Eonian Fire And Judging

Death and Judgment

 CONCORDANT STUDIES

MANY BELIEVE that at “death,” man enters into either the bliss of heaven or the pains of the netherworld, awaiting, after judgment day, either eternal joy in heaven or everlasting misery in hell. Then he will possess a body once again, so that, according to his peculiar destiny, either his happiness might be enhanced or his misery exacerbated. In the former case, a body will greatly increase his pleasures; in the latter case, it will unspeakably multiply his miseries.

Perhaps some would be embarrassed by the following citation from a sermon by the famous, nineteenth-century preacher, Charles Spurgeon. Yet if so, there are many others who would surely commend this writing. Actually, this latter class is more consistent. If any, not to mention most, are to “spend eternity” in some sort of horrible, physical and mental suffering, such vivid and earthy descriptions as the following ought not to be criticized but emulated:

“When thou diest thy soul will be tormented alone—that will be a hell for it—but at the day of judgment thy body will join thy soul, and then thou wilt have twin hells, body, and soul shall be together, each brimful of pain, thy soul sweating in its inmost pore drops of blood, and thy body from head to foot suffused with agony; conscience, judgment, memory, all tortured . . . . Thine heart beating high with fever, thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony, thy limbs cracking like the martyrs in the fire and yet unburnt, thyself put in a vessel of hot oil, pained yet coming out undestroyed, all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of Pain to travel on, every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune . . . . Fictions, sir! Again I say they are no fictions, but solid, stern truth. If God be true, and this Bible be true, what I have said is the truth, and you will find it one day to be so.”[1]

All who wish to uphold traditional orthodoxy must affirm a belief in conscious, everlasting punishment. It is insisted that the unsaved will abide forever in unspeakable misery and abject pain.

Perhaps no passage of Scripture has been appealed to more confidently in support of the doctrine of everlasting misery than Matthew 25:46: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (AV; “And these shall be coming away into chastening eonian, yet the just into life eonian,” CV).

This passage, however, is not concerned with humanity as a whole, or even with individual persons as such. Instead, it has in view, in the day of the Lord, the granting of rewards, or chastenings, to the nations of the earth according to their treatment of Israel. It is not a revelation concerning divine grace, nor of the evangel of our salvation and its transcendent grace. Perhaps the best proof that men do not really believe that our salvation is a matter of gratuitous grace is the fact that Matthew 25:31-46 is commonly perceived as a summary of the gospel for today.

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A FIGURE OF STRICT CHASTENING

We often hear it said, “God didn’t prepare hell for man, but only for the Devil and his angels.” Now this is said in an attempt to commend God’s character to us. That is, while He did not originally create an eternal hell for us, He did prepare such a place for others! It is difficult to see how this explanation can hope to elicit our admiration or afford us any real relief. After all, these same stalwarts of eternal hellfire also insist that all but a few of us will nonetheless—according to God’s subsequent appointing—still spend eternity in hell, even if it was not originally designed with us in mind.

This common assertion, concerning the original design of so-called “hell,” instead of commending the character of God to us, to the contrary, might be compared to a man, say a neighbor, who, while not preparing a certain torture for my child but only for another, later on, decides to include my child as well.

Of course, the claim will also be made that hell was only prepared for man subsequent to his—to Adam’s—first sin. The claim is that it was only after the entrance of human sin into the world that God decided that hell should become the eternal home for all lost creatures of our species as well.

But this is only to say that for each class of creatures, while, prior to their first sin, it was never determined to send any of them to hell, nonetheless, once they fell into sin, the decision to eternally punish them was swift and final. For all “devils” it is already too late (as it is for billions of men of past generations). And the only way any today can escape is by fulfilling certain requirements in order to qualify themselves for exemption.

Therefore it is misleading for the believer in eternal punishment to suggest, as many do, that there is any advantage here for mankind, or that we are thus given an intimation of special mercy for ourselves—albeit a mercy that in any case is now completely inapplicable.

The “fire” eonian spoken of in Matthew 25 is a figure of the chastening of the unjust nations during the coming eon, even as it is written in the prophets. On the other hand, the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20, which is the “second death,” must be a literal fire, for it is the means which brings the second death to the rest of mankind, following the day of judging, after the thousand years. Nations cannot be chastened in literal fire. In Matthew 25, the chastening of nations in “fire” should alert us to an obvious figurative usage. Indeed, even individual persons could never be put into a literal fire for even a few seconds without destroying their bodies, thus making chastening impossible, since death would ensue nearly immediately.

