.  All three are intimately connected in 16:3 and associated with unclean spirits.  Fundamental to spiritual warfare are demonic powers possessing people and influencing nations.  The messenger Angel told the prophet Daniel as much revealing the true demonic presence behind the human puppet (Dan. 10:13; 20; also Ezk. 28).  After all, no human agent could prohibit a divine messenger so the true referent here is to the demonic power that stands behind the human representative of the prince of Persia and the prince of Greece. 

If therefore, the beast and false prophet are demons, we would expect their fate to be the same as Satan.  In the end, the ultimate fate of demons has no bearing on the ultimate fate of humanity.  In the same way that we do not assume that demons and humans are the same, nor that they are able to experience redemption in Christ or be transformed by his love, so we should not assume that their end time fate is likewise the same simply because humans are sent to the same location

David Powys makes a keen observation when he notes that second-death and ongoing torture may even be two distinct and separate fates, “since none were assigned to both:  all were assigned to the ‘lake of fire’, but only non-humans were assigned to ongoing torture there.”[21] 

True, this requires the assumption that the demonic power is the referent of the judgment rather than the person being possessed though this is hardly unfounded since demons are often portrayed as terrorizing their hosts who are the victims.  It is the demons who are singled out for punishment not the hosts (Matt. 8:29-32).  Still, we might speculate that some, like Judas, open themselves up to demonic possession by their will and actions (Jn. 12:6; Lk. 11:24-26) and so hold personal culpability.  If that is the case here, then both the human and demonic counterpart will be judged with everlasting torment.  Guillebaud, notes, “But even if the beast and the false prophet should be individual human beings, they are incarnations of Satan, filled with his spirit, and endowed by him with supernatural power (2 Thess. 2:8-10; Rev. 13:2, 3, 11-15).  Their fate, therefore is no sort of indication of the fate of ordinary human beings.[22]

This modified conditional immortality view allows Satan and his minions to continue in everlasting conscious torment, but recognizes that ordinary humans are still annihilated.  It honors the larger context of Revelation and its supernatural driving force.  It does not twist, turn, or contort the biblical text un-naturally, nor does it perform leaps and bounds in logic.  Exegetically, it is a sound interpretation.  Yet, it will be rejected wholesale by CI adherents because as Guillebaud explains, “…a tremendous problem arises as to the eternity of evil…”[23] 

Collins highlights this controlling interpretive pressure when he asserts, “The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are very clear regarding the destiny of the wicked and the extinction of evil.”[24]

This author suggests, in Jiminy Cricket fashion, that instead we are to let our exegesis be our guide and so err on the side of the text rather than our preconceived theology.  By doing so we may discover there is no real discrepancy.  After all, if evil can glorify God in this world then its just and right punishment can do the same in the next.

 

 

[1] Explore this more with Why I Am Not An Arminian by Robert Peterson, and Michael Williams, and Why I Am Not A Calvinist by Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell.  For a middle ground view see Randy Alcorn’s work hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice.   

[2] Two Views Of Hell, Fudge and Peterson:  164.

[3] The Fire That Consumes, 1994:  193. 

[4]  Rethinking Hell:  Readings In Evangelical Conditionalism by Date et. al., 2014: 170.  

[5] Resurrection Hope:  84.

[6] Heaven, Hell, And Hades:  104.

[7] The Fire That Consumes, 1994:  192-195. 

[8] Rethinkinghell.org – Scriptures – Traditionalism - Revelation 20:10-15.  Other conditionalists point out Satan’s supposed fate in Ezekiel 28:14-19 to argue that since he will become “no more forever” therefore the symbolism of torment in Revelation must somehow mean total destruction or the interpreter is forced into a contradiction.  Which symbol is easier to bend, torment day and night forever and ever to mean annihilation, or, the idea of becoming “no more” as metaphorical, not ontological, for losing authority, status, and power?  The context of Ezekiel 28 argues for the latter.  Satan (“king of Tyre”) is described as having been “destroyed” by God (v 16) yet then he is cast to the ground and exposed before kings (v 17).  This destruction is not one of existence, but a dethroning.  God says he had “consumed” him by fire, and then states, “I turned you to ashes on the earth in the sight of all who saw you” (v18).  Yet, Satan continues to exist to this day.  The image is of public humiliation.  The final verdict, “you shall be no more forever” speaks to a stripping of power, authority, status which are all themes more suitable to the context.  The same phrase “no more” is used to describe judgment against the city of Tyre (Ez. 26:21; 27:36) which is still with us even today albeit a small fishing community as was prophesied (26:4-5).

The context here is stronger including the loss of power, prestige, influence, and existence as a city which is wiped out, yet something nonetheless remains as a remnant.      

[9] The Final Prophecy Of Jesus, 2007:  447-448.  G.K. Beale concedes Collins point saying “strictly speaking even the expression, they will be tormented forever and ever, is figurative…at the least, the phrase figuratively connotes a very long time” (The Book Of Revelation 1999: 1030).  But rightly notes the larger context of the Apocalypse must determine whether this is a limited time or an unending period.  The exact syntactical phrase describes the glory of God (Rev. 1:6; 7:12), the eternality of God (15:7), the resurrected glorious Christ (1:18; 4:9-10; 5:13; 10:6), the everlasting reign of Christ (11:15), as well as the smoke of destruction that rises from Babylon (19:3), and the smoke that rises from the wicked (14:11 using the same prepositional phrase without the articles), in addition to the reign of the saints in the kingdom of God (22:5; also Ps. 84:4).  If these are not limited then why is Rev. 20:10? 

