Does Revelation teach annihilationism?
What this crucial text in Revelation has to say about hell and eternal punishment
How should we best understand Revelation 14:6-13?
The scene shifts from heaven to the skies. John uses the term “middle heaven” (mesouranēma), translated “overhead” here, to denote the skies above earth (Rev 8:13; 19:17).
The first of three angels enters the scene with a message, an eternal gospel to proclaim to all those who dwell on the earth (epi tous kathēmenous epi tēs gēs). Significantly, this time John does not use the phrase “earth dwellers” (hoi katoikountes epi tēs gēs; cf. Rev 3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14; 17:2, 8), a technical term for unbelievers (cf. comment on Rev 3:10). Here he speaks of a gospel for all people, a gospel for those from every people group, tribe, language, and nation (cf. Matt 24:14). “Gospel” suggests the message of salvation is intended here, but, at the same time, those who do not embrace the gospel will be judged.
The angel calls all people without exception to fear God and give him glory (cf. Rev 15:4; cf. also Jer 13:16). Giving God praise and glory as the creator of heaven and earth (cf. Acts 4:24) is the fundamental requirement of human beings (cf. Rom 1:21). Some interpreters argue that the giving of glory here refers to the homage rendered by the unconverted when, at the last day, they are compelled to worship the Lord (cf. Phil 2:9–11).
They question whether response to the gospel is in view here, since nothing is said about Jesus Christ. Still, it seems preferable to see a reference to salvation here. John is not required to say everything in every text, and the remainder of Revelation makes clear that one cannot fear God or give him glory unless one worships the Lamb and honors him.
We also see, a number of times in Revelation, that giving God glory is an activity of the saints (Rev 15:4; 16:9; 19:5). All human beings are summoned to fear God and give him glory, for the time of judgment has drawn near, and those who do not honor and worship him will be punished.
Another angel appears, declaring that Babylon the great has fallen. The fall of Babylon was prophesied by Isaiah (Isa 21:9) and Jeremiah (Jer 51:8) and fulfilled in 539 BC. John applies the description of Babylon to Rome (cf. comments on Rev 17:1–19:5; 1 Pet 5:13), showing that Babylon functions as a precursor and type of godless cities to come. John will expand significantly on the angel’s words in Revelation 17:1–19:5, but here he declares Babylon’s fall (cf. Rev 18:2, 10, 21).
Babylon is judged for making the nations drink the wine of her fornication (Rev 16:19; 17:2, 5; 18:3). This fornication is spiritual and not literal, though it surely includes the idea of sexual sin. Still, the focus is on spiritual harlotry and prostitution (cf. Jer 3:8–9; Ezek 16; 23; Hos 1:1–3:5). Babylon will face judgment for encouraging the worship of false gods, spreading worldwide the message that it is good and right to rebel against the one true God.
An intense warning
The third angel now arrives on the scene to make a worldwide declaration in a loud voice. In every instance, the angels proclaim that one must worship the true God instead of false gods. Here the angel addresses those who give their worship to the beast (the Roman Empire) and his image and receive the mark of the beast on their forehead and hand. We know from Revelation 13:16–17 that they receive the mark for economic reasons, to flourish in contemporary society. But accepting the mark is not merely an economic decision; it reflects their highest allegiance, showing that Rome and all its glittering wealth and power are more important to them than God.
The warning is remarkably intense. Those who worship the beast or receive the mark will drink the cup of the wine of God’s wrath (cf. Rev 16:19), an expression used often in the OT of God’s punishment on those who rebel against him (Ps 75:8; Isa 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15). Indeed, those who rebel will experience God’s wrath in an undiluted form; they will not be spared or shown mercy. God pours out his wrath on them, and they experience torment and anguish from fire and sulfur (cf. Rev 19:20; 20:10; 21:8; cf. Gen 19:24; Ps 11:6; Ezek 38:22). The language of fire and sulfur need not be literal, but in any case the suffering brings anguish and agony as people suffer before the holy angels and the Lamb.
Believers are called to endure in a world fiercely opposed to them.
John continues to elaborate on their punishment. The smoke of their torment never ends (Rev 19:3; cf. also Isa 34:10). Some take this smoke to mean they are annihilated, ceasing to exist, but this contradicts both the experience of torment in verse 10 and the very next line in verse 11, where John says they have no rest day or night.
In other words, their experience of torment continues perpetually. Such a portrait of the final judgment fits Matthew 25:46, where the righteous enjoy “eternal life” but the wicked face “eternal punishment” (cf. also Matt 25:41). Readers are warned that terrible suffering will forever ensue if they worship the beast and its image, or receive its mark.
A call to endure
The remarkably strong warning in verses Revelation 14:9–11 is not written for unbelievers, for John did not write the book for them. It is addressed to believers (“the saints”) and is intended to provoke them to persevere until the end. If they give their allegiance to the beast, they will suffer forever and ever. Hence, the warning in verses Revelation 14:9–11 and the message of the first two angels (Revelation 14:6–8) calls John’s audience to endurance and perseverance (cf. Rev 13:10). Endurance is explained further in terms of keeping God’s commands and continuing to put faith in Jesus (cf. Rev 12:17). The reality of their faith will reveal itself in observable and concrete ways — those who endure follow God in obedience.
A heavenly voice then speaks, summing up in many ways the message of the chapter thus far, and indeed the book as a whole. John is supposed to record the ensuing message because of its importance. Believers are called to endure in a world fiercely opposed to them.
But this world as it is now is not their home, and thus those who die in the Lord are blessed. They leave the struggles of this world behind (cf. Rev 6:11; Heb 4:9–10), exchanging them for their final reward.
The Spirit reaffirms the blessing of death: believers rest from the toils marking this present evil age. They will then experience relief from the pressures impinging upon them in life. Believers will rest, John says, because their works follow them. In other words, their works testify that they belong to God, and thus the rest given them is warranted.
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared on the Crossway Blog and is an adapted excerpt from the ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation: Volume 12.