Conversely, a good example of literal fire and death is given to us in the Unveiling, in the destruction of the great city of Babylon. It is only during the fall of Babylon that the worshipers of the wild beast and its image will be subjected to torment in fire and sulphur. These alone are concerned in this judgment. Though this may involve many individuals, together they comprise only a tiny percentage of all humanity. In the hour when judgment comes upon the city, a great conflagration will ensue. Once ignited, the fire of the city will continue to burn until it is “burned up” (Rev.18:8), when nothing but ashes remain.

We know that subterranean coal beds may smolder for centuries; that is, they burn with little smoke and no flame. But this could not be said of the ashes of the city! Hence no literal fumes are in view here, where we read that “the fumes of their torment are ascending . . . .” (Rev.14:11). “Fumes” is a figure of speech, as is “drinking of the wine” (of the fury of God) and “blended undiluted in the cup” (of His indignation) (Rev.14:10). Like literal fumes which are the product of fire, the destruction of Babylon which is the product of God’s judgment upon its inhabitants, will constitute the figurative “fumes”—that is, the associated evidence—which will be “ascending for the eons of the eons.” This “ascending,” since it is the ascending of figurative fumes, is figurative itself as well. Like smoke, which testifies to its existence when it ascends high into the air, the destruction and death which occurred at Babylon will be exceedingly widely known and attested to throughout the entire world, even “for the eons of the eons.”

“The ‘fumes . . . ascending for the eons of the eons’ (Rev.14: 11) is a figure of speech similar to the one used in Jude 7, a specimen . . . [of] the justice of fire eonian. When sulphur and fire rained from the heavens on Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities about them, the inhabitants were killed and the fumes ascended from the land (Gen.19:28). This event is well remembered. The Israelitish worshipers of the wild beast are the supreme sinners of mankind. They have no rest day and night while they are worshiping the wild beast and its image and shall be tormented until they die (Rev. 14:9-12; 16:2,8,9; 18:8), some of them by the blade (19:21). Their fate will be remembered through the eons of the eons.”[2]

The phrase “the eons of the eons” should not be viewed as if it were a proper noun, indeed, one which had exclusive reference to the “oncoming eons” (cp Eph.2:7). Though we find that this is ordinarily the usage of this phrase (e.g., Rev.11:15), it does not follow that this must always be its usage, or that this is its usage here, in Revelation 14:11 (or, in its companion passage, Revelation 19:3). Since the judgment of Babylon is concerned with this present earth, which will no longer exist during the final eon, the plural word “eons” here must refer to a period which includes the remainder of the present eon and at least a portion (if not the entirety) of the coming eon, the “millennium.”

In order for something to become present “for [i.e., into] the eon” it need not have been present throughout all its preceding portion, nor is it necessary for it to continue on until its consummation. Instead, it need only continue on into its future. Since, then, in Revelation 14:11, “eons” is plural, and since the present eon, at this juncture, will be nearing its consummation, the reference must be to the present eon (to its brief remainder) as well as to the coming eon.

Another important consideration is that of the words “their torment.” As they appear here, they constitute a metonymy or figure of association. This figure may also be classed as a figure of omission. Such figures may always be made literal by the insertion of an explanatory phrase. The words “their torment” point us to the ellipsis or figure of omission. The full thought is, “The fumes of their torment [which existed in the hour of their judgment prior to their death] are ascending for the eons of the eons.” Even if the fumes were literal, it would hardly follow, since these “fumes” continue to “ascend,” that the torment which is rightly associated with them must itself continue to exist!

“As figures arise from fervor of speech, and this is inclined to be terse, they are often accompanied by the omission (Ellipsis) of words. [Figures] of Association may be made literal by adding an explanatory phrase, as ‘the cup [containing the wine] of blessing’ (1 Cor.10:16).”[3] The omitted, and yet obvious, thought which is associated with that which has been expressed, constitutes the Ellipsis.

In Revelation 14:11, the “fumes” are the reminder of the fire which tormented these idolaters during the hour (not “the eon”!) of their judgment. Fire, however, soon consumes human bodies, even if the fire itself should continue to burn for a long span of time. The entire account is one of the “desolation” (Rev.18:17,19) of the most notable city of Babylonia in the conclusion of this eon (Rev.14:8-11). Even as “Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities about them . . . are lying before us, a specimen, experiencing the justice of fire eonian” (Jude 7),[4] thus also Babylon will constitute such a specimen as well. “In one day shall her calamities be arriving: death and mourning and famine . . . . She shall be burned up with fire, for strong is the Lord God Who judges her” (Rev.18:8). In “one hour” the great city will be desolated, and this will mean death to her inhabitants (Rev.18:8; cp 18:9-24).

