The most confronting image of judgement in the NT is probably that in Revelation 14.
John of Patmos brings together a bunch a OT images to paint this picture of the judgement of the enemies of the lamb:
Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” Revelation 14:9
Let’s see if we can identify the images. This should help us get a sense of what John was trying to say by employing them.
The much-used imagery of ‘the beast’ comes from Daniel ch.7. It is a metaphor from Daniel’s store of apocalyptic images. It represents the enemies of Israel, under the control of dark powers, who fight against God.
The ‘cup of the wine of God’s wrath‘ is from Jeremiah 25. The prophet is given a cup of wine and told to make various nations drink it. The result is the devastation of those nations by the sword. Obviously this did not literally happen: it is a visionary image of judgement on the nations.
‘Fire and sulfur‘ is a traditional description of the wrath of God being poured out. It originates with Sodom and Gomorrah, but recurs throughout the OT. It pretty much always stands for complete destruction. The image also recurs throughout Revelation.
The image of ‘smoke going up‘ also comes from Sodom and Gomorrah. However the particular version here in Revelation, ‘smoke going up forever and ever‘ is taken from Isaiah 34, which details the destruction of Edom:And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; Isaiah 34:8-9 Once again we are dealing with prophetic imagery: Isaiah’s hearers were not to expect the whole land to become a lake of burning pitch. Rather, the point of the description is that Edom would go the way of Sodom and Gomorrah. Its destruction would be final and irrevocable. The land of Edom would be left waste forever, a place of thorns, a home for jackals.
The description of the followers of the beast as having ‘no rest‘ contrasts with the martyrs, mentioned immediately after. It comes from Isaiah 57:
Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD;and I will heal them. But the wicked are like the tossing sea that cannot rest; its waters toss up mire and mud. There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked. Isaiah 57:19-21
This vivid comparison of the wicked with heaving seas expresses the emotional content of the future that awaits them. God’s people will be restored and healed by Yahweh, but the wicked ones will miss out and remain in turmoil. There is of course no concept of an afterlife functioning in this or any of Isaiah’s prophecies: it is the future of earthly people groups that is in view.
John brings all these prophetic images together in a description of toxic intensity: a place of ongoing fiery torment, where the wicked have no rest. The resulting picture would have been easily recognisable to first century listeners as the popular idea of Gehenna, or Tartarus. This is one of the very few places in the Scriptures that such a picture can be found, so we should consider it carefully.
Though John does seem to be tapping into this popular imagery, he has made his intentions tolerably clear by building up his picture using quotes from the Hebrew prophets. His interests and concerns are those of the prophetic tradition – the concerns outlined above. The afterlife is scarcely one of them.
In their original prophetic settings these images were used as metaphors. Here they are gathered together in a context that is overtly symbolic, drawing freely on a variety of OT metaphors. The wine is ‘the wine of anger’, and the cup is ‘the cup of his wrath’. John is signalling to us that he is dealing in metaphors.
What do the metaphors mean, then? The message of John’s third angel seems to be that all the judgements foreseen in the prophets are now being realised.
It is worth noticing that later John reuses some of these images in describing the destruction of Babylon, in ch.18-19:
And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; they will stand far off, in fear of her torment. Revelation 18:9-10
Once more they said, “Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.” Revelation 19:3
As so often before, here also we see how the prophetic imagery is used and reused flexibly depending on the needs of the situation.
If in spite of this context we are determined to read this as a literal description, then we will find here evidence of the reality of Gehenna. We have finally found somewhere in the Scriptures that teaches our traditional doctrine of Hell.
If we want to take this approach, then to be fair in our reading we would also have to say that this Hell is a place for people who have a trade mark on their foreheads, which indicates that they follow a real beast with two horns. And also that, once in hell, they drink wine from a cup there, while a lamb watches. Also that only 144 000 people will escape this fate, as that is the number who got the lamb’s forehead mark instead of the beast’s.
If we are not willing to say that, then perhaps we can recognise that, just like every other biblical writer, John of Patmos uses these images of judgement as a symbolic language to communicate his message about the judgement of God. God’s enemies face the terrible prospect of being paid back the shame and destruction they dished out to the saints: a destruction which this time is complete, final, and deserved.