Should We Modify Conditionalism?: a response to Corey McLaughlin on Rev. 20:10
by Jefferson Vann
In a recent Advent Christian Voices article, Corey McLaughlin examines conditionalists’ treatment of Revelation 20:7-10 and concludes that our exegesis of that text has been “poor”, and based on “logic stretched thin.” He suggests that our problem is that we are trying to make Revelation 20 say that the lake of fire will come to an end, but that the text insists that it will not. To accurately reflect what is taught in Revelation 20:10, conditionalism will need to be modified to allow for the eternal conscious torment of the devil and his demonic agents.
McLaughlin’s article points out numerous ways conditionalists have mistreated this text, and responded to it inappropriately. Many of McLaughlin’s criticisms are valid, and the article is worth reading to get a good handle of the ways various conditionalists have approached the text. I am not prepared to defend those approaches. Instead, I would like to re-examine the text itself. A major theological tenet of conditionalism is the exclusive immortality of God. I want to see if Revelation 20:7-10 requires that we jettison that doctrine.
Jesus is depicted in John’s Revelation as accomplishing certain tasks.
In Revelation 1:9-3:22, Jesus oversees the seven churches in Asia Minor, and witnesses what the Spirit says to those churches.
In Revelation 4:1-11:18, Jesus sits on the throne in the sky, receiving worship from the living creatures and elders, for having created the world, and redeeming it with his blood. He breaks the seals in the great scroll, as history advances toward the day of his wrath. He shepherds the 144,000 Israelites, guiding them to the springs of the water of life, even though it will cost their lives. He unleashes the woes upon the kings of the earth and their armies. Finally, at the sound of the last trumpet, he begins both his reign and the outpouring of his wrath. The kingdom of the world becomes his.
In Revelation 11:19-19:10, Jesus is the child given birth to by the woman, believed in by the saints, but those believers are persecuted and killed by the dragon, and deceived by the false prophet – a second beast that causes people to worship the first. The message of the gospel is proclaimed, along with the message that the great prostitute will fall -- along with the great city she represents.
In Revelation 19:11-22:7, Jesus comes in victory, on a white horse, judging and waging war. He defeats the beast who organized the kings of the earth against him in 4:1-11:18. He defeats the false prophet, who had sought to destroy him and then deceive his saints in 11:19-19:10. These two are thrown into the lake of fire, and the humans who followed them are killed by the sword coming from Christ’s mouth, and the birds consume their flesh. Finally, he incarcerates the dragon who had empowered those two demons: Satan himself. He must first suffer the torment of the undoing of the damage he has done to the universe for a thousand years. Then he will be released, will seek to deceive the world again into rebelling against Christ, and he will be caught and thrown into the lake of fire, and will suffer the same fate as the beast and the false prophet.
Revelation 20:7-10 is a small section of this final prophetic vision. It describes the fate of this unholy trinity, Satan, and his demonic-agents: the beast who controls the kings of the world, and the false prophet who controls the religions of the world. What it says about them is that they will all three be ultimately thrown into a lake of fire, and suffer the second death. This revelation poses no problems for conditionalists.
What does pose a challenge for conditionalism, and prompts the suggestion that conditionalism needs to be modified – is the description of what happens to those beings while they are in the lake of fire. Our English Bibles render Revelation 20:10 as “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” A being tormented day and night forever and ever is being kept alive forever and ever. This would involve God making these beings immortal for the purpose of punishing them perpetually.
The Greek phrase εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰῶνων appears sixteen times in the New Testament, and it always means the same thing: “for ages and ages.”
Six times it is used in prayers for God to be glorified and honored for ages and ages (Gal. 1:5; Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2 Tim. 4:18; 1 Pet. 4:11; Rev. 7:12). Of course, one could argue that the prayers imply that God is immortal, but that is not the point. The prayers do not make God immortal. The prayers seek for God’s immortal life to have the honor and glory he deserves. That is accomplished by him being praised and honored for ages and ages.