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THE DAY OF JUDGMENT AND THE SECOND DEATH

Let us consider the just judgment of God, following the thousand years, as it occurs before the great white throne. This is the resurrection of the unjust for judgment in that day. The primary thing to note is that the unbeliever’s judging will be in the day of God’s just judgment (Rom.2:5), not in the lake of fire. As is suited to each case, the doers of evil will receive fury, indignation, affliction, and distress in that “day” (Rom.2: 8,9; the duration of which is not revealed). This will be more tolerable for some than for others (Matt.10:15). The day of judging before the great white throne, while it too will be a day of chastening (2 Peter 2:9), even as the judgment of the coming eon spoken of in Matthew 25:31-46, will not be a day of torturing. God disciplines those of whom He is fond (Heb.12:7-11; Rev.3:19), and He is fond of humanity (Titus 3:4). We can be sure that God will be doing all things well, exercising judgment founded upon His love.

Men will enter the second death not as a punishment for their sins, but as a fitting consummation for the old humanity which is corrupt in accord with its seductive desires (cp Eph.4:22). God’s appointed time for the vivification of all is not until a much later time (namely, at the consummation of the last eon). It is simply not according to His wise counsels to favor the majority of men with life during “the eon of the eons.” Indeed, it is only because of God’s having chosen us for life eonian that our lot is not with the rest of mankind in the lake of fire which is the second death.

The condemnation of sin has been accomplished already through the work of Christ. All personal judgment for the unbeliever’s actions is confined to the day of judging. Therefore it is unwarranted to conceive of the second death as anything more than a fitting end for the old humanity, an expediency, a suitable means of bringing the unbeliever’s day of judging to a close.

The second death evidently will occur mercifully, for it certainly will occur swiftly. This is made evident by the fact that those who die that death will enter it by being cast into the agency which produces it (cf Rev.20:14,15). Surely life could not continue for more than an instant in the midst of such a tremendous blaze. Beyond such considerations as these, we must leave this matter with God, Who, we can be certain, will do exactly the right thing and the best thing, for the sake of all concerned. The vivification of all mankind is His purpose and happy expectation! All judgment and death but serve this glorious goal.

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THE METAPHOR OF “FIRE” EONIAN

Now in contrast to these great events from the book of Revelation, let us return to the “fire eonian” of Matthew 25:41, the “fire” which ensues at the beginning of the thousand years. It is a figure of the kid nations’ painful, eonian chastening, during the coming eon, according to the writings of the prophets. The fire is like that mentioned by the prophets which overtakes those nations which oppose Israel.

Here, in Matthew 25, the fiery judgment is extended to eonian proportions in order to preserve Israel during the era of the kingdom. Within the terms of the account, it seems certain that the ones in view for whom this “fire” is said to be made ready are “the adversary” (not “Adversary”)—i.e., any adversarial nation (or group of nations)—and its associated “messengers”[5]*,—political advocates or exponents, envoys (accredited representatives) or other protagonists who had spoken against Israel. These will therefore be chastened accordingly in the day of the Lord.

Angellos (“messenger”) is sometimes used of mortal men (e.g., John the baptist; Matt.11:10). The word speaks of one’s office, not of one’s nature. Though it is often used of celestial couriers, this is not its meaning. It simply refers to one who carries, or propounds, a message, regardless of his own nature or the character of his message.

Similarly, “adversary” is not a proper noun; it by no means is always used in reference to the great spirit being, Satan (e.g., 1 Tim.3:11; 2 Tim.3:3; Titus 2:3). During the thousand years, he is confined in the “submerged chaos” (Rev.20:3; abussos, SIMULTANEOUS SUBMERGE, “the abyss beneath the water level,” KEYWORD CONCORDANCE, p.291). It is therefore impossible to identify Satan as the “adversary” which is in view in Matthew 25: 41 or otherwise to include him in this judgment of the nations. Diabolos (“adversary”), used here in Matthew 25:41, is a noun, dative, masculine, singular. Autou (“his”), literally, is “of him,” or, “of it” (of-SAME; the relative pronoun; genitive, masculine, third person, singular). The fact that these two words are both masculine in gender merely signifies grammatical agreement. It has no bearing on translation, much less on interpretation.

This setting in Matthew calls to mind the language of the Hebrew prophets. Israel in Egypt is figured as a burning thorn bush (Ex.3:2; cp v.7). They were in an “iron furnace” or “crucible” (Deut.4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jer.11:4). Isaiah, in 48:10, explains it as a crucible of humiliation. When used figuratively, a “crucible” is a “severe trial.” Jerusalem has been melted in the crucible of affliction. Yahweh blew upon her in the fire of His indignation (Ezek.22:18-22; cf Mal.3:2; Obadiah 18).

