In Revelation 14:9-11, we read the following: "9 And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, 10 The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: 11 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."
Revelation 14:9-11 is often used as a proof text for those who teach eternal (never-ending) conscious torment of the unsaved. What is often overlooked about Revelation 14:9-11 is that it is partially based on a prophecy against Edom in Isaiah 34:5-17. Many of these harsh words were actually fulfilled against Edom, and yet Edom continued as a nation. In other words, the "smoke thereof" didn't literally "go up for ever" (Isaiah 34:10). The consequences of the destruction were eternal, but the torment and the desolation were not. In my article God is the Savior of All Men, I suggested that "eternal punishment" in Matthew 25:46 may actually means something like "temporal punishment in eternity that has everlasting consequences." In light of the precedent given in Isaiah 34:5-17 and other evidence that I will show, I suggest that the phrase "smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever" also refers to a temporal judgment with everlasting consequences.
Although Isaiah 34:5-17 is too long to cite at length here, we read the following in verses 8 to 10: "8 For it is the day of the LORD's vengeance, And the year of recompences for the controversy of Zion. 9 And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, And the dust thereof into brimstone, And the land thereof shall become burning pitch. 10 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." It is immediately clear that this passage from Isaiah is partially the basis of the Apostle John's vision in Revelation 14:9-11. Therefore, in order to interpret the fulfillment of Revelation 14:9-11, it is helpful to see how Isaiah 34:5-17 was fulfilled. In Malachi 1:3-4, we learn that Isaiah's prophecy against Edom was in fact fulfilled in the past. We read there, "3 And I hated Esau, And laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness. 4 Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, But we will return and build the desolate places; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; And they shall call them, The border of wickedness, And, The people against whom the LORD hath indignation for ever." Malachi 1:3 is referring to Isaiah 34:13 where it says that Edom "shall be an habitation of dragons."
We see that the prophecy in Isaiah 34 was fulfilled, but perhaps not as many people would have thought. When Isaiah speaks about the brimstone and pitch burning night and day without being quenched and the smoke thereof going up forever, many people expect a literal fulfillment that involves a never-ending fire. However, Isaiah is simply using apocalyptic language that cannot be taken too literally. God gave us a rule about prophecy and apocalyptic language in Numbers 12:6-8. In that passage, we read the following: "6 And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. 7 My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. 8 With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" In this passage we learn that prophecy is not easy to understand. It comes in visions and dark speeches (i.e., riddles). Therefore, we shouldn't expect a literal fulfillment of everything we read in a prophecy. There is just too much figurative language. Take for example the prophecy against Babylon in Isaiah 13. Isaiah says, "the stars of heaven and their constellations shall not give their light; the sun shall be dark when it rises, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine" (verse 10). He also says, "I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall be shaken out of her place" (verse 13). This is very similar language to Matthew 24. However, when this prophecy was fulfilled against Babylon, the heaven and the earth were not literally shaken out of their places. However, for Babylon, figuratively speaking, the heaven and earth that it had known ceased to exist. For Babylon heaven and earth passed away and a whole new system, a system in which Babylon was debased and humbled, had begun.
Getting back to Isaiah 34:5-7 and Malachi 1:3-4, we see that Edom was made a desolation and was humbled, yet it continued to exist. The brimstone and the pitch did not literally burn forever, yet the consequences of the brimstone and pitch did last forever. In Malachi 1:4 we see that Edom intended to rebuild, but God's hand continued to be against them so that they wouldn't prosper. His anger continued to be against them forever, despite the fact that they still existed as a nation. The consequences of the desolation in Isaiah 34 was that Edom became impoverished forever, not that they were literally tormented with brimstone forever. Also, what if Edom had repented and turned to God? I suppose that things would have gotten better for them because God is merciful.
The people in Revelation 14:9-11 are under God's wrath. The same type of prophecy that was used against Edom is used against them. The fulfillment against Edom should guide us in interpreting Revelation 14:9-11. Just like the torment of Edom didn't literally last forever, we shouldn't expect the torment of those who receive the mark of the beast to literally last forever. However, what does last forever are the consequences. For Edom, it was severe impoverishment as a nation. For those who receive the mark of the beast, I suspect that they will live impoverished in eternity. This does not mean that they will not receive any good from the hand of the Lord, but it does mean that they will have a significantly lower social class than people who are saved during this life. Again, I am just speculating, but this is my current opinion.
