The question of 'Eternal Conscious Punishment' is, and has been, as certain other 'orthodox' doctrines a source of much controversy, and even division within the Body of Christ. I was just the other day, on the subject of the resurrection, particularly of the unjust ( I just 'happened' to be reading John 5 ) as laid out in John 5:28 and Daniel 12:2, and remembering Jesus' words to Martha, in John 11:25. and the orthodoxical problems associated with the doctrine of 'conditional immortality', and with the refutation of the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Punishment. For years; I have held to the first, and refuted the latter; citing passages such as Daniel 3, and Genesis 3:22 in defense of the doctrine of 'conditional immortality', but finding no acceptable Scriptural support for the refutation of the doctrine of ECP, as laid out in passages like Revelation 20:10 and 14:10, of which the latter portion reads that 'he shall be tormented in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb'. John continues his thought in the next verse, which traditionally has served to 'fan the flames' of the doctrine of ECP, 'and the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever'. Formerly; and I believe that it is still a plausible, though maybe unwise, explanation of these seemingly clear verses, I would point out, from the Scriptures, that the word 'forever' did not ( necessarily ) mean forever, as in 'for eternity' but often meant simply, 'a long time'. In fact, the Greek phrase 'eis aion' indicates that this torment was unto the ages, which to it's original audience, especially those familiar with the words of Jesus and the writings of the apostle Paul, would have reminded them of the 'age' that they were currently living in, the Old Covenant age, which age was drawing to a close. I've recently read, from a brother of mine, that he believes that the 'Lake of Fire' still burns, enveloping those outside the City, the New Jerusalem, the Church, or the Body of Christ. With these words in mind; I came to the realization, with my study of John 5 and such, that this torment which was/is forever, in the presence of God and all His people, or angels, was and is simply the torment that those without Christ, or God went through, and still suffer , while on this earth.
There has been much discussion, of late, on this and like subjects over at the 'Covenant Talk' group on Facebook; one certain discussion that I was involved in personally was a discussion of whether the 'Lake of Fire' existed today and what was or is the nature of that 'Fire'. Reading the 'Wars' of Josephus'; one can see that, in many cases, assuming that the sack ( burning ) of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD70 was 'the Lake of Fire' referred to by John in the Revelation, the 'Lake of Fire had a very literal fulfillment in that cataclysmic conflagration, but in a spiritual and almost metaphorical, yet still very real sense, the 'Fire' burns still today: more on this later..................
There is no doubt that when John relayed Jesus' words to us in John 5:25 & 28 that he had in mind His words to Daniel, in Daniel 12:2. There is some question, however, whether the the words of Christ in verse 25 speak of the same resurrection as those in verse 28. In the historical ( and covenantal ) context of Jesus' words; I believe that we can say, with some certainty, that He was speaking specifically to that 'generation', so that when He said, in verse 25, that 'the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live', He was saying simply that all those that heard the Gospel ( both directly and indirectly ) would be awakened, but that not all who heard ( Pharisees, for instance ) would truly understand and believe ( Isaiah 6:10 ). In verses 28 and 29, Jesus is referring more directly to Daniel 12:2, and the 'final judgment' of the first century, but again to the fact that all would be 'awakened', and that some would respond in a positive way, and that some would respond negatively. Those who responded in a positive manner ( obeyed ) were then granted entry into the Kingdom of God, and His presence, while those who responded in a negative way ( disobeyed ) were condemned ( John 3:18 ) to perish in the 'Lake of Fire', of which John wrote in the Revelation, the conflagration and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, signaling the final and definitive end of the Old Covenant economy, or age.
The doctrine of Eternal Conscious Punishment is not an easy one, Scripturally speaking, to refute, because it is not easy to deny the 'plain' truth of the passages that I've already cited ( I'm sure there are others ).You may be asking yourself, at this point, 'what does John 11 have to do with this subject, of the resurrection of condemnation?' Well, as I said; I was sitting there thinking on these things, and I realized the truth of what Jesus told Martha; 'I am the resurrection...................' When God sent His Son, 'born of a virgin' (Luke 1:26-38 ), 'of the seed of David according to the flesh' ( Romans 1:3 ) to 'save His people from their sins' ( Matthew 1:21 ); He did indeed 'wake' His people ( the Jews ) from their comfortable slumber, the sleep of death 'under' the Old Covenant, but while some 'woke' to the Righteousness and Life that is Christ, some did not, but preferring to seek their own righteousness ( by the Law ), were condemned to final and irreversible death in the Lake of Fire. Typically speaking, the letter to the Hebrews, in particular the third and fourth chapters, has much to say on this account; in Hebrews 3:7-11, the writer quotes Psalm 95:7-11, concerning the 'children of Israel, as an example or those who should come after. 'Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where you fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, 'they always go astray in their hearts, and they have not known my ways'. So I swore in My wrath, 'they shall not enter My rest'! The children of these 'children', Old Covenant Israel 'after the flesh' ( Romans 9:6-8 ) had the same problem; even though they had seen the works of God, in Christ, God incarnate, and had heard the Gospel, they refused to hear the Truth, and thus were refused entrance into that Promised Land of rest (Hebrews 4:3-5 )!
