One of the most key passages used to defend the traditional view of hell is Revelation 14:9-11.
Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name. (NASB)
Although we have a number of articles on interpreting the book of Revelation and on related matters, and although the passage has been addressed in the Rethinking Hell podcast as well as in free resources outside of Rethinking Hell, a nice primer article addressing this passage was long past due.
Now, compared to Revelation 20:10, explaining how this passage is compatible with evangelical conditionalism (if not evidence in favor of the doctrine) will be fairly simple. Once the Old Testament background of the language and imagery of the passage is made clear, any reasonable observer should see why a conditionalist interpretation is at least reasonable. The reason this article is something of a primer is because whether or not a conditionalist interpretation is reasonable, there is still some substantial debate about whether the traditionalist or conditionalist interpretation is best.1 Such discussion takes us much deeper into the weeds, and additional resources for a deeper look will be in the notes below.2
Conditionalists also have different approaches as to explaining why the conditionalist interpretation is best, so perhaps in future articles here at Rethinking Hell you might see different takes on the passage from among Rethinking Hell contributors.
For the time being, let me explain why this passage is not nearly as clear-cut in teaching eternal torment as it may seem at first glance.
What This Passage Does and Does Not Say
Why is this passage pointed to as teaching eternal torment in the first place? After all, it never literally says that anyone will be tormented for ever and ever the way that Revelation 20:10 – and only Revelation 20:10 – literally states. What the passage says, when taken literally, is that a group of people will be tormented in fire and sulfur, and that the smoke will rise for ever and ever.
The reason eternal torment is read from this passage is from the following line of reasoning:
- The burning alive of the worshippers of the beast creates smoke that rises.
- The smoke rises for ever and ever.
- If the smoke rises for ever and ever, then the source, the burning, continues for ever and ever.
- The burning causes torment.
- Therefore, the unsaved are tormented in fire for ever and ever.
Of course, I should point out that many traditionalists today who appeal to this passage don’t believe there is literal fire in hell (which causes its own set of problems).3 Some don’t even believe there is any actual physical pain or other externally imposed misery placed on the unsaved by God in his wrath (which causes even more problems).4
It seems rather odd to base your doctrine of hell on the fact that this passage seemingly speaks of people burning and being tortured forever when you don’t actually believe that people in hell burn or are tortured, doesn’t it? But that aside, it does make sense that one would see this and infer that it teaches eternal burning (and therefore eternal torment) – that is, if the language is meant literally and is not referencing any sort of Old Testament idiom that referred to destruction.
The Old Testament Background Changes Everything
However, the image of rising smoke, and even the claim of smoke rising forever, is in fact an Old Testament idiom that describes destruction, not ongoing burning (let alone ongoing torment).
It really is that simple. We have precedent from elsewhere in scripture to see smoke rising forever as figurative of destruction, not ongoing burning. And we must allow scripture to interpret scripture. This does not prove that it was meant the same way in Revelation 14:9-11. It does, however, make such a conclusion reasonable.
The key passage is Isaiah 34:9-10, a prophecy against the kingdom of Edom:
Its streams will be turned into pitch, And its loose earth into brimstone, And its land will become burning pitch. It will not be quenched night or day; Its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; None will pass through it forever and ever. (Emphasis added)
You can see some key parallels to the destruction of Edom and the fate of the beast worshippers in Revelation. For example, both warnings include a declaration that the harmful, violent activity against those in view will not be stopped “night or day.”
Of most significance, however, is Isaiah’s declaration that after Edom is burned and destroyed, “its smoke will go up forever.” Wait a minute; following the traditionalist logic applied to Revelation 14:11 (and it is reasonable logic on its own), if the smoke rises forever, the fire must continue burning forever. And yet, that is not the case in Isaiah!
Isaiah is speaking of a kingdom that was to be destroyed. We know from history that Edom was destroyed, as Isaiah (and Obadiah) predicted. We also are all pretty sure that there is not some pit in the Middle East that is still burning to this day. How then could Isaiah be correct when he says that the smoke will rise forever?
The simplest explanation is that Isaiah, probably the most poetic and hyperbolic of all the Old Testament prophets, was being figurative, perhaps relying even on an idiom that may have existed at the time. The smoke would not actually rise forever. It wouldn’t even rise for such an extended period of time that one would reasonably call if “forever” (more on that below). Nevertheless, the smoke rising was figurative of the destruction of what had been burned, so Isaiah was being really emphatic by saying the smoke would not only rise, but would rise forever.
