This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the sixteenth of twenty-six short reflections.
Some of the most judgemental passages in Revelation are about who gets thrown into the Lake of Fire:
20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. Revelation 19:24
10 And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Revelation 20:24
14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:14-15.
8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. Revelation 21:8
If you are like me, you begin to imagine whether or not whether your name is in the Book of Life, or whether we would qualify for the Lake under one or more of the categories in Revelation 21:8.
Interestingly, the Lake of Fire is one of the few images John comes up with on his own – there is nothing like it in the Hebrew Bible. There is Gehenna in the gospels, which appears to have been a garbage dump outside Jerusalem that was invariably on fire, and in Jewish writing was used to representto Hades, or Sheol, the shadowy underworld for the dead, but that is not quite the same thing. Apparently there is an Egyptian text more than a thousand years earlier than John that talks about a Lake of fire, but it is unlikely that he knew of it. So where did he get the idea of this lake and it being a kind of punishment?
In an essay from 2007 the Dutch New Testament scholar George H. van Kooten suggests that it goes back to Nero. Following the fire in Rome at which Nero (doubtfully) fiddled, but which he blamed on the Christians (likely), he seized a vast amount of land adjacent to the Forum. There, according to Suetonius, he built an imperial palace, whose
entrance hall was designed for a colossal statue, 120 ft high, bearing Nero’s head. So vast were the grounds, that triple colonnades ran for a mile. There was, too, an enormous lake, surrounded by buildings made to look like cities (Nero 31.1).
The lake is where the Colosseum was eventually erected, so it was quite central; indeed, the name “Colosseum” appears to have been derived from the Colossus of Nero, for the massive statue stood for centuries, long after the pond was drained. Van Kooten suggests that John believed that Nero (or some version of the returned Nero) would be punished, and this is symbolized by the Beast – Nero – being tossed into the lake whose creation was facilitated by the historic fire. From there it was a short jump to throwing Death, Hades, and all unrepentant evildoers into it as well.
But who gets to escape the Lake of Fire? We’ll discuss this tomorrow.