What ‘Torment in the Lake of Fire’ Means
HOW would you react if, now that you know what the Bible says about the unconscious condition of the dead, you were to find a Bible text mentioning a place of torment? Would you reason that this justifies ignoring all the other scriptures and holding onto the idea that there may still be a possibility of conscious existence continuing after death? Or, would you undertake a careful examination of the context to determine just what the text might really mean and how it harmonizes with the rest of the Bible?
The reason for considering this is that the Bible book of Revelation does speak of “torment” in a “lake of fire.” Revelation 20:10 states: “The Devil who was misleading them 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.”—See also Revelation 19:20.
How are those cast into the “lake of fire” tormented? That we should not be hasty in taking this expression as literal is evident from the nature of the book of Revelation. The opening words of the book read: “A revelation by Jesus Christ, which God gave him, to show his slaves the things that must shortly take place. And he sent forth his angel and presented it in signs through him to his slave John.”—Revelation 1:1.
As there stated, this revelation was presented “in signs.” What, then, of the “lake of fire” and the “torment” there? Are they literal or are they also “signs” or symbols?
Additional information as to what is cast into the lake of fire, besides the Devil, the “wild beast” and the “false prophet,” sheds light on the matter. Note the words of Revelation 20:14, 15: “Death and Hades were hurled into the lake of fire. This means the second death, the lake of fire. Furthermore, whoever was not found written in the book of life was hurled into the lake of fire.”
Now, is it possible for death and Hades to be hurled into a literal lake of fire? Obviously not, for they are not objects, animals or persons. Death is a state or condition. How could it be tossed into a literal lake of fire? As for Hades, it is the common grave of mankind. What kind of a lake could hold it?
Then, too, Revelation 20:14, 15 does not say that the lake is literal. Rather, we read that the “lake of fire” is itself a sign or symbol of “second death.” The same point is made at Revelation 21:8: “As for the cowards and those without faith and those who are disgusting in their filth and murderers and fornicators and those practicing spiritism and idolaters and all the liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur. This means the second death.”
Since the lake of fire is a symbol of second death, the casting of death and Hades into it is simply a symbolic way of saying that these will be forever destroyed. This agrees with the Bible’s statement that ‘the last enemy, death, is to be brought to nothing.’ (1 Corinthians 15:26) And, since Hades, the common grave of mankind in general, is emptied and “death will be no more,” that means that Hades ceases to function, passes out of existence.—Revelation 20:13; 21:4.
What, then, is the “torment” experienced by wicked humans and others that are thrown into the “lake of fire”? Without conscious existence, they could not experience literal torment, could they? And there is nothing in the Holy Scriptures to show that they will have any conscious existence. So why does the Bible speak of eternal torment in the “lake of fire”?
Since the “lake of fire” is symbolic, the torment associated with it must also be symbolic or figurative. This can be better appreciated in the light of what the Bible says about the things that are pitched into the “lake of fire.” What we should observe is that the “second death” is what is symbolized by the “lake of fire.” The Adamic death, that is, the death that all born humankind inherited from Adam and Eve after they had sinned, is never likened to such a fearful thing, even though death is “the wages sin pays.”—Romans 6:23.
Jesus Christ likened the death state of those who die because of inherited sin to a sleep. For instance, he said of Lazarus, who lay dead for parts of four days, “Lazarus our friend has gone to rest, but I am journeying there to awaken him from sleep.” (John 11:11) Later on, even Jesus slept the sleep of death for parts of three days. “Now Christ has been raised up from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20) Death is like a sleep, as it ends in an awakening.
However, those who must undergo the “second death” do not have the comfort of a resurrection hope. Theirs is not a sleep. They never awaken from destruction in second death. As this hopeless state keeps hold of them, they are ‘tormented forever’ in the sense of being eternally restrained from having any conscious existence or activity. That their restraint in “second death” is compared to torture by being confined in prison is shown by Jesus in his parable of the ungrateful, merciless slave. Concerning the action his master took against him, Jesus said: “And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt.” (Matthew 18:34, Jerusalem Bible) The New World Translation shows who these tormentors are by reading: “With that his master, provoked to wrath, delivered him to the jailers [marginal reading: tormentors], until he should pay back all that was owing.”
The very fact that the “lake of fire” is a symbol of “second death” rules out the idea of its being a place of conscious torment. Nowhere does the Bible even suggest that the dead can experience conscious torment, but the dead have lost all sensations. Of those dead in the common grave of mankind, the Bible says: “There the wicked themselves have ceased from agitation, and there those weary in power are at rest. Together prisoners themselves are at ease; they actually do not hear the voice of one driving them to work. Small and great are there the same, and the slave is set free from his master.”—Job 3:17-19.
