In Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell, in response to Bell’s commentary about the “open gates” in Revelation, Chan says that he would “love to believe” the open-gate theory, but can’t for three reasons. Chan writes,
First, Revelation 20 and 21 have already described the “lake of fire” as the final destiny of those who don’t follow Jesus in this life. There’s nothing in Revelation that suggests there’s hope on the other side of the lake. Second, there’s nothing in the text that says the lake of fire is intended to purify the wicked. [...] And third, even after the open-gates passage of 21:24-26, John goes on to depict two different destinies for believers and unbelievers.
I addressed the first objection in the blog, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Sin Wins, and I addressed the second objection in the blog, Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: English versus Greek. Today, I will address the third objection, “…even after the open-gates passage of 21:24-26, John goes on to depict two different destinies for believers and unbelievers.”
Chan first quotes Revelation 22:14-15 and then goes on to explain,
This passage says that there will be an ongoing separation between believers and unbelievers. What determines their destinies is whether or not they “wash[ed] their robes;” in other words, whether or not their sin has been dealt with through the blood of Jesus *in this life (see Rev. 7:14). I think it’s a stretch to suggest that unbelievers can wash their robes while in the lake of fire and then enter the gates.
[*Emphasis is not mine.]
The first problem I notice with Chan’s conclusions is the idea that Revelation 22:14-15 indicates an ongoing separation. Let’s read the passage:
Happy are those doing His commands that the authority shall be theirs unto the tree of the life, and by the gates they may enter into the city; and without [are] the dogs, and the sorcerers, and the whoremongers, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and every one who is loving and is doing a lie.
Notice that the text does indicate a separation, but it does not say anything about an ongoing separation. It simply states, if this, then that (cause and effect) – there’s the happy group, and if they are doing His commands, then they will be given the authority to access the tree of life and enter into the city, and there’s the other (bad) group, and if they are loving and doing a lie, then they will not be given the privileges of the first group. That’s it. It doesn’t say anything at all about “if this, then that” being a permanent situation. The actions of the people, the verbs “are doing” and “is loving” and “is doing”, are present tense. God’s response to the good actions, the verbs “shall be” and “may enter”, are future tense. This contrast between present action and future reward further emphasizes the idea of cause and effect in this passage.
If the separation is ongoing, as Chan asserts, then there is absolutely no point to this text. If everyone’s “eternal destiny” is solidified upon the moment of earthly death, then there is no longer a possibility of “if this, then that”, no change, no cause and effect. Think about it. According to the fundamentalist mindset, a decision to believe the truth or to believe a lie makes or breaks one’s salvation, irrevocably, once one’s heart stops. If everyone who is “saved” goes directly and irrevocably to Heaven, and everyone who is “not saved” goes directly and irrevocably to Hell (and/or the lake of fire), then shouldn’t the passage say, “Happy are those who did His commands in earthly life that the authority is already theirs unto the tree of the life, and by the gates they have already entered into the city; and without [are] the dogs, and the sorcerers, and the whoremongers, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and every one who loved and did a lie in earthly life“? After all, if this situation is based on decisions/actions that took place already, in this life, the present tense verbs become senseless.
Clearly, the message here is about a separation, but the basis for that separation is a dynamic situation in which action takes place and change occurs. There are two possibilities to consider, first, that the passage is actually about this life, that the access to the tree of life happens in this life, that the entering into the city takes place in this life, and that the actions of those not presently entering in or accessing the tree of life are in this life. The other possibility is that the vision represents a situation that takes place after this life.
One regular blog reader and avid blog commenter, Lanny Eichert, writes,
Don’t you see that [Revelation] 22: 6 is the beginning of the end of John’s vision and by verse 16 John is returned to Patmos from his vision? There are no invitations to the tormented thirsty souls in the Lake of Fire. The invitation of 22: 17 is given to those in the churches (verse 16) to proclaim to the mortal world of physically living souls. Also notice 17 says “the Spirit and the bride say” and it is bride not wife. The bride in this verse has not yet become the wife, so the invitation itself again brings us back to John’s contemporary moment in the first century. The invitation is the same Gospel invitation that has been proclaimed from the first century to today and it is addressed to the whole world of contemporary living mortal human beings like you and me.
In my opinion, Lanny puts forth a better argument than Chan, by asserting that the remainder of the book of Revelation, starting with 22:6 is in this life, that we are no longer reading about future events, we are reading about the present. This is certainly a possibility. Lanny’s point about the bride versus wife terminology seems, on the surface, to hold some weight. However, we learn in the previous chapter that the bride=wife=Jerusalem, interchangeable metaphors, three different names for one thing:
“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
As a side note, it is also significant that the Holy City is not heaven, it comes down from heaven. But all of this is another blog for another day. Right now, the main concern is whether Revelation 22 refers to future or present.
