Every now and then, I like to share my response to questions that have come in from readers. Here's one that just came in this week: "I just finished reading your book The Skeletons in God's Closet after it was recommended to me by a pastor at my church and I really loved it. It had a lot of really incredible insights that have changed the way I think about God, the Bible, and life in general. I was hoping to pick your brain about a certain passage.
In your book, you say the lake of fire is a picture of imperial judgment, not individual judgment. However, the first time the lake of fire is mentioned in Revelation 19:20, it is not referring to Babylon, but to the beast and the false prophet being thrown in the lake of fire. I thought these two were supposed to be individuals, but I can see the potential for their representing empires instead. What I am really curious about is in Revelation 20, where it reads,
"And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:13-15 ESV)
When I read this passage, it seems pretty clear that it's talking about individuals being thrown into the lake of fire, which seems to contradict the picture of people simply choosing to remain outside God's city? I'm certainly not very well versed on prophecy or Revelation though, so I could absolutely be missing a whole lot. It's a topic I've really been wrestling through, and I would really love to hear your thoughts on this passage." Great question! So, here's my response:
My take goes something like this: In approaching apocalyptic literature, we first have to ask what the symbolism means, and in Revelation, we particularly have to look to Old Testament background as Revelation is filled with OT allusions. Then, once the symbol has been interpreted within its apocalyptic context, we can seek to understand the details around it.
As you mentioned, I read the lake of fire as a symbol for imperial judgment, that references explicitly or draws on such OT backdrops as Sodom & Gomorrah’s destruction in Genesis, Isaiah’s depiction of Topheth’s destruction, and perhaps most significantly Daniel 7 (this passage is widely understood by scholars to be perhaps the most significant influencing backdrop for Jewish and Christian apocalyptic in the early AD era). All three of these backgrounds are, clearly in the OT, focused on imperial, rather than personal, judgment (though this obviously has implications for individuals who’ve aligned themselves with these empires and what they represent) and are referenced or alluded to in Revelation’s depiction of the lake of fire.
Add to this, the symbol appears at the end of Revelation when Babylon (the mighty, global, economic powerhouse) has just been judged by God and destroyed by fire. Babylon and her destruction is a major, climactic theme (if not the major, climactic theme) in the finale of Revelation. Given all this surrounding context in Revelation and OT background, I read the lake of fire as an apocalyptic symbol for the smoldering rubble of Babylon, the ruins that remain when the empire has been destroyed.
So once this symbolism has been established, I read the details around Rev 20:15’s individuals being thrown into the lake of fire as something like “those whose lives are aligned with Babylon and her ways are handed over to the rubble of her ruins.” To give an example of images that come to mind, I think the “post-apocalyptic” genre of literature and movies in the last decade or two is fascinating (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Walking Dead, etc), with people wanting to explore “What does life look like in the aftermath of civilizational destruction?” I’m not saying it will necessarily be just like this, but I think that’s the kind of provoking of the imagination that Rev 20 intends to convey: God’s kingdom will reign, and Babylon will not be allowed to be rebuilt outside his kingdom’s walls. Those who’ve invested their lives in Babylon’s ways will be left with nothing but the remains of her destruction.”
Few quick thoughts on other details you mentioned:
- The beast: I would suggest the beast is very clearly intended by Revelation as an “empire” or “kingdom power” (given the clear establishment of this interpretation in Daniel 7, the significant extent to which Daniel 7 influences Revelation and other apocalyptic literature of its era, and John’s use of “imperial” imagery to describe it (Rev 13) while not giving any indications for an individual interpretation to the contrary. Similarly, the false prophet doesn’t have a similar OT apocalyptic backdrop so far as I can tell, but it’s depiction later in Rev 13 as another beast would strongly indicate the same interpretation (“empire” rather than “individual”) without any other indication to the contrary.
- Being thrown in: this is one area I might not have done a super clear job clarifying in the book, but I do see people “choosing / preferring” life without God and God “throwing / casting out” from his kingdom as two sides of the same coin, simultaneously compatible. Because in the 1st section of the book, “The Mercy of Hell,” I emphasized the “choosing / preferring” side of the coin, a few have asked whether I take that as all there is to it, but I intended the 2nd section of the book, “The Surprise of Judgment,” to emphasize the “thrown / cast out” side of the coin, and the two sections to complement each other together. The “lynchpin” for how these work together, I think, is in the “Interlude: The Sovereignty of Christ” with themes like Jesus knowing us better than we know ourselves, God’s casting out judgment being his giving us over to what we want (because though we prefer life without God, our sin also wants to invade his kingdom, something God judges and contains to protect the flourishing of goodness in his kingdom), so we get what we want from one angle (life without God), though not from another (being able to invade the kingdom).
I hope that’s helpful! Thanks so much again for getting in touch. Best wishes and definitely feel free to stay in touch if other thoughts arise–