Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Creation Controversy, Part Seven: What are the Days of Genesis?

Also in this series:

As I stressed at the beginning of this study, my focus is on what we can learn from the scriptures themselves rather than how we might find ways of conforming modern scientific discoveries to the Genesis text. If there is ever to be any hope of resolving this issue in the church, the solution will have to come from agreement based on a careful exegesis of the Genesis account itself, along with other applicable scriptures.

To begin with, all Christians should be able to agree that the days of Genesis are a form of revelation. While this may seem painfully obvious, I reiterate the matter here in order to bring some much-needed perspective to the controversy surrounding the creation account. Since no human observed the events of Genesis 1:1-27 and 2:5-7, those events could only have been relayed to man by means of revelation, whether by the hand of God himself or, as I think more likely, by angels. Further, as we have already seen, revelation often comes in the form of symbolism—word pictures that convey truth but are not themselves intended to be taken literally. I’ve already provided some examples of how revelatory symbolism can be misinterpreted, and even deliberately obscured by God until the time comes when it pleases him to reveal the full truth of it. These are well-established truths of biblical exegesis.

Thus, anyone who approaches Genesis with serious intent to understand it must bear in mind that, as revelation, the account may contain symbolism. The challenge lies in trying to identify the symbolism, if it exists, and to understand its meaning. It is altogether unwise to assume that the account is nothing more than literal, historical narrative. Again, I urge the reader to consider how Jesus rebuked his disciples for taking him too literally at times, and how it was actually necessary for him to open their minds and otherwise provide special explanations of his teachings in order for them to understand him properly.

So, with all of this in mind, let’s look at the various elements of the creation account and see what they have to teach us.

The Structure of Genesis One

With the exception of Day Seven, the days of the creation week follow a consistent pattern. Six times, God engages in a various creative activities, after which we are told: “And there was evening and there was morning. Day _____.” The “evenings and the mornings” are division points in the account, and this tells us something that is very important to our understanding of the passage.

In Hebrew culture, what we think of as a typical “full day”—that is, a twenty-four hour day—runs from sunset to sunset, or you could say “from evening until evening.” We don’t see that reflected in the Genesis creation account, however. We don’t read “And from evening until evening was one day,” or anything along those lines. Instead, each creative period is followed by an evening, and the subsequent creative period is preceded by a morning. Here is a chart that illustrates this a bit more clearly for the entire creation week:

Thus, we can readily see that the creation days of Genesis are not twenty-four-hour days. Read literally, they are six consecutive daylight periods, book-ended by evenings and mornings. Day Seven is a well-known exception to the rule in that it has no evening, but the illustration provided above shows that Day One is also an exception in that it has no morning. Thus, both the beginning and the end of the creation week are open-ended.

That each creation day specifically refers to the daylight hours is further substantiated by the description of Day One:

The earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness he called night. And there was evening, and there was morning, one day. – Genesis 1:2-5

Once light was introduced to the surface of the earth, God “separated” the light from the darkness. Given that light and darkness are naturally distinct from one another, we might well ask how God separated them, and the most obvious answer would appear to be that he did this simply by defining them, just as the text says. He called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” Then we are told that there was an evening, followed by a morning.

Now consider this: what are “evening” and “morning”? What do these terms mean? They are times of transition between day and night, between light and darkness. Thus, the creation account itself begins by specifying what is meant by the term “day” in this context. It is the period of daylight between morning and evening. Nothing is mentioned as occurring during the periods of night in this account.

The Divine Pattern

The significance of all of this begins to settle in once you consider how the ancient Hebrews—as well as the vast majority of those who read this account for centuries afterward—would have related to it. For the most part, people in the ancient world worked in the fields as laborers, farmers, shepherds, herdsmen, and the like. For them, “morning” was when they woke and went out to the fields; “day” was when they actually labored; “evening” was when they returned home from the fields; and “night” was when they rested. Factoring this into the Genesis account, a picture begins to emerge. God is presented as an overseer who goes to work during the “day,” returns home at “evening” to rest during the “night,” and leaves his dwelling the next “morning” to complete another “day’s” work. I say “overseer” here because his work consists of giving commands, which are obeyed, and observing/approving the results. He is not presented as a common laborer.

The “days” of Genesis are thus strongly indicated to be divine ‘work days.’ Creation is depicted as six successive periods of work completed during the daylight hours, separated by six periods of rest during the nighttime, and ending with an extended period of rest when the entire project of creation is finally finished. The imagery here is unmistakable, would have naturally resonated with the ancient Hebrews who first received Genesis, and is supported by other scriptures as well.