Just as the death to which humans in general continue to be subject ends all sensations and feeling, so does the “second death.” However, no forgiveness of sins or ransoming is possible for those punished with “second death.” That reproachful state is their lot forever. Memory of them is as rotten.—Isaiah 66:24; Proverbs 10:7.
Yet even before wicked ones are plunged into total annihilation, “second death,” they experience torment. This is referred to symbolically at Revelation 14:9-11: “If anyone worships the wild beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or upon his hand, he will also drink of the wine of the anger of God that is poured out undiluted into the cup of his wrath, and he shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the sight of the holy angels and in the sight of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever, and day and night they have no rest, those who worship the wild beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” By what means are the worshipers of the “wild beast” and its “image” tormented? The words of Revelation that follow immediately thereafter provide the clue: “Here is where it means endurance for the holy ones, those who observe the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”—Revelation 14:12.
There would be no need for endurance on the part of the holy ones if the worshipers of the “wild beast” and its “image” were confined to a literal place of torment. Those false worshipers would then be stripped of all power to do harm to God’s faithful servants. But as long as they are alive and free they can engage in hateful, vicious acts against the “holy ones.”
The fact that the “holy ones” are brought into the picture indicates that they are the instrumentalities for bringing torment on the wicked. How could this be? Well, they proclaim the message that points to the eternal destruction awaiting the worshipers of the “wild beast” and its “image.” This message puts these false worshipers in torment, giving them no rest day or night. That is why they try everything within their power to silence God’s servants. The resulting persecution calls for endurance on the part of the “holy ones.” Finally, when the worshipers of the “wild beast” and its “image” are destroyed as by “fire and sulphur,” the evidence of that total destruction will, like smoke, ascend for all time to come.
The completeness of that destruction might be illustrated by what befell the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The disciple Jude wrote: “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) The fire that destroyed those cities had stopped burning long before Jude wrote his letter. But the permanent, “everlasting” evidence of that fire’s destructiveness remained, for those cities continued nonexistent.
ETERNAL TORMENT DOES NOT HARMONIZE WITH GOD’S PERSONALITY
That total destruction, not conscious torment for all eternity, is the punishment meted out to those persisting in rebellion also agrees with what God reveals about himself in his Word the Bible. Jehovah God has tender feelings toward his human creation as well as his animal creation.
Consider for a moment God’s law about a working bull: “You must not muzzle a bull while it is threshing.” (Deuteronomy 25:4) This law reflected God’s compassionate concern and care for unreasoning animals. The bull was not to be tormented by being forcibly prevented from satisfying its desire to feed on some of the grain it was threshing.
Far greater is God’s concern and love for humankind than for the unreasoning animals. As Jesus Christ reminded his disciples: “Five sparrows sell for two coins of small value, do they not? Yet not one of them goes forgotten before God. But even the hairs of your heads are all numbered. Have no fear; you are worth more than many sparrows.”—Luke 12:6, 7.
Would it not be totally inconsistent, then, for anyone to claim that a God with such tender feelings would literally torment some humans for all eternity? Who of us would want to see someone undergoing the most horrible torture for even an hour? Is it not true that only fiendish persons would delight in seeing others suffer? Does not our inward sense of love and justice go into a state of revolt when we hear that a father tortured his child nearly to the point of death for some act of disobedience? Regardless of how bad the child may have been, we find it impossible to have any tender feelings for such a father.
God’s compassionate dealing with imperfect mankind, however, does appeal to our moral sense. It warms our hearts and draws us closer to our Creator. Just think of it: Even when people deserve punishment, God has no pleasure in having to administer it. As the prophet Jeremiah exclaimed with reference to God’s judgment that befell unfaithful Jerusalem: “Although he has caused grief, he will also certainly show mercy according to the abundance of his loving-kindness. For not out of his own heart has he afflicted or does he grieve the sons of men.”—Lamentations 3:32, 33.
If it is not in his heart to afflict or to grieve humans who deserve punishment, how could Jehovah God for all eternity look approvingly upon the anguish of wicked ones? Furthermore, what purpose would it serve? According to the clergy’s unscriptural “hell fire” theory, even if those experiencing the torment wanted to change, they could not do so, nor could they improve their situation. God’s Word, however, shows unmistakably that total destruction, not torment, is the punishment for all who persist in wickedness.
Appreciating that Jehovah is a loving and just God, we can rest assured that his purpose for those who want to serve him is grand indeed. With eager anticipation, then, let us examine the Scriptures to learn of the loving provisions that he has made to deliver mankind from bondage to disease and death.