The nature of final punishment is a topic which falls under the theological category of eschatology, the study of last things. Also discussed as part of that category is the timing of the fulfillment of certain biblical prophecies, such as the coming of the Son of Man foretold by Jesus in his Olivet discourse, the nature and activity of the beast of Revelation, and so forth. Perhaps constituting the majority view of the church in America today, futurists believe that most of these prophecies will be fulfilled in our future; preterists like me, on the other hand, believe most of these prophecies—but not all of them1—were fulfilled in our past, specifically in the first century surrounding the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70.
As I mentioned in a previous article, there’s a strong argument to be made in favor of conditionalism from the apocalyptic imagery of death and Hades in Revelation chapter 20. This argument carries force regardless of one’s eschatological position concerning the timing of prophetic events, and I will make that argument in the future here at Rethinking Hell. In the meantime, however, because of my interest in this particular eschatological persuasion, I want to reach out to my fellow preterists and make a bold, provocative and controversial statement: You can’t be a consistent preterist unless you’re also a conditionalist.
That’s right, I said it. If your understanding of the book of Revelation is preteristic but you believe that it supports the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment in immortal bodies and souls, you are being inconsistent. I was, too. I have been a preterist for years but I didn’t realize how inconsistent I had been until I was already nearly convinced of conditionalism roughly six months ago. If you are reading this and you are likewise a preterist, my hope is that the camaraderie I share with you will allow me to challenge you to think more deeply about this issue than you may have in the past.
You likely point to Revelation 20:10 as evidence supporting the traditional view of final punishment, since a few verses later the risen wicked are seen thrown into this lake of fire in which the devil, beast and false prophet are tormented eternally. Chances are that you view the millennium depicted in this chapter as being the present church age, and that you believe the beast is a symbol representing imperial Rome generally, and perhaps Nero Caesar specifically. Yet despite the fact that this beast is seen thrown into the lake of fire at the onset of the millennium, corresponding to events which took place in the first century, I seriously doubt that you believe Nero (or anybody else associated with imperial Rome) is suffering torment right now in resurrected, immortal bodies. If you do not, then you are being inconsistent in your interpretation of the lake of fire imagery. If you do, then you are being inconsistent in other ways, but either way your doctrine is fraught with problems.
Shared Fate, a Thousand Years Between Them
20 the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.
The next chapter begins by depicting the binding of Satan for a thousand years, after which he is released and gathers the nations to make war against the saints, a war he loses when fire comes down from heaven and devours his armies. Then,3
10 the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Notice that immediately prior to the onset of the millennium this beast is thrown into a lake of fire, and at the close of the millennium it is still there. Its torment is often assumed to have begun when it was thrown in, which is sometimes alleged to challenge conditionalism. For example, Robert Morey says, “That the false prophet and Antichrist still existed in the lake of fire after a ‘thousand years’ of torment is a grammatical necessity … If they had passed into nonexistence, then John would have said ‘he’ and not ‘they’.”4 Robert Peterson says that “they are still there ‘one thousand years’ later … The Beast’s ‘destruction’, therefore, is not annihilation.”5
Whatever fate the lake of fire represents, the beast experiences it long before Satan does. “The beast and the false prophet plunge at once into the extremest degree of torment, without being reserved in chains of darkness till the judgment of the great day,” John Wesley writes.6 Commenting on the beast’s being thrown into the lake of fire at the onset of the millennium, Robert Jamieson notes that “Satan is subsequently cast into it, at the close of the outbreak which succeeds the millennium,”7 and Albert Barnes points out that whereas the beast meets this fate before the thousand years “Satan, on the other hand, instead of being doomed at once to that final ruin, was confined for a season in a dark abyss.”8
The Risen Wicked Join Them
But it is not only Satan who shall join the beast and false prophet following the conclusion of the thousand years; so, too, will the risen wicked:9
13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds… 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
While John does not mention the eternal torment of those who rise uncovered by the blood of Christ, their torment is often assumed since they are thrown into the same lake of fire as the devil, beast and false prophet are being eternally tormented in. “The assertion that Revelation 20:10 has nothing to do with the fate of lost human beings is false,” writes Peterson, explaining that “the verses that follow in Revelation 20 depict resurrected humans being thrown into the lake of fire.”10 It is the same fate that “awaits everyone who has not got right with God during his lifetime,” says John Blanchard.11 Gregory Beale insists that there is no justification for not identifying the fate of these risen wicked with that of the devil, beast and false prophet, and that “the fact that the ungodly are thrown into the same ‘lake of fire’ as their satanic leaders further confirms this.”12