In Exodus 16, the children of Israel observe the Sabbath for the first time. Note the phraseology used in the account, where Moses instructs the people on when to gather the manna that God would send them to eat:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in my instruction…In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew evaporated, behold, the surface of the wilderness there was a fine flake-like thing, fine as the frost on the ground… They gathered it morning by morning, every man as much as he should eat; but when the sun grew hot it would melt.

Now on the sixth day, they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a Sabbath observance, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning. So they put it aside until morning as Moses had ordered…Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.

It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day. – Exodus 16:4, 13-14, 21-30

This account is the first time in scripture where a seven-day week is described. No application is made to the creation account at this time, but God is clearly setting up a pattern for Israel to follow: six days of gathering, followed by one day where no one was to “go out of his place” (that is, to gather). The people were to rest from working on the seventh day because the absence of manna made it clear that God was not working either.

A short while later, having laid down this pattern, God explained the reason for it:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; it in you shall not do any work…For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. – Exodus 20:8-11

Here we have the direct application that explains the wording of Genesis 1. God laid out a pattern for his people to follow, based on his own creative activity, and conveyed it to them in terms that conformed to their natural experience. Young-earth creationists often cite Exodus 20:8-11 in an effort to show that the fact that God laid out six literal calendar days of work followed by a literal calendar day of rest must mean that the creation also took place in six literal calendar days followed by one literal calendar day of rest. This conclusion rests on purely superficial comparisons of the texts, however, and the alleged parallelism does not hold.

Revelatory Symbolism v Exact Parallelism

Yes, the book of Exodus tells us clearly that the creation week was revealed as a pattern for the human work week, but a pattern need not be an exact match to the thing upon which the pattern is based. This is not only true in terms of general human experience but also within the context of scripture itself. Consider the celebration of the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), as first prescribed in Leviticus 23. God instructed Moses that the people were to live in booths (that is, tents) “for seven days in the year…so that your generations may know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt” (23:41, 43). So the Feast of Booths was patterned on Israel’s journey through the wilderness—a journey that eventually grew to last for forty years—but the feast that was patterned on those years lasted only seven days. Readers reflecting on this may also recall the famous Seventy Weeks prophecy of Daniel 9, where a period of “weeks” is explicitly stated to represent a time period lasting hundreds of years.

Further, if the days of Genesis are a literal, exact match to the timing of God’s creation week activities, why should the parallels stop there? Read literally, the days of Genesis 1 confine God’s creative acts to the daylight hours. Are we really prepared to argue that God only works during the daylight hours? Does he really work in six-day cycles? Does he begin his work in the morning and finish up by evening like a human laborer? Does he take off one day out of every seven? Does he go home to rest at night? And from what point on the earth is a divine work day to be measured? After all, dawn in one part of the world is seen as dusk in another. When one half of the planet is experiencing daylight, the other half is experiencing night. Yet, the events of Genesis appear to affect the entire globe all at once. For example, by necessity, when God was gathering the waters that covered the entire earth into one place, it would have been day on one side of the globe and night on the other; but we’re told that this event happened during the “day” and was finished by evening. That’s only possible if we’re speaking about a fixed location on the globe—or if the term “day” is being used metaphorically for the entire time that it took for this event to play out to completion.

Genesis 1:2 says that the Spirit of God was “hovering over the waters,” so we might infer that God’s presence was localized somewhere on the earth when he began the process of shaping the planet,[1] but given that the entire earth was covered with water at that time, it could also mean that God’s presence effectively surrounded the earth—covering all of the waters everywhere. Based solely on the text, there is no way of knowing which it is. Even if his presence was localized in some way, however, his power was clearly acting over the entire earth throughout all of the creation days—during the night as well as the day, during both the evening and the morning.

It is also difficult to understand why the terms “evening” and “morning” appear at all in the text, if indeed we are looking at a strictly literal account. These terms denote periods of transition, from day to night, from night to day, from work to rest, and from rest to work. This entire frame of reference is solar, human, earth-bound, and naturally inapplicable to God, who does not require light to work, is not hindered by darkness, and does not tire or need rest. As with man, however, the works of God do have beginnings and endings, which might be well represented in human terms by “mornings” and “evenings.”

I remind the reader here that Moses, who wrote the book of Genesis, uses the terms “morning” and “evening” to symbolize the beginning and ending of life in Psalm 90. Consider also that Jesus himself—through whom all things were created (John 1:1)—uses the terms “day,” “night,” and “light” as symbolic representations in the context of kingdom work in John 9:3-5:

“We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

“Day” in this passage quite obviously does not refer to literal daylight hours but to a period of productive work for the kingdom of God. By necessity of the contrast Christ draws, “night” must therefore refer to the time when this work will cease, and within this particular context likely has to do with end of Christ’s earthly ministry, given his comment about being “the light of the world.” Thus, he is the “light” during this particular time of “day” when kingdom work is being done. In Luke’s account of Christ’s arrest, he says to those who were sent out to take him: “While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power of darkness are yours (Luke 22:53).” Comparing these passages, it seems that the “night” referred to in John 9 is likely the “hour of the power of darkness” referenced in Luke 22, the effective end of Christ’s ministry.

