Tormented with Fire and Brimstone?

“If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, He also 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 brimstone (sulphur) in the presence of the holy angels and 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, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name” (Rev 14:9-11).

(See also Rev 20:10.)

The traditional interpretation of this passage from the book of Revelation presents us with a terrifying picture of horrible torment which unbelievers will suffer for ever and ever without end. If that is the correct interpretation of it, then most of us will have many ancestors who are already experiencing that torment and many friends, neighbours and relations, and possibly even children, who are destined for the same fate. (How can anyone sleep at night who believes his own children are heading for never-ending torment?)

I want to look at some key words and phrases (highlit in yellow) in this passage which, I believe, will lead us to its true meaning.


The word tormented translates the Greek verb βασανιζω (basanizo). This verb is used 12 times in the New Testament in a wide variety of contexts. These include

What then does this word βασανιζω really mean? It comes from the noun βασανος, which means a touchstone used to test the purity of precious metals like silver and gold. It was later used for examination by torture. However, we can see from the above quotations that the degree of the suffering caused varied considerably from mild to intense.

Fire and Brimstone

Why then will people be “tortured” with fire and brimstone? Throughout history human beings have devised all kinds of horrible methods of torture, but fire and brimstone are not the usual ones. The answer is that both fire and brimstone are purifying agents. Many people will know the words of Malachi: “For he is like a refiner’s fire.... and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Mal 3:2,3).

The meaning becomes clearer. Fire and brimstone are not for the destruction or simply for the torment of unbelievers, but for their purification.

We must also remember that much of the book of Revelation is figurative language and cannot be taken literally. A spiritual being cannot be tormented with physical fire and brimstone.

In the presence of the Lamb

Where will this torment take place? Answer: “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb”! Do you really imagine that the holy angels and Jesus himself would want to spend eternity watching people being tortured? The emperor Nero and his friends enjoyed the spectacle of Christians being thrown to the lions! Jesus and his angels could not be more different.

I can only believe that Jesus and the angels would be present to supervise the purification of these people and to ensure that it was exactly the intensity and duration that was needed.

For ever and ever

How long will this process last?

Most English Bible translations say “for ever and ever”. In other words, continuing for billions of billions of years and still with no end. But this idea of never ending punishment is not only utterly horrific, but also totally contrary to any concept of justice. In the Bible and in all civilised human society, punishment is always proportional to the offence committed. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth illustrates the principle. Loss of an eye is far more serious than loss of a tooth and so also is the punishment. Infinite torment in the life to come is in no way a proportional punishment for 70 or 80 years of sin in this world.

In fact, “for ever and ever” is a complete mistranslation of the Greek words “εἰς αἰωνας αἰωνων” (“eis aionas aionon”), which literally mean “to ages of ages”. The exact meaning of this phrase is difficult, but I believe it means something like a long, but indefinite length of time. I have written in-depth studies of these words in Universal Reconciliation and aion and olam.

Is heavenly time the same as earthly time? It cannot be because time, as Einstein told us, is always relative to the observer. My time and your time, even though they may only differ by an infinitesimal amount, are not the same; and Peter tells us that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2Pet 3:8).

In Rev 20:14 we read that the lake of fire is the second death. At the end of the resurrection passage 1Cor 15:22-26, we read “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”. This suggests that when its purpose is finished the lake of fire itself will be destroyed.


We have seen two very different interpretations of Rev 14:9-11 and other related passages of Scripture.

The traditional view is that the vast majority of the human race will suffer unimaginable, never-ending torment in the presence of Jesus. All who have not believed in Jesus will suffer the same terrible fate for ever and ever. No difference between the utterly wicked and the ordinary man in the street. One punishment fits all.

Many people these days are rejecting this view as totally incompatible with the character of an all-powerful, all-wise and all-loving God and of Jesus Christ; they believe that future punishment is limited in duration and its purpose is to purify; and that Paul’s words, “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1Cor 15:22) will be literally fulfilled.