Reese Watt explains Revelation 14:9-11

‘In Revelation 14:9-11 we read this:

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name."

For many years, I considered this verse to be one of the verses that most powerfully supported the argument for eternal torment.   It seems to very clearly express the eternal torment of those thrown into the lake of fire.  However, a deeper investigation produced in me a total reversal of my understanding of this passage, so that I now move it all the way over to the category of Annihilation.

To explain why my understanding changed so dramatically, I would first ask you to consider the phrase “Another one bites the dust”.  We know what it means: it is a pronouncement that another person just died or was defeated. It does not mean that someone stooped down to take a bite out of the ground.   The intended meaning is far different than what is literally expressed.  If, 2000 years from now, a translator from another planet is trying to determine the meaning of the Queen song by that same name, what would he conclude?  He would probably quickly conclude that the literal meaning is not correct, and would then try to find other uses of that same phrase.  In doing so, he could piece together a meaning that makes sense.

With that idea in mind, consider the angels’ pronouncement in Revelation 19:3 regarding the destruction of Babylon:

And a second time they said, "Hallelujah! HER SMOKE RISES UP FOREVER AND EVER."

In the NASB translation, the phrase ‘HER SMOKE RISES UP FOREVER AND EVER’ is capitalized, as I’ve shown, to indicate that it is a reference to an Old Testament passage.  The referenced passage is Isaiah 34:10.  Here is that passage:

Isa 34:8-10  For the LORD has a day of vengeance, A year of recompense for the cause of Zion. Its streams will be turned into pitch, And its loose earth into brimstone, And its land will become burning pitch. It will not be quenched night or day; Its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; None will pass through it forever and ever.

In this passage, Isaiah is describing the total destruction of Edom.  As part of that description, he says that the “its smoke will go up forever”.

In reading the remainder of the passage, we understand that Isaiah did not mean it literally – that is, he did not mean that the smoke will never stop rising.  How do we know this?  Because in the very next verse, he says

But pelican and hedgehog will possess it, And owl and raven will dwell in it; And He will stretch over it the line of desolation And the plumb line of emptiness.

How could those animals possess it if it is still burning an smoking?  Obviously, they couldn’t.  So, we must conclude that Isaiah meant that the fire will burn for a very long time, continuing to smoke until everything is totally destroyed.  Eventually, the fires will go out and animals will move in, but the nation of Edom will never recover from this destruction.  In regards to the physical conditions that Isaiah describes, this passages clearly teaches the total physical destruction of Edom and that Edom will never physically return.  When applying this passage to a spiritual realm, we should then make parallel conclusions about the spiritual realm to which we apply it.

Now, to get back to the Revelations passage, we have clear descriptions that Babylon will be totally destroyed, just like Edom in the Isaiah passage.   It therefore becomes easy to consider the angels’ words in Revelation as a pronouncement of the total defeat of Babylon.  Their assertion ‘Hallelujah, HER SMOKE RISES FOREVER’ is similar to how we might say, “Hallelujah, another one bites the dust!”  That is, it is a pronouncement of the total destruction of Babylon, with a very clear allusion to the language of Isaiah.

Given those two examples as precedence for the use of the concept of ‘smoke rising forever’, it seems very likely that the third instance where this phrase is used, in reference to people in the lake of fire, is intended is to once again express the concept of total destruction.  Hold that thought for a minute.

I now want you to consider the verbs in this passage.  Notice that the verb tense changes from present, to future, and then back to present.  Why do the verbs change tense like that.  The obvious answer is that the angel starts out talking about the present, then talks about the future momentarily, then returns to talking about the present.

What if we introduced capitalization into this passage that was similar the capitalization used in the other passage about the destruction of Babylon?  No punctuation was included in the original Greek, so speculations about correct punctuation are valid exercises in translating passages.  Consider the passage with this capitalization and structure:

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
AND THE SMOKE OF THEIR TORMENT GOES UP FOREVER AND EVER
They have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name."

This now reads in a way that is very similar to the passage in Revelation 19 concerning Babylon. With this structure, my reading is that the angel first foretells the fate that will befall those who currently worship the beast. Then, the angel breaks into a pronouncement of their upcoming total destruction.  Finally, the angel changes back to the present tense, asserting that unbelievers currently have no rest day or night because of the fate that awaits them.

This interpretation has these merits:
1) It is consistent generally with the rest of Scripture
2) It is consistent specifically with the way the phrase “smoke rises forever” is used in other passages
3) It correctly interprets the tense of the verbs
4) It solves the problem of there being days and nights in hell by applying the last sentence to the present rather than to the future.’

source: Reese Watt, “The Weight of Scripture” (gentlegod).

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