What About Torment?
The word “torment” has such a negative connotation that most people immediately consider it to be purposeless torture. It evokes images of medieval torture devices and sadistic cruelty. The fact that it is used in Revelation in describing the lake of fire can therefore be a stumbling block to understanding both the biblical reality of salvation for all people, and God’s goodness. For these reasons, the meaning of the word “torment” in the original Greek must be addressed. Although a rather thorough exposition of its symbolic meaning in Revelation 14 was discussed in an earlier chapter on symbolism, there are several aspects of the word that merit further discussion.
As we saw in our earlier discussion on symbolism here, the Greek word translated as torment is basanízō. As a reminder of its meaning, let’s look once again at the first entry for basanízō in Thayer's Greek Lexicon:
1. properly, to test (metals) by the touchstone.
You may also recall that basanízō comes from the word "básanos – originally, a black, silicon-based stone used as "a touchstone" to test the purity of precious metals (like silver and gold)" (HELPS Word-studies).
We also discovered that basanízō did also come to eventually be used of torture that was used to extract the truth from slaves, reflecting the Greek concept that truth was hidden inside the body and could be drawn out through such methods.
When combined with the rest of the symbolism of the lake of fire, it is most reasonable to see basanízō in terms of a testing for authenticity and purity as those in the fire experience its purifying effects. Indeed, it ultimately does lead to the truth as well, to the realization that “only in the Lord are righteousness and strength” as every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to God’s glory (Isaiah 45:23-24, Philippians 2:10-11).
In spite of this evidence, I think that some people will still be unsure that such an interpretation can be made because of the powerful connotations of the word “torment” in English. For this reason, let’s look at the word basanízō in other biblical contexts. As we do, we will see that the word is much more nuanced than the English translation allows.
Basanízō and Illness
Matthew 8:5-7 (ESV)
When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering (basanizomenos/ βασανιζόμενος) terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
Notice that in this context, we see basanízō being used to describe the suffering of a man due to illness. We also see Jesus' response of compassion, “I will come and heal him.” Remember, this is the same Jesus who is the Lamb of God in the presence of whom the wicked will experience basanízō. Will His compassion be gone? His mercy on the servant of a Roman centurion (a bitter enemy of the Jewish people) suggests otherwise. His love and compassion for the lost and the sick does not end, because his love never ends. As He said, "it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Will the Great Physician stop healing those who are suffering with the sickness of sin just because they have died? Is it not more consistent with His merciful character to see the trial and testing of the lake of fire as tools in the hands of a skilled surgeon who ultimately makes His patients healthy?
Basanízō and the Storm
Matthew 14:22-25 (NKJV)
Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed (basanizomenon/βασανιζόμενον) by the waves, for the wind was contrary.
Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea.
In this context, we see basanízō referring to being tossed by the waves and wind. This is a trial, to be sure, but has a very different sense than “torture.” The disciples likely experienced fear and struggle, but there is no maliciousness described in this event. Instead we see that Jesus meets them in their trial, showing His power and bringing them comfort in the midst of a difficult circumstance. In the midst of the basanízō experienced by the boat, we find Christ walking on the water and meeting people where they were, in their struggle and doubt.
Mark 6:48-51 (NKJV)
Then He saw them straining (basanizomenous/βασανιζομένους) at rowing, for the wind was against them. Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by. And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased. And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled.
In this passage, we see an even clearer picture of the struggle experienced by Jesus’ disciples during the storm. This time it is not the boat being tossed that is described, but rather the straining (basanizomenous) of the disciples themselves against the wind and waves. Again, the idea of vindictive torture is completely foreign to the context of the story. Instead, we see Christ declaring “be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” And then He calms the storm, bringing rest to their weary souls. Jesus is the solution to the basanízō once again, bringing gladness and peace while displaying His awesome power.
Basanízō of a Righteous Soul
2 Peter 2:6-9 (NIV)
...if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented (ebasanizen / ἐβασάνιζεν) in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.
This passage is quite interesting in that the basanízō is being experienced by Lot, who was distressed by the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this case, we see the idea of basanízō being used to describe an intense feeling of grief by the righteous about evil. Once again, retributive torture is not an appropriate understanding of the word. Instead, Lot is bothered by the evil deeds committed by those around him.
Sodom and Gomorrah, however, do not experience basanízō in this context. Instead we see that their destruction serves as “an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” If we want to interpret this statement accurately, we should consider carefully what actually happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. Were these cities tormented endlessly in the Biblical account in Genesis?
The answer is no.