So how do we know in chapter 22 when the vision ends, what is future, and what is not? We don’t. There is nothing in the text to solidify in this life in contrast to after this life.
The second problem a have with what Chan writes is that he uses Revelation 7:14 to support the idea that “What determines their destinies is whether or not they “wash[ed] their robes;” in other words, whether or not their sin has been dealt with through the blood of Jesus *in this life.” If you read the passage, without reading into the passage, you will see no support there, whatsoever, for Chan’s claim. (I have included here verse 13 as well, for clarity.):
And answer did one of the elders, saying to me, “These, who have been arrayed with the white robes – who are they, and whence came they?” and I have said to him, “Sir, thou hast known;” and he said to me, “These are those who are coming out of the great tribulation, and they did wash their robes, and they made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb [...]“
What does it say? That a group of people “are coming out of the great tribuation” and they are wearing metaphorical white robes, “washed… in the blood of the Lamb”, in other words, they are righteous and sinless, not inherently, but because of what Jesus did for them. They are “clothed” in His righteousness, clothed in good works. Does this passage say that these are the only people who will ever have their robes washed? No. Does this passage say anything at all about “in this life”? No. While it is likely true that this particular group of people had their robes washed “in this life”, does the text say anything about “in this life” as a qualification that excludes all other people? No. The text makes an absolutely positive statement about one group of people. It does not say anything negative about “other” people. Chan is seeing something in this passage that simply is not there.
So here’s the bottom line.
If the end section of Revelation 22 refers exclusively to in this life then we can conclude:
- Almost two thousand years have passed since the angel was sent to tell God’s servants what “must soon take place”. When the angel spoke in behalf of Jesus and said, not once, not twice, but three times, “I am coming soon”, he really meant it would take almost two thousand years, hardly what I would describe as “the time is near”. (v. 6-10, 12, 20)
If the end section of Revelation 22 refers to exclusively to in this life AND death is the cut-off for salvation, or as Chan says, there’s an ongoing separation for those who have not dealt with sin “in this life”, then we can conclude:
- Sin and death (the work of the adversary that Jesus supposedly destroys) continues forever. The will of man trumps the will of God forever, and God responds by putting all these people who persist in rebellion in the lake of fire and/or outside the gates, where they keep on sinning. (v. 11, 14)
- Believers can access the tree of life right now. The Holy City has already descended. Believers can enter into it right now.
If the end section of Revelation 22 is still referencing a vision of the future or a combination of future events and events that are in the near future of John and the gang, then we can conclude:
- Death is not the cut off for salvation, the gate stays open, and people may in after they have their “robes washed”.
- The “coming soon” to which Jesus refers has to do with both the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the reward of good works versus the pain and consequences of evil works.
- Sin and death does not continue forever. God is able to bring the hard hearts of rebellious people into willing submission. There is no dark corner of the universe where the adversary rules forever.
- It is possible that this is spiritually and/or metaphorically true now and completely fulfilled later in a way that is obvious to everyone – Believers can access the tree of life right now. The Holy City has already descended. Believers can enter into it right now.
If all of this is just too much to think about, we have good reason to effectively dismiss both Chan’s and Lanny’s arguments by reading Revelation 21, being careful not to read into it what is not there:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. [...] I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
How can it be said that people will be judged and tested FOREVER in the lake of fire if God will wipe every tear from their eyes?
How can it be said that the fiery lake of burning sulfer is a FOREVER second death if God says there will be no more death?
How can it be said that people will FOREVER beg for one drop of cool water when God says He will give drink to the thirsty?
How can it be said that the majority of mankind will remain in an ongoing, FOREVER, state of corruption if God says He is making ALL things new?
How can it be said that once someone dies, their names can never be written in the Lamb’s book of life if God says the nations will walk in the light of the Lamb and bring glory and honor into the open gates?
How can it be said that Hell or the lake of fire is torment that lasts FOREVER if God says He will do away with mourning, crying, and pain?
Why should we dismiss everything in chapter 21 by making unsupported assumptions about chapter 22?
Regardless of what one believes regarding the present or future views on Revelation 22, Revelation 21 paints a very vivid picture of the Sovereignty and Glory of God in His just and merciful treatment of sinners.
Next blog: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Saved by Whose Choice?