Six times it describes Christ as alive and reigning for ages and ages after his resurrection (Rev. 1:18; 4:9,10; 10:6, 11:15, 15:7). The uniqueness of Christ is emphasized by drawing attention to his overcoming death, and living and reigning for ages and ages beyond that resurrection event. Yes, Christ was raised immortal, but the point the prophet is making is that he lives and reigns for ages from that time.
In Revelation 5:13, we have a sort-of combination of these two ideas, “Then I heard every creature– in the sky, on the land, under the land, in the sea, and all that is in them– singing: "To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be praise, honor, glory, and ruling power εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰῶνων!"” It is a both a prayer for Christ’s glory, and a celebration of his reign.
In Revelation 18:21, Babylon has been destroyed and “not found any longer.” Revelation 19:3 describes the smoke of its destruction ascending for ages and ages. Smoke is the evidence of destruction.
Finally, the inhabitants of the new Jerusalem are described as reigning εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰῶνων over the new sky and land (Revelation 22:5). These saints have inherited immortality, so it is true that they will reign forever. But, technically, it does not say that. It says they will reign for ages and ages.
The consistent use of the phrase εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰῶνων in the New Testament suggests that John saw these three beings (Satan, the Beast and the False Prophet) being tormented for a long period of time – many ages. If John wanted to convey the concept that the process of their being tormented would last forever, he could have used…
- …the adverb ἀεί, meaning always (Acts 7:51), constantly (2 Cor. 4:11), or perpetually (Tit.1:12).
- … εἰς τὸ διηνεκὲς, meaning for all time or in perpetuity (Heb. 7:3; 10:12,14).
- … πάντοτε, meaning always, at all times (Matt. 26:11; Luke 15:31; John 6:34; Rom. 1:10).
- … εἰς πάντα χρόνον, meaning for all time.
- ….ἀϊδιος, or its adverbial counterpart εἰς ἀϊδιον meaning never having an end in time, everlasting, eternal (Rom. 1:20; Jude 6).
- …a form of διαμένω, a verb meaning to remain or stay.
With all of these semantic options which clearly indicate an unending process, John chose a statement that expressed what he saw in the vision. He could not have seen an eternal, perpetual process. But he could have seen a process that clearly lasted for ages and ages. That is what he conveyed to his readers.
Furthermore, what John revealed next in his delivery of the vision made it impossible for the punishment of these beings to be understood as an unending process. John sees the great white throne judgment, the throwing of all the unsaved into that lake of fire (to experience the second death), and then… he sees a new sky and land. The first sky and land (along with the lake of fire on it) passed away (Rev. 21:1).
Satan, the Beast, and the False Prophet are terribly powerful supernatural beings. They are responsible for ages and ages of cruelty, deception, violence and death. It stands to reason that their punishment will endure for long periods of time. But no amount or intensity of crime merits the criminal immortality. God alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16), and he has chosen to give immortality only to those who believe the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10) and seek glory and honor by persevering in doing good (Rom. 2:7). The unholy trinity fights against the gospel, and seeks glory and honor by persevering in doing evil.
Rev. 20:7-10 does not require the jettisoning of the doctrine of the exclusive immortality of God. It speaks of a horrible, long lasting period of punishment for the evil done by the three most evil beings of all time. But it is not the last word on the fate of those evil beings. The New Testament ends with a vision of a future without those beings, and the sin and suffering they are causing. The back of the book reveals the answer to the problem of sin and all sinners. The second death is that answer.
Believers can serve God with confidence, knowing that there is no power – even no supernatural power – that can outlive God’s love. In the end, God’s love wins – not because everyone survives, but because only those redeemed by his love will survive. There will be no corner of the universe set apart for rebellious demons to burn infinitely. Christ will reign until he destroys everything that the devil has done. The demons know that. When demons first encountered Christ in the flesh, they asked if he had come to destroy them (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). They know their fate.
Conditionalism does not need to be modified. It needs to be championed, because the gospel offer is eternal life only in Christ.