Three Angels Messages Part 73

Welcome once again, as we continue to study the Three Angel’s Messages! In speaking of one who receives the mark of the beast we read, “He shall 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 ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

Surely these are some of the strongest words in Scripture. But remember, when the issue is one of life or death, startling language is appropriate. A mother who sees her child rush out into the street to chase a ball is not going to speak in hushed tones. She is going to shout at the top of her lungs to save her loved one. In this way, the words of the third angel are fittingly strong and arresting. Keep in mind, though, that they are given in love.

Some have taken these words to mean that the lost will burn in a never-ending fire. Many believe that God will perform a miracle of preservation like He did with the burning bush that elicited Moses’ attention, in that it burned but was not consumed. Exodus 3:2.

The wicked will burn as “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” preached puritan pastor Jonathan Edward on July 8, 1741. Is this accurate? Is this what the Bible teaches? How do you reconcile these texts with others that teach that the wicked will suffer the second death and will be no more? Many have been led to turn away from a God pictured in this light. They have rejected the Bible on the basis that a God Who punishes forever for the sins of a life-time cannot be loved and appreciated. In this Satan, the deceiver from the beginning, has won a victory. He has superimposed his character of cruelty onto the portrait of a loving God.

Let’s start by noting that we must distinguish between eternal punishment and eternal punishing. Do you see the difference between the two? Jesus said, “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:41, 46. The punishment will be everlasting, not the punishing. There’s a huge difference! The effect of the act of punishment will last eternally, not the act of punishing itself.

Are we not encouraged to “rightly divide the Word of truth”? II Timothy 2:15. Are we not warned that it is possible to “twist the Scriptures, to our destruction”? II Peter 3:16. We must not fall into the trap of Job’s friend Eliphaz, who was reproved by the Lord Who said, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right.” Job 42:7. To “charge God falsely” with the crime of torturing sinners in a never-ending hell is a serious matter!

How shall we understand the words and phrases we find in Scripture concerning God’s dealing with the lost? It is a blessing that by comparing Scripture with Scripture we can come to an understanding that weds the picture of God’s love and mercy with the picture of His justice and retribution. In God’s Book, “Thunder Drive” does indeed intersect “Serenity Place.” “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Psalm 85:10. The Bible presents a harmonious and consistent whole, if read carefully and responsibly. If we don’t believe that, if we believe that the Bible contains contradictions, we are of all people most pitiable.

For one thing, we can see that the word “ever” and “forever” in the languages of the Bible don’t have the precise meanings that our words do. The word in the Old Testament, olam, means “as long as it lasts.” Here’s an example. Hannah lent her son Samuel to the Lord “forever,” then explained, “as long as he lives he shall be lent to the Lord.” I Samuel 1:22, 28. Here’s another illustration. In Jonah’s case, he said that he was in the belly of the great fish “forever,” which is documented to be “three days and three nights.” Jonah 2:6; 1:17.

The New Testament word for “forever” is aion, from which we get our word “eon,” which means “age.” How long is that? What exactly is an “eon”? It depends on the context. We speak of the “atomic age” or the “computer age.” These terms are not necessarily meant to be definite periods of time. So when we read of the punishment of the wicked we need to bear in mind the differences between our word “forever” and the Hebrew word olam or the Greek word aion.

Let’s look at some of these terms and see how they are used elsewhere in the Sacred Writings. The Bible speaks of eternal fire, “everlasting (olam) burnings.” Isaiah 33:14. Are we to understand from this that the fires of hell will be stoked throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity? No. We are given clear indication as to what “eternal fire” means in this context. “As Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal (aionios, the adjective form of aion) fire.” Jude 7.

In other words, it’s as if the Lord is asking, “Do you want to know what ‘eternal fire’ is? Study the history of these cities. Read and understand what I have put into the Sacred Book. These cities are ‘set forth as an example’ for this purpose.” None should be mislead as to what God is saying. Did Sodom and Gomorrah suffer the fires of divine judgment? Absolutely. Are they burning today? No. The best archeological evidence is that they are now buried beneath the Dead Sea. However, even though the flames are not rising today from these reprobate cities, the effects of that destruction are indeed “forever.” This is what the Bible is telling us will happen when the wicked are destroyed. It will be a forever destruction, not a forever destroying.

The Bible speaks of “unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12. What does this mean? Notice this warning given to Jerusalem by the prophet Jeremiah. “But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.” Jeremiah 17:27. Unquenchable fire was predicted against Jerusalem if they would not follow the Lord.

Did this happen? Yes, it did. Concerning the destruction brought by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. we read, “He burned the house of the LORD and the king’s house; all the houses of Jerusalem, that is, all the houses of the great men, he burned with fire.” II Kings 25:9. Notice how the author of Chronicles connects the dots for us and makes it clear that this destruction fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy.  “Then they burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious possessions. And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah.” II Chronicles 36:19, 20. Penned the prophet Jeremiah, “The LORD has fulfilled His fury, He has poured out His fierce anger, He kindled a fire in Zion, and it has devoured its foundations.” Lamentations 4:11.

So, Jerusalem felt the flame of “unquenchable fire.” The prophecy was fulfilled, but is Jerusalem burning today? No, the seething, “unquenchable” fires eventually died out. What we must conclude then, is that “unquenchable fire” means that it can’t be stopped while it’s burning, but when it has finished its job it will be extinguished. We’ve had some fires in Southern California in the last few years that were literally unquenchable. Skilled and trained fire-fighters could do little but watch as the flames raged and leaped over 12 lanes worth of the Interstate 15 freeway on their destructive journey. But those fires, thankfully, are not burning today. They eventually went out. So too will the “unquenchable fire” that devours the wicked.