I suggested the possibility that God would be merciful if Edom repented. What about those who receive the mark of the beast in Revelation 14:9-11? Is repentance possible for them? Most people view the mark of the beast as a fatal sin with no hope of recovery. However, that is just not true. In the next section, I will show that people who received the mark of the beast also received opportunities to repent.
In Revelation 16, the seven angels start to pour out their vials of the wrath of God on the earth. Those who had received the mark of the beast were particularly tormented by these plagues, just as was prophesied in Revelation 14:9-11. For example, in Revelation 16:2, we read, "And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image." When the fourth angel pours out his vial, we read the following: "8 And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. 9 And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory." So, here we have the people being tormented with fire just like the prophecy in Revelation 14:9-11 foretold. However, notice that verse 9 says "and they repented not to give him glory." This is vital information. In the midst of their torment, God still desired for them to repent. This means that one of the purposes of the torment was so that people would repent. This also means that in the midst of suffering the torment, God desires for them to be saved (Ezekiel 18:21-23). In the next two verses, we read a similar thing: "And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain, 11 And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds." Again we see that they had an opportunity for repentance.
In Revelation 14:9-11, we read that "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever," but in Revelation 16:9 and 16:11 we see that even in the midst of "for ever and ever" they had opportunities to repent. This means that in some instances, some aspects of "forever" are conditional. As I hypothesized above, I believe that the actual torment itself will be temporal, but have everlasting consequences. Since God is the Savior of all men (1 Timothy 4:9-11), it is only a matter of time before these people are also saved. If they were to believe in Jesus for eternal life before they died, they could be saved immediately. Otherwise, they will have to wait to be saved sometime in eternity. However, getting saved in eternity doesn't mean that they will be made equal with people who got saved on this side of eternity. In other words, "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever" through the everlasting consequences of their eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:2). I suspect that these consequences will include an everlastingly lower social class, but again, I am just speculating.
I will now give some examples from the Old Testament that support my claim that some aspects of "forever" can be conditional and that salvation is still available even after falling under an "eternal curse" as it were.
In Isaiah 32:14-15, we have a prominent example of an "eternal curse" being reversed. In those verses we read the following: "14 Because the palaces shall be forsaken; The multitude of the city shall be left; The forts and towers shall be for dens for ever, A joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks; 15 Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, And the wilderness be a fruitful field, And the fruitful field be counted for a forest." In this passage, we see that the desolation is prophesied to last "forever," but in the very next verse, there is a reversal. In this case, the condition for the reversal is "the spirit being poured upon us from on high." This doesn't mean that there weren't any ongoing consequences. They suffered desolation because of their sins, and the regret and remembrance of such sin can remain for a long time even after receiving forgiveness and restoration. For example, Jeremiah pours out his heart in his lamentation and says, "18 And I said, My strength and my hope is perished from the LORD: 19 Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. 20 My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me. 21 This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope" (Lamentations 3:18-21). Even after being delivered from his affliction, he was left the memory of the grief. But because he had experienced the mercy of the Lord, he consoled himself in hope. I suspect that it will be the same for the people in Revelation 14:9-11.
In Jeremiah 17:4, we read the following: "And thou, even thyself, shalt discontinue from thine heritage that I gave thee; and I will cause thee to serve thine enemies in the land which thou knowest not: for ye have kindled a fire in mine anger, which shall burn for ever." Here, again, we read of God's fire that will burn forever. This fire referred to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. However, we know that Jerusalem was later restored after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Certainly, the consequences lasted much longer than 70 years, and in some respects, they still exist. However, if we were to take the initial prophecy too literally, we would have expected Jerusalem to be on fire forever. This is how most people interpret Revelation 14:9-11, but in light of the Old Testament precedents, this manner of interpretation is wrong.
As for the possibility of repentance, we also see it in Jeremiah's prophecy. In Jeremiah 17:24-26, we read the following: "24 And it shall come to pass, if ye diligently hearken unto me, saith the LORD, to bring in no burden through the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but hallow the sabbath day, to do no work therein; 25 Then shall there enter into the gates of this city kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their princes, the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: and this city shall remain for ever. 26 And they shall come from the cities of Judah, and from the places about Jerusalem, and from the land of Benjamin, and from the plain, and from the mountains, and from the south, bringing burnt offerings, and sacrifices, and meat offerings, and incense, and bringing sacrifices of praise, unto the house of the LORD." So, if they were to repent, God promises that the city would remain "forever." But then again, in verse 27, we have the other side of the coin: "27 But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched." Again, we see the unquenchable fire. What is important in all of this is to see that some aspects of "forever" are conditional, and repentance is always an option. If people who receive the mark of the beast later believe in Jesus Christ for eternal life, they will certainly be forgiven and immediately enter into glory upon death. If they also repent of their sin of idolatry and worshiping of the beast, they might also be spared from some of the temporal sufferings, too. If they die as unbelievers, then their suffering will continue in eternity until they become saved.