Instead, these cities were literally destroyed because of their great wickedness. In Genesis 18:20, we are told that “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah [was] so great and their sin so grievous” that God decided to act. It seems that the outcry against Sodom was because of its arrogance and oppressiveness. In Ezekiel 16:49 it says that the sin of Sodom was that “she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” So the destruction of Sodom was not purposeless, but rather purposeful: it cleansed the world of a place of oppressive evil. I think that we can understand this as being a righteous judgment. Indeed, people often wonder why God doesn’t step in and remove evil from power, and it is rare to hear someone condemn the actions of soldiers in World War II who fought to rid the world of the violent oppression of the Nazis. Destroying evil can be necessary.
But is this destruction of evil purely retributive or is there a deeper significance, a redemptive purpose? The redemption of Sodom as described in Ezekiel suggests the latter. Consider Ezekiel 16:53, which states that God “will restore their fortunes, both the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters…” The Genesis account leaves little doubt that Sodom was utterly destroyed. How then can its fortunes be restored?
I think the answer lies in the reality that we have not yet experienced the completion of God’s purpose to unite all in Christ at the fullness of time as described in Ephesians 1. The physical destruction of Sodom, it seems, was only a temporary destruction, a destruction of the flesh similar to that described in 1 Peter 4:6:
For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
Though wicked Sodom was judged in the flesh, could it be that they too might one day live in the spirit? Could it be that God’s righteous judgment of their evil ways had a purpose, beyond simply killing people? Is it possible that God uses judgment and punishment to teach us righteousness? I believe this is, in fact, what the Bible is teaching. In this way, we see that Sodom is an example of God’s righteous judgment that awaits all who do evil. It is severe, but it is just and purposeful, resulting in repentance and restoration.
Basanízō and Birthpains
Revelation 12:1-2,5 (NKJV)
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain (basanizomenē /βασανιζομένη) to give birth… She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne.
In this part of Revelation, we see a sign in heaven appearing of a woman in labor. It seems quite clear that the woman is giving birth to Christ, the “male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” who was “caught up to God and His throne.” Notice that the pain of this birthing process is basanizomenē, an inflection of basanízō. Childbirth is certainly very painful (as any woman who has experienced it can attest), but it is not purposeless or vindictive. It results in something good, the bringing forth of new life. In fact, in this case, it involved birth of the Savior of all people who “gives life to the world” (1 Timothy 4:10, John 6:33, 51).
It is also worth noting that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). You may recall that basanízō as torture was used by the ancient Greeks in order to extract truth for testimony in legal cases. Interestingly, the agony of the woman’s labor pains brings forth not only the life of Christ, but also the truth of Christ. Truth and life come to a lost world through basanízō. So, once again, we see basanízō being used in the biblical context, and once again there is no indication that it means retributive torture. Instead, we see it as the means through which salvation is brought.
Basanízō as Judgment “in Like Measure”
Revelation 18:7 (ESV)
As she glorified herself and lived in luxury,
so give her a like measure of torment (basanismon /βασανισμὸν) and mourning,
since in her heart she says,
‘I sit as a queen,
I am no widow,
and mourning I shall never see.’
In this final biblical example of basanízō, we do see it used in terms of judgment. It is worth noting, however, that the other biblical contexts that we’ve looked at so far do not use it of judgment or punishment. So, it does not uniformly have this sense. Nevertheless, here it does, and it is describing the judgment of Babylon for extreme arrogance and self-indulgence. So the question must be asked, does this refer to eternal torment?
It seems that such an interpretation is prohibited. It must be noted that the punishment is given “in like measure” to the self-glorifying luxuriating of Babylon. In other words, to the same extent that Babylon sinned, she would be paid back with torment and mourning. It is not reasonable to assert that Babylon was infinitely and eternally self-indulgent. This is simply not possible. Extremely wicked, yes. Infinitely wicked, impossible.
So we see God punishes Babylon righteously and fairly, “in like measure” for the greatness of her sin. The judgment is very serious, because the wickedness was very serious, but we have no indication that it is eternal. Instead, the context indicates the opposite.
And what might be the purpose of such a judgment, of inflicting Bablyon with basanismós and mourning? Consider the following:
The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,
and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Babylon seems to be symbolic of the world system that promotes arrogance, reliance on material wealth, and immorality. The judgment and destruction of this system results in the humbling of those who relied on it. A careful reading of the text suggests that the torment of Babylon is not about tormenting people, but about destroying a corrupt world system. Here is a description describing the reasons for its fall:
For all nations have drunk
the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,
and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.”
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
“Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;"
Notice that the voice from heaven is calling people out of Babylon. The punishment, it seems, is for the system rather than for the people. And before you begin to believe that “my people” only refers to Christ followers, consider who stands far off from Babylon when it is destroyed.
