I recently received an email in which the writer said his reading had led him to believe that “the clear preponderance of scriptural evidence is easier read as annihilationist,” such that in his thinking “the annihilationist case is the stronger in all of scripture, but fails in the Apocalypse,” particularly Revelation 20:10. This is “the only real weakness” he can see in the case for annihilationism, but he considers it fatal to that view nevertheless. “Where am I going wrong?” he asks.
I suggest that the answer is clear and simple, and it is as follows. One should not base a doctrine on the book of Revelation, much less on two or three passages in it, when the preponderance of scriptural evidence throughout the rest of the Bible supports a different point of view. Indeed, I know of no doctrine beside this one about which any responsible scholar does such a thing.
Rev. 20:10 not so simple.
The brief description in this passage, of a scene in John’s symbolic vision in the sky over Patmos and the only time in the Bible that anything is said to be tormented forever, is surrounded with reasons not to let it outweigh the clear overall teaching of Scripture.
The lake of fire and brimstone, or lake that burns with fiery sulfur (NIV), is named for the agent of destruction that rained down from heaven on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, leaving in its wake no living thing, no grass or plant, but only rising smoke—a testimony to a destruction completed (Genesis 19).
It seems reasonable to suppose this use of such significant language borrowed from the annihilation of Sodom is not without cause. That supposition only gains in favor in light of two other “inhabitants” of this burning sulfurous lake, namely, death and hades which are also thrown into the lake. Commentators and theologians from all major views of hell are agreed that this refers to the disappearance of death forever and to the everlasting cessation of hades. For these two abstractions, both incapable of sentient suffering, the lake of fire signifes their extinction and annihilation.
For humans, the final options are either life or death. Whenever John mentions humans in the lake of fire, he is always careful to identify the lake of fire as “the second death.” Then in order to strengthen the symbol he contrasts the second death with something representing life, whether the book of life (Revelation 20:14-15) or the spring of the water of life (21:6-8).
In these closing chapters of Revelation, even the word torment itself is sometimes a symbol for total destruction and death. The wicked city Babylon is pictured as a woman whose judgment in chapter 18 is “torment and grief,” which turns out to be “death, mourning, and famine,” and she is “consumed by fire.” It is not unthinkable, therefore, to understand torment of the devil, beast, and false prophet as death and consumption by fire which are never reversed.
Interestingly, there are no people in Revelation 20:10—only the devil, beast, and false prophet. The latter two are symbolic personifications of anti-Christian institutions: ungodly government (the Roman state) and anti-Christ religion (the emperor cult). By the time the vision reaches the point described in Revelation 20:10, all human followers of the beast and false prophet already have been killed, either by sword in the first diabolical mustering of troops against the rider on the white horse (19:21) or by fire from heaven in the second round a thousand years later (20:9).
Important interpretative principles
Even if we knew none of the above, it would not be proper to interpret dozens of clear statements throughout the Bible to fit one or two symbolic passages in the book of Revelation. It is a well established rule of interpretation to read symbolic or unclear texts in the light of clear and straightforward passages.
Nor is it appropriate to choose an opinion supported by a handful of texts at best, as traditionalists must necessarily do, and to discard an alternate view that has the support of significantly more scripture passages from Genesis to Revelation, as is the case with conditionalism. The preponderance of evidence favors the latter, and this principle justifies our accepting the conditionalist case even if we have a few unanswered questions remaining.