Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Speaking Image; Eternal Torment

I have two items for my write-up today on G.K. Beale's The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text.

1.  Revelation 13:15 says regarding the second beast (in the KJV): "And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed."

According to Beale, the second beast giving life to the image of the first beast "is a metaphorical way of affirming that the second beast was persuasive in demonstrating that the image of the first beast (e.g., of Caesar) represented the true deity, who stands behind the image and makes decrees" (page 711).

Beale believes that the story of Nebuchadnezzar's image in Daniel 3 is relevant to this passage.  And Beale cites Midrash Rabbah Canticles 7.9.1, in which "Nebuchadnezzar exhorts Daniel to 'bow down to the image' because it is 'real' and because it can speak marvelous things such as 'I am the Lord thy God'" (page 714).  I could not find that passage on my Judaic Classics Library.  But I'm mentioning Beale's citation of it because it illustrates what I find to be particularly valuable about Beale's commentary: that it is a repository of references to ancient Jewish and Christian sources.

2.  Revelation 14:11 says, "And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name."

Beale mentions the annihilationist interpretation of this verse: the view that it is not talking about eternal torment but rather is consistent with the wicked being annihilated.  After all, Isaiah 34:10 says regarding Edom, "It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever", and Edom was not tormented forever and ever.  Rather, according to Beale, "The image of continually ascending smoke in Isaiah 34 serves as a memorial of God's annihilating punishment for sin, the message of which never goes out of date" (page 761).

But Beale disagrees with the annihilationist interpretation of Revelation 14:11 and argues that it's talking about eternal torment, as the smoke serves as a memorial to "a real, ongoing, eternal, conscious torment."  Beale offers a variety of justifications for his view: that torment in Revelation is generally something that is consciously experienced; that Revelation 20:10 talks about Satan, the beast, and the false prophet being tormented in the Lake of Fire forever and ever; that there appears to be a contrast in Revelation 14 between the eternal punishment of the wicked and the rest of those who die in the Lord, which we know is eternal; and the belief in eternal torment in Jubilees, 4 Maccabees, and the Apocalypse of Peter.

Believers in annihilationism and universalism have argued that Hebrew and Greek words translated as "forever" in the Bible can mean a very long time rather than forever and ever.  And there may be something to that, for Isaiah 34:10 uses language of eternity to describe the annihilation of Edom, which means that forever in the Bible does not necessarily mean forever.  I've wondered if there is a way to determine if passages in Jubilees and 4 Maccabees discuss eternal torment or simply punishment that lasts for a very long time but will eventually come to an end.

Jubilees 36:10, however, says (in R.H. Charles' translation), "so that their condemnation may be always renewed in hate and in execration and in wrath and in torment and in indignation and in plagues and in disease for ever."  That sounds to me as if the torment is being continually renewed, and that the passage is highlighting the perpetuity of the punishment.

One thing I wonder (and that others have asked): How will people be tormented day and night forever and ever, when there will come a point when there is no day or night in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:25)?  Is there no day or night in the new Jerusalem, but day and night will continue to exist outside of it?

Overall, while I think that Beale makes arguments that should definitely be taken into consideration, I'm not entirely convinced that Revelation 14:11 is talking about conscious, eternal torment.  Why couldn't it be talking about smoke forever memorializing God's torment of sinners which ended in death?  There are examples in Revelation of torment that is not eternal (i.e., Revelation 9:5; 11:10).

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