What about this matter of “the smoke of their torment ascending forever and ever”? What does that phrase mean? Keep in mind that the book of Revelation draws heavily on the stories and accounts of the past in describing what God has in store for the future. That’s His preferred method of teaching us. This particular phraseology is drawn from the Old Testament prophecy concerning the Edomites, who were descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother.
Because of their pride and other faults they were indicted by God, Who was especially displeased concerning their behavior when Judah was taken captive. Edom rejoiced in the afflictions of their “brother.” They looted from their possessions when they were attacked. They cut off the escape routes and delivered to Nebuchadnezzar any who attempted to flee. They showed no trace of “brotherly love.” See Obadiah 10-14.
For this, God was unhappy with Edom and predicted its fall. “For My sword shall be bathed in heaven; indeed it shall come down on Edom. For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom. For it is the day of the LORD’s vengeance, the year of recompense for the cause of Zion. Its streams shall be turned into pitch, and its dust into brimstone; its land shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night or day; its smoke shall ascend forever.” Isaiah 34:5, 6, 8-10. 10.

Did that happen? Yes, it did. Is Edom burning today? No. Is the land of Edom lying in waste and uninhabited today? Yes. Very importantly, notice two specific things that this passage also includes; the thought that Edom would experience fire that could not be quenched, and more than that, something that is of special interest as we read Revelation 14, that “It shall not be quenched night or day.” Does the fact that the fires of Edom would not be quenched “night or day” mean that they would last forever? No. File that thought in your mind as you ponder the expression in Revelation 14:11, “The smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

When the fires burn, there will be no rest, no escape from them. But from this description we are not required to believe that these fires will continue throughout eternity. From the examples given by the Bible, the fire is both unstoppable and inescapable when it is burning. The fires that destroy the wicked will not be quenched while they are burning, and there will be no rest for the lost “day or night” while the destroying fires do their work.

But the fire which consumes the wicked will be as the fire that consumed Edom. Even though the fires could “not be quenched night or day,” Edom is not burning today. We see then that the phrase “its smoke shall ascend forever,” as illustrated in the example of Edom, does not in any way indicate that a continuous never-ending torment is suggested. The example is unambiguous. It clearly means that the effect of the destruction is “eternal.”

Other prophets draw on the figure of speech of rising smoke to depict the final punishment of the lost. “Therefore they shall be like the morning cloud and like the early dew that passes away, like chaff blown off from a threshing floor and like smoke from a chimney.” Hosea 13:3. “Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. The wicked shall perish; and the enemies of the LORD, like the splendor of the meadows, shall vanish. Into smoke they shall vanish away.” Psalm 37:1, 2, 20. In the poetic lament concerning the fall of apocalyptic Babylon we read, “And the kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived luxuriously with her will weep and lament for her, when they see the smoke of her burning.” Revelation 18:9. These expressions are pictures of a destruction which is complete and thorough. Smoke is an evidence of a consumed fuel.

Speaking about the destruction of the wicked, the Scriptures use very emphatic verbs like “consume,”  “devour” and “burn up,” which convey the idea of total and complete destruction. See Isaiah 33:14; Daniel 2:44; Zephaniah 1:2,3; Malachi 4:1; Revelation 20:9. It’s a picture of total annihilation. When you “devour” what’s on your dinner plate, there’s nothing left. The wicked, including the author of sin himself, will “be no more.” Psalm 37:10 36; Ezekiel 28:19. Writes the psalmist, “May sinners be consumed from the earth, and the wicked be no more.” Psalm 104:35. States the wise man, “The wicked are overthrown and are no more.” Proverbs 12:7. “They shall be as though they had never been.” Obadiah 16. “They shall be devoured like stubble fully dried.” Nahum 1:10. Language couldn’t be clearer.

Figuratively speaking, the wicked will be “ashes under the feet” of the saints. “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, that will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,’ says the LORD of hosts.” Malachi 4:1-3.

It was common in the agricultural world of Bible times, that farmers would harvest the grain for food, the stalk for straw, and then burn what remained, which served as a fertilization as well as a clearing technique. In some places today, that process is still done. However, the fires could only burn what was on top of the ground. The Bible is telling us that the fires that God sends to destroy sin will burn what is both above and below ground, or, understanding the figure of speech, the “root” (representing Satan, the author of sin) and the “branch,” representing all his followers.

Let’s include in our analysis some other considerations from the Bible that bear on the question of the fate of the wicked. Notice the strong contrast contained within these two familiar texts. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16.

Let’s think about these words carefully. If it were really true that God burned sinners in a never-ending hell, then the words in these texts need serious revision. The text in Romans should read, “The wages of sin is eternal life in hell, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Is that what it says? Is that a sentence that makes sense? No! The contrast is between the words “death” and “life,” which are obviously opposites, indicated by the conjunction “but.”
By this same reasoning John’s passage should read, “Whoever believes in Him should not live in hell forever, but have everlasting life.” Again, is that what the Bible is trying to tell us? Is that consistent with the vast quantity of clear material on this subject? Isn’t it simpler to just to read it the way that it says? “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.”

Thank God that He is truly a God of love, and not the tyrannical being Satan has made Him out to be. To be lost forever is a tragic and regrettable penalty, but it does not involve never-ending torment like Satan has taught the unwary and unlearned. In this, the enemy has painted a picture of God that is not accurate, and has led many to reject Him. In mercy, God will respect the decision of the wicked, and in mercy they will be put out of existence. Just remember, God desperately wants all of His children to accept the gift of life. It is not His will that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

There are a few more points that we need to consider in this most important topic, the final judgment of the wicked. Please join us next time as we continue to study God’s wonderful Book!