Henry Grew, one of the first conditionalist in America, whose pamphlet series influenced George Storrs to preach his influential “Six Sermons” on the topic, attempts to argue the words “forever” and “forever and ever” are literally synonymous.  Hence, if he can show that the term “forever” applies to things that were not indeed forever, but only a long time (such as circumcision in Gen. 17:13, or Jonah in the belly of the whale in Jon. 2:6) then “it is a violation of the just rule of interpretation” to understand the phrase here in Rev. 20:10 in any kind of overly literal fashion (Future Punishment Not Eternal Life In Misery But Destruction 1857).  The argument fails however simply because it does not take into account the precise syntax or the fact that such an interpretation strips the biblical author from ever being able to communicate something eternal, after all, what more precise words and contexts would have to be used in order to convey that something is indeed everlasting?

[10] We are not the only ones who suffer logical fallacies of course, see Glenn Peoples, “Fallacies In The Annihilationism Debate:  A Critique Of Robert Peterson And Other Traditionalists Scholarship,” (JETS 50/2 (June 2007) 329-347.  See also Peterson’s reply, “Fallacies In the Annihilationism Debate?  A Response To Glenn Peoples,” (JETS 50/2 (June 2007) 349-365.

[11] The Fire That Consumes, 1994:  195. 

[12] The Fire That Consumes, 1994:  194.

[13] Grammatically this fits the criteria for a convertible proposition.  For this to occur both substantives must meet one of the three qualifications for being the subject.  If one of the substantives possesses only one of the grammatical tags then this could be understood as a subset proposition (the subject is part of the larger category of the predicate nominative).  However, in our case both substantives are articular (thus they have more than one of the ‘tags’).  Therefore, this may be read as either, the lake of fire is the second death, or as the second death is the lake of fire (for detailed explanation see Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics, 1996:  45). 

[14] Aune, “Apocalypse of John and Greco-Roman Revelatory Magic.” New Testament Studies 33, no. 4:  1987, 495-496 explains that the lake of fire and second death motif occur in early Egyptian texts though he concludes that neither the parallels there, nor any possible parallels in the OT, Jewish literature, or Greco-Roman literature provide the background for Revelation 20:6, 10. 

[15] The Fire That Consumes, 1994:  194.

[16] The Fire That Consumes, 1994:  143-145; 186.  This is an astounding statement that can affect the whole of Christology yet he does not clarify the referent.  Does he mean both Jesus’ humanity and divinity were annihilated on the cross?  In which case, what of the God-head?  Or does he mean Jesus’ humanity alone?  In which case the doctrines elucidated at Chalcedon are false since both natures of Christ were then separated.  His view of the nature of man from the Old Testament perspective is simply that the soul dies (29).  Christian mortalism is the belief that the soul does not exist as an independent conscious substance once the body dies, but Fudge allows for two understandings here: (1) those who believe the entire person dies together, (2) those who believe in a personal soul which does not die but sleeps until resurrection (26 n. 25).  Evidently, he falls in the former category seeing death as the total extinction of the person and therefore by implication he must also see the resurrection as total recreation.    

[17] Heaven, Hell, And Hades, 1990:  102.  See also, Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting 107-108; 191-194  who points out the problems of proving continuity in personhood between the temporal and eternal realms.  Rethinkinghell.org offers a tighter argument concluding, “the imagery does not symbolize everlasting suffering but death—a permanent, irreversible death of body and soul (Matthew 10:28).”  They do not answer the traditionalists charge that if the first death is separation then the second death must follows suit as eternal separation, however, by quoting Matthew 10:28 they imply that the point of comparison is that the first death is the destruction of the flesh while second death is the destruction of both flesh and spirit.    

[18] Many do take this view, e.g. Conditionalist Glenn Peoples points to preterist Kenneth Gentry who argues in The Beast Of Revelation that the image represents Rome, futurist John Walvoord who marshals support for a revived Roman Empire in his Revelation commentary, and Sam Hamstra in Four Views On Revelation who supports the idealists interpretation seeing something more expansive, “the spirit and empires of the world.”   

[19] So G.K. Beale, The Book Of Revelation 1999:  1029.  Even if one concedes that these are mere impersonal institutions and in no way individuals, then the conclusion that follows is that only abstract entities are annihilated in the lake of fire.  Fudge still must demonstrate that non-abstract personal human beings are annihilated too, a separate line of argumentation altogether.  Each road in this argument appears to lead to a dead end by itself.     

[20] The Gagging Of God:  Christianity Confronts Pluralism, by D.A. Carson 1996:  527.  It is unclear what Carson means, but if people are the “types” that reflect the impersonal abstraction, than Fudge would likely counter that it proves his point, because it is the “types” that are annihilated and therefore any who make up that “type” are annihilated as well.    

[21] ‘Hell’:  A Hard Look At A Hard Question, 1997:  371

[22] Rethinking Hell:  Readings In Evangelical Conditionalism by Date et. al., 2014: 170.  Collins believes the beast and false prophet are likely symbols for institutions, but he still assumes they are also real individuals (The Final Prophecy, 448).     

[23] Ibid.

[24] The Final Prophecy, 446.

 

 

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