Just when you thought you’d seen and heard it all, there appears an article in the most recent issue of World magazine on the battle over gay marriage in our country. On p. 36 is a photograph of a man in front of the U.S. Supreme Court dressed in a red, skin-tight, mesh leotard, a multi-colored tutu around his waist, wearing purple sun glasses to match his purple lipstick, together with a red wig and red horns protruding from his head. One supposes he’s portraying a demon, but one can never be quite certain in such cases.
Of greater interest is the sign he’s carrying, written in large colored letters. It reads: “I Bet Hell Is Fabulous.” I’m not sure what he’s trying to communicate. Perhaps it’s a defiant response to the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that “neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.”
In any case, my mind immediately turned to the most graphic description of hell in Scripture: Revelation 14:9-11. There we are told that he/she who resides there “will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”
Now let’s be clear about one thing. I’m not singling out “men who practice homosexuality” as if to suggest that they alone are in danger of eternal torment. In Revelation 22:15, John also includes, among others, “the sexually immoral [both heterosexual and homosexual] and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Paul also includes the “covetous” (Eph. 5:5), as well as those who engage in unrepentant “strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, [and] orgies” (Gal. 5:20-21).
But my primary concern isn’t with who goes there, but what they find and experience in hell. And I can assure you, it is far, eternally far, from fabulous.
The horrific nature of divine judgment is described in three phrases.
First, those who choose to “drink the wine of the passion of her [Babylon’s] sexual immorality” (v. 8) will, appropriately, be forced to “drink the wine of God’s wrath” (v. 10; i.e., the wine which is his wrath). The image of pouring intoxicating wine from a cup often in Scripture points to the experience of divine wrath and the suffering it inevitably brings (see Pss. 60:3; 75:8; Isa. 51:17,21-23; 63:6; Jer. 25:15-18; 51:17; Lam. 4:21; Ezek. 23:31-33; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2). The intoxicating effect of drinking Babylon’s wine is only temporary; it will wear off. But the effect of drinking the wine of God’s wrath is eternal.
The ESV renders this “poured full strength” (v. 10). Literally, the wine is “mixed unmixed” (v. 10). There are two options here. It may mean that, contrary to normal practice, the wine that is prepared (“mixed”) will not in any way be diluted with water (hence, “unmixed”). That is, God’s wrath is utterly undiluted, being poured out in “full strength”, unmitigated, unmixed with mercy or longsuffering. Or John may be alluding to Psalm 75:8 where wine is mixed with spices to increase its intensity (cf. Jer. 31:2). Thus “mixed” would refer to the addition of spices to increase the potency of the wine and “unmixed” to the fact that it is not diluted with water. On either reading, God’s wrath is penal and in no way remedial. Longsuffering and patience have given way to the consummation of a promised day of reckoning.
Second, they will be “tormented with fire and sulfur” (v. 10b). Punishment with “fire and sulfur” (or “brimstone”) is also found in Genesis 19:24 (Sodom and Gomorrah), Psalm 11:6; Isaiah 30:33; and Job 18:15. The combination of fire and sulfur as a means of torment occurs four times in Revelation (14:10; 19:20; 20:10; 21:8). The nature of the “torment” is primarily spiritual and psychological (cf. Rev. 9:5-6; 18:7,10,15; 20:10), and thus the “fire and sulfur” are probably figurative. In other words, as literal fire and sulfur cause physical pain to the body, so the infliction of divine judgment on unbelievers will cause spiritual and psychological anguish to their souls.
But could there also be a “physical” dimension to eternal punishment (see esp. John 5:28-29)? Moses Stuart contends that “the addition of brimstone [sulfur] to the imagery renders it exceedingly intense, for this not only makes the fire to rage with the greatest vehemence, but is noisome to the smell and suffocating to the breath” (2:298).
Third, public exposure is an added insult to the torment of the wicked, for we read that their punishment is in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb (see Rev. 19:1-10).
But John doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe in v. 11 the duration of this punishment. Two statements in particular are deserving of comment.
First, the “smoke” of their torment, i.e., the smoke of the fire and sulfur (v. 10) “goes up forever and ever”. One should turn to Isaiah 34:9-10 for the OT background. It is almost as if there is a smoldering testimony to the consequences of sin and the justice of God’s wrath. The duration of this phenomenon is said to be, literally, “unto the ages of the ages”. This terminology occurs thirteen times in Revelation: three times with reference to the duration of praise, glory, and dominion given to God (1:6; 5:13; 7:12); five times with reference to the length of life of God or Christ (1:18; 4:9,10; 10:6; 15:7); once referring to the length of God’s reign in Christ (11:15); once referring to the length of the saints’ reign (22:5); once referring to the ascension of the smoke of destroyed Babylon (19:3); once referring to the duration of torment of the devil, beast, and false prophet (20:10); and, of course, once here in 14:11.
Second, “they have no rest, day or night” (the latter phrase being parallel to “forever and ever”). In Revelation 4:8 the same terminology occurs with regard to the duration of worship on the part of the four living creatures. That from which they have “no rest” is, presumably, the torment caused by the fire and sulfur.
This unmistakable and inescapable truth ought to give us serious pause. Our aim must never be to mock those who laugh at the torments of hell. Rather, our hearts should break as we contemplate the unimaginable horror that awaits those who mock Jesus Christ and the gospel of his saving grace. Hell is real. Hell is forever. And hell is most certainly not “fabulous”.