From the beginning, Moses wrote that the penalty for sin was death, saying in Deut. 30:15 and 16, “I am setting in front of you today life and prosperity, death and adversity, in that I command you to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, statutes, and judgments, that you may live and multiply.”
He was telling the people that to violate God's laws was the way of death. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul put it this way in Rom. 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” There was no judgment of God's law that even implied torture in a literal fire for any sin. The penalty was merely death.
Jesus Christ came to pay the full penalty for our sin and for the sin of the whole world. This did not mean that Jesus would have to burn in the pit of hell. Not even for a moment—much less for eternity! He paid the full penalty for sin by dying on the cross, not by burning for eternity. If never-ending torture in hell were really the penalty for sin, then Jesus would still be there! Yet we find that Jesus was only required to be dead for three days.
But God is not so unjust as to torture people for disobeying Him. The nature of the “fire” is defined by the divine law itself, and the duration of the judgment is limited by the law of Jubilee.
Because of Adam's sin, all men have become mortal. That in itself is a judgment for sin. But the final judgment is the “lake of fire, which is the second death” (Rev. 20:14). This type of death is of a different sort. It speaks of the future age when the unbelievers who did not avail themselves of Jesus' offer of redemption will remain mortal and will have to learn right and wrong as servants of God.
In the final analysis, the law says that if a man cannot pay a debt (which is incurred by sin), he is to work as a bondservant to pay the debt. If the debt is too great to be paid, he must work until the year of Jubilee sets him free.
The unbelievers at the Great White Throne will be sentenced to work as bondservants until the final Jubilee sets them free. The purpose of this is not so that their masters can act like tyrants over a bunch of slaves. The purpose is given in Isaiah 26:9, where the prophet says, “When God's judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.”
In other words, the purpose of putting bond-servants under masters is so that the sinners of the earth may learn the will of God and learn to follow Christ. Their “masters” will teach them and train them in the laws of God. What a happy time!
For this reason Psalm 130:4 says, “There is forgiveness with Thee [God], in order that You may be respected.” We respect those who have the ability to forgive, not those who refuse to forgive after a certain deadline. God has often been presented as One who either will not or cannot forgive sin, once a man has completed his life on earth. It is no wonder so many have no respect for God. But I say that God has been misrepresented.
The word for “eternal” and “everlasting” is the Greek word, aeonian, which means “pertaining to an eon (age).” In other words, God's final judgments pertain to a specific age in the future that eventually will end with the great Creation Jubilee, when all judgment ceases, and all men are brought fully into the glory of God, even as He promised by covenant.
Many people throughout history have not known of Jesus' redemption payment. Others have rejected His redemption because they were misinformed about Him. Others preferred to fulfill the commands of their old slave master, sin, and did not want to be set free. Whatever the reason, many people have not availed themselves of Jesus' redemptive work.
So what is to happen to them?
The Bible speaks of a final day of judgment where all men will stand before the Great White Throne (Rev. 15:11-15). Here is where God will foreclose on all debts from the beginning. Here is where all men will be held accountable for their actions that they did in their life on earth.
The Bible speaks of this judgment in terms of “fire.” Some think this “fire” is a literal torture pit. It is not. The divine law never once dispenses torture as a judgment for any sin.
Deut. 4:12 tells us that God manifests Himself as a fire. In the New Testament, we read in Heb. 12:29 that God Himself is a consuming fire. This simply means that the presence of God will consume whatever is not good. Further, His judgments are designed to correct men, not to destroy them. They are designed to restore the lawful order, so that whatever men have done to violate the rights of others will be righted.
The law's purpose is to obtain justice for the wronged and forgiveness for the sinner who wronged those other people.
The divine law itself is the “lake of fire.” Moses tells us in Deut. 33:2 that the law is a “fiery law” in His hand.
Daniel 7:9 also pictures that final throne of God. He says that the throne itself is a fire, out of which comes a “fiery stream” that judges all men. It is simply a metaphoric way of saying that God's fiery law will judge all men. But to know the nature of that fire, one must study the divine law itself. And not once does the divine law prescribe torture for any sin.
Thus, the “lake of fire” in the Bible is never taken as literally as some have interpreted it.