The Lake of Fire and Brimstone
A Bible study by Fred Kenison, edited and revised by Merrill Douglass
Adapted from our book, The Apocalypse of Revelation
The concept of hell is a major foundation belief in Christian churches. Many churches teach that the lake of fire, or the lake of fire and brimstone, is the same as Hell, a place where people will be tormented forever, if they do not get into heaven. But, is that really what the Bible says? What do the scriptures mean when they speak of the lake of fire and brimstone, or hell, or outer darkness?
In the New Testament, three verses mention a lake of fire, one verse mentions fire and brimstone, and two verses mention a lake of fire and brimstone.
And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.
And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
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:
And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
Jesus often spoke about this concept. For example,
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
In all of these references, the word hell comes from gehenna, which is the valley of Tophet, also known as the valley of Hinnom. Thayer (p. 111), commenting on gehenna, or hell, said that the original name gehenna comes from a Chaldee word meaning, “the valley of the son of lamentation.” He went on to say that:
“Gehenna, the name of a valley on the south and east of Jerusalem which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch, i.e. of an idol having the form of a bull. The Jews so abhorred the place after these horrible sacrifices had been abolished by king Josiah, that they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed. And since fires were always needed to consume the dead bodies, that the air might not become tainted by the putrefaction, it came to pass that the place was called geena tou puros.”
Based on Thayer’s definition, we can see that gehenna would literally mean the valley of fires.
Luke provided further enlightenment about the lake of fire and brimstone. Jesus was teaching that a person cannot serve both God and Mammon. Then he talked about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. He said that Lazarus was laid at the rich man’s doorstep and begged for just the crumbs from the rich man’s table; however, he was ignored, probably because he was a leper. The first part of his name, lazar, is Greek for leper; he was “full of sores.”
Luke 16:22‑26 says,
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell (hades) he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
What Jesus called gehenna and hades, John called the lake of fire and brimstone. Gehenna, as used by Jesus, emphasized the suffering and lamentation, or the emotional quality of the people therein. Hades emphasized the boundaries of the place of suffering and lamentation. The Jews looked upon hades as the abode of departed spirits, both the good and the evil. Therefore, both Lazarus and the rich man were in hades. To Lazarus it was a place of blessedness, but to the rich man it was a place of torment.
Although hades was described as a place, the emphasis was not on where the rich man and Lazarus were, but on their situation, or condition, while there. One condition was blessedness, but the other was torment. Matthew’s parable of the marriage feast described the same conditions. Those with the proper marriage garments stayed in a condition of blessedness, while those who were not clothed in righteousness were put into a condition of torment called “outer darkness.”
During the 1,000 year reign, the blessed will be given glorified bodies as a reward, while the tormented will be resurrected in a fleshly body; and, because of this, they will “weep and gnash their teeth.” The blessed will go out among the tormented to minister to them; and, as they rule with a rod of iron, they will require obedience to God’s law. Therefore, both those who minister, and those who are ministered to, will be in the same place, but in a different condition while there.
Revelation 14:10 said that those who had received the mark of the beast, and who had worshiped the beast and his image, would be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the angels and of the lamb. Again, the blessed and the tormented will be together, but their conditions will be different.
Revelation 17:8 said the beast would ascend out of the bottomless pit and go into perdition. John used a prolepsis to skip to the end of the next age when this beast was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone. This provides a scriptural identification of perdition, the final destiny of the devil.
The hades that Jesus taught about before his death and resurrection is the outer darkness of the kingdom of God, or the 1,000 year reign. At the end of the 1,000 year reign, it was called the lake of fire and brimstone. Both the blessed and the tormented are in this lake of fire and brimstone, but in different conditions.
Earlier comments said that the wicked would be thrown, or cast, into the lake of fire and brimstone, which will be made up of the glorified saints, for the purpose of restoration. Everyone is finally where the lord died to bring them: in the presence of God, in the lake of fire and brimstone. Remember, God was reconciling the world unto himself through Christ. Now, they are finally here: heaven and hell are united.
Being in the presence of God will be the “heaven” the saints have yearned for, but it will also be “hell” to the wicked. The location is the same, but the result is different. The chasm in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was not a chasm of space, but of condition. The blessed cannot change their blessed condition, and except by the further grace of God, neither can the wicked change their condition. John has finally answered the puzzle presented by the different teachings about “heaven” and “hell,” and closed out the history of mankind.
So, where does “outer darkness” fit into all this? There are three verses in the Bible which refer to outer darkness, and all three are found in Matthew.
But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Many church denominations consider “outer darkness” as synonymous with “hell.” According to them, this is where evil people go after death, presumably to be tormented forever. Such an interpretation does a gross injustice to scripture. However, if outer darkness is not hell, then what is it?
The term outer darkness definitely refers to an undesirable place, used three times in Matthew to describe the fate of wrong-doers. It is where the person who came to the wedding feast without a wedding garment was cast (Matthew 22:13); it is where the slothful servant was cast (Matthew 25:30); and it is where even the children of the kingdom will be cast (Matthew 8:12). All three verses describe it as a place where, “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The literal meaning of outer darkness is the darkness outside the lighted palace. All three instances in Matthew refer to people being removed from a desirable place and being cast into a non-desirable place. In other words, they lose something that they once had. That something is salvation, the right to enter the kingdom, which all received as a result of Jesus’ life and death. However, only works of righteousness will allow us to retain our inheritance; otherwise, we will lose it, which is the point of these three verses. Works of righteousness are those things done through us as we yield ourselves to God.
Each of these illustrations in Matthew refers to all the people who will be judged as unfit to receive a glorified body when Jesus returns. They will not be allowed to enter the kingdom in a place of blessing, to rule and reign with Jesus. Instead, during the millennial reign, they will be ruled over, and ministered to, by Jesus and his glorified saints.
Outer darkness, then, refers to a person’s position during the kingdom. There will be those on the inside, and those on the outside. The people on the outside will be in outer darkness. They will not be there by choice; they will be there as a result of failing the judgment of Jesus.
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