The announcement of the Good News here in Revelation 14 might seem strange when it says: ‘Fear God! Give him glory! The time has come for his judgment! Worship the one who made heaven and earth and the sea and the springs of the sea!” (v. 7). How is the time of judgment Good News? Probably more than any other teaching in the Bible, the doctrine of hell and judgment are the most noxious to modern readers. But there it is in Revelation 14. Babylon the great has fallen. Those who worshiped the monster and its image or received its mark will now face God’s wrath. God’s judgment is described in the following way: “that person will drink the wine of God’s anger, poured neat into the cup of his anger, and they will be tortured in fire and sulphur before the holy angels and before the lamb. The smoke of their torture goes up for ever and ever. Those who worship the monster and its image, and those who receive the mark of its name, will have no respite, day or night” (vs. 10-11). What are we to make of this? Does God delight in judgment? Will the damned be roasted over a heavenly fire pit forever? Two comments must suffice.
First, the Bible and the Book of Revelation make it clear that hell, wrath, judgment, and punishment are very real. There will come a day when sin, evil, death, and Satan will be held accountable. There will come a day when God judges the world. God will reward those who have lived for Him and the lamb. They will be toasted in heaven. God will bless those who are faithful and they will “rest from their works” (v. 13). God will reign and rule and those who oppose God’s reign and rule and those who have persecuted his Church will have a sorry fate. Know that if people persist in opposing God and His Kingdom, there will be hell to pay. This passage reminds us that the most offensive thing you can do is turn away from the one true God and the lamb.
Does the fact of hell and judgment make God a moral monster? I don’t think so. At this point, we need to be reminded of the concept of human freedom. If humans really do have free will, then hell and judgment are not issues pertaining to the character of God. It is a matter of the nature of human freedom. If humans are free to decide their fate, then an eternal hell is not the fault of God, but rather the result of human free will. Damnation is not a reflection on God’s nature and character, it is a reflection on human character and the choices we make. God does not throw people into hell and punishment – they choose to go there willingly.
Second, the language, imagery, and genre of the biblical texts that refer to hell are highly symbolic and figurative. Most of the passages depicting hell are in the genre of Scripture designated as prophetic, parabolic, or apocalyptic. These genres are highly stylized and saturated with figures of speech. Richard Bauckham has this to say about eschatological language: “Probably more than any other aspect of theology, other than the doctrine of God, eschatology deals in the symbolic and the imaginative. Like God, eschatological salvation transcends all our concepts. It can speak only of what we have not yet experienced by analogy with what we have.” To repeat, this is not to say that hell, judgment, and punishment themselves are not realities. As George Caird asserts, the biblical writers can take the referent of eschatological metaphors and figures of speech as real without “flat-footed literalness.” God’s justice, hell, judgment, and punishment are biblical realities. But the language and imagery employed to describe hell, judgment, wrath and punishment are not literal depictions. Images of “everlasting fire,” “gehena,” and “lake of fire” are to be understood as metaphors. John Wesley refers to eschatological language and imagery as “figurative,” yet at the same time upholds a literal view of hell, judgment, and punishment. Regarding eschatological language, Wesley admits that: “But here all description falls short; all human language fails! Only one who is caught up into the third heaven can have a just conception of it. But even such an one cannot express what he hath seen—these things ‘it is not possible for man to utter’” In another work, N. T. Wright astutely notes that metaphorical language should “warn us against the cheerful double dogmatism that has bedeviled discussion of these topics—the dogmatism, that is, both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn’t ‘going to hell’ and the universalist who is absolutely certain that there is no such place or that if there is it will, at the last, be empty.” Since John uses metaphors and symbols throughout the Book of Revelation, it would be unwise to take this language literally when it comes to judgment, wrath, hell, and punishment.
My conclusion is that one should take seriously the biblical notions of hell, wrath, judgment and punishment. We should recognize, however, that the language and imagery depicting hell is symbolic and figurative. There will be those who think that because the language of hell and punishment are symbolic and figurative that hell, wrath, and judgment are themselves symbolic and figurative. This is a serious mistake and it is a misreading of the Bible. Beware that you do not confuse the two ideas. Life depends upon it.