Two passages from the vision shown to John on the island of Patmos, as recorded in the book of Revelation, are the “most debated passages in Revelation concerning the nature of the final punishment.” 1 In the minds of many traditionalists, however, there is really no debate at all, and the conclusion one must draw from them “is irresistible. Unsaved human beings also will suffer eternal conscious torment.” 2 Larry Dixon boldly claims, “There is no exegetical basis whatsoever in [Revelation 20:10] for suggesting that the devil…will be put out of existence at the end of time,” 3 and that to simply read the text is to refute annihilationism. 4 Robert Morey, with equal boldness, says that “By every rule of hermeneutics and exegesis, the only legitimate interpretation…is the one that clearly sees eternal, conscious torment awaiting the wicked.” 5
Early on in the process of rethinking hell, I discovered that the debate over these texts is very real, and that these passages from Revelation are quite compatible with conditionalism. As I studied further, I soon became convinced that these passages are, in fact, stronger support for the final death and destruction of the risen impenitent than they are for their eternal torment. Consequently, in my first two formal debates I included these passages in my opening presentation as part of a positive case for conditional immortality. 6 In this new series of articles, I will demonstrate why the book of Revelation serves as compelling evidence for a conditionalist understanding of hell, beginning in this first article with an examination of the nature of John’s vision.
Helicopters and Asteroids
There are those who seem to mistakenly think that John literally saw what was to take place in the future, as if it had been shown to him by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, 7 or as if he had shared a precognitive vision of the future, the minority report among two other PreCrime psychics. 8 One author wonders “whether John saw some future technology to which he simply could not relate precisely and was only able to use the terms of his day to describe what he saw,” explaining how modern helicopters may fit John’s description of locusts with the tails of scorpions in Revelation 9:3-5. 9 Another author explains how the smoke that shoots backwards from a helicopter when a rocket is fired can account for the fact that John says in verse 10 that the locusts’ power to hurt people is in their tails. 10 John MacArthur says that the “great mountain, burning with fire” 11 which John saw thrown into the sea in Revelation 8:8-9 “is evidently a giant meteorite or asteroid, surround by flaming gases set ablaze by the friction of the earth’s atmosphere…It will strike somewhere in the world’s oceans with an explosive power far greater than that of an atomic bomb…causing a third of the sea to become blood.” 12 But this simply is not how the vision of Revelation functions.
The book of Revelation falls within the genre of “apocalyptic” literature. Indeed, the genre owes its name to this very book. 13 Apocalyptic literature “comes through visions or dreams…that employ symbolic or figurative language used to describe a future divine intervention.” 14 It is “a highly stylized form of literature, with its own conventions of symbolism and terminology…a literature of dreams and visions…never intended to depict the End in literal terms.” 15 “The bizarre nature of the symbolism” of apocalyptic literature like Revelation “underlined the importance and transcendence of the concealed realities, and their complexity made their careful interpretation more urgent and pressing.” 16 To interpret the book of Revelation believing John literally saw the future, as if he watched a recording of it on a DVD sent back through time, is to completely miss its point and utterly fail to exercise the care necessary to properly interpret it.
The Dreams of Kings
Based on John’s use in Revelation 1:1 of the words ἀποκάλυψις (something “revealed” or “disclosed”) 17, δείκνυμι (to “make known” or “explain”) 18, and σημαίνω (to “make clear”) 19, one might argue that what was shown to him must be plain in meaning, literal and easily interpreted. It is true that its meaning was probably fairly apparent to its readers, steeped in the Old Testament whence the language came. However, these words actually point toward, rather than away from, the symbolic nature of the vision. Compare the following texts:
- Revelation 1:1
- “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John…”
- Daniel 2:28-30, 45
- “…but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days…this mystery has been revealed to me…that the interpretation may be made known to the king…God has made known to the king what shall be after this.”
John’s allusion to Daniel is not easy to miss. John’s “revelation” (ἀποκάλυψις) parallels Daniel’s “reveals” (ἀνακαλύπτω) in the Septuagint (LXX), and both come from the same root (καλύπτω). The word translated “made known” in Revelation 1:1 (σημαίνω) was used in the LXX translation of Daniel 2:45, again translated “made known” in our English translations. The connection is significant, because what was “revealed” and “made known” to Nebuchadnezzar was communicated by means of symbols. As traditionalist G. K. Beale explains,
The revelation is not abstract but pictorial. The king saw a huge statue composed of four sections of different metals: gold, silver, bronze, and iron. The statue was smashed by a rock that grew until it became a mountain filling the earth. Daniel recounts the symbolic vision seen by the king and then interprets it: each section of the colossus represented a major world kingdom. The LXX translator probably chose σημαίνω to render “make known” to underscore the precise kind of communication under discussion, which was symbolic communication. 20
By alluding to Daniel, John tells his readers that his vision likewise foretells the future by means of symbolic imagery. What’s more, Nebuchadnezzar’s and John’s visions are not alone. In Genesis 41:14-24, Pharaoh explains his symbolic dreams, in which seven healthy cows and reeds were consumed by seven sickly cows and reeds, respectively. Then, in verse 25, Joseph tells him, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do,” and the word translated “revealed” (δείκνυμι) in the LXX appears also in Revelation 1:1.
