Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What is the Second Death? Part 4, Blood

In the first three posts of this series I have shared some of the reasons that I am convinced that “second death” in Revelation refers to the permanent and complete destruction of the body and soul of unbelievers (Matthew 10:28) rather than to eternal torment.

However, I have not yet explicitly and directly addressed the two most difficult phrases for my view. These two phrases are:

“the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever” (from Revelation 14:11)

“They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (from Revelation 20:10)

The second phrase is found in John’s vision of the lake of fire which is then defined to be “the second death” (Revelation 20:14, Revelation 21:8).

This raises a fair question.  If the second death involves the complete destruction of the unsaved, why is eternal torment part of John’s vision?

First, I will note an explanation which seems possible, but which I feel is not the best, or at least not the fullest and most complete, explanation.

A Completely Literal Interpretation which Is Consistent with Annihilationism

It is actually possible to take both Revelation 14:11 and Revelation 20:10 entirely literally and believe in annihilationism.  The passage in Revelation 14 says the smoke rises forever but it does not say the torment itself continues forever.  It seems possible that smoke could continue to rise long after the torment was complete and the unsaved were destroyed.  The smoke could be a type of memorial to God’s righteous judgment.  With regard to Revelation 20, the passage only says that the Devil, the false prophet, and the beast are tormented forever and ever.  Revelation does not make it clear that these are people, and the Devil certainly is not a person.  For example, the false prophet and the beast may be demonic beings who worked through people.  So it is possible that they suffer a different fate from ungodly people.

While the above explanation seems possible, I do not believe it is the best, most accurate, interpretation of the phrases involved.  What I view as the best interpretation is actually quite simple. Once you really see it, it makes good sense and agrees with the vast amount of Biblical evidence supporting annihilationism. 

Here’s the interpretation:

In John’s vision, which is stuffed full of shocking and bizarre symbols meant to impact our emotions and imagination, he does see and hear about eternal torment.  But this is simply hyperbolic symbolism.

To understand this we will first think about how hyperbole is a common part of everyday language.  Next we will look at examples of hyperbole in the Bible which are not related to final judgment.  These examples will help us to see that the Bible does indeed use hyperbole.  Finally, we will see an example of hyperbole used in Revelation to impress upon us how terrible final judgment will be.  This example will help us to see why it is reasonable to also treat the two phrases in Revelation which mention people being tortured forever as hyperbole.

Hyperbole is a normal part of language

Hyperbole is a normal part of language which we all use in many situations.  Here’s a short, fun YouTube video I found with some good examples:

The Bible uses hyperbole

The Bible also uses hyperbole.  Here are seven out of many examples:

1 Kings 10:24 The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.

2 Kings 16:4 He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree.

Amos 2:9a "Yet I destroyed the Amorites before them, though they were tall as the cedars and strong as the oaks.

Matthew 3:5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him,

Matthew 5:29a If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.

Matthew 23:24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Luke 14:26 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters-- yes, even their own life-- such a person cannot be my disciple.

An example of symbolic hyperbole in Revelation

The above examples of hyperbole in the Bible occur in a variety of settings. These examples show us clearly that the Bible does use hyperbole in some situations.  Does the Bible ever use hyperbole to emphasize how terrible God’s final judgment will be?  Yes, right in the book of Revelation there is an example of hyperbolic symbolism related to God’s wrath and judgment.  Here it is:

Revelation 14:20 They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses' bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.

Why do I say this is hyperbolic symbolism?  Besides the fact that on the surface it seems unlikely that Jesus squishing the blood out of billions of people and creating a huge sea of blood is meant to be taken  literally, there is the math.

1,600 stadia is about 180 miles or 300 kilometers.  Horses vary in size, but a typical horse’s bridle might be about 5 feet high.  If we assume small horses, the bridle might be only 4 feet high, or 1.2 meters.  People have tried to take this huge sea of blood literally and have noted that it involves an apparently impossible amount of blood.  The average human has 5 liters of blood.  Revelation does not give the shape of the blood flow.  If John saw a circular lake of blood with a 300 km radius, or even a smaller circular lake with a 300 km diameter, then the number of people needed for that much blood is many times more than the population of the earth, even more than most estimates of all people who ever lived. Of course we don’t know exactly how many people ever lived, but if you google it you will find a number of estimates mostly around 100 billion people.  We can reduce the amount of blood required if we assume that the huge sea of blood John saw was shaped more like a long, skinny rectangle rather than a circle.  Let’s assume a rectangular lake which is 300 km long but only 10 km wide.  Here’s the math:

The sea of blood John describes would require that all the blood be squeezed out of 720 billion people.  And that’s assuming short horses and a narrow sea!

Is it possible to come up with an explanation which allows this to be literal?  Sure, maybe John did not see a “lake” or “sea” of blood, but a thin stream only about 1 m wide but 300 km long.  Or maybe God caused the blood squeezed out of the slaughtered people to miraculously multiply.  After all, He multiplied fish and bread (and I believe that account is entirely literal and historical – of course that account does not occur in a vision full of shocking symbols!).  Or maybe attempts to explain the huge sea of blood literally are fundamentally misguided because John was seeing highly symbolic visions and it’s not meant to be literal.  Three highly respected, theologically conservative, evangelical scholars who believe in eternal torment, all nevertheless came to the conclusion that this sea of blood is a case of a symbol/metaphor using hyperbole:

“The statement about blood mounting up to the horses’ bridles at the end of the verse is figurative battle language and functions as hyperbole to emphasize the severe and unqualified nature of the judgment.” (Beale, Revelation, A Shorter Commentary, pg. 313)

“Baukham has shown that this hyperbole, consisting of an extraordinary amount of blood indicating a slaughter of exceptional proportions is a topos frequently found in ancient literature” (David Aune, Word Biblical Commentary 52b, 1998, pg.847-848)

And Robert Mounce points out that another scholar who attempted to find a literal way to interpret this massive amount of blood “fails to grasp the hyperbolic nature of the metaphor” (Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised, pg. 281).

God used the exaggerated symbolism of a huge sea of blood to indicate how terrible His wrath and judgment will be on the ungodly who choose to align with the Devil.  This is an appropriate use of hyperbole.

If God used hyperbolic metaphor to describe his terrible judgment in Revelation 14:20, why couldn’t He also have used hyperbolic metaphor in Revelation 14:11 and Revelation 20:10?  I’m convinced that the eternal torment imaged in these passages is indeed another case of hyperbole being used to press upon our emotions and imagination the terror of God’s final judgment. 

In the first three posts of this series I have provided reasons why I believe that the “second death” refers to the destruction of body and soul and not eternal torment.  In the next two posts I plan to give more evidence that the mention of eternal torment is not intended to be interpreted literally.

In part 5, I plan to discuss why, based on the principle of proportional punishment, eternal torment would be absurd (like a huge sea of blood is absurd).

In part 6, I will try to show that the consistent, wide-spread, teaching of the rest of the Bible is that the final fate of the ungodly is to die, perish, and be burned to ashes.  We should use the principle of interpreting the Bible with the Bible in a way that results in harmony.  The best way to do this is to interpret “second death” to mean a literal dying again where both the soul and body utterly perish.  

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

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