When we have both the creator and the one who wrote the account of the creation using the terms “morning” and “evening,” “day” and “night” in clearly symbolic fashion, is it really so unthinkable that those same terms at the very least could have been used to symbolize the beginning and ending of six successive stages in God’s works in the Genesis creation account? Only dogmatism would preclude at least the possibility of such an interpretation. Again, I remind the reader how God spoke to the ancient Hebrews in terms they could understand within the framework of their perceptions of the world. God did not correct their cosmology because it was not within the scope of his purposes in communicating with them. When Joshua commanded the sun and moon to “stand still,” he didn’t get a “syntax error” or “We’re sorry, but your call could not be completed as dialed,” because he mistakenly thought that the sun and the moon actually move through the sky. God did not interrupt and say, “Joshua, you need to rephrase your request because that’s not actually how things work.” Joshua’s intent was plain, and however it was that he made it happen, God fulfilled the request without correcting Joshua on the science.[2]

The Seventh Day is Key

In Mark 2:23-28, the Pharisees question Christ concerning why his disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath, when men were not supposed to do any work. Christ responds with a story of how David violated the Law of Moses on an occasion when he and his men were in need, and then makes the following statement: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” His point is that the law, including the Sabbath commandment, was not given to harm man but to benefit him.

As already observed, God does not require rest as human beings do, yet Genesis tells us that he “rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” The word translated “rest” is shabath, which can simply mean to cease from activity,[3] and thus need not necessarily imply actual rest as human beings rest from physical activity; but in Exodus 31, God elaborates on the Sabbath, saying to Moses: “It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor and was refreshed.” The word “refreshed” is translated from a different Hebrew word: naphash, which, according to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon means: “to take breath (when wearied [or, to rest, cease from working]).”[4] In modern terms, we might say that the word means ‘to catch one’s breath.’ This word is found in only two other Old Testament passages: Exodus 23:12, where God reiterates the seventh day command so that one’s animals and servants can rest from their labors, and II Samuel 16:14, where David and his companions refresh themselves after a wearying flight from Absalom. Both of these additional occurrences of naphash are used in the sense of resting after becoming weary from some kind of exertion.

Thus, it seems clear that God did not present his seventh day rest to the Hebrew people as a mere period of inactivity, but rather, as genuine, restorative rest from labor.

So, I will ask the Genesis literalist again: does God need to rest as we do? My answer is no—God’s depiction of resting to be refreshed from his labors is not literal, but is instead a pattern he laid down for the children of Israel to follow, and is perfectly consistent with a metaphorical ‘divine work-day’ interpretation of the six creation days. Having portrayed himself as laboring “in the field,” as it were, from dawn to dusk for six days, God then portrays himself as resting to be refreshed from that labor on the seventh day. This is all revelatory imagery, as Jesus said with regard to the Sabbath specifically, “for man”—that is, for the benefit of man. In the creation account, God portrayed himself in very human terms for the benefit of the very human audience with which he was trying to communicate.

In light of this—how the seventh day rest of “refreshing” must be figurative, and how it molds seamlessly into the overall “divine work-day” narrative—may we not then reasonably conclude that the six “days” with their “mornings” and “evenings” are, in all likelihood, also figurative representations that portray God in human terms for the benefit of a human audience?

Is a Figurative Creation Account Deceptive?

I have heard young-earthers argue that if the Genesis creation account is not entirely literal, God would be guilty of deception; but does this follow logically or scripturally? Would it be deceptive for God to picture himself to Israel in human terms, and the creation as a figurative “work week”? Consider some of the following Old Testament passages where God is referred to as appearing human or acting in a human manner:

In Genesis 3:8, God is spoken of as “walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” In Genesis 18:1-8, the Lord appears to Abraham as a man in the company of two angels, who are also first spoken of as men. He eats and drinks with Abraham and apparently has his feet washed before going on his way to Sodom. In Genesis 32:24-32, the Lord once again appears as a man and wrestles with Jacob during the night. In Exodus 24:9-10, Moses, Aaron, and various elders of Israel saw “the God of Israel…and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire.” In Deuteronomy 23:12-14, God instructs the people to bury human waste outside the camp, and not to leave it in the open, because “the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp…and He must not see anything indecent among you.” In Joshua 5:13-15, Joshua is confronted by a man who introduces himself as “the captain of the host of the Lord,” whose presence renders the ground “holy.” And for one last example, see Daniel 7, where God is referred to as “the Ancient of Days,” and is described as sitting on a throne, wearing a “white vesture,” and having hair like “wool.”