The judgments of the nations during the day of Yahweh (in the coming eon) are spoken of in the prophets under the figure of fire. God will send a fire on Magog and the isles (Ezek.38:22; 39:6). He will set a fire in Egypt in the day of Yahweh (Ezek.30: 8,16; cp Zech.14:17,18). He will blow against the Ammonites with the fire of His indignation (Ezek.21:31). If all the nations hostile to Israel were actually consumed by a raging conflagration, what need would there be for the “iron club” with which He will be shepherding the nations in that day (Rev. 19:15)?

They will be afflicted and forced to obey, as Israel in Egypt. This will be their corrective chastening (Matt.25:46). Fire is often used figuratively, and of temporary judgments. Even the saints will be saved thus, “as through fire” (1 Cor.3:15; cp 1 Peter 1:7; 4:12).

Even setting aside the vital considerations of time element and administrational distinction which concern these various events, in itself the popular notion that this passage, Matthew 25:31-46, somehow speaks of ourselves and the gospel of our salvation by grace is a clear index of the depth of the prevailing darkness concerning God’s true grace. For we enter into eonian life—and at a far higher level and in a much more glorious way than these “sheep” nations—solely as the objects of God’s grace, apart from any consideration of our works. Yet they do so as a reward for their works. Yet, even so, for these very nations, this allotment was made ready for them “from the disruption of the world” (Matt.25:34). Since it was essential nonetheless for them to qualify for this allotment, it is evident that they only acted as Israel’s benefactors because Yahweh Elohim directed their steps to do so (cf Prov.16:9). There is no “free will” here. There was no risk involved, no human independence. God alone will be glorified in that day.

Though it is an impossible equation, some have confounded this judgment with that of the great white throne. Let us note some of the differences: this severing of the nations occurs at the unveiling of Jesus Christ, at the beginning of the millennium (cp Matt.24:29,30; 25:31); the great white throne is after the millennium (Rev.20:7,11). It is on the earth, in the valley of Jehoshaphat (cf Joel 3:2); not at a time when heaven and earth flee and no place is found for those who stand before the great white throne (Rev.20:11,12). It concerns only the living nations of that day; yet those who stand before the throne are the rest of the dead following the millennium (cp Rev. 20:5a). It concerns living nations, not dead individuals roused for judgment. Its basis is the respective nations’ characteristic treatment of the Jews corporately, not every detail of each sinner’s life who has ever lived considered individually. Its consequence is the dividing of the nations of the earth into those blessed and cursed with respect to the millennium, not the condemnation of the unbeliever to the second death which occurs at a much later time.

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WAITING FOR GOD’S SON, OUR RESCUER

Many, indeed, “shall incur the justice of eonian extermination from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of His strength” (2 Thess.1:9). The day of Christ’s unveiling from heaven will come “in flaming fire” in which He, and His powerful messengers, will be “dealing out vengeance to those not acquainted with God and those who are not obeying the evangel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess.1:7b,8). Yet it is in that very day that we will be at “ease,” even as Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, are totally uninvolved in the events of that fearful era (cp 2 Thess.1:1,7a). For we are awaiting God’s Son out of the heavens, Whom He rouses from among the dead, Jesus, our Rescuer out of the coming indignation (1 Thess.1:10). Yet this is only so because of the “transcendent grace” of God which has come upon us (2 Cor.9: 14b).[6]

James Coram

[1] “Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermon No. 66, New Park Street Pulpit, 2:105.

[2]*A. E. Knoch, UNSEARCHABLE RICHES, vol.66, p.143.

[3] *CONCORDANT LITERAL NEW TESTAMENT WITH KEYWORD CONCORDANCE; Appendix A, “Figures of Speech,” p.362.

[4] “The destruction of Sodom and the surrounding cities is still apparent to all who visit the region. In this way, these cities are experiencing the justice of eonian fire. The fire has long ceased but its effects will remain and testify to God’s judgment until the close of this eon, after which Sodom shall return to her former estate (Ezek.16:53-56)” (CONCORDANT COMMENTARY, p.376).

[5] *The sense is, for “the adversarial [one, or, ones] and the messengers of the same.” The strict literal reading is, “to-THE-THRU-CASTer [adversary] AND to-THE MESSENGERS OF-him.” The reference is to those who fail to succor the people of Israel, Christ’s brethren according to the flesh, who rather oppose them.

[6]  (Portions of this exposition have been adapted from UNSEARCHABLE RICHES, cf volumes 24, p.116; 52, pp.21-28; 57, pp.106,107.)

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