In Exodus 3:1-6, we read about the famous 'burning bush' from which God revealed Himself to Moses, speaking as the Angel of the Lord ( traditionally the pre-incarnate Christ ) from the midst of the bush that was burning, 'but was not consumed'. The writer to the Hebrews no doubt recalled this very story when he wrote that 'our God is a consuming fire'' ( Hebrews 12:29 ). The immediate context of this statement is at the end of a discussion where the writer told his readers that they had indeed, as Jesus said in Matthew 12:28, come, 'not to the mountain that may be touched', but to 'the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem'. The writer, whom some believe was a student, or disciple ( follower ) of Paul's, no doubt had in mind Paul's words to this effect in Galatians 4:25 & 26. Speaking of the difference between the 'Old' and 'New' covenants which God had made with His people Israel; Paul wrote, 'for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is ( earthly, natural ), and is in bondage with her children-but the Jerusalem above ( heavenly, spiritual ) is free, which is the mother of us all'.
'Why', you may ask, 'is he bringing this up; where is he going with this?'
The point I am making here, is that God was about to ( Greek-mello ) 'consume', both metaphorically and physically, His 'Old' Covenant creation, as He did in the days of Noah ( II Peter 3:5 & 6, Matthew 24:37-39 ), in which 'the elements will melt with fervent heat', and the 'earth and the works that are in it will be burned up'. Paul, or this follower of his, had written, 'in words hard to understand' ( II Peter 3:16 )that God Himself was this 'consuming fire' which would wreak all this havoc, and bring in 'a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells'! Again, in the letter to the Hebrews ( 6:7 & 8 ); we can read the writers analogy of a piece of ground; 'For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by who it is cultivated ( think of Genesis 1:11 ), receives blessing from God ( Matthew 13:23 ), but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned ( Matthew 13:40, II Thessalonians 1:8 )'. Chapter 9 of the Gospel according to Mark is probably one of the 'plainest' statements in Scripture that 'the fire.....shall never be quenched', and while Jesus does say that this fire is 'hell'; He used the Greek form of the Hebrew for the Valley of Hinnom ( Gehennah ), and while this word is most likely based upon the fact that, as the garbage dump, if you will, for the city of Jerusalem, the imagery would have been that of the continuous fires kept burning there. As Jesus was using such vivid ( to them ) imagery ( Isaiah 66:24 ), to impress upon His listeners the punishment for disobedience to the Gospel, or 'blasphemy of the Holy Spirit', I believe we can say with some confidence, as is the case with the 'parable' of the rich man and Lazarus, in Luke 16, that it is not meant to be taken, as with all parables, at face value, but carried a deeper, hidden meaning, a greater spiritual truth.
Is our God still a consuming fire?
As I wrote earlier; there has been, and probably will continue to be, some disagreement over what this 'Lake of Fire was; I would have to say that, although it may be considered somewhat of a 'fine line'; the 'Lake of Fire' that John wrote of in the Revelation was the conflagration of AD70, when Jerusalem and the Temple were burned. Was God the Fire that was behind this desolation? Most definitely! Although this is the case; I do not believe it to be correct to say that the 'Lake of Fire still 'burns' today, though spiritually it could be said, I believe, because the Author of that Fire is eternally existent. Does He still test ( by 'fire' ) our faith? I believe He does, and will continue to do so, though Peter's admonition in I Peter 1:6 & 7 must have given a more immediate sense of comfort to those first-century Christians who first read them. Is God still the consuming fire then, that He was to first-century Judaism, to the Old Covenant economy ( 'under' law )?
When one hears of all the AIDS-related deaths in the world, all the other horrific diseases that have plagued mankind over the millenia since the advent of Christ, all the earthquakes and other 'natural' disasters that have rocked this planet since before history was written; it's easy to see the hand of God in it all ( unless you're a Deist, and believe that God wound the universe up like a clock, then just sat back to watch it unfold ), especially if you're a believer in the sovereignty and omnipotence of God; think of Jesus calming the waves, in Matthew 8:23-27, made the sun stand still ( or the earth, rather ) in Joshua 10:12-14, and brought terrible plagues upon the land of Egypt in Exodus 7, 8, 10, and 11! Is God still a consuming fire; are there those who are consumed, rather than purified by His 'fire'? I believe that He is, and there are. Paul said, in I Corinthians 15:25, that 'He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet': in context, both covenantally and historically I believe, he was speaking of that reign of Christ, which would then be symbolically handed over to God the Father, after Christ had subdued all His enemies under His feet, I.e., crushed the head of the serpent ( Genesis 3:15 ( Romans 16:20 ).
I hope that some questions that may have been bothering my readers have been answered, and that the implications, especially concerning John's 'Lake of Fire' ( Revelation 19:20, 20:10-15, and 21:8 ), of the first-century fulfillment of prophecy in the return on clouds of judgment of Old Covenant apostate Israel ( remember the remnant? ), which signaled the end of the Jewish age, and the full manifestation and authority of the eternal, New Covenant age.
May God continue to bless us all with the wisdom which only comes from 'above', as we study these things out, ever learning, ever seeking His kingdom and His righteousness and not our own!
In His Service,
and for His Kingdom ,