These incidents illustrate that the Hebrews were well able to conceive of God as taking human form and acting in a human fashion, including walking, sitting, eating, and drinking, and there is no hint that they found this deceptive. Indeed, given other passages such as the Lord’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush, and references[5] to him appearing in “similitude” (Hebrew – temuwnah, “form, image, likeness, representation, semblance”),[6] it is likely that they understood that those who had encountered God personally had not seen his true form, but rather, a form he chose to take.

In Psalm 22, David describes the sufferings of Christ in the first-person, as if he were speaking of himself. Is this deceptive? Why would the Holy Spirit inspire a man to describe things that never happened to him as though they had, and without any clarification that he was speaking of events yet to come? It’s likely that even David himself didn’t entirely understand what he was writing at the time. Were the parables of Jesus of deceptive? No one seriously argues this. Even though the stories he told were not strictly true in their details, they illustrated truths using familiar settings and characters. The use of parables was a common teaching method throughout the world in those days, and continues to be so to this day.

We might well ask why, if the days of Genesis are not literal, “regular,” twenty-four-hour days, but figuratively represent six periods of creative activity, does God does not simply say so and put the matter to rest. In reply, I will point out the following:

First, when Genesis was written there was no controversy to address. As some Bible teachers have phrased it, scripture was written for us but not to us. The Genesis account was written to the ancient Hebrews. It was communicated on their level of understanding, within a worldview that was familiar to them, and for specific purposes.

Second, as God did not find it necessary to delve into advanced cosmology in his other dealings with men, so it was not necessary to his purposes when proclaiming himself the Creator of all things and laying out a pattern of work and rest for Israel to follow.

Third, he provides enough information that anyone who is curious and is willing to study can discern the figurative nature of the presentation. The writings of ancient Jewish and Christian authors alike demonstrate that careful thinkers did indeed pick up on the clues and devote much thought to them. Perhaps this was a form of incentive that God provided for men to study his word.

Fourth, scripture reveals that God is sometimes willing to speak in oblique terms, using representations that confuse and upset people, and without explaining himself as we might expect. Consider Christ’s “bread of life” discourse from John 6. Here, Jesus so confused and frustrated his audience that even many of his own disciples turned away in consternation and no longer followed him. He could have clarified the discourse with a few words—explaining the spiritual application of what he was saying—but he did not do so.

Fifth, as stated previously, God reveals spiritual truths in his timing and to the audience of his choice. It may be that the beginning and the end are tied together in some way that will be not be fully understood until all prophecy has been fulfilled, and who is to say when that will be?

Truth in Figurative Terms is Still Truth

Based on pure exegesis, the Genesis creation account and related portions of scripture strongly suggest a figurative representation of God as an overseer at work on a vast project that is completed in six stages, each with definite beginning and end points, and all of which are followed by a period of rest. The imagery would have been clear to the original audience, which was intended to receive it as a straightforward pattern to emulate in their own lives. Although it is figurative in some ways, the account teaches truth concerning God as the Creator and the general plan by which he implemented his creation. Teaching science and providing some sort of exact timeline (such as each “day” corresponding to a certain number of years) are not in the view of the text, and there is no need to impose these things on the account in order to make it understandable or somehow more relevant. The text is capable of speaking for itself.

Young-earthers may not be persuaded by the interpretation I’ve suggested here, but I hope that they will at least admit that this view is a plausible alternative, particularly when weighed against the problems I’ve outlined with a strictly literal view of the account and various other “oddities” in the text that were covered in previous articles in this series. One need not be on a mission of “compromise” with modern scientific theories to suggest that there is more going on in Genesis than at first meets the eye.

*Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures are taken from the NASB.

[1] Old-earth creationist Richard Snoke holds to this idea, believing that the focal point is the land of Israel.
[2] We could speculate endlessly on this. It may have been a localized effect, the way that darkness covered the land of Egypt except in Goshen, where the Hebrews lived just prior to the Exodus. Another example is the darkness that fell on the afternoon of the crucifixion. Given that it was a sign to those who witnessed the event, there is no reason to automatically suppose that it was a global phenomenon.
[5] Numbers 12:8, Deuteronomy 4:12, 15.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

“Unquenchable” Fire and the Smoke that “Goes up Forever and Ever”

If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone 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; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name. – Revelation 14:9-11 (NASB)

With its references to worshippers of the beast being tormented “day and night” and “the smoke of their torment going up forever and ever,” it’s no surprise that Revelation 14:9-11 is a commonly-cited proof-text for the traditional view of hell as a place where the lost will experience eternal, conscious, fiery torment. After all, if the smoke of their torment rises forever, this would seem to require that the fire that produces the smoke must also continue burning forever; and given that the fire is specifically being used to torment people, tradititonalists argue that those who undergo the torment must remain in that state for as long as the fire burns…meaning, forever.

