(2 Pet 3:7) By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
Once again, Peter says it plainly. This destruction is by fire — the same fire that destroys the present heavens and earth. He specifically joins the burning of the present heavens and earth with the destruction of the ungodly. This language is, of course, familiar to readers of the Gospels —
(Mat 13:40-42) “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Notice that Jesus says this happens “at the end of the age,” that is, when the old heavens and earth are burned with fire. And while Jesus says evil doers will weep and gnash teeth, he doesn’t say they’ll do so forever.
We sometimes think of this fire as fire that lasts forever, meaning that the burning up of the lost lasts forever, based on such verses as —
(Mat 3:12) “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
“Unquenchable” doesn’t mean that the chaff burns forever. It means that the fire can’t be put out — God’s decree is irrevocable. As we considered earlier, “unquenchable” refers back to Jer 7:20 and 17:27, which speak of the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. God’s verdict against Jerusalem could not be changed, once made. It would be destroyed. But the destruction itself lasted months, not forever.
(Mat 18:8 ) If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.
Here, Jesus speaks of the fire being eternal (aionios), but not of torment being eternal. Of course, “eternal” can very easily mean “fire of the next age,” so that Jesus is making the point that this death, this second death, will occur in the next age, with the damned being judged and destroyed after their first death.
Now, we need to pause to consider Jesus’ references to the fire prepared for the devil —
(Mat 25:41) “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Compare Rev 19:20 with 20:10 —
(Rev 19:20) But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.
(Rev 20:10) And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
Verse 20:10 occurs 1,000 years (whatever that symbolizes) after 19:20 and further indicates that the torment of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet will be in torment forever. “For ever and ever” which is literally “ages of ages,” the same phrase used of God (1:18, 4:9-10, 10:6, 15:7) and of God’s reign (1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:6, 5:13-14, 7:12, 11:15).
Some (such as the Scofield Bible notes) argue that this proves that the damned will suffer unending torment. But this is hardly the case. The passages speak solely of the devil, the beast (the Roman Empire or, as Mounce argues in the New International Commentary on Revelation, any secular authority that allows itself to be deified), and the false prophet.
The false prophet, also called the beast which comes out of the earth in chapter 13, is a reference to the religious authorities in Rome, specifically the priests of the imperial cult and the provincial councils charged with enforcing emperor worship. Of course, the symbolism further applies to any religion that encourages worship of secular powers (which should be a warning to the modern church!)
Therefore, although we can interpret Revelation to say that the devil and his minions will suffer never-ending torment, that hardly proves that damned humans will do so. In fact, the Revelation argues very much to the contrary. You see, in Rev. 20:21, we find that although the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, those who followed them — humans — were “killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.” This obviously suggests a different fate: death.
Later on, in Rev 20, those who follow Satan are defeated by fire from heaven that devours them (20:9). Again, they die.
Finally, John pictures Judgment Day in 20:12-15 —
(Rev 20:14-15) Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
And so, after repeated pictures of those outside of Jesus being killed, we are told they will suffer a “second death.”
(Rev 2:10-11) Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
The second death is contrasted here with a “crown of life.” The choice is death or life, not a blissful life or an agonizing life. There are two “deaths” (thanatos, in the Greek) — one in this age, which may well come from martyrdom, and a second death in the next age, reserved for the unfaithful.