Is the lake of fire described in Revelation a real place?

In your study guide to Revelation, are you saying that the lake of fire isn’t a real place?

D. Howard Hitchcock, “Halemaumau, Lake of Fire”

In session 23 of the Daniel/Revelation study guide I observe that “it’s impossible for a literal fire to burn a finite amount of fuel forever,” so that the image of the lake of fire near the end of Revelation shouldn’t be taken to mean that those who definitively reject a relationship with God will “burn up forever.” Rather, this image represents the way that people who reject God “will be separated permanently from him, they will always be objects of his displeasure, and they will never receive the comfort and satisfaction that God gives those who do live in his presence.”

In session 24 I observe that shortly after Revelation depicts all those whose names are not written in the book of life being thrown in the lake of fire, it says that only those whose names are written in the book of life may enter the New Jerusalem; all others will be kept outside its gates.  I then ask, “If these same people have already been thrown into the lake of fire, why do they need to be denied entrance to this city?” I conclude that “the details of these two visions can’t be reconciled by a literal reading, but this only shows that both are meant to be understood symbolically. . . . Two different figures are used, but their message is the same: those who definitively reject God will be kept out of his presence, while those who remain loyal and faithful, even through sacrifice and suffering, will live forever with God in a place of splendor and glory.”

More generally, it’s impossible to read the visions throughout Revelation both literally and sequentially. For example, the sun is destroyed when the sixth seal is opened, but shortly afterwards, when the fourth trumpet sounds, the sun is shining in full strength, because one third of its light is then dimmed. Examples like this show us that we need to interpret Revelation symbolically.

That’s why, throughout this guide, I seek to explain the meaning of the symbols in Revelation as allusions to other images in the Scriptures, particularly Daniel and the prophetic books, or else as echoes of images that would have been recognizable from the surrounding culture. The great prostitute who sits on seven hills, for example, evokes the popular idea of Rome as the “city of seven hills.” For its part, the lake of fire may echo the Greek idea of the underworld containing a river of fire. But more important than the source of these images is the use John makes of them to communicate God’s purposes for the culmination of history.

And whatever we believe about the actual ultimate circumstances of those who reject God’s gracious offer of forgiveness and a restored relationship, we should make every effort, by our words, personal example, and loving service, to urge and encourage everyone we know to accept this offer.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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