There is another reason for identifying the fate of the risen wicked with that of the devil: Jesus says they will depart into “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels,”13 which compels Larry Dixon to ask, “How can one deny that the ‘place’ which has been prepared for the ‘devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41) is not the same ‘place’—(‘the lake of burning sulfur’)—into which he will be thrown at the judgment (Rev. 20:10)?” And he answers his own question: “That ‘place’ will be a place of unceasing torment (Rev. 20:10).”14 Kenneth Boa and Rob Bowman say that the devil “will be cast into the lake of fire, where ‘they will be tormented day and night forever and ever’ (Rev. 20:10) … The wicked will depart and go away into ‘eternal punishment’ along with the Devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41, 46).”15 Robert Reymond quotes Jesus’ words about the fate of the wicked in Matthew 25:41 and instructs his readers to “see Rev 20:10 for an elaboration of the nature of the devil’s punishment in the lake of fire in terms of ‘torment day and night for ever and ever.”16
A consistent application of the imagery of Revelation, therefore, is one which recognizes that the beast and false prophet begin to experience their eternal torment a thousand years before Satan and the risen wicked join them to experience the same fate. With that stage set, let us turn to how we preterists understand John’s apocalypse.
First Century Fulfillment
We believe it is exegetically untenable to deny that the bulk of the vision was fulfilled in the first century. Based on John’s opening words, that he was shown “the things which must soon take place,”17 R.C. Sproul writes, “The preterist argues, not only that the early church believed the Lord’s coming was near (at least with respect to his coming in judgment to Israel), but also that this belief proved to be true.”18 Regarding John’s statement that the time is “near” or “at hand,”19 Kenneth Gentry says that “if the expected events were to occur within a period of from one to five years … then all becomes clear.”20 Concerning the angel’s statement that “the time is near,”21 Hank Hanegraaff rhetorically asks, “Are we really to suppose that the angel was referencing a time more than two thousand years hence?” And he answers emphatically, “Of course not!”22
We do recognize, however, that the millennium of Revelation 20 “is symbolic of a long, indeterminate period, corresponding to the age of the church (now).”23 James Jordan says the millennium begins some “40 years after Jesus’ ascension.”24 Gentry writes, “The thousand years is a symbolic time frame covering Christian history from the first century down to the end.”25 And so whatever events are represented by the imagery, as preterists we believe the beast was thrown into the fire in the first century, and that Satan will be cast into it in our future.
When it comes to the identity of the beast, preterists typically argue that it represents first century imperial Rome, the imagery pointing to the line of its early Caesars. Referring to the seven heads of the beast26, Gentry says that “the ‘five’ are Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius who have already ‘fallen’ (i.e., are dead). We know, therefore, that the sixth one ‘is’ (estin) the reigning emperor, Nero. And ‘the other who has not yet come’ is the seventh, Galba, who will only ‘remain a little while’.”27 Sproul concurs but identifies two other options which begin with Augustus rather than Julius, and which have Galba or Vespasian as the then-reigning emperor.28 James Jordan sees the beast’s ten horns29, rather than its heads, as pointing to this succession of Caesars, adding Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian.30
Eternal Torment in Living Bodies
Now consider that the traditional view of final punishment is one in which those thrown into the lake of fire are tormented for eternity in living souls and bodies. John Gill wrote that the soul “cannot be killed” and that “though [the body] rises to damnation and everlasting contempt, yet [it] dies not again.”31 Saint Augustine said, “It is not incredible that the bodies of men condemned to everlasting punishment may retain in their soul the fire, may burn without being consumed, and may suffer without perishing.”32 Peterson insists that Jonathan Edwards was “constrained to preach the truth that ‘the bodies of the wicked men as well as their souls will be punished forever’.”33
Where, then, does this leave the preterist who affirms the traditional view of final punishment? Consistency requires him to believe that several of Rome’s early Caesars—not to mention every other individual human being comprising the institution of first century imperial Rome—are suffering torment right now in immortal bodies and souls. However, I suspect that few, if any, preterists believe that, for such a view is fraught with numerous problems. It would mean that these Caesars are being tormented physically in living bodies right now somewhere in the universe. It would mean that these Caesars began their eternal torment in living bodies at least 2,000 years before the final judgment of the rest of mankind, a judgment they will never face. It would mean that most of these Caesars were resurrected bodily from the dead at least 2,000 years before the general resurrection of the rest of mankind, which would be inconsistent with the arguments most preterists level against the two future resurrections posited by dispensational premillennialists. And each of these problems exists even if one is inclined to limit the first century onset of bodily eternal torment to Nero alone.