And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. They will stand far off…
The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud…
For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste.
And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,
“What city was like the great city?”
Notice that the very people who committed immorality and profited from the corrupt city are standing far off, mourning its judgment. All of their trust had been placed in Babylon but now Babylon is violently destroyed. All the arrogant pride in their self-sufficiency is laid waste. Those who exalted themselves are humbled and the haughty looks of man are brought low. Babylon is destroyed.
Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,
“So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,
and will be found no more…”
We see therefore that the violent destruction and torment of Babylon results in its utter annihilation. The torment does not continue forever, but rather results in the complete extinction of its immorality as it “will be found no more.” Corrupt greed, arrogance, and all of the evils perpetrated by the world system will be done away with and no longer exist. This is good news and is necessary to bring forth “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Básanos in Ancient Greek Literature
One final example of the use of básanos provides a little more insight into the word. Consider the following explanation by Paige DuBois (Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC San Diego), of the usage of the word in the ancient Greek work Theognis:
The work of "Theognis"—probably a collective effort produced over time in this period, the sixth century B.C.E., a time of aristocratic factionalism, tyranny, oligarchies, strife between rich and poor—is anxiously concerned with the purity and loyalty of friends; "it is difficult to tell a false friend from a true one."4 Greed, the desire for gain, leads in the poet's view to betrayal of aristocratic values, of traditional sympotic bonds forged at drinking parties, of fidelity to one's faithful companions. Theognis uses the word basanos metaphorically to denote a test, a trial to determine whether something is genuine or real, and often employs the word in the context of friendship. For example:
Seek as I will, I can find no man like myself that is a true comrade [piston hetairon] free of guile; and when I am put to the test and tried [es basanon d'elthon paratribomenos te] even as gold is tried beside lead the mark [tupos] of pre-eminence is upon me.
Here we see the idea of básanos being used to test the authenticity of friendship. It is not about torture at all but rather about testing to see if someone is a true friend. Is it not possible that this is also the sense in which it is used of judgment in the lake of fire—as a test to see if at last the enemies of Christ have been redeemed through refining fire and made true friends? This idea is certainly very reasonable and is consistent with a Greek understanding of básanos, with the biblical symbolic meaning of fire, and with God’s clearly stated purpose to unite all in Christ “as a plan for the fullness of time” (Ephesians 1:10).
The Greek words básanos and basanizo which are sometimes translated as “torment” have a much richer meaning in the original Greek than is typically understood in English. They can be used to describe the buffeting of waves in a storm as well as the straining of the disciples tossed by them. But in this storm, Jesus arrives to comfort, alleviate fears, and save. They can also be used to describe the pains of childbirth through which the Savior of the world entered into it, bringing light and truth, or the suffering of illness that He compassionately cures. The vexation of the righteous over evil can also be described by basanizo, as well as the process through which this systemic evil is ultimately completely abolished. And finally we see that it is used to test the genuineness of friendship. It need not be purposeless, cruel, or vindictive because God is not purposeless, cruel, or vindictive. His judgments are righteous and He longs to be gracious and show compassion because He is a God of justice, as Isaiah 30:18 tells us. Could it be that the human desire to interpret basanizo as never-ending torture stems not from God’s heart but from the wickedness and cruelty of the human heart?
Consider once again Jonah’s response to the repentance of the wicked Assyrian city of Nineveh:
But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” The Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”
God wanted Nineveh to be saved. He longed for their repentance. Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed and was angry that God was gracious and compassionate. Jonah knew God well intellectually, knowing that He is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity,” but Jonah’s heart was far from His. Jonah did not want salvation for others and that is the very reason why He didn’t go to Nineveh: he knew that God would save them in spite of his vengeful wishes otherwise.
In insisting on eternal conscious torment, does the church exhibit God’s heart, or Jonah’s? When people say that God must torture people endlessly to get vengeance for their sin, are they making God into their own image: cruel, vindictive, sadistic and unforgiving? People have, after all, displayed these character traits throughout human history. Consider the wars, the oppressions, the feuds, and the torture devices that man has devised. Consider the grudges, even between family members, in which past slights are never forgiven and people refuse to forgive or even speak to one another. Is not the heart of man “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
What is man like?
What is God like?
Who is more likely to devise the doctrine of eternal conscious torment?
Who is willing and able to save?
Think about these questions biblically. Think about them deeply and honestly. If you do, I have little doubt that you will find man’s cruelty and failure to love one another, and God’s incredible mercy, goodness and grace as dominant biblical themes. You will also see God’s amazing sovereign power to change even the hardest of hearts through His deep love. I want to be like Him, not like Jonah, and hope you do too.
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