In Psalm 74:1-3, we read the following: "1 O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? Why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? 2 Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; The rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; This mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt. 3 Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual desolations; Even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary." In this Psalm, Asaph is mourning because of the destruction of the sanctuary. This probably refers to the Babylonian invasion that Jeremiah referred to. In Jeremiah 17, it was God who pronounced that the fire of his anger would "burn forever" against them, but in Psalm 74, we have the prayers of one of the godly saints who was on the receiving end of it. He was experiencing being "cast off forever" and lived among the "perpetual desolations." However, he was not hopeless. Although it is too long to cite here, he expresses his hope of restoration from verses 10 to 23. In particular, in verse 19, he says, "O deliver not the soul of thy turtledove unto the multitude of the wicked: Forget not the congregation of thy poor for ever." He pleads for salvation, and even in the midst of the fire that "burns forever," he prays that it will not actually last "forever." Asaph was certainly one of the repentant and godly saints among the Jews. And his prayers were heard and Jerusalem was eventually restored.
I expect that some people will object and say that Isaiah 32:14-15, Jeremiah 17:4, and Psalm 74:1 pertain to God's people Israel, so these verses cannot be applied to Gentiles or unsaved people. However, this objection is not appropriate because we already saw that Isaiah 34:5-17 applied to the Gentile nation Edom and Revelation 16:9 and 16:11 applied to people who received the mark of the beast. At the very least, Isaiah 32:14-15, Jeremiah 17:4, and Psalm 74:1 provide collaborating evidence. However, there are cases in the Old Testament of Gentile nations that are promised restoration. I will now provide two examples of these.
In Isaiah 19 and Ezekiel 29, God makes a devastating pronouncement against Egypt. He foretells a forty-year destruction of the nation, and then their restoration as a base and humiliated nation that will never again rule over other nations (Ezekiel 29:15). However, this destruction and restoration to humiliation also contained a blessing. In Isaiah 19:20, we read that that Egypt will "cry unto the LORD because of the oppressors" and in verse 22 that "the LORD shall smite Egypt: he shall smite and heal it." Finally, in verse 25, we read of the blessedness of Egypt: "Blessed be Egypt my people, And Assyria the work of my hands, And Israel mine inheritance." God inflicts in order that He might heal. In this instance, Egypt fell under wrath, and as a result, is still suffering from the everlasting consequences. It never again became a powerful kingdom. However, it was restored and does (and will) enjoy a portion of blessedness as God's people.
What happened to Egypt is exactly what I expect to happen to those who receive the mark of the beast. God will smite them, but will eventually heal them. However, even after being healed, they will have to live with the everlasting consequences. As I mentioned, I believe these consequences will include an inferior social status even after being saved. Just as Egypt has had to live as the "the basest of the kingdoms" (Ezekiel 29:15), those who receive the mark of the beast and remain unbelievers at the point of death will have to live with the consequences in eternity. They, like Egypt, will be blessed, but I suspect that their blessing will be inferior to that of people who get saved on this side of eternity.
Sodom is another Gentile nation that was punished grievously for its sins. According to Jude, they "are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire" (Jude 7). Most people assume that there is no hope for Sodom, but God actually prophesied His plan to restore Sodom. In Ezekiel 16:53 and 16:55, we read that God will "bring again their captivity" and "return [them] to their former estate." In the end, Sodom will become a daughter of Judah (verse 61). In this case, the "eternal fire" effects a happy end for them. This passage of Scripture is so clear that even Keil and Delitzsch, who were not Universalists, recognized the happy implications of it in their commentary on Ezekiel 16. In a similar manner, I believe the "eternal fire" suffered by people who receive the mark of the beast will effect a happy end for them.
It is my hope that this article has shed some new light on interpreting Revelation 14:9-11. In this article, I looked especially at the "for ever and ever" passage in Revelation 14:11, but the content applies equally well to other "for ever" passages such as Mark 3:29 and Jude 13. I think I may write separate articles on those passages also, but I am sure much of the content will be repetitive. As for passages that deal with "eternal destruction" and "eternal punishment," please see my articles Is Universalism Compatible with "Eternal Destruction" in 2 Thessalonians 1:9? and God is the Savior of All Men, respectively.