As compelling as this interpretation of Revelation 14:11 might at first appear, however, other scriptures cast considerable doubt on it.

The Language of Prophetic Imagery

First, we need to keep in mind that the book of Revelation conveys prophecy in the form of imagery. Some of this imagery is explained or else seems obvious given other passages of scripture, but much of it is left unexplained. For instance, the “locusts” of Revelation 9—are they actually insects, are they representations of demonic beings, or is there some other answer? How much of their description is literal and how much is figurative? By the same token, the description of smoke “going up forever and ever” (in Greek: “unto the ages of the ages”) may be figurative rather than literal. As evidence of this, consider the language of Isaiah 34:9-10, where God, speaking of the destruction of Edom, says: “Its streams will be turned into pitch, and its loose earth into brimstone, and its land will become burning pitch. It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; none will pass through it forever.”

Now, viewed only by themselves, these verses might lead us to envision a land that is forever on fire and sending smoke skyward, but if we read on in Isaiah 34, we quickly discover that this cannot be the case. Still speaking of Edom in verse 11, God says, “The pelican and the hedgehog will possess it, and the owl and the raven will dwell in it.” Verse 13 goes on to tell us that “Thorns will come up in its fortified towers, nettles and thistles in its fortified cities. It will also be a haunt of jackals and an abode of ostriches.” Clearly, the land described here cannot remain “burning pitch” forever or else plants and animals would not be able to survive there. Indeed, it seems that the destruction—while quite violent—does not eradicate everything, as towers and cities at least partially remain. At some point, the fire that God said “will not be quenched night or day” must at last go out.

But if the fire goes out, how can it be said to be “unquenchable”? And how can the smoke of it continue to rise “forever”?

Delving deeper into this matter, we find that there are numerous other references to “unquenchable” fire and wrath in the Old Testament, such as the following:

  • In II Kings 22, King Josiah sends men to inquire of the Lord concerning the fate that lies in store for Judah. The reply they receive reads (in part): “Because they have forsaken Me and have burned incense to other gods that they might provoke Me to anger with all the works of their hands, therefore my wrath burns against this place and it shall not be quenched” (22:17).
  • In Jeremiah 7:20, God tells the people of Judah that their idolatry and other forms of wickedness have turned him against them: “Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched.”
  • In Jeremiah 17, God once again speaks against the sins of Judah, commanding the people to keep the Sabbath: “But if you do not listen to Me…then I will kindle a fire in [Jerusalem’s] gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched” (17:27).
  • In Ezekiel 20:45-48, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against Teman (believed to be one of the chief Edomite tribes) to the effect that: “Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched, and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. All flesh will see that I, the Lord, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.”
Once again, if we consider these references to “unquenchable” fire and wrath only by themselves, they appear to convey the idea of fire that never goes out and wrath that never abates. As is the case with Isaiah 34, however, other considerations make these interpretations impossible. God threatened Jerusalem with “unquenchable” fire that would destroy its gates and palaces, and Jerusalem was indeed sacked and burned by the Babylonians in fulfillment of this prophecy—but is Jerusalem still burning today? No, eventually the “unquenchable” fire went out and the city was rebuilt when Judah’s years in captivity ended. Is Teman of Edom still a land of burning trees today? Once again, God’s judgment fell on the land and devastated it, but the fires eventually went out. God also spoke of his wrath as being “unquenchable” on account of the sins of Judah, but the same books that prophesied his wrath also speak of his forgiving and restoring the Jewish people. How then is the wrath spoken of in these passages “unquenchable”?

