Opinions abound on what this rarely used phrase means. What does the Bible say? And how can we avoid the lake of fire?
The phrase lake of fire is found only four times in the Bible, and each occurrence is in the book of Revelation. The first passage tells us that when the kings of the earth come to fight against Christ at His second coming, the beast and false prophet will be “cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Revelation 19:20, emphasis added throughout).
The final three occurrences of the phrase appear in the next chapter. Here we find that the devil will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10) and that eventually “Death and Hades” will be cast into this lake (verse 14). And finally, we read, “And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (verse 15).
Old Testament passages such as Genesis 19:24; Psalm 11:6; and Ezekiel 38:22 speak of God raining brimstone and fire upon the wicked. The references to fire and brimstone in connection with the lake of fire (Revelation 19:20; 20:10) indicate that it is a form of punishment.
The passages in the book of Revelation also make it clear that being thrown into the lake of fire is a punishment or judgment from God. This concept is commonly agreed upon. What isn’t agreed upon is the nature of this punishment for humans.
The traditional explanation
The most common, yet mistaken, explanation of the lake of fire has been that it is a place of perpetual torment for wicked people. One of the commonly cited proofs for this belief is found in Revelation 20:10: “The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
This passage, as translated in the New King James Version, seems to say that the devil, the beast and the false prophet will be tormented forever in the lake of fire. So how can there be any other explanation? We’ll come back to this verse after considering the alternate explanation that better fits what the Bible teaches.
The better explanation
The popular concept of hell, mistakenly believed by many to be synonymous with the lake of fire and the presumed place of everlasting torment for sinners, simply isn’t taught in the Bible. Neither is the mistaken idea that man has an immortal soul.
Throughout the Bible, “hell” (the English word selected as the translation of several different Hebrew and Greek words) is variously referred to as the grave, a valley near Jerusalem or a condition of restraint for Satan and the demons. It is never used to describe a place of eternal torment for wicked humans.
As for the concept of humans’ having an immortal soul, this false teaching originated with Satan (Genesis 3:4) and was a common teaching in pagan religions. The Bible teaches that a soul is simply a mortal, living creature.
The teaching of the Old Testament and the New
The Old Testament clearly teaches that the punishment of the wicked is simply death—the cessation of life. “The dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). There is no continuing existence after death. God, through the prophet Ezekiel, twice says, “The soul [a mortal living creature] that sins shall die”—not suffer for eternity (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). Death is the penalty for those who sin.
God’s judgment on the wicked is described by the prophet Malachi. Under God’s inspiration he wrote: “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘that will leave them neither root nor branch. … You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 4:1, 3).
Ashes are all that are left when something is burned up, and this is what will happen to the incorrigibly wicked when they are thrown into the lake of fire. This is what the Old Testament teaches regarding the punishment of the wicked, and this teaching is also upheld by Jesus in the New Testament.
Notice Christ’s words: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Note carefully that Jesus did not speak of eternal torment for disobedience—instead, He spoke of one’s soul (life) and body being destroyed. For further explanation of this verse, see “What Christianity Gets Wrong About Hell.”
Through the years, many have noted the incongruity between the description of God, who loves the world so much that He sent His Son to die for our sins, and a being who would cause sinners to be tormented for eternity.Through the years, many have noted the incongruity between the description of God, who loves the world so much that He sent His Son to die for our sins, and a being who would cause sinners to be tormented for eternity. Some have tried to reason around this inconsistency by saying that God’s greatness demands such punishment for sin. But this reasoning is flawed, for it contradicts the Scriptures.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Here, the opposite of receiving everlasting life is to “perish.” God has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked”—not their ongoing punishment (Ezekiel 33:11). He is not “willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9).
Realizing that the Bible teaches that the wicked will be mercifully destroyed, some churches now refer to this teaching as annihilation. It is clearly a better explanation of what happens to the wicked.
Now let’s return to the verse noted above that seems to imply eternal, ongoing punishment of the wicked.
Understanding Revelation 20:10
Revelation 20:10 states: “The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
The word are in this verse is in italics in both the New King James Version and the King James Version. This means that this word was inserted by the translators—who apparently believed in eternal punishment of the wicked—to facilitate the reading and meaning of the verse as they understood it. They could just as easily have inserted the words were cast—which, we will see, is the better translation.
What this passage in Revelation 20:10 is conveying is that the devil will be cast into the same lake of fire into which the beast and false prophet had already been thrown (Revelation 19:20). The Good News Translation renders Revelation 20:10 in this way: “Then the Devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had already been thrown.”
The beast and false prophet, who will be physical, mortal humans, will quickly die when they are thrown into this lake of fire after Christ returns. So, who will be “tormented day and night forever and ever,” as the text states?
The King James Version does not include the pronoun they in its rendering of this verse: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone … and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Satan the devil, a spirit being, is going to receive this punishment. Of course, we should also understand that the lake of fire—also called the everlasting fire—will be “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
Wicked humans who are thrown into the lake of fire will be quickly destroyed. They will not live forever in agonizing pain and suffering. The devil and his angels, however, are spirit beings and thus will not be killed by fire. They are the ones who will “be tormented day and night forever and ever.” They are composed of spirit and therefore are not affected by fire, which is physical. Their torment will be a mental torment of what they have lost. Jude indicates their final punishment will be that of being cast out into outer darkness forever (Jude 1:5-6, 12-13).
For additional study regarding how God will judge people, see “Judgment of God: The Real Story.”
Purposes of the lake of fire
As we’ve already noted, one of the purposes of the lake of fire will be to destroy the humans who will fulfill the roles of the beast and false prophet.
Of course, the beast and false prophet will not be the only humans destroyed in the lake of fire. Malachi 4:1 says that “all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up.”
After the 1,000 years have elapsed, Satan will be released from his prison, and he will deceive the nations and lead them in a battle against Jerusalem (Revelation 20:7-8). God will put down this rebellion by sending fire down from heaven to destroy the humans involved in this uprising and will at this time cast the devil and his demons into the lake of fire (verses 9-10; Jude 1:6-7). So the lake of fire will also be the instrument of torment for Satan and his demons during this period.
The way for us to be saved is clearly explained. In His earthly ministry Jesus repeatedly urged His listeners, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”After the Millennium and the casting of Satan and his demons in the lake of fire, the Bible speaks of another period of judgment for humans characterized by “a great white throne” (Revelation 20:11-12). Those who did not have an opportunity to receive salvation in their first lives will be brought back to life to have this opportunity.
People who choose not to obey Christ during this judgment period along with those who, with knowledge, willfully disobeyed in their first lives will also be destroyed in the lake of fire (verses 13-15). Note that this is called “the second death”—death from which there will be no resurrection. Since God’s plan of salvation for mankind will have now been completed, “Death and Hades [the grave]” are also “cast into the lake of fire.”
Finally, the Bible says that the present earth is going to be burned up in preparation for “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1). Speaking of this time, Peter wrote that “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10).
How to avoid the lake of fire
As we have already noted, God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). Instead, He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
The way for us to be saved is clearly explained. In His earthly ministry Jesus repeatedly urged His listeners, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; also see Mark 1:15). And at times of unexpected tragedy, He cautioned, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5).
After Christ’s resurrection, He appeared to His disciples and told them that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Days later, after Peter received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, he followed this instruction, urging people to repent of their sins (Acts 2:38).
And why must we repent? As Peter explained, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
Having our sins blotted out—that is, removed—is a wonderful gift from God. As Paul noted, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Romans 4:7).
To learn more about repentance and how your sins can be forgiven, download our free booklet Change Your Life!