What Is the Bible’s View?
“The Lake of Fire”—Literal or Symbolic?
SEVERAL times the Bible book of Revelation mentions a “lake of fire.” We read, for example, regarding a symbolic “wild beast” and “false prophet”: “While still alive, they both were hurled into the fiery lake that burns with sulphur.” (Rev. 19:20) The following chapter adds the idea of torment, saying: “And the Devil . . . was hurled into the lake of fire and sulphur, where both the wild beast and the false prophet already were; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”—Rev. 20:10.
Many believe that this refers to actual conscious torment forever in real fire. However, the book of Revelation contains many “signs,” or symbols. (Rev. 1:1) Could it be that the lake of fire and its torments are symbolic? The Bible itself provides enough information for us to draw the correct conclusion. How so?
The book of Revelation gives a definition of the fiery lake, saying: “And death and Hades were hurled into the lake of fire. This means the second death, the lake of fire.” (Rev. 20:14; compare 21:8.) In what sense is the death here mentioned “second”?
The Scriptures state that “it is reserved for men to die once for all time, but after this a judgment.” (Heb. 9:27) This death “once for all time” is due to sin inherited from Adam. (Rom. 5:12) The second death, however, differs from this. In what way?
According to the Bible the sin-atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ makes possible “a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) The Bible foretells that those who return from the dead during the millennial reign of Christ will undergo a period of “judgment” that will afford them opportunity to gain eternal life. (John 5:25-30; Acts 17:31) But gaining a favorable judgment will require that persons repent and turn around from their former evil ways.—Acts 3:19; 17:30.
What about those who do not feel sorry for their sinning against God, and who are unwilling to bring their lives into conformity with God’s righteous standards? Revelation 20:15 says that “whoever was not found written in the book of life was hurled into the lake of fire,” which is the “second death.” (Rev. 20:14) What does that mean?
Clearly it means death forever, without hope of a resurrection. Due to continuing forever, this death differs from what Adam brought upon all his offspring. It is a second kind of death, fittingly called the “second death.”
Those who undergo second death cannot be conscious of any literal torment in real fire. The Bible assures us that the dead are “at rest,” “conscious of nothing at all.” (Job 3:13; Eccl. 9:5; John 11:11-14) How, therefore, are we to understand Scriptural references to eternal fiery torment?
The Word of God makes mention of fire and sulphur first in connection with the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Gen. 19:24) Interestingly, Bible writer Jude states that “Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities about them . . . are placed before us as a warning example by undergoing the judicial punishment of everlasting fire.” (Jude 7) But what really happened to those cities? Jesus himself said: “On the day that Lot came out of’ Sodom it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed them all.” (Luke 17:29) For the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah the fire and sulphur meant death. The actual, literal fire stopped burning thousands of years ago. But the destroyed, desolate condition of the cities continues till this very day.
Using similar language the prophet Isaiah foretold concerning the downfall of Edom: “Her torrents must be changed into pitch, and her dust into sulphur; and her land must become as burning pitch. By night or by day it will not be extinguished; to time indefinite its smoke will keep ascending. From generation to generation she will be parched; forever and ever no one will be passing across her.” (Isa. 34:5, 9, 10) According to the same prophecy, however, wild desert creatures were to take up residence in that devastated land. (Isa. 34:11-17) That being so, the fire whose smoke keeps ascending to time indefinite cannot be literal. Instead, it represents total and lasting destruction of the once prosperous Edom.
As for torment, this need not be understood literally as a conscious experience of suffering. Several times the Greek Septuagint Version of the Hebrew Scriptures uses the word for torment (básanos) with reference to death. We read, for instance: “And when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits a trespass, and I shall bring punishment [básanos, literally “torment”] before him, he shall die.” (Ezek. 3:20) Later Ezekiel was told by God that “all the slain that fell by the sword . . . have received their punishment [básanos]” and that persons “who go down slain to Hades . . . have received their punishment [básanos].” (Ezek. 32:24, 30, Septuagint) Bagster’s English translation of the Septuagint adds a footnote at Ezekiel 3:20, saying: “Básanos in Old Testament seems to signify punishment.” And the punishment, or torment, mentioned in the scriptures here quoted from Ezekiel is clearly death.
Further indicating the Scriptural meaning of torment are statements in the book of Revelation concerning the symbolic “Babylon the Great.” We read: “And I heard another voice out of heaven say: ‘ . . . To the extent that she [Babylon the Great] glorified herself and lived in shameless luxury, to that extent give her torment and mourning. . . . And the kings of the earth . . . will weep and beat themselves in grief over her, when they look at the smoke from the burning of her, while they stand at a distance because of their fear of her torment.’” (Rev. 17:1-5; 18:4, 7, 9, 10) What is the meaning of Babylon the Great’s fiery torment? An angel explains: “Thus with a swift pitch will Babylon the great city be hurled down, and she will never be found again.” (Rev. 18:21; compare 17:16; 18:8, 15-17, 19.) Once again, fiery torment refers to destruction and death, and, in Babylon’s case, this lasts forever.
So what has our investigation revealed about the lake of fire? We have learned that with regard to Sodom, Gomorrah and Edom, “everlasting fire” proved to be symbolic, meaning the total destruction of those cities. “Torment” too appears in the Bible with reference to destruction and death. Since the Scriptures specify that the fiery lake “means the second death” and the dead “are conscious of nothing at all,” being tormented forever in the lake of fire must be understood as being symbolic. It means complete and everlasting destruction for all unrepentant opposers of God who are “hurled into” it.