by David Burnfield
When looking at passages in Revelation, we need to be cognizant of the fact that we are dealing with apocalyptic language, which is confusing and incomprehensible at best. We need to continually remind ourselves that this apocalyptic language is often describing “earthly events in heavenly language” which can result in misinterpretations based on trying to take the texts too literally. To this let us turn, first protesting against the unfairness of building a definite theory of hell on the imagery of a book of mysterious visions, and full of highly-toned metaphors. Its visions speak the language not of prose but of poetry, the poetry of an Eastern race, far more imaginative and highly wrought than that of the West. To judge these metaphors, as though they spoke the language of scientific theology is worse than unfair, it is even absurd. -Thomas Allin
Those who hold to the traditional view will read v. 10 (“drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger…”) and understand it to be teaching eternal damnation since nobody who is on the receiving end of such divine anger can possibly hope to escape. But is this true? Can someone or some nation be on the receiving end of God’s wrathful anger and not only survive but be restored? Yes they can. A case in point is Ezek 16:15-41 where the prophet describes the abominations committed by Jerusalem and the wrath of God this brought about (vv. 35-38). If one read these passages and didn’t know it was talking about Jerusalem, they might think the recipient of God’s anger would have no hope of escaping eternal damnation. But after describing all the anger and punishment God was to bring down on Jerusalem, we read in Ezek 16:42:
So I will calm My fury against you and My jealousy will depart from you, and I will be pacified and angry no more. (NASB)
Ezekiel teaches once again that God’s punishments are remedial in nature and therefore limited in duration. They last only as long as it takes to achieve their purpose.
God’s wrath is not a wrath that continues endlessly. That is what we may have been told in the doctrine of eternal punishment, but it is not Ezekiel’s message…God’s wrath is a wrath that wants to stop! As soon as the purpose of his wrath has been achieved – and not earlier – his jealousy will turn away from Israel. Then he will no longer be angry with his people. - Jan Bonda
And this restorative purpose to God’s punishment is not limited to believers for we see God working the same way with unbelieving nations such as Ammon and Moab. We’re told in Jeremiah 25:15-21 that Ammon and Moab will drink the cup of God’s wrath yet in Ezek 48:47 we’re told the fortunes of Moab will be restored and in Ezek 49:6 the fortunes of Ammon will be restored. So this concept of God’s punishment having a remedial purpose even for nonbelievers is well supported by scripture. In Rev 14:11 we read of the smoke of their torment rising forever which is “imagery” borrowed from Isa 34:8-10. 8For the LORD has a day of vengeance, A year of recompense for the cause of Zion. 9Its [Edom’s] streams will be turned into pitch, And its loose earth into brimstone, And its land will become burning pitch. 1 10It will not be quenched night or day; Its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; None will pass through it forever and ever. (Isa 34:8-10 - NASB). It’s obvious that phrases like “smoke will go up forever” are not meant to be taken literally for it’s quite clear smoke is not still rising up from Edom. If we know the phrase ‘smoke will go up forever’ should not be taken literally in Isa. 34, it’s fair to say we shouldn’t take it literally in Rev. 14:11. In Rev. 14:11 the “smoke rising forever” has more to do with the severity than the duration of the punishment. A major problem is trying to understand the imagery of Revelation with our modern, Western minds as Allin discusses below.
[I]t remains certain that language equally strong is used elsewhere of MERELY TRANSIENT and TEMPORAL judgments. In proof of this, turn to Isaiah xxxiv. 9-10, and read the deeply impassioned language in which it describes the temporal calamities of the land of Idumea—its streams are ‘to be turned into pitch— its dust into brimstone—its land into burning pitch—it shall not be quenched night nor day—its smoke is to go up for ever.’ Now when we know that these metaphors—sounding so awfully, do yet refer to judgments of a momentary duration, so to speak, we shall the better be able to assign its true meaning to all the figurative and poetical language of this book [i.e. Revelation]. Nor do I speak of this book only. The whole Bible is Oriental. Every line breathes the spirit of the East, with its hyperboles and metaphors, and what to us seem utter exaggerations. If such language be taken literally, its whole meaning is lost. When the sacred writers want to describe the dusky redness of a lunar eclipse, they say the moon is 'turned into blood.' He who perverts Scripture is not the man who reduces this sacred poetry to its true meaning. Nay, that man perverts the Bible who hardens into dogmas the glowing metaphors of Eastern poetry—such conduct Lange, in his preface to the Apocalypse calls 'a moral scandal.' So with Our Lord's words—if I take them literally—I very often pervert their sense. Am I in very deed to hate my father and mother [Lk 14:26] because Christ says it is necessary so to do ; or to pluck out my right eye literally [Matt 5:29]? …Therefore I maintain that no doctrine of endless pain and evil can be based on Eastern imagery, on metaphors mistranslated very often, and always misinterpreted. -Thomas Allin