The letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2:1–3:22) constitute the first sevenfold prophecy of Revelation and one that has received multidimensional interpretations. In the original context in which they were written, the seven letters were addressed to seven literal churches in the time of John that were facing issues that he wrote to address. As such, they have a localized application. Going a step further, the historicist approach maintains a broader application in which each of the seven churches represents one era in the history of the Christian Church, beginning with the time of John and the other apostles and reaching all the way to the end of the age. A third line of approach that is complementary rather than antagonistic to the previous two is that the messages to all the churches have an application to believers of all times; that is, believers or groups of believers may exemplify the characteristics of any of the churches and may therefore need the relevant counsel. This approach is supported by the fact that Jesus promises to come to all the churches, suggesting that they all exist in some form to the end of the age. As such, the eschatological dimensions of the messages to all the churches are relevant to a study on the topic of hell.
Ranko Stefanovic has observed that the order of the seven churches reflects a parallel between the first and last, second and sixth, third and fifth—with Thyatira, the fourth, as the apex.1 The following symmetric arrangement is visible in relation to the warnings.
A. Ephesus: removal of lampstand from its place (Rev. 2:5)
B. Smyrna: (no direct warning)
C. Pergamum: will come quickly and make war (vs. 16)
D. Thyatira: I will kill her children (vss. 22, 23)
C1. Sardis: come like a thief, not know when I come (3:3)
B1. Philadelphia: (no direct warning)
A1. Laodicea: spit you out of the mouth (vs. 16)
As may be noted in the above structure, the message to Ephesus, though worded differently, corresponds to that of Laodicea; that of Pergamum to Sardis; and the absence of a direct warning to Smyrna with a similar absence to Philadelphia. Thyatira forms the climax of this arrangement. The promises manifest a similar structure.
B. Smyrna: the crown of life, not hurt by second death (vss. 10, 11)
C. Pergamum: the hidden manna, a white stone, a new name
D. Thyatira: authority over nations, rule with an iron
scepter, give the morning star (vss. 26, 27)
C1. Sardis: not blot out the name from the book of life; will walk
in white (3:5)
B1. Philadelphia: hold crown, a pillar in the temple, never to leave
(vss. 11, 12)
A1. Laodicea: the right to sit and eat with Jesus (3:20, 21)
From the above structure of promises, it is evident that a similar parallel exists between Ephesus and Laodicea, Smyrna and Philadelphia, and Pergamum and Sardis, respectively. This again points to Thyatira as the climax.
Warnings and Promises to Ephesus and Laodicea
The lampstand threatened to be removed from its place is one of the seven in whose midst John had seen the risen Christ (Rev. 1:12, 13; 2:1). They represent the seven churches (1:19). Christ thus warns that He will visit Ephesus and remove it from its place. To fully grasp the significance of the statement it is important to understand a few key words. The word translated as “‘coming to you’” means “to come” and “to go,” both literally and figuratively.3 It is often used of the occurrence of fateful happenings. The phrase translated “‘coming to you,’” implies disadvantage.4 Thus, there seems to be hostility emphasized; Christ comes to judge the church negatively if she does not repent of her sins.
The verb translated as “‘remove’” means “to move,” “move away,” or “remove.” It appears in the context of a first-class conditional statement that assumes truth for the sake of argument. This means that if Ephesus does not repent, its removal from among the seven lampstands in whose midst Christ walks will be the sure result (Rev. 1:12, 13). Hence, a deep seriousness underlies this statement. Ephesus will be rejected if she does not repent. She will be separated from Christ, who is the source of her life and existence.
The promise given to overcomers is described as follows: “‘I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God’” (Rev. 2:7). A brief analysis of a few key words will make this promise more vivid. The verb translated as “‘grant’” derives from “to give.” As it stands in the passage, “‘I will give/grant’” shows predictively what Christ will give to the overcomers in the future. The tree of life is mentioned four times in Revelation (2:7; 22:2, 14, 19). The right to partake of its fruit is a reversal of what happened in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, having sinned, were denied the right to eat from the tree of life. The end result was death (Gen. 3:22–24). Paradise is a loanword from Persian meaning “enclosure” or “park.” The Greeks used the term for the parks of Persian kings, while in the Septuagint it refers to the Garden of Eden as a technical religious term. In Jewish literature, it is portrayed as a future inheritance of the righteous when they shall again receive immortality as a restoration of God’s original intention for humankind that was frustrated by sin.
