Note: Recently updated. Fixed a lot of spelling and grammar errors and typos and added more references.
To call any verse in the Bible abused, is in itself a bold statement. To call one verse the most abused may be too bold for many, but what if this verse is one that is consistently used in a carefully constructed character assassination on God the Father himself? What if one verse was used to misrepresent God patently and grossly and was the cause of a large volume of scripture being misinterpreted and twisted to suit this caricaturisation of God’s character? Would that make it qualify as the most abused verse in the Bible? What if there was one verse being a reason for millions, if not billions, of people not having any interest in the salvation that Jesus Christ has brought to the world, nor in the grace of the Father and the revelation of his awe-inspiring goodness?
I believe there is such a verse and it is known, in its abused, twisted rendition, by most of the western protestant and catholic world and eastern countries as well. It is referred to in Hollywood adult and kiddies movies, used in Sunday school, children’s bibles, comedy shows, the topic of classic art, literature, fiction novels and countless more situations and references.
I will quote Shrek (from the original animated feature) where he and Donkey reach the rim of the fiery crater en route to the castle to rescue Sleeping Beauty. As they carefully peer over the rim of the crater towards the castle and it’s dragon, Donkey complains: “Awe, Shrek! Did you bump one off?” Shrek replies: “If it was me, you’d be dead! No, it’s brimstone!”
Brimstone! That famous, or rather infamous reference from the Lake of Fire and Brimstone in Revelation 20:10. But, you may think, that verse is crystal clear and reads almost the same in most mainstream bible translations? It is hardly abused in any manner by anyone, is it? Let’s see what it says: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
In the apparent clarity of translation lies the deception though. Although there are two aspects of this text that should prompt one to investigate further, I suppose prevailing religious thinking, or rather lack of thinking, prevents this from happening.
The first is the meaning of brimstone. What exactly is it? More modern translations use sulphur instead of brimstone, but that only adds to the lack of clarity, rather than clearing it up.
Fortunately we can find the original word for brimstone quite easily using Strong’s Concordance (I use Xiphos on Ubuntu Linux, but eSword on Windows would serve equally well). G#2303 is theion (θεῖον) which is probably the neuter of G#2304 theios (θεῖος). Theios means “godlike” in it’s original sense of flashing. Furthermore, The Bible Lexicon has this definition: “divine incense, because burning brimstone was regarded as having power to purify, and to ward off disease”. So we have a sulpherous substance in the literal sense of the word, but the meaning thereof, especially when it is being burned is clearly one of purification, not one of stench or foulness and definitely not any aspect of punishment. Although bad odour and other effects may be part of the purification process, that is not the understanding brought by the specific choice of this word. This is crucial in understanding all scripture, not just this verse: What would the original readers have understood when they first read or heard it?
[On a note on the usage of specific words in scripture or literature in general: When an author chooses to use a specific word, that choice is made to convey a meaning, that which the author wants to convey. The meaning of a word is defined by it’s usage, so when an author wants to say something that the readers or listeners should understand, the word choice by the very nature of the matter is constrained to those words which the target audience has knowledge of through the usage of the word at the time.
To make this really simple, here is an example: If I want to say that the cat has been bad by attempting to eat the canary, I could write: ‘”Bad, bad, kitty!” said the owner.’ The meaning would be clear, i.e. that the owner of the cat is unhappy with the cat’s behaviour, and is telling the cat that he is no good. Now, note how the usage in a different context can mean the exact opposite. In context, Michael Jackson wrote a song with the first words of the chorus being: “I’m bad, I’m bad”. To the future translator, 1000 years from now, translating that song to the language of that future time, it could seem that Michael was being honest about the fact that he had been a bad person. However, the meaning in that context is that he is so good at it, that he’s “bad”. So correctly translated it should be: “I’m good, I’m really really good”]
So when John wrote the Revelation of Jesus Christ (ever wondered why it’s called a revelation and not a shrouded mystery?), he chose to use words and symbols that his audience would easily understand to serve as a revelation of the nature and plans of Jesus Christ. The choice of “theion” is therefore not a coincidence.