Either these passages conflict with one another, or we’re going to have to reconsider how we define “unquenchable.” Does it truly mean something that never ends—a fire that never goes out or wrath that never subsides? It could potentially mean these things, but certainly not within the context of these examples. In these examples, “unquenchable” can only mean unstoppable—a fire that burns until it destroys what it was intended to destroy, a wrath that will not subside until justice is satisfied. What God sets on fire, no one puts out. When God turns loose his wrath, no one can brush it aside. These are consistent themes throughout the Old Testament:

“See now that I, I am He,
And there is no god besides Me;
It is I who put to death and give life.
I have wounded and it is I who heal,
And there is no one who can deliver from My hand.” – Deuteronomy 32:39

“Now consider this, you who forget God,
Or I will tear you in pieces, and there will be none to deliver.” – Psalm 50:22

“All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
But He does according to His will in the host of heaven
And among the inhabitants of the earth;
And no one can strike against His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” – Daniel 4:35

For the Lord of Hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back? – Isaiah 14:27

Mountains quake because of Him
And the hills dissolve;
Indeed the earth is upheaved by His presence,
The world and all the inhabitants in it.
Who can stand before His indignation?
Who can endure the burning of His anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire
And the rocks are broken up by Him. – Nahum 1:6-7

In the context of Isaiah 34—and the greater Old Testament context of wrath and judgment—the point is that the destruction God intends to visit on Edom will destroy the wicked inhabitants, forever drive human beings from the area, and leave the works of wicked men in ruin. The fire would not be put out by anyone seeking to stay the hand of God’s judgment, but rather, would continue to burn “night and day”—not for a moment would anyone stop it—until it consumed everything it was intended to consume, after which it would go out and leave the land scorched and desolate.

The fact that the phraseology of the two passages is so similar strongly suggests that Revelation 14 draws its imagery from Isaiah 34—as well as from the overall Old Testament context of wrath and judgment—to convey the permanent destruction of those who worship the beast. These will be tormented to death by a fire that cannot be quenched until it has completely consumed them.

What then of the smoke that “rises forever” in these passages?

Vanishing into Eternity

Consider that smoke can continue to rise without being continually produced. If I start a fire and continuously give it fuel, it will continuously produce smoke as it consumes the fuel. This is how traditionalists view the matter with regard to hell-fire: smoke continuously rises from the tormented worshippers of the beast because they continuously serve as fuel for it. This interpretation has led some to argue—although entirely without scriptural support—that the bodies of the damned will continually regenerate even as they are being burned in hell-fire. But suppose now that, once I get my fire going and producing smoke, I decide to put it out, cover it over, or even just let it burn out. Even though smoke is no longer being produced, the smoke that has already been produced will continue to rise. As it rises, the smoke will begin to dissipate in the atmosphere and, eventually, will be completely lost to sight. This is fitting imagery of eternal destruction. Even a very intense fire will leave ashes or debris of some sort, but smoke appears to vanish into nothing.

Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more; and you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there…the wicked will perish; and the enemies of the Lord will be like the glory of the pastures. They vanish—like smoke they vanish away. – Psalm 37:10, 20

Such will be the end of the condemned, to literally “go up in smoke.”

The symbolism of ascending smoke drawn from Psalm 37 and Isaiah 34 certainly seems parallel with what we read in Revelation 14, but it is likely that this imagery is drawn from an even broader basis of symbolic references that we find throughout scripture where various things are said to “ascend” or “rise up” before God, with particular results:

  • In Genesis 4, after Cain kills Abel, God confronts him, demanding to know where his brother is. When Cain feigns ignorance, God says to him, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (4:10).
  • Following the great Flood, Noah offers up animal sacrifices to God, with the result that “The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground on account of man…” (Genesis 8:20-21).
  • Speaking to Abraham in Genesis 18:20-21, the Lord says, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely to its outcry which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”
  • In Exodus 2:23-25, the sons of Israel cry out to God in the misery of their bondage in Egypt: “And their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God. So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them.” In the following chapter, God tells Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:7-8).
  • Throughout their wanderings in the wilderness, the presence of the Lord led Israel in the form of a cloud by day and fire by night. These manifestations preceded the people until it was time for them to camp, at which time the cloud and fire would halt and remain over the Tabernacle until it was time for the people to travel again (Exodus 40:36-38). Thus, when sacrifices were offered in the Tabernacle, the smoke from the altar would rise up into the cloud of God’s presence that hovered directly above. Throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, God repeatedly refers to these “offerings by smoke” as “soothing aromas” that he will acknowledge by forgiving the sins of the people. A few examples include Exodus 29:25, Leviticus 1:9, and Leviticus 4:31. Yet, God also warned the Israelites that “If you do not obey Me, but act with hostility against Me, then I will act with wrathful hostility against you…I will lay waste your cities as well and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your soothing aromas” (Leviticus 26:27, 31).
  • In Numbers 10, God tells Moses that Israel should blow trumpets during times of war, “that you may be remembered before the Lord your God, and be saved from your enemies.”
  • In Jonah 1:2, God commissions Jonah to go to Nineveh and “cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”
  • In Acts 10:3-4, an angel appears to the gentile Cornelius and informs him that “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”
  • Lastly, in Revelation 8:3-5, the prayers of God’s persecuted saints are offered with incense by an angel. “And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angels’ hand,” with the result that judgments fall on the earth.
Thus the activities of men are said to “rise up” or “come up” before God, even in the literal smoke of sacrifices, and to provoke responses from him. Further, as we saw from the example of Leviticus 26, God can choose to ignore a thing that rises up before him, and I believe that this is what we’re looking at in Revelation 14. Consider the passage again:

If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone 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; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.

