Forever and Ever
The final judgment in the light of God’s character
By Paul Wright
She said it during a seminar on the book of Revelation. I had been talking about Revelation 20 and the fate of unbelievers. We had just read about the final judgment in Revelation 20:10 and 15: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (NIV).
“Surely there can be no more solemn verses in the whole of the Bible,” I said. “But please don’t misunderstand the words for ever. In the Bible, forever does not always mean eternal. It can also mean that the consequences of an action last through eternity.”
“Do you mean to say that Satan, his angels, and unbelievers will not burn forever?” Linda asked.
“That’s right,” I replied. “Just look at the way the word eternal is used in verse 7 of the letter of Jude. Jude writes that the people of Sodom suffered the punishment of “eternal fire.” The fires of Sodom are not still burning, however, nor are its inhabitants. Obviously eternal does not necessarily mean for ever. Besides, why would God want to see sinners in eternal torment?”
“Because that’s justice,” replied Linda, who was keen to remain faithful to the Word of God. “God is just, and the Bible says that a just God will punish sinners for ever. Just read Revelation 20:10 again.”
Hell and Hermeneutics
That evening Linda started a discussion, which turned the seminar into an in-depth Bible study about eternal “hell.” She knew her Bible well and told us that the expression for ever as used in Revelation 20:10 is the same expression that Peter used to describe the eternal character of God:1 “To him be the glory . . . for ever and ever,” exclaimed Peter (1 Peter 4:11, NIV). “It is not consistent to understand the phrase as used by Peter in a literal sense and as used by John in a figurative sense,” Linda said. She had a point.
We looked at our Bibles again and noted that the word aion, “eternal,” and expressions using this word were often used by Jesus and the apostles in a nonliteral sense.2
The millennium is the thousand-year reign of Christ with His saints in heaven between the first and second resurrections. During this time the wicked dead will be judged; the earth will be utterly desolate, without living human inhabitants, but occupied by Satan and his angels. At its close Christ with His saints and the Holy City will descend from heaven to earth. The unrighteous dead will then be resurrected, and with Satan and his angels will surround the city; but fire from God will consume them and cleanse the earth. The universe will thus be freed of sin and sinners forever. (Rev. 20; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3; Jer. 4:23-26; Rev. 21:1-5; Mal. 4:1; Eze. 28:18, 19.)But this was not good enough for Linda. She reminded us that in writing about the final judgment, John did not use merely the word “eternal”—he used the emphatic “unto eternities of eternity.” Why did he emphasize the idea of eternity if he didn’t mean it to be taken literally?
In order to answer this question, we need to remember that John used a number of Old Testament expressions when he wrote Revelation. In talking about the final judgment, John seems to refer back to Isaiah 34:10, where the prophet described the destruction of Edom. Isaiah wrote that the smoke of Edom’s blazing punishment “will rise forever” (NIV). The problem with taking this expression literally is obvious. The land of Edom isn’t still burning or smoldering. Isaiah’s wording, however, was designed to underline to the Hebrew mind the complete and utter destruction of Edom. John, who had been brought up reading the Hebrew Scriptures, seemed to have used the destruction of Edom as an example for the final judgment. He loosely translated the idea of Isaiah into Greek to convey the concept that the final judgment will be as thorough and complete as that of Edom.3 Like Isaiah, he used the idea of eternity to convey permanence rather than to describe the literal amount of time the judgment will encompass.
God’s Character Enters the Mix
Linda was still sceptical but began to see the point. “So the word eternity means that the judgment will be thorough rather than lasting forever,” she said.
“That’s the bottom line,” I replied and asked her to think about something else as well: “Would a God who tormented sinners eternally be a loving God? What would you say if a court decided to torture a criminal for all eternity instead of ‘merely’ pronouncing the death sentence? What would you think of the people who could come up with such a punishment?”4
Then she said it. “If you are right,” she replied, “then the second death is not so bad. I think that I would actually like to know nothing through all eternity. Being nonexistent means that I would have no more worries, no more problems—I would be at rest.”
There was a noticeable silence in the seminar room as the participants thought about what Linda had said. Linda had evidently accepted Christ because of her fear of eternal punishment. Now that she had heard that “hell” was not eternal, she had been forced to rethink her motives for wanting to go to heaven.
The discussion had taken up most of the seminar time, so I brought the meeting to an end by offering Linda a copy of The Great Controversy,5 and suggesting that she read the final chapter. In this chapter Ellen White presents a wonderful picture of a loving God and suggests that the greatest punishment human beings will suffer will not be eternal fire, but to realize that we have missed our chance to be with Him forever. Eternal life with Him will certainly be much better than the alternative.
1 eis tous aionas ton aionon, “unto eternities of eternity.”
2 See Philemon 15; Luke 1:70; and Acts 3:21, where in each case the word aion has been correctly translated in a nonliteral sense.
3 See The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1957), vol. 7, p. 832. For a very similar explanation, written from the point of view of evangelical commentators, see A. Pohl, Offenbarung des Johannes, Wuppertaler Studienbibel (Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus Verlag, 1989), p. 506.
4 Compare also the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:28.
5 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911).
Paul Wright, originally from England, serves as senior pastor of the Wolfswinkel Seventh-day Adventist Church in Zürich, Switzerland.