Joseph goes on to explain to Pharaoh that the imagery in his dream symbolizes seven years of plenty for Egypt, followed by seven years of famine. This is called “interpreting” (συγκρίνω) the dream’s imagery (verses 12, 13, and 15), which Joseph had earlier done for Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker. The cupbearer had dreamed of a vine with three branches that produced grapes (Gen. 40:9-11); the baker had dreamed of birds eating food out of the baskets on his head (Gen. 40:16-17). Joseph “interprets” (συγκρίνω, verse 22) their dreams, telling them that the three branches and three baskets in their dreams symbolize the next three days.
So Nebuchadnezzar, Pharaoh, the cupbearer and the baker were shown the future by means of vivid symbolism. And the words of the opening verse of Revelation clearly indicate that this was the nature of John’s vision as well.
Some interpreters grant that Revelation contains some symbolism, but still insist that one ought to interpret any given passage within it literally, unless there exists sufficient reason to treat it symbolically; a sort of “literal until proven symbolic” hermeneutic. The reality, however, as explained by Beale, is that just the opposite approach is appropriate when interpreting Revelation:
a number of authors of both popular and scholarly commentaries contend that one should interpret literally except where one is forced to interpret symbolically by clear indications of context…this rule should be turned on its head…the majority of the material in it is revelatory symbolism (1:12-20 and 4:1-22:5 at the least)…Where there is lack of clarity about whether something is symbolic, the scales of judgment should be tiled in the direction of a nonliteral analysis. 21
As premillennialist J. Webb Mealy writes, “There is no escaping the fact that virtually everything in [John’s] vision is revealed by means of symbolism.” 22 Indeed, a cursory tour through the vision’s contents reveals that this is obviously the case. In chapter four John sees a sea of glass and four creatures, covered with eyes: one like a lion, a second like an ox, a third with the face of a man and a fourth like a flying eagle. In chapter five John is shown a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, who opens seals on a scroll in chapter six, in which John also sees four riders and their horses: a conquering king, a warmonger, a bringer of famine and pestilence, and a veritable grim reaper. In chapter seven angels hold back the wind while servants of God are given seals on their foreheads. In chapter eight smoke from incense rises with the prayers of the saints from a golden censer, which is subsequently filled with fire from an altar and thrown down upon the earth. In chapter nine a star falls to earth and uses its key to open a bottomless pit, from which locusts arise looking like armored centaurs with the teeth of lions and the stinging tails of scorpions.
Chapter ten depicts an angel wrapped in clouds with a rainbow over its head with a blindingly shining face and legs made of fire, from whom John takes an eats a scroll. In chapter eleven fire bellows forth from the mouths of two witnesses and consumes those who attempt to harm them. In chapter twelve John sees a woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, wearing a crown with twelve stars, and he watches as she is given the wings of an eagle and protected by the earth when it opens its mouth to swallow up the torrent of water spewing forth from a dragon’s mouth. Chapter thirteen describes a seven-headed, ten-horned beast with the appearance of a leopard, a bear, and a lion—the same beast and whose image are worshipped by those an angel warns will be tormented with fire and sulfur in chapter fourteen, which also depicts the Son of Man seated on a cloud reaping the earth with His sickle.
In chapter fifteen harpists stand and sing beside a sea of glass and fire, and a sanctuary is opened from which angels emerge wearing golden sashes. In chapter sixteen John watches as bowls are poured out upon the earth, riddling beast-worshippers with sores, turning the sea and rivers into blood, scorching people with fire. Chapter seventeen opens with a vampiric prostitute upon hose forehead is written the name and description of Babylon, and she is riding atop the seven-headed, ten-horned beast. In chapter eighteen merchants and seamen weep and wail as smoke rises from the prostitute’s torment. In chapter nineteen a prince wearing a bloodstained robe with a sword protruding from His mouth has “King of kings and Lord of lords” written on His thigh. In chapter twenty an angel binds and imprisons a dragon in a bottomless pit. In chapter twenty-one a city descends from heaven, over a thousand miles wide, long and tall. And in chapter twenty-two, a river flows from God’s throne, on either side of which grows the tree of life, presumably to be eaten by servants of God upon whose foreheads His name is written.