“The wine of the wrath of God”—another use of symbolism—is said to be “mixed in full strength.” In other words, worshippers of the beast are tormented with the full intensity of God’s irresistible wrath. This torment takes place “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Just as Israel’s sacrifices took place in the presence of God—under the cloud—and the smoke of the sacrifices rose up into the cloud, so the smoke of the beast-worshippers’ torment ascends in the presence of Christ. But unlike the smoke of the sacrifices, which God called a “soothing aroma,” and which elicited his mercy toward those offering them, the smoke of the tormented beast-worshippers rises without any response from God. It ascends, disperses, and disappears into oblivion—lost for eternity.

Contrast the scene in Revelation 14 with the words of the prophet Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:21-23:

This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning. (NKJV)

Jeremiah knew that Israel would not be entirely destroyed because the Lord’s compassions would be renewed toward his people in time—“in the morning,” as it were. By contrast, the beast-worshippers of Revelation 14 are consumed because the Lord has no mercy for them. He will not rescue them. He will not change his mind toward them either by day or by night—not for a single moment will he relent.

New Testament Usages

I grew up with the teaching of eternal torment—including frequent mentions of the “unquenchable fire” that awaits the damned in the afterlife—but I do not believe that I ever heard any of the Old Testament passages provided here examined in relation to that question, even though they employ this very language. The “unquenchable fire” I heard preached about came from the following New Testament statements of John the Baptist and Jesus:

“But he who is coming after me is mightier than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:11-12

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell [Gehenna], into the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” – Mark 9:43-44

Again, if we only had these statements to go by, it might be plausible to argue that the “unquenchable” fire could be a fire that never goes out, but these are not terms that John and Jesus invented. The Jews who heard them preach would have recognized this terminology from the Old Testament scriptures, where it clearly represents the irresistible destruction of God’s enemies. John and Jesus imported this terminology from the Old Testament without qualification—meaning that they did not redefine the term to mean something different than it meant in its Old Testament context. Why, then, should we assume that it means something entirely different here?

John’s statement about Jesus “burning up the chaff” was familiar imagery to the Jews, who knew what it was to separate wheat from chaff on a threshing floor. If John intended to teach eternal torment here, he choose poor imagery with which to convey it, given that the chaff that Jewish farmers burned up always burned completely—it didn’t burn forever. Further, John may not have been talking about final judgment in this passage at all. Rather, he may have been talking about how Jesus would separate believing from unbelieving Jews, baptizing the believing Jews with the Holy Spirit (John 20:22, Acts 2:1-4, 37-39), while reserving the unbelieving for the fiery destruction that came upon Jerusalem and the Jewish nation as a whole in AD 70 (Matthew 22:37-38, Luke 19:41-44).

As to the statements of Jesus in Mark 9, the imagery of the “unquenchable” fire and the “undying” worm are taken directly from Isaiah 66:23-24:

“And it shall be from new moon to new moon
And from sabbath to sabbath,
All mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the Lord.
“Then they will go forth and look on the corpses of the men
Who have transgressed against Me.
For their worm will not die
And their fire will not be quenched;
And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind.”

Who or what is it that is being burned by fire and devoured by worms? “The corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me.” This is a reference to the dead bodies of people God has killed, not to living people being tormented by fire and flesh-eating worms, as has been so often and enthusiastically claimed from pulpits. If one wants to prove the doctrine of eternal torment from the teachings of Jesus, the proof will have to come from some other passage. The imagery Jesus borrowed from Isaiah 66 is once again indicative of irresistible judgment and destruction—no one will be able to put out the fire or kill the worms in order to give the bodies a decent burial. Their disgrace is total and eternal, but not conscious.

