"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" (Rev. 14:11).
This verse creates some questions in my mind. At first glance, it seems to say exactly what most Christians believe: that the wicked will be tormented without end in Hell.
I've heard the well-known conditionalist author Dr. Edward Fudge's explanation of this verse. He claims that "smoke of their torment" implies complete and total destruction like smoke from the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah. He also says that "they have no rest day or night" is indicative of the ceaseless nature that their punishment will take on for the time that they are punished (not necessarily forever). In other words, while they are being punished, they will not get intervals of rest like we all enjoy here on earth (even when you work all day, you still get to sleep at night). Instead, they will have no rest during this time, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it will last forever.
But there is another explanation that i find to be more convincing than that of Dr. Fudge. To understand this argument, we'll need get a little bit of context by looking at the two verses leading up to verse 11.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name." (Rev. 14:9-11, emphasis mine).
A Christian conditionalist named Scott McAliley read my article and pointed out to me that "to believe (as many do) that this is a figurative reference to everyone who failed to put their trust in God is to deny the plain language of Scripture that tells us that this is specifically a judgment on those who took the mark of the beast and worshiped him." Indeed, this detail is frequently overlooked by traditionalists and conditionalists alike.
Furthermore, the verses clearly state this will take place "in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb." If nothing else, this should be enough to prove that this penalty is not an unending, conscious, torturing one because observing such a punishment is not the way the angels or the Lamb (Jesus Christ) will choose to spend eternity. So the passage appears to say nothing of hell or eternity at all. Instead, it would indicate that those people who are still alive at Christ's second coming who have worshiped the Beast and received his mark will be tormented and destroyed, in the presence of Jesus and the angels, by burning sulfur raining down from Heaven.
Now, there will certainly be plenty of people who don't agree with this or Dr. Fudge's interpretation of Revelation 14:11. Frankly, one would be hard-pressed to find a book of the Bible with more alternate interpretations than the book of Revelation. Some may insist that the verse seems to indicate the traditional view of Hell and appears to apply to all who die in their sins (not just those who take the mark of the Beast). Yet, does that immediately mean that the traditional view is correct? Does it mean that we should abandon the wealth of Biblical evidence for the annihilationist argument? Certainly not. The reason I say this is that the Bible must be taken on the whole. There are Christian cults all over the world who have come up with ridiculous, pagan beliefs, and every one of them draws support for their convictions from the Holy Scriptures. Like it or not, the Bible can be used to support some of the most unbiblical theology any of us can imagine. Scriptures must be cross-checked against the rest of the Bible for there to be some semblance of unity.
For instance, in Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus himself says, "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you....If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you..." If these verses are taken by themselves, they obviously have the plain meaning that we should be gouging out our own eyeballs and cutting off our hands. The reason why so few Christians accept this most natural interpretation is because it's absolutely outlandish and runs contrary to the rest of the Bible! We're made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), and our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19)! It would be ludicrous to believe that our Heavenly Father truly intends for us to dismember ourselves when we sin. Even if no scriptures could be found to deny the plain meaning of Matt 5:29-30, Christians would still disregard this interpretation on the basis of common sense and their knowledge of the character of God. And they would be right to do so.
So, I'm not about to claim that no support can be found for the eternal torture model of God's final judgment, but I would definitely say that it stands in fierce conflict with the rest of the Word, with common sense, and with the character of God.
Besides that, the middle of Revelation is perhaps the most bizarre set of chapters in the entire Bible. There is a massive amount of symbolism and a plethora of strange, indiscernible visions that work like scrambled pieces of a puzzle. I would contend that "proof texts" taken from Revelation (especially those middle chapters) should automatically be called into question for this reason. And one more thing: the very book out of which this scripture (14:11) comes also has one of the clearest illustrations of annihilation in Hell in the entire Bible. Rev. 20:14-15 says, "Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
The Greek phrase aionas ton aionon, which is translated "forever and ever," occurs 18 times in the Greek New Testament. In 17 of them, the phrase means without end, extending into infinity. In Rev. 19:3, the phrase is used to describe the destruction of the great whore of Babylon (Rev. 17:1,4) whose smoke ascends forever and ever. It too is eternal and it signifies the beginning of the eternal judgment that comes upon her.
Also worth examining is Rev. 14:11: "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name."
The Greek in Rev. 14:11 is only slightly different. In the table above, "forever and ever" is translated from the Greek, aionas ton aionon, which is literally "ages of the of ages." In Rev. 14:11, the Greek is aionas aionon which is literally, "ages of ages." In the latter, the single Greek word "of the" is missing. But it is not necessary and does not change the meaning of the text. Therefore, the scripture teaches the smoke of their torment goes up forever, without end.