Imagery and Interpretation
The vision given to John and recorded in the book of Revelation is thus absolutely saturated with symbolism. From Revelation 4:1 to 22:6, verses in which angels bookend the vision by declaring its purpose, the future is foretold by means of highly symbolic, vivid imagery. Only the most naïve of interpreters, stubbornly misapplying the historical-grammatical method of interpretation by ignoring or otherwise failing to recognize Revelation’s genre, 23 will demand that it be interpreted literally except where context demands otherwise. The context of the entire vision demands otherwise! Its very nature is symbolic! When smoke rises forever from the torment of those who worship the image of a seven-headed, ten-horned, chimeric beast, and when that beast is tormented forever in a lake of fire into which death, the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, is also thrown, simply pointing to the apparently eternally ongoing torment will not settle the evangelical debate over the nature of hell. The question is not what is depicted in the imagery; the question is, What does it mean?
As symbolic as Revelation is, it nevertheless communicates meaning, and is capable of being understood. As Beale puts it, “pictorial language can be interpreted. Metaphorical speech contains a ‘literal meaning’ or, should we say, an author’s intended meaning.” 24 And despite how esoteric and unfamiliar apocalyptic imagery can seem to us, some two thousand years removed from its use in Revelation, we sometimes recognize it—and understand it!—when it’s used today. In a recent Hollywood blockbuster, 25 the protagonist is shown a vision in which he finds himself standing, not on the ground, but upon a sea of human skulls blanketing the ground as far as the eye can see. Yet, I suspect not a single viewer thinks at this point in the movie that its antagonist intends to literally litter the face of the earth with decaying human heads. The imagery is readily understood as symbolizing the intended annihilation of the entire human race.
Apocalyptic imagery as used in the book of Revelation does convey meaning, and it is capable of being understood. Sometimes the meaning of its symbolism is clear, but usually it is not, and deducing its correct interpretation often requires great time and care. Traditionalists believe it points toward an eternity in which the risen lost will live forever in torment, agonizingly separated from God in misery. Conditionalists believe it points toward a day when the resurrected impenitent will be judged and executed, never to live again. Neither can just recite the text as if doing so settles the debate; both must present evidence, beyond simply what is portrayed in John’s vision, that theirs is the meaning it conveys. And in future articles in this series, we at Rethinking Hell will do just that.
- Gregory K. Beale, “The Revelation on Hell,” Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds. Christopher W. Morgan & Robert A. Peterson (Zondervan, 2004), 112.
- Robert A. Peterson & Edward W. Fudge, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Spectrum, 2010), Kindle edition, 107.
- Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News (Christian Focus, 2003), 112.
- Ibid., 113.
- Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 1984), 144.
- My first debate is available for download or streaming in two parts: “Episode 70: Perish in Fire” (part 1) and “Episode 71: Forever the Pain” (part 2). My second debate is available in three: “Episode 88: Death Eternal” (part 1), “Episode 89: God of Wrath” (part 2) and “Episode 90: Christ Died For Us” (part 3).
- Also known as The Ghost of Christmas Future, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a character in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol who shows Ebenezer Scrooge what awaits him should he fail to change his ways.
- Minority Report is a 2002 film starring Tom Cruise in which a special police unit called PreCrime arrests those whose future crimes are seen by a trio of psychics called “precogs” before they are committed. Usually all three psychics see the same future, but occasionally one of them sees something different, and his or her vision of the future is called the “minority report.”
- Stephen Wood, The Disciple’s Guide to Revelation (WestBow, 2012), 114-115.
- Z Richard Sawan, Revelation and the Mark of the Beast (AuthorHouse, 2011), 73.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- John MacArthur, Because the Time is Near (Moody, 2007), 156-157.
- The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated), s.v. “apocalyptic literature.” The genre, it is said, “owes its name to the NT book of Revelation (Gk. apokalypsis)…”
- Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, s.v. “apocalyptic.”
- New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “apocalyptic.”
- Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. “apocalyptic.”
- Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), s.v. “ἀποκάλυψις.”
- Ibid., s.v. “δείκνυμι.”
- Ibid., s.v. “σημαίνω.”
- Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 51.
- Ibid., 52.
- J. Webb Mealy, The End of the Unrepentant: A Study of the Biblical Themes of Fire and Being Consumed (Wipf & Stock, 2013), 76.
- Norm Geisler, champion of inerrancy and the historical-grammatical method, insists that it “must be listed as one of the great essentials of the Christian Faith,” while nevertheless recognizing that “the book of Revelation contains many symbols,” and that “the historical-grammatical method of Bible interpretation recognizes that there are different genres of literature in the Bible, each of which have certain peculiar characteristics that must be recognized in order to interpret the text properly.” Geisler includes apocalyptic in his list of such genres, pointing out that “A parable should not be treated as history, nor should poetry or apocalyptic literature (both of which contain many symbols) be treated as straightforward narrative.” Conviction Without Comprise (Harvest House, 2008), 195-199.
- Beale, Hell Under Fire, 112.
- In order to minimize the risk of spoiling readers who have not yet seen the movie to which I’m referring, I have left out its title and the names of its characters.