A Possible Connection to Rabbinic Traditions

The history of Jewish teachings regarding Olam ha-Ba (“the world to come”)—which includes the concepts of resurrection and final judgment after the Messianic Age—is a murky one. Even today, Orthodox Jews hold to differing opinions regarding such matters as rewards and punishments after death—with some teaching that heaven and hell are “states of mind.”[1] In rabbinical literature, hell is called Gehinnom or Gehenna, “a place of punishment and/or purification,” into which the souls of most people descend after death for a period of up to twelve months.[2] Properly recited prayers called Kaddish, performed by a living relative, can reduce a sinner’s time in Gehinnom and allow him or her to move on to Gan Eden or “paradise,” a spiritual habitation distinct from the biblical Garden of Eden. After the requisite time in Gehinnom, all but the worst sinners are freed. Opinions vary on the fate of the irredeemably wicked, such as the arch-enemies of the Jewish people.[3] According to some traditions, they are annihilated and “the wind strews the ashes under the feet of the pious,”[4] while other traditions teach a form of eternal torment.

Thus, in the broad tradition of rabbinical teachings, hell is very similar to the concept of purgatory: a place of redemptive punishment and purification that makes a sinner fit for heaven. This may have come into Jewish thinking as a result of misunderstanding passages that promise the restoration of Israel following judgment, in particular Ezekiel 37—the famous “Valley of Dry Bones” passage—where Israel’s restoration is compared to a mass resurrection of the dead. We cannot know for certain how or when this viewpoint began, but it is present in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of rabbinical teachings and commentaries on the Torah that was compiled sometime in the fifth century A.D.

In chapter two of Tractate Hagiga (a sub-section of the Talmud), we find the story of four rabbis who ascend to paradise—“the heavenly garden.”[5] One of the rabbis dies at the sight of paradise. Another goes mad. The third—a man named A’her—cuts some of the plants of the garden, apparently to eat them, because it is said that he exemplifies the scripture “Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy body to sin.” The fourth rabbi “departs in peace.” A heavenly voice pardons this act of group trespass, saying, “Return, O backsliding children (except A’her),” which seems to indicate that all were permitted to repent and eventually return to paradise except for A’her. When A’her hears this, he says, “Inasmuch as man is excluded from yonder world, let him go and enjoy himself in this world.” He then departs “into evil courses,” enjoying himself in sinful indulgences.

Of particular interest to us here is the end of the story:

When A’her died, it was said: Let him not be brought into judgment (for he has studied the Law) but let him not be admitted to the world to come (because he sinned). R. Meier said: It would have been better if he had been brought to judgment and punished, and then admitted to the world to come. I wish I would die in order that smoke would come up from his grave (i.e. that he should be brought to judgment). When R. Meier died, it was so: smoke went up from the grave of A’her. Said R. Johanan: A mighty deed it was to consign his teacher to the flames. There was one among us, and we should not find a way to save him? If I take him by the hand, who will snatch him away from me? Would that I might die and extinguish the smoke from his grave. And it was so. When R. Johanan died the smoke ceased from the grave of A’her. The public mourner then uttered this expression over him: Even the keeper of the door of Gehenna stood not his ground before thee, O our teacher!

If this rabbinical story tells us anything of the teachings of the rabbis at the time of Christ, it may help us understand why Jesus taught as he did with regard to final judgment, appealing to the “unquenchable” fire and “undying” worm of Isaiah’s prophecy. He wanted his audience to understand that Gehenna was not temporary, that the fire was not rehabilitative but consuming, and that God’s judgment would fall upon them as totally and irreversibly as it had upon their idolatrous ancestors if they did not repent. Hence, he may have been answering the word pictures of the rabbis—such as in the story of A’her, where judgment fire is for the purpose of purging and may be quenched, even by an act of human compassion—with Old Testament word pictures conveying the eternal destruction of unquenchable, all-consuming fire.


Traditionalist attempts to use the imagery of Revelation 14:9-11 as support for the doctrine of eternal conscious torment are seriously undermined by the consistent use of this imagery in the greater context of scripture. The weight of biblical evidence argues that the smoke that “goes up forever and ever” signifies, not the eternal torment of God’s enemies, but rather, their permanent destruction. Unlike the cries of the Hebrews laboring in bondage to the Egyptians, the torment of the beast-worshippers elicits no response from God. It passes him by, as it were, and fades into eternity as they are consumed.

* Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible.

For further reading on the issue of final judgment, see this introduction to "evangelical conditionalism":

[1] “Hell: What do Jews Believe?” YouTube video, posted by “SinaiSpeak.” September 15, 2014.
[2] Rich, Tracey. “Olam Ha-Ba: the Afterlife.” Judaism 101. Accessed June 1, 2019.
[3] “Response to Ivy – the Jewish concept of hell,” YouTube video, posted by “ronennachman770.” January 6, 2009.
[4] Kohler, Kaufmann and Blau, Ludwig. “Gehenna.” Jewish Encyclopedia. Accessed June 1, 2019.
[5] Jewish Virtual Library. “Tractate Hagiga: Chapter Two.” Jewish Virtual Accessed June 1, 2019.