Of course “theion” does not stand isolated, but closely with it is fire and pool (or lake). Actually the whole scene is described as a pool of fire and brimstone. Firstly, note that brimstone alone is not a cleansing offering, but burning brimstone is. Secondly, if we want to see what a symbol means, we should check the usage firstly in scripture and then also elsewhere if necessary. If the scriptures don’t clarify the meaning through usage, we could check how other authors used the word and what the word’s meaning is as defined by its usage. So we see that in the rest of scripture fire is a representation of God, His guidance & protection, his purging & cleansing and his power and might. Refer to Moses and the burning bush, the pillar of fire going before the Israelites in the desert, this section about purification in Jeremia, the fire from heaven when Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal and many more. Satan never comes in fire and smoke in scripture; God does however.
So up to this point the symbolism of the the first part of this verse could very well be God’s fire and purification ritual to which the Devil is fully subjected. However, this section of scripture does not end there but goes on the basically say that they are tortured there day and night forever. Let’s have a closer look at that as well.
The word so blithely translated “tormented” in the KJV and many other translations is basanizo (G #928 βασανίζω). Again, the choice of words is not accidental, but conveys a very specific meaning. Although Strong’s concordance simply claims this means “to torture”, this is not upheld by the root word which is basanos (G #931 βάσανος). This Strong’s does say is a touch-stone and then goes on to say “(by analogy) torture”. However, understanding what a touch-stone is, reveals a completely different understanding of what is being described here. A touch-stone was used by coin inspectors as long ago as ancient Babylon to test the purity and quality of gold coins and other precious metals. By rubbing a coin onto the touch-stone and then applying some acid to the stone, the resulting line is compared to a chart of colours of known alloys and purities by which the inspector learns the purity and thus the value of the coin. Basanizo is simply the verb of basanos.1 This word does not in any way indicate worthlessness, expendability or torture in the sense of the maltreatment inflicted on people in the dark or middle ages by abusive and power-hungry priests and rulers to coax information from them of satisfy their desire for power and control. It is true that the word bazanizo changed meaning to eventually (about 300 years after the NT was written) mean torture as by means of the rack and more. (See Dennis Caldwell’s excellent analysis of the changes.) There were however words, like timoria ( G #5098 τιμωρία) that would make that meaning clear, had the authors meant punishment-torture for the punisher’s gratification, but they are not used here. Clearly the translators of the KJV and others (knowingly or not) by choosing to translate this word as torment, obscure the real meaning and thus boost the agenda of some to ensure that the readers would fear everlasting torture and obey the church rather.
So now we have the first part of the second section of this text which supports the notion that God’s fire of purification is a continued testing for purity, supported by two well-known symbols, theion and basanos, which clearly shows a completely different picture than the one which Dante painted in his “Inferno”, where hell is a place of eternal torture at the hands of Satan and his demons. Or the picture that evangelicals and charismatic fundamentalists love to paint of an angry God, casting all who didn’t follow their particular interpretation of scripture into a physical lake of molten lava where they will be tortured forever. (A horrifying example of this is actually deemed a Christian classic! Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God)
However, the section of scripture does not end here. It goes on to say “forever and ever”. Without any further investigating it is clearly not possible to have forever and then more after that. It’s either forever or it’s not. Forever is forever. So this is not a technical statement of duration, since it’s just wrong to say “forever and ever” and thus impossible. To speak like this in the literary sense is of course possible, but is this what is happening here? And if it is, do we have any indication why this “forever” is emphasised in this way? The word in question is aion (Strong’s G #165 αἰών) and there is again significant dogmatic interpretation in the meanings that Strong’s provides. Firstly aion is supposedly from an obsolete primary noun “(apparently meaning continued duration), thus ‘ever’”. This in itself is a problem, since the exact meaning of an obsolete word can only be determined if there is sufficient or at least some usage to define the meaning. There doesn’t seem to be any usage, at least not in scripture, so let’s not pursue the red herring. Vines’ explanation of why this should be considered forever, borders on the ridiculous.2 The usage by Jesus’ disciples of “the end of the world” (KJV), which literally is “the end of the aion” and translated “end of the age” in the NIV, is one example where an aion is expressly said to have an end. The same is in Matt 28:19-20 as is the case seven times in the New Testament. A great deal of study has been done on this matter, and the conclusion is unavoidable. Aion is an age with a beginning and an end, although the duration may not be known at a particular point in time. There are some scholars however that maintain that the meaning must be understood