Ever-rising Smoke Actually Makes Sense as a Symbol of Destruction
The association between destruction and rising smoke was not new to Isaiah. In Genesis 19, after Sodom and Gomorrah is destroyed with burning sulfur from the heavens, Abraham looked out the next morning and saw that “the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace” (Verse 28). In the Bible’s most infamous instance of divine judgment by means of fiery death and destruction, the inspired author made sure to take note of the rising smoke ascending from the smoldering ruins.
With that in mind, it makes sense that Isaiah would use the imagery of rising smoke to show the destruction of Edom. Rising smoke is a picture of a city having just been destroyed with fire. In ancient times, it would have been much more familiar imagery to the reader. And while technically, smoldering and spot fires that cause smoke are still an example of burning, that would not have been the point. The point would be to call attention to what it looks like right after the conquering hordes have left. The smoke rising emphasizes destruction, not the burning process. The smoke rising forever makes the point that Edom will never be rebuilt. It will (figuratively) always be in that state of smoldering ruins.
The Significance of Isaiah’s Reference to Smoke Rising Forever
Whatever the case, Isaiah was not saying that Edom would be burning forever because, again, there is no continually smoking pit in the middle east from where the smoke could have been rising forever. Therefore, we have an example in the Bible of smoke that rises forever that does not speak of continual burning, but of the destruction of what was burned.
Considering the fact that the Bible has zero examples of smoke rising forever that unambiguously uses the image to show continual burning, it is hardly unreasonable to think that Revelation may be borrowing from the language of Isaiah 34:9-10 (and the imagery of that verse and Genesis 19:28) to make the point that the unsaved will be destroyed.
A conditionalist interpretation of Revelation 14:9-11 becomes all the more reasonable when you take into account just heavily the book of Revelation relies on Old Testament imagery. Everything from the temple incense representing prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8) to the infamous beast of Revelation (based on Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7) to the four living creatures in Revelation 4:6-8 (which are based on the vision if Ezekiel 1) comes from the Old Testament. Old Testament allusions and references are abundant in the book of Revelation.5
Revelation was not written in a vacuum. Therefore, we must accept that the use of Old Testament language and idioms in Revelation at least could reasonably be there to allude to the meaning of the original passage being referenced.
A Few Basic Objections
As with many matters of theology and Bible interpretation, there is a lot that could be written for and against the explanation I have put forth. Two key objections deserve our attention here.
1. Revelation Says Smoke “of Their Torment” So It Is Different
One might counter that the difference between Isaiah 34:10 and Revelation 14:11 is that the Revelation passage mentions torment. Not just the smoke rises for ever and ever, but specifically, the smoke of their torment rises forever. Therefore, it is speaking of ongoing conscious punishment and not destruction.
The problem with this rebuttal is that this specification, the reference to torment, has nothing to do with duration. It doesn’t really even address my argument from Isaiah. The whole point of me pointing to Isaiah is to challenge the very assumption that a reference to ever-rising smoke means that there will be everlasting burning. That underlying assumption is necessary to the eternal torment argument from Revelation 14:9-11. If we have reason to believe that a “smoke rising forever” reference is not meant to indicate everlasting burning, then the reference to torment is moot.
And we do have reason to challenge this assumption, because the one time we see smoke rising forever outside of the book of Revelation, it is symbolic of swift destruction.
Imagine if Isaiah had said not just “its smoke will rise forever” but rather “the smoke of its burning will rise forever.” This would change nothing. In fact, Isaiah does say “the smoke of their burning,” just not in so many words. It is implied because smoke is the result of burning – just as the smoke in Revelation is the result of the torment (i.e. the burning that causes torment because torment itself doesn’t actually make smoke). Isaiah is speaking of an ongoing action, i.e. burning. Taken literally, his words would indicate that the ongoing action continues forever.
But we don’t take what he says literally. We know it is symbolic of destruction and not continual burning because the kingdom in question was destroyed and there is no burning hole in the Middle East where the smoke of Edom rises forever…
Of course, when you already believe in eternal torment, any reference to “torment” will understandably make your ears shoot up and incline you to read your already developed view of hell into the text. Similar things can be said about any number of doctrines. But we must be able to overcome that kind of inclination if we want to see what the Bible actually teaches.
The two passages are very similar. If the reasoning applied to Revelation 14:9-11 were applied to Isaiah 34:9-10, it would make Isaiah’s words mean something that would frankly be unreasonable in the context. The mention of “torment” is not material enough to change this. And if the passages are not materially different, then the way one passage uses language is a legitimate factor to consider when interpreting the other.
