THE LAKE OF FIRE Revelation 20“Then death and hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (Rev. 20:14).Heaven and hell are the ultimate realities.
This is the only mention in Bible of a thousand-year period during which Christ rules on our present earth. Yet many of the themes seen in this puzzling chapter are developed quite fully in the Old Testament and in Christ’s own eschatological teaching. One scenario, which may not be correct, but which is most fascinating, explains the chapter in this way. After the armies of earth are crushed at Christ’s return, the surviving population experiences the judgment described in Matthew 24. Many who enter the kingdom Christ will rule are thus unconverted individuals; if you will, Germans, but not Nazis. Christians, members of the body of Christ, have already met Christ in the air, as 1 Thessalonians 4 describes. The martyrs who experience the “first resurrection” are Old Testament saints or believers of the Tribulation era, as Daniel 12:4 indicates. These reign with Christ on earth for the thousand years, fulfilling the prophets’ predictions of an era of peace under the Messiah. Despite the ideal environment established by Christ in the Millennium, when Satan is released at the end of the era he finds willing followers among the descendants of the survivors, eager to rebel against the Lord. This final rebellion is quickly put down, Satan is assigned to the lake of fire, and at this point the universe itself dissolves, as described by Isaiah and in 2 Peter 3. Now final judgment takes place. The dead appear before God, and all who are not written in the Book of Life—that is, who have not during one of history’s eras put their trust in God—are consigned to the lake of fire. One thing fascinates me about this interpretation of Revelation 20 and the many Old Testament and New Testament passages integrated with it. When God warned Adam in the Garden of Eden not to disobey, He said, “When you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). When Adam sinned death struck: first a spiritual death, and out of that a biological deterioration. No matter what man accomplishes in the physical universe, humanity remains spiritually dead, the grip of sin tragic and unbreakable. One way to look at sacred history is to see it as a demonstration of this fact, and of the utter necessity of salvation. Human beings can and do blame crime and corruption on environment, on heredity, on Satan’s influence, and on a host of other factors beyond individual control. But the fact remains that it is because of sin and spiritual death that pain and evil stalk us still. God first gave man utter freedom—and the world became so evil the race had to be destroyed in the Genesis Flood (Gen. 6–8). Then God instituted human government by making man responsible to correct evils (9:6). And ancient empires emerged, whose rulers’ pride and greed was expressed in terrible wars and torture. Then God chose a single family, the Jewish race, and covenanted to be their God. Even though He gave them a law that showed how to love Him and one’s fellow man, Israel rebelled again and again, turning aside to idolatry. So God sent a Saviour, and proclaimed a Gospel of forgiveness and transformation for all. And the world ignored the invitation, preferring the pursuit of sinful desires. So at the last Christ institutes a kingdom where righteousness is enforced: a golden age of peace and plenty, with Satan’s influence removed. Even then, when Satan is released, mankind gladly throws off the bondage of goodness to rebel yet again against God. In this all the awfulness of sin is finally, fully, revealed. And man apart from God’s redeeming grace is shown to be a sinner indeed. In this historic demonstration of the sinfulness of humankind, the necessity for a lake of fire is found. Each human being is too significant to simply perish, as if he or she had never been. And yet because sin is sin, and unredeemed men truly are spiritually dead, the unredeemed must be forever isolated from eternity’s holy state.
The last battle over, Satan is chained (20:1–3) and martyrs are raised from the dead to reign with Christ (vv. 4–7). After a thousand years, Satan is released and again deceives the nations, but is then thrown into the lake of fire (vv. 8–10). This universe is then dissolved, and all the dead judged. Those not in the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire (vv. 11–15).
Understanding the Text
“He seized the dragon” Rev. 20:1–3.
“I don’t know why I did it,” some Christians say. “I guess the devil must have made me do it.” At best it’s a poor excuse. The devil may tempt and encourage us to sin. But Satan can’t “make” us do anything. Why, even God doesn’t “make” us do things. He simply gives us the freedom to choose. It would be nice if Satan were bound today. I suspect some of the corruption we see in our society would disappear. But even if he were bound, you and I would remain responsible to choose between evil and good; between God’s will, and our own. “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” Rev. 20:4. The members of this group are carefully identified. The fact that they had not worshiped the beast or received his mark indicates they must have lived and died during the terrible final years when the Antichrist held sway. Even so there is a vital lesson here for us. Participation in evil may seem the easy or even the necessary choice at times. Many an employee has remained quiet, despite being aware of illegalities in his company’s practices. Many an engineer has remained silent despite doubts about the safety of the product his employer produces. Many an accounting firm has been aware of sharp practices covered up in creative annual reports—and by taking refuge behind “accepted accounting standards” perpetuated fraud rather than lose an account. The martyrs of Revelation remind us that it may cost to take a stand for what is right. But that in the end, the rewards of righteousness are great. “The first resurrection” Rev. 20:5–6. Some have objected strenuously to the notion that there might be more than one resurrection of the believing dead. A Rapture for Christians? A special resurrection for Tribulation martyrs? Another for Old Testament saints? How confusing! “Why,” they say, “God wouldn’t do anything like THAT.” Perhaps not. But I’m always fascinated by folks who are utterly certain about what God would and wouldn’t, or could and couldn’t, do. It must be wonderful to have such a secure grasp of God’s intentions. Personally, while I’m not ready to be dogmatic, I have the impression that God’s plans are far more complex and multifaceted than even the most creative of us can imagine. Why, even the good cooks I’ve known haven’t been satisfied to serve meat and potatoes at every meal. I suspect the future God will place before us will outdo the most lavish spread ever conceived for a royal court or luxury cruise. “The devil . . . was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur” Rev. 20:7–10. Jesus tells us that the lake of fire was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Hell wasn’t formed with mankind in mind. Heaven was. This is an important truth for us to hold on to. God has done everything possible to keep human beings out of that eternal lake of fire. Including experiencing on Calvary a fate more awful for Him than the lake of fire could be for any man. On Calvary He who knew no sin was made sin for us, and the crushing weight of all of history’s evil seared the holy Son of God. If anyone goes to the lake of fire it will be because he has not responded to the love of a God who reveals Himself to all men through creation’s universal Word, and through His incarnation (see DEVOTIONAL). “The Book of Life” Rev. 20:11–15. It’s in the Old Testament as well as here. This image of a book in which a record of those who know and love God is maintained. Malachi 3:16 calls is a “scroll of remembrance” which “was written in His presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored His name.” Here it is the Book of Life. And how appropriate a name! Being found here is the difference between eternal life and eternal death. Between endless life in heaven, and unending existence in the lake of fire. How good it is to know that when we trusted Jesus as Saviour, our names were recorded there.
The Lake of Fire(Rev. 20:7–15)
There are many images of eternal punishment in Scripture. But the one that recurs most often is that of a vast, dark, and smoldering pool of burning sulfur, whose fumes rise sullenly into a leaden sky. Jesus Himself used language like this. He spoke of a place “outside.” A place of “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). A moment later He called it “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). The striking fact is that in His teaching Jesus spoke far more often of hellfire than of heaven! You and I can’t begin to grasp what the lake of fire is like, or fully understand the necessity for its eternal existence. There are no words that soften the impression given in Scripture, no arguments that make the terrible fate so many face palatable. All we can do is to confess that Scripture teaches that the lake of fire smolders there at history’s end. And confess that God is love, and by love’s eternal sacrifice, God has offered each human being a way of escape.
Let Scripture’s images of the lake of fire deepen your awareness of what it means to be saved.
“I cannot preach on hell unless I preach with tears.”—D.L. Moody