The ‘lake of fire’ is a final progression of the theological development of God’s judgment. The ‘lake of fire’ is a final ‘hell’ which is a New Testament description of the more generic realm of the dead previously called ‘Hades or Sheol’, in the Old Testament. The Greek Old Testament uses Hades ( ᾅδης ) for the Hebrew name Sheol ( שְׁאוֹל). To fully understand the ‘lake of fire’ we need to trace the meaning of God’s judgment as ‘fire’ in the Old Testament and relate how it pertains to Sheol/Hades and Hell.
Sheol/Hades in the Bible is similar but not exactly the same as that found in ancient pagan philosophy. Sheol is basically the grave with its unknown disembodied life beyond it. Originally, the idea from the lack of any further clarity is without any revelatory definition in the Bible. Like many biblical doctrines the subject is progressively revealed. In this original undefined idea, both the good and the evil went to that ‘unknown/unrevealed world’:
before I go—and I shall not return— to the land of darkness and deep shadow, the land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without any order, where light is as thick darkness. (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Job 10:21–22).)
Sheol was perceived as a place beneath the Ocean where ‘the dead tremble under the waters’ Job 26:5.
It is tempting to resist and admission to the ancient understanding of what we now call hell, because it assigned both the good and the evil to it as well as imagined silly geographical elements, which may have even been related to the view of the earth ad the center of the universe. For these and many more reasons it seems contrary to the New Testament teaching. In the New Testament the division between paradise and hell is spelled out more clearly. This was not a result of progression in human thought but as result of further revelation from God himself. On one hand Death was basically an obscure unknown in the Old Testament, therefore speculation of unrevealed details would naturally be only a little better than current Greek pagan philosophy. On the other hand the trajectory of revelation progression from God, and not from human development, included solid hints at the resurrection, such as the disappearance of Enoch, or the necessary implications of the hope of salvation whereby a return to paradise in Eden was anticipated. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that God as he unfolds heavenly matters to humans, who in turn conjecture and imagine things along the way, to at time allude to those same half-baked speculations in further extruding his doctrines to us in clarities never imagined by the human heart. This is essentially what happens at the time of Christ, for in between the last book of the Old Testament and the Gospels; popular rabbinical writings had already speculated a great del about paradise and the idea of Sheol was becoming more and more a concept that included only the wicked. Somehow speculation about the unknown was to a certain degree scripturally inspired and sanctified and extended by Jesus himself into a modern New Testament higher definition.
At the time of Christ Hades was still referred to, for example in Luke 16:23, where the rich man is there in Hades, while Lazarus is like a child in the lap of Abraham. Also, when Peter made his confession the ‘gates of Hades’ could not stand against the church. Clearly Hades has become another name for hell where only the disembodied wicked live. While paradise is the place for the disembodied righteous, such as the place where the thief next to Jesus on the cross was to go that ‘very same day.’ However, Jesus often referred to hell under different imagery that moves beyond the general abstract notion of Hades. Jesus often referred to hell as a fiery place called “Gehenna”. Hades was also considered to be a place of ‘fire’ but Gehenna amplifies the fiery aspect.
“Gehenna” (Hebrew “Hinnom”), the name of a valley south of Jerusalem. The valley was noted in the OT period for the abomination of child sacrifices (2 Kgs 16:3; 21:6; 23:10) and in the NT period for its smoldering garbage. (Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (592).)
The Lake of fire is essentially the final development of the concept of the judgment of Gehenna. We can imagine hell as temporary steam of fiery judgments, which will flow into the final basin. It is a full lake of hell, meaning there is no further judgment to occur, as it is complete and endless without any adjustments. It is ‘forever and ever’ that the wicked will be burdened under a full awareness of their just desert and where the ‘weeping and gnashing’ of their ‘teeth’ (a cliché for sorrow and angry frustration) due to being eternally separated from the creator is forever felt.
If we trace the imagery of fire using Sodom and Gomorrah as well as the altar of the temple court we find that it represents God’s eternal judgment on sin. The lake of fire includes ‘brimstone’ and so we find one of the very first lively ideas of the lake of fire in his destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, for we see ‘the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens’ (Gen 19:24). In addition according to Jude, Sodom is to be understood as ‘eternal’, for hose that died under that fire ‘serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire’ (Jude 7). Then again, God is in himself and his own just nature the ‘consuming fire’. (Heb 12:29). We see it everywhere in the Old Testament for in the daily practice of the altar ceremonies, justice punishes sin in the ‘fire’ upon the sacrifices. ‘Fire’ was God’s anger inflicting judicial punishment upon the sinner, or more correctly, the animal in the sinners place. This occurred every day in the temple.
In the prophetic books we find further supporting evidence of the New Testament high definition view of the lake of fire. In Isaiah we see the phrase that Jesus commonly referred to in his parables:
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 ,Is 66:24)
In Daniel 7:10 ‘A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him’. That is Christ is seated on a throne and the lake of fire is that body of fire flowing out from his throne to judge his enemies. (As an aside, to maintain information of pagan thoughts that scripture is still free to borrow when beneficial in extruding it doctrine out from the elements of knowledge within men’s understanding, this imagery has a specific parallel to another Greek idea of a ‘river of fire’ beneath the earth that emptied out into a lake called Tartarus, which is also referred to by ‘hell’ in 2 Peter 2:4)
In summary, the ‘lake of fire’ is that final development of the concept of eternal death under the punishment of God. Sin, death, hell, devils, sinners and all the garbage that Jews used to throw into Gehenna ‘for burning’ will forever rest in a broad final ‘lake’ flowing out of God’s eternal throne of judgment. The fact that is also has brimstone in it, indicates the original horror and ‘stench to the senses’ of that molten fire that rained down on Sodom. ‘Brimstone’ or ‘sulfur’ is that rock that slowly burns and melts making a rotten egg like smell. It does not sound good. What this fire is, in terms of literal location, experience and suffering is not even slightly indicated in the Bible. We are to read between the lines of the images and humbly accept that we can only vainly imagine. However, as the wicked are resurrected with ‘spiritual bodies’, analogous to the ones we have on earth, it seems that the wicked will at a minimum have bodies that can endure this punishment whatever it is. The wicked are raised to pay for their sin and they must have bodies capable for the task. A human body would probably collapse just at the thought of approaching God’s throne let alone understanding, accepting and paying with full regret for a wasted life. This is truly a prophecy of warning concerning the end of the world for those outside of Christ. At the same time is a great comfort to those who are in Christ, for whose name they suffer the hatred of the world. He who has an ear to hear…