2. “Forever” Vs. “For Ever and Ever”
The second objection I will address here is that while Isaiah mentioned smoke rising “forever” (Hebrew l’olam), Revelation 14:11 speaks of smoke rising for ever and ever (Greek eis aionios aionion).
The rebuttal would be that Isaiah could be speaking literally, as derivations of olam do not always mean for eternity, but sometimes only for a long, usually undetermined period of time. Therefore Isaiah would not be using ever-rising smoke as an idiom for destruction., He would be speaking literally about smoke rising for a long time. Therefore, we would have no reason to think that the smoke rising in Revelation 14:11 is anything but smoke literally rising for ever and ever (and thus, the fiery torture continuing for ever and ever).6
For our purposes, it is not necessary to get into the intricacies of the Greek of Revelation 14:11 vs. the Hebrew of Isaiah 34:10. Let us grant that the “forever” of Isaiah is not as strong as the “for ever and ever” of Isaiah. It is still not reasonable to think Isaiah was being literal. It is still not reasonable to say that Isaiah was speaking of continual burning “forever” as opposed to using the image of smoke rising “forever” as symbolic of destruction.
This is because, even if olam is not intended here to convey eternal endlessness, it still does mean a very long time. The word olam denotes the idea of the time being long and indefinite. Strong defines it as “generally, time out of mind (past or future), i.e. (practically) eternity.”7 One analogy is one looking out over the horizon. The horizon is the furthest point a person can see, and if you could see time, olam would indicate time going past the horizon.8 Whatever the specifics of Isaiah 34:10‘s use of l’olam, it is not speaking of a short, definite time period.
A kingdom being destroyed by fire, however, would take place within a short, definite time period. While one would not know exactly how long it would last, it would be definite in that you know it would be over in a matter of hours or days, not generations.
Even if Isaiah does not mean the smoke rises for eternity, he at least speaks of it rising beyond the foreseeable future, which could not be literal. It still is figurative, using a figure of destruction that people of the time would understand well (especially in light of Genesis 19:28). In this case, the distinction between “forever” and “for ever and ever” is a distinction without a difference.
To sum all of that up, the point is that Revelation 14:9-11 seems like it teaches eternal torment on its face – until you dig deeper. Once the Old Testament background is understood, once you look at the only reference to perpetually rising smoke outside of the book of Revelation, there is, at the very least, a reasonable alternative to the traditionalist understanding of this passage.
One could further argue that this passage is in fact evidence for conditionalism. After all, in a book that is saturated with Old Testament imagery and language, the fate of the lost is described using the same language as the fiery and permanent destruction of a godless empire. This phenomenon of a passage used to prove the doctrine of eternal torment actually lending some weight to the doctrine of evangelical conditionalism is something you will likely see in many other instances if you keep studying the topic.
- I’ll be frank: in my experience, most traditionalist works that cite Revelation 14:9-11 don’t address the stronger conditionalist rebuttals, like the one below, if they acknowledge any rebuttals at all. They simply take it for granted that this passage teaches eternal torment. One notable exception is Gregory K. Beale’s contribution to Hell under Fire, edited by Robert Peterson and Christopher Morgan. [↩]
- Additional (free!) resources on Revelation 14:9-11 include:
- Rethinking Hell podcast, Episode 7.
- “A Conditionalist Reading of the Book of Revelation” by William Tanksley, Jr. and Chris Date, presented at the 2015 Rethinking Hell Conference.
- The Bible Teaches Annihilationism by Joseph Dear (see Section XV).
- For more on this, see here. [↩]
- See our three part series of articles on how the tortureless, fireless version of hell that may traditionalists advocate today is foreign to church history – nullifying the strongest argument the traditional view has. – Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3. [↩]
- For more on the ubiquity of Old Testament imagery in the book of Revelation, see “Annihilation in Revelation, Part 2: In With the Old – in the New” by Chris Date. [↩]
- Again, never mind the fact that many traditionalists who appeal to this passage deny the fiery and some even deny the torture… [↩]
- James Strong, Greek and Hebrew Dictionary of the Bible, (Miklal, 2011), Kindle Edition, location 25510. [↩]
- Jeff Benner, Ancient Hebrew Dictionary: 1000 Verbs and Nouns of the Hebrew Bible (Virtual Book Worm, 2009), 128. [↩]