in the context of our understanding of God’s eternal plans and purposes. How, I beg to know, did this notion of aion meaning “eternal” take hold, if it is foreign to the Greek and Hebrew languages, at least at the time of the writing of all the books of scripture as well as in the writings of Homer, Plato and other classic Greek authors? The answer is not difficult to find: Out of the Latin Vulgate (a translation of the Hebrew and Greek into Latin) a very clever man named Augustine of Hippo came up with the notion of “eternal damnation” almost 400 years after Christ. Jerome added to this belief and eventually Emperor Justinian, the ruler of the East Roman Empire, saw to it that all schools and teachings contrary to his views (including eternal damnation), those in favour a universal salvation and in general not in keeping with the dogma of the church, were shut down, burned, drowned and forbidden. The Roman Catholic church saw to it that only the priests were allowed to read and study the Latin translation of the scriptures and so the dogma that favoured the practises of the church was firmly established in the minds and hearts of the mainstream of the Christian world. If was a wonderful tool to drive the fearful masses to confession, penitence and supported all the abuses of the time in a wonderfully profitable way. The reformation did allow those outside of the Roman Catholic priesthood to read the scriptures for themselves again, although Gutenberg’s printing press probably contributed more to this than many theologians would like to admit, at least in the western and Roman Catholic controlled world. Many translators then also translated the scriptures without the church agenda of mass control by the priests, but due the rise of the British Empire, the Church of England’s version of the bible was promoted to such an extent that many to this day mistakenly believe in the “infallable King James Version”.
The fact of the matter is that for the first 300 years after Christ by far the most Christians believed what the scriptures were teaching: That ages (aion) come to an end, that the work of Christ includes all of creation and that Christ will not fail in His salvation of all mankind and the scripture declares is his will (that all will be saved).
Lake of Fire
Lastly the question must be asked: Is the lake of fire a real fire or is it a figure of speech? So many TV preachers and others have threatened people with this, frightful movies have been made and books written about the burning hell, without this question ever being honestly evaluated.
Is it a physical fire? Well, then surely it will be of no consequence throwing a spiritual being like Satan into it, so this can be safely ruled out, especially since the scripture says it has been prepared for the devil and his angels. Also, if people where thrown alive into a molten pool of fire, like lava for instance, their lives would be over in a flash, so it would not be torment day and night. This is, however, a stance taken by annihilists, that say that evil people, instead of death and evil itself, will be destroyed completely in the end. I have not found compelling evidence for this stance in scripture, unless one inserts a certain dogmatic bias to support this stance, but it’s not a ridiculous notion entirely. For me, it does seem to conflict with the revealed nature of Yahweh and Yeshua though.
Is it a spiritual fire? What is a spiritual fire? Is it not physically hot, but does it still burn the flesh? Or does it burn the soul or spirit? Does it burn at all? If it doesn’t burn, then it’s not a fire. It seems highly improbably that a spiritual fire exists and that this is what is meant here.
It is then symbolic and representing something else? This is the only viable option left and I have already indicated how fire is representative of God throughout scripture. The notion that the mass of humanity is a sea is also supported elsewhere in Revelation. Even the physical oceans themselves are a cleansing mechanism for the garbage for the earth, so it makes sense to use this symbol of how God deals with human deprivation by calling it a lake. This is where the interpretation of scripture is called for, since it clearly is not literal, especially since the whole book of Revelation is a book of symbols.
Finally, the group that is cast in the lake of fire in Rev 21:8 is outside of the city in Rev 21:24-27 and are not allowed to enter the city (which is again clearly a symbolic city). Then in Rev 22:14-15 there is an opportunity for entering into the city and again the same definition for who will have to stay outside. This confirms the many parables that Jesus told his disciples where the unbelieving, those not ready or those mistreating their fellow man, were sent outside into the very unpleasant darkness, while the others were welcomed to the feast of the Lamb.
So considering the information we have available, it would be much more responsible and truthful to translate Rev 20:10 as follows:
“And the diabolical one, the devil, that deceived them was thrown into God’s proverbial lake of purifying fire, where the beast and the false prophet are already, and they shall be tested there for purity, like gold is tested with a touch-stone, day and night for ages of the ages.”
What do you think? If this is indeed as I have laid it out above, then we will have to rethink a whole lot of our theology, our view of the goodness of God the Father, what Jesus actually came to do and how we, as humans, fit into the big picture.
To me the image of my loving Father is strongly reinforced by this and his kindness is even greater than I had previously thought.
Please don’t just take my word for it. Be Berean! Check it out for yourself!