It is evident that the language of warning and of promise revolve around the concept of life. Removal of the lampstand signifies removal from Christ, the Source of all life, and therefore removal of life itself. The promise by contrast offers a full restoration to life without the prospect of death as was intended in Eden. No intimations of torment are given to Ephesus; the choice is between life and death.
Laodicea is the last church among the seven. The language of vomit probably entails a sense of urgency. Lukewarm water may cause an immediate reaction in the body. Likewise, the lukewarmness of Laodicea will result in a swift response; judgment will not tarry. It at once portrays the decisiveness of God’s negative verdict of a people unfaithful to His faithful and true witness, who is in fact the standard of eschatological judgment. So in terms of warning, both the messages to Ephesus and Laodicea spell ejection and death. They emphasize a removal from Christ, who alone has the key of death.
Promises to Smyrna and Philadelphia
Smyrna and Philadelphia are the two churches that receive no rebuke or direct warning. The absence of a warning to Smyrna should not lead to the conclusion that Smyrna is a church at peace. The text indicates that Smyrna was to go through persecution even to the point of death and is thus admonished to remain faithful (Rev. 2:10). Persecution perhaps played a major role in purifying the church and may explain the lack of warning.
The phrase translated “until death” occurs three times in the New Testament (Acts 22:4; Rev. 2:10; 12:11). The emphasis is that believers were to remain faithful to the point that they may actually die, not merely threatened with death. It is also important to note that they are urged to maintain the faithfulness which they already have so as to receive the promise of life. If they do not, they might lose their crowns. Thus, though Smyrna does not receive any direct warning, there is an indirect one in the call to persevere.
Four facts point strongly in this direction. First, death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). These impersonal entities cannot be tormented, and the force of the saying is that death and Hades will come to an end: God will put an end to death since it was not part of His original intent for Creation. Second, the very fact that the lake of fire is called the “second death” indicates that the result is death, not everlasting suffering. Third, immediately after the scene of the lake of fire in Revelation 20:14 and 15, John sees a restored creation (21:1–5) in which there are no more tears, death, crying or pain (vs. 4), a picture that definitely excludes an everlasting hell of incomprehensible torment. Fourth, within the context of the message to Smyrna, there is clearly a parallel with the faithfulness of believers “‘until death’” and the ensuing promise that they will not be harmed by the “second death.” So while the first one is temporal, the second death is permanent.
Thus, the eschatological promise to Smyrna, like the one to Ephesus and Laodicea, centers on the concepts of life and death. The second death, which entails the cessation of life, will be powerless on them because of their faithfulness to the end. Everlasting torment has no place in this picture.
To Philadelphia, like Smyrna, no message of warning is given. The church is instead admonished to hold on to what she has, just as those in Smyrna were asked to remain faithful until death. What is promised, as in Smyrna, is a “crown” (Rev. 3:11). Furthermore, the overcomers are promised to be made pillars in God’s temple forever (vs. 12). The symbolism of being made a pillar in God’s temple reflects Revelation 7:15 to 17, in which the saints worship God day and night in His heavenly temple. Thus, living in God’s temple could be viewed as a symbol for eternal salvation.
Furthermore, the overcomer will “‘“never go out from it [temple] anymore”’” (Rev. 3:12). Clearly, this is not language of restriction but of assurance. David longed to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6), a place He considered safe (Ps. 27:4) because the Lord dwells there (Ps. 11:4; Hab. 2:20), and from where He hears His people’s cries (2 Sam. 22:7; Ps. 18:6). Also, in His temple, God satisfies with His goodness (Ps. 65:4). The temple in view here is the heavenly temple, located in the New Jerusalem, where God welcomes believers and gives them a new name (Rev. 3:12). As such, in the promise to the faithful Philadelphians, the hopes of the Old Testament saints reach a grander fulfillment. By contrast, exclusion from the city of God leads to destruction (Rev. 20:9; 22:15). To be in