And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "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 sulfur 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.
If we keep in mind that John is borrowing much of the imagery he uses in Revelation from the Hebrew prophets that came before him, it becomes much more difficult to see passages such as this as supporting the view that some will never be saved. The language John uses to describe this judgment upon the “worshipers of the beast” is from Jeremiah 25:15-16, Isaiah 51:17-23 and Isaiah 34:5-10. Significantly, all three OT passages are descriptions of national judgments in this life, not in the future world beyond the immortal resurrection of the dead.
In Jeremiah 25:15-16, we read,
In Isaiah 51:17-23, the prophet declares,
Isaiah 34:5-10 reads,
All three of these OT passages contain hyperbolic, colorful descriptions of temporal judgments transpiring in this world. Notice that the last passage especially contains language which, in Rev 14, is thought to denote endless suffering in a post-mortem state. However, in Isaiah 34 it is not necessary to see the smoke as literal, or as rising perpetually without end (olam, the Hebrew word translated “forever,” simply does not carry the idea of absolute endlessness). And it is evident that the expression “forever and ever” in v. 10 is equivalent to “from generation to generation” (cf. Eph 3:21) - which, again, places the entire scene on earth, not in “eternity.”
Just as in the above OT passages, there is no reason to see the scene described in Rev 14 as transpiring in another state of existence. It is instead an earthly judgment that is being described. But what earthly judgment does John have in view here? Answer: it can be none other than the judgment which fell upon the “Great Prostitute, Mystery Babylon,” as referred to in greater detail in chapters 17-19 of John’s apocalypse. In chapter 17, John reveals that this “harlot-city” receives her power and authority from a “beast” (i.e., a powerful earthly kingdom; see Daniel 7:3; cf. v. 23). It is therefore natural that her wicked inhabitants would worship the “image” of the beast on which the harlot-city sits to maintain her high socioeconomic status and political stability. However, in verse 16 of this chapter, John reveals that God puts it into the minds of the rulers of this powerful kingdom to destroy the harlot-city. We are told that they ultimately make her “desolate” and “naked,” “eat her flesh” and “burn her with fire.” This, of course, is figurative language vividly describing temporal judgment.
But what is the identity of this “prostitute?” Answer: it is none other than first-century Jerusalem, the capital city of the nation of Israel (see Rev 17:18; cf. 11:8). It should have come as no surprise to John’s first-century Jewish readers that Jerusalem would be symbolically described as a “prostitute,” as this had already been done in the OT (see Ezekiel 16:1-3, 26; 23:1-5, 11, 17-19; Jer 2:1-2, 17-20; 3:1-2, 6-8; 5:1, 5-7; Isaiah 1:1, 21). The capital city of Israel is represented as “riding on a beast” (i.e., the Roman Empire) because she received her national existence and economic prosperity from Rome, and depended on this pagan kingdom for her national and economic stability instead of on God. The “kings of the earth” in 17:18 likely refer the leaders of the land of Palestine (Acts 4:26). While those who were publicly aligned with God at this time were said to have his “seal” or “name” written in their foreheads (Rev 7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4), to be publically and professedly aligned with this pagan, secular power instead of with God constituted one’s receiving the “mark of the beast.” In John 19:12-16, we have a striking example of this abominable act of rebellion against God:
Just as we are told that God puts it into the minds of the rulers of this beastly kingdom to ultimately destroy the prostitute (17:16), so the city of Jerusalem was ultimately overthrown by Rome. More is said of this terrible judgment from God upon the apostate city of Jerusalem in the next chapter. In Rev 18:4-8, we read:
All who remained in the harlot-city of Jerusalem were given “torment and sorrow” when God sent the plagues of “death and mourning and famine” upon her. That this judgment is the same as that depicted in 14:9-11 can be seen from what is declared by the heavenly hosts after the harlot-city is overthrown:
The “smoke” that is described as rising from this accursed city is undoubtedly the same as the “smoke of the torment” of those Jews who’d aligned themselves with the pagan kingdom of Rome instead of with Christ and his kingdom. The “torment” of the unrighteous simply continued as long as they were alive in this world, with the figurative “smoke of their torment” rising “forever and ever” (lit., “unto the age of the ages”) as a long-lasting memorial to God’s righteous judgment upon them. That this is a temporal judgment is clear from the fact that the period of their “unrest” is divided into days and nights (v. 11). Its fulfillment is thus in time, not in “eternity.” That it is a judgment taking place on the earth (as opposed to somewhere else) is clear from Rev 16:1-2:
It may be objected that those being tormented with “fire and sulfur” are said to be “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” But the actual abode of Christ and the holy angels is in heaven; thus, if this language is to be understood literally, then it is a description of people being tormented in heaven, where the literal presence of Christ and the holy angels is. However, there is no reason to understand this language literally, for similar language is used in a non-literal throughout Scripture (e.g., Gen 6:11; Ex 18:12; Deut 29:10, 14, 15; Josh 22:27, 24:1; 1 Sam 1:22; 1 Chron 13:8; Isaiah 19:1; Lam 2:19; Luke 1:6, 24:9; Acts 10:33; 2 Tim 4:1). Such expressions (e.g., “in the presence of the Lord” or “before the Lord”) were commonly used among the Hebrew writers when anything was done by divine appointment, or on a solemn occasion. Moreover, the “fire” and “sulfur” need not be understood as literal, as they are frequently used as emblems of temporal judgment in this world, having nothing to do with post-mortem punishment (Deut 29:23; Job 18:15; Psalm 11:6; 83:14-15; 97:3; Isaiah 9:19; 30:33; 34:9-10; Jer 4:4; 21:12; 48:45; Lam 2:3-4; Ezekiel 21:31; 22:18-22; 38:22).