According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What Is and Isn't the "Lake of Fire" in Revelation?

The Lake of Fire. Or is it?

Is the Lake of Fire Torture? Josh Butler

by Scot McKnight
Oct 10, 2014

IS THE LAKE OF FIRE TORTURE? by Josh Butler, author of the just-out and excellent book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet.

Joshua Ryan Butler is author of the new book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War(Thomas Nelson), and a pastor at Imago Dei Community (Portland, OR).

* * * * * * * * * *

Book Description

Is God a sadistic torturer? Coldhearted judge? Genocidal maniac? Unfortunately, our popular caricatures often make him out to be.

There are some questions no Christian wants to be asked. Many today believe hell, judgment and holy war are "skeletons in God's closet," tough topics that, if looked at closely, would reveal a cruel, vindictive tyrant rather than a good and loving God. And we aren't comfortable with the answers we've been given.

  • "How can a loving God send people to Hell?"
  • "Isn't it arrogant to believe Jesus is the only way to God?"
  • "Why is there so much violence in the Old Testament?"

In this book, we'll pull these bones out into the open to exchange popular caricatures for the beauty and power of the real thing. We'll discover these topics were never really skeletons at all . . . but proclamations of a God who is good "in his very bones," not just in what he does, but in who he is. We'll fling the wide the closet door and sing loudly, boldly and clearly:

God is good and coming to redeem his world.

* * * * * * * * * *

Many a street preacher has used the “lake of fire,” an image in Revelation, to depict God as a sadistic torturer who likes to roast unrepentant rebels like kalua pigs over an eternal spit once the stopwatch runs out.

But is torture really the point of this image? I would like to suggest, in contrast, that the lake of fire is an apocalyptic symbol for the smoldering rubble of Babylon. It depicts God’s judgment on empire, not the torture of individuals.

Let’s take a quick look at why this is a better interpretation.

Burning Down Babylon

The lake of fire shows up in Revelation, a book filled with apocalyptic symbols. There is a danger in interpreting these symbols too literally. To say Jesus is a lamb does not mean Jesus is on all fours, chewing grass and saying, “Baa!” When a beast rises out of the ocean, we do not expect Godzilla to come walking out of the Atlantic to trample down our cities.

If we did interpret these images this way, John (the author of Revelation) would probably scratch his head and say, “How did you get that?” We’d be missing the point.

We have to ask what these symbols represent. Jesus’ identity as Lamb draws upon the Old Testament history of sacrifice to proclaim that his death atones for the sin of the world. Beasts are an Old Testament symbol for empire, depicting the Gentile powers that arise to rage against God’s world.

So what about the lake of fire?

A good first question to ask is: “What context does the symbol show up in?”

And there is definitely a context. Just before the lake of fire steps onstage for its first appearance in Revelation 19; something dramatic has just happened: God has just judged Babylon with fire.

God is burning down Babylon. This is the immediate context for the symbol. God is judging an empire, not torturing individuals. This is structural judgment, not personal judgment.

Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! . . .
for her sins are piled up to heaven
and God has remembered her crimes . . .
She will be consumed by fire,
for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.

God is waging holy war on the great city, not roasting people over a flame.

Babylon’s judgment has implications, of course, for individuals whose lives are invested in all that she represents. When the “kings and merchants” (political and economic leaders) see “the smoke of her burning,” they weep and wail, exclaiming,

“Was there ever a city like this great city?” (v.18)

But it is worth recognizing they are not in physical anguish because God is torturing them; they are in emotional anguish because their lives were invested in the empire. They are weeping and gnashing their teeth over the things they’ve lost in the fire.

God is not roasting them over a spit; they are crying because their toys have been taken away.

The Smoke Goes Up

The lake of fire’s backdrop in the Old Testament also confirms this interpretation. I explore a few significant passages that Revelation draws upon in my new book, but let’s look at one. When Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by fire from heaven, Abraham looks out upon the valley where the imperial powerhouses once were, and sees in their place, “dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace.” (Genesis 19:28)

The great cities have been judged by fire, and all that is left is their smoldering remains.

Revelation alludes to this verse when Babylon is destroyed, saying, “the smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.” (Revelation 19:3) God judges the empire by fire and all that is left, like Sodom and Gomorrah, is smoke rising up from the land.

In the Sodom and Gomorrah allusion, the “smoke from a furnace” is obviously not an underground torture chamber; it is simply a picture of the city destroyed—the smoldering rubble of empire.

When Revelation says the smoke “goes up forever and ever,” it is similarly speaking to the finality of Babylon’s destruction. Sodom and Gomorrah were eventually rebuilt after the smoke faded and rubble was cleared away. But Babylon will never be rebuilt, because God has won his victory over her forever.

The smoke going up forever tells us this: when Babylon goes down, she ain’t getting back up.

Empire vs. Individual

So why is this helpful? There is all the difference in the world between judging an empire and torturing an individual. Consider, for example, when the Allied powers bombed Nazi Germany to bring an end to World War II. Most people today think this was the right thing to do. And this is a picture of an empire being judged by fire from above.

But let’s say after the war ended, convicted Nazi soldiers were lifted high on stakes with piles of wood set aflame beneath their feet, and slowly roasted in agony over the torment of the flames. What’s more, let’s say they were lifted just high enough to stay alive indefinitely. Most of us would think this a cruel and inhumane thing to do—a picture of torture.

Bombing an empire and torturing an individual are two very different things. The former is done to end a war; the latter for revenge.

Judging an empire has obvious implications for its citizens. If you’re a Nazi soldier, it’s bad news when Germany gets bombed. It’s bad news when your side gets defeated in the war. It’s bad news when all you’re left with is the smoldering rubble of your once-glorious civilization.

You will probably weep and wail, feeling an internal sense of anguish and torment at all you sought to build that has now been lost. But this is very different from your victorious enemy throwing you into a concentration camp and torturing you.


The lake of fire is an apocalyptic symbol for the smoldering rubble of Babylon. It does not depict the torture of individuals, but rather God’s judgment on empire. When God has destroyed Babylon by fire, all that is left is a smoking pile of stones. A steaming pillar of debris. A sunken puddle of flame.

The great city that once destroyed the world has been reduced to ashes.

The symbol does not promote a caricature of God as a sadistic torturer, but rather reclaims hope for a world torn apart under the destructive power of empire.

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