The Smoke Goes Up Forever and Ever
By John Wenham - The Case for Conditional Immortality (Excerpt)
In the Book of Revelation two passages speak of the smoke of torment rising for ever and ever. 14:11 says of those with the mark of the beast, tormented with burning sulphur, ‘the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast.’ 19:3 says of the great whore, ‘the smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.’ Finally, 20:10 speaks of the devil ‘thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.’ Of these three passages two are concerned with non-human or symbolic figures: the devil, the beast, the false prophet and the great whore, and only one refers to men. But the imagery is the same and they need to be examined together. The mind of John of the Apocalypse is steeped in Holy Scripture and it is to the Old Testament that we must go for enlightenment. After Noah’s flood, the second great demonstration of divine judgment is the raining down of burning sulphur on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. What is left is total, irreversible desolation and dense smoke rising from the land (Gen. 19:24-28). This 11 fearful example is recalled by Moses (Dt. 29:23), Isaiah 13:19, Jeremiah 50:40, Lamentations 4:6, Amos 4:11, Zephaniah 2:9, Peter 2 Pet. 2:6, Jude 7 and Jesus himself Lk. 17:28-32. It seems best to interpret the lake of fire and brimstone, the smoke and the torment of the Apocalypse in the light of this archetypal example. The concept of second death is one of finality; the fire consumes utterly, all that is left is smoke, a reminder of God’s complete and just triumph over evil.
The third passage (Revelation 14:11) is the most difficult passage that the conditionalist has to deal with. I freely confess that I have come to no firm conclusions about the proper interpretation of the Book of Revelation. While I would not want to be guilty of undervaluing its symbolism, I am nonetheless chary about basing fundamental doctrine upon its symbolic passages. Certainly, on the face of it, having no rest day or night with smoke of torment going up for ever and ever, sounds like everlasting torment. But, as Stott points out, the torment experienced “in the presence of the holy angels and. . .the Lamb,” seems to refer to the moment of judgment, not the eternal state’ (p. 318). This is the time of which Jesus gave warning (Lk. 12:9) when he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God’. Final judgment is an experience of unceasing and inescapable pain till all is over; but, as at Sodom, all that is left is the smoke of their torment going up for ever. It is a reminder to all eternity of the marvellous justice and mercy of God.