What are the preterist’s alternatives to this problematic position? Perhaps he could say that it is the torment of the intermediate state into which Rome’s Caesars entered in the first century and from which they will rise at the general resurrection, at which point they’ll be tormented bodily for eternity. But this would be inconsistent, since the eternal fire would communicate one thing at the onset of the millennium and something different afterwards. What is more, it would mean the Caesars were thrown into the lake of fire only to rise out of it at the general resurrection and be thrown right back into it to experience a different fate. And why is the beast said to be thrown alive into the lake of fire while its armies are killed by the sword34 if both, in fact, die and enter the intermediate state? Clearly this alternative preteristic interpretation of the imagery, while avoiding some of the more serious problems of what would be a more consistent traditionalist reading, is ultimately no less absurd.
Or perhaps the preterist traditionalist could say that demonic powers, rather than any human beings comprising the institution represented by the beast, began their torment in the lake of fire in the first century. But having identified numerous human beings in the imagery of the beast, what indication is there in the text that demons are also a part of that institution? And what exegetical justification can be offered for limiting the first century onset of eternal torment in the lake of fire to these demons, and excluding the Caesars so clearly depicted in the imagery? This alternative attempt at consistency would seem, then, to be an entirely ad hoc attempt to evade the problems faced in the previous proposed interpretations.
The Beast’s Dominion Annihilated
The best preteristic interpretation of the beast being thrown into the lake of fire is that its ungodly dominion over God’s people will come to a permanent end or annihilated. This is clear from the interpretation given by Scripture of the very similar imagery of Daniel 7, characteristics of whose four beasts are found in the beast of Revelation. Taken at face value, these two visions are contradictory; whereas in Revelation the beast is thrown alive into the lake of fire and tormented for eternity, Daniel’s beast is killed and its body destroyed in a river of fire.35 But the angel interprets this imagery, saying,36
23 The fourth beast will be a fourth kingdom on the earth, which will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth and tread it down and crush it. 24 As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings will arise; and another will arise after them, and he will be different from the previous ones and will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One, and he will intend to make alterations in times and in law; and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time. 26 But the court will sit for judgment, and his dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him.
Scripture provides us with no interpretation of the imagery of Revelation, but it does provide us with an interpretation of the imagery upon which it draws to foretell the same events, and the interpretation given is that the oppressive dominion of the institution represented by the beast will be “annihilated and destroyed forever,” at which point the saints will begin their reign. It is no wonder that John, too, sees the onset of the saints’ reign following what happens to the beast.37 When we let Scripture interpret Scripture, we have no reason to think that the fate of the beast in the imagery has anything to do with the individual human beings who comprise the institution it represents; its being thrown into the lake of fire communicates the permanent end to its dominion.
Thus many preterists appear to understand the fate of the beast in the imagery as communicating the spiritual conquest of the institution it represents. Jay Adams writes that “the beast and false prophet … represent the contemporary Roman world empire and its religious agent … the conflict described here is spiritual … a battle waged and won by the Word of God.”38 David Clark says, “Is this not the conquering power of the gospel and the triumph of Christianity? The sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, by preaching, and teaching, and testimony conquers the world for Christ.”39 David Chilton40 insisted that “any nation that does not submit to the all-embracing rule of King Jesus will perish; all nations shall be Christianized some day. It is only a matter of time.”41 Jordan writes, “Now all nations are to be conquered by the Gospel, beginning with the Sea Beast and False Prophet … The remnant of the kings of the land who survived the destruction of Babylon, as well as the Sea Beast and False Prophet (Herods and High Priests), are destroyed and removed from history.”42
Consistency in Preterism
Many preterists, then, accept what seems to be the obviously correct interpretation of the beast’s torment—the permanent end to the dominion of first century Rome over God’s people. They correctly reject its absurd alternatives in which Caesars were resurrected in the first century and are suffering eternal torment in living bodies somewhere in the universe right now, or in which the lake of fire symbolizes their suffering in the intermediate state a few verses before symbolizing their eternal state when they are thrown back into it, or in which, lacking any textual basis, demonic powers are the ones thrown into the lake of fire in the first century, rather than any of the several human beings they find in the beast’s imagery.
Recall, however, that many traditionalists point to the fact that the risen wicked are thrown into the lake of fire as evidence that, like the devil, they will be tormented for eternity. If the eternal torment of the beast in the lake of fire symbolizes the permanent end to the ungodly dominion of first century Rome over God’s people, preterists cannot be consistent while insisting that the same imagery communicates the torment of the devil or of the risen wicked in immortal bodies for eternity. Consistency in preterism requires that it symbolize a permanent end to everything symbolically thrown into the lake of fire. Since there is no indication that the devil and risen wicked represent institutions like the beast and false prophet, and since those who rise out of death and Hades have no dominion, I posit that their eternal torment in the lake of fire must symbolize the permanent end to themselves. You can’t be a consistent preterist when it comes to the imagery of Revelation unless you’re also a conditionalist.
- I’m referring to what was historically termed preterism, which has in recent years been unfortunately called “partial” preterism. I am not a hyper- or “full” preterist. For more information, listen to Episode 3 of my friend Dee Dee Warren’s podcast or read her article, “Perfuming the Hog.” [↩]
- Revelation 19:20 [↩]
- Revelation 20:10 [↩]
- Morey, R. Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House, 1984), 137. [↩]
- Peterson, R. Hell on Trial (P&R Publishing, 1995), 164. [↩]
- Wesley, J. “Commentary on Revelation 19“. John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible. 1765. [↩]
- Jamieson, R. “Commentary on Revelation 19“. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. 1871. [↩]
- Barnes, A. “Commentary on Revelation 20“. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. [↩]
- Revelation 20:13, 15 [↩]
- Peterson. 89. [↩]
- Blanchard, J. Whatever Happened to Hell? (Crossway Books, 1995), 141. [↩]
- Morgan, C. and Peterson, R., editors. Hell Under Fire (Zondervan, 2004), 116. [↩]
- Matthew 25:41 [↩]
- Dixon, L. The Other Side of the Good News (Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 109. [↩]
- Boa, K. and Bowman, R. Sense & Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Zondervan, 2007), 105. [↩]
- Reymond, R. Contending for the Faith (Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 348. [↩]
- Revelation 1:1 [↩]
- Sproul, R.C. The Last Days According to Jesus (Baker Books, 1998), 135. [↩]
- Revelation 1:3 [↩]
- as cited in Sproul, 1998, p. 139. [↩]
- Revelation 22:10 [↩]
- Hanegraaff, H. The Apocalypse Code (Thomas Nelson, 2007), 92. [↩]
- Gregg, S., editor. Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1997), 457. [↩]
- Jordan, J. The Vindication of Jesus Christ (Athanasius Press, 2009), 85. [↩]
- Gentry, K. Navigating the Book of Revelation (Goodbirth Ministries, 2010), 167. [↩]
- Revelation 17:9 [↩]
- Gentry. 162. [↩]
- Sproul. 147. [↩]
- Revelation 17:12 [↩]
- Jordan. 76-77. [↩]
- Gill, J. A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, book VII, chapter X (The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2001), 679. [↩]
- St. Augustine. The City of God – Enhanced (Kindle Locations 16494-16496). Kindle Edition. [↩]
- Peterson, R; Fudge, E. Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Kindle Locations 1985-1986). Intervarsity Press – A. Kindle Edition. [↩]
- Revelation 19:20-21 [↩]
- Daniel 7:11 [↩]
- Daniel 7:23-27 [↩]
- Revelation 20:4 [↩]
- as cited in Gregg, 1997, p. 450. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Note that Chilton became a hyperpreterist late in his life. [↩]
- Ibid., 452. [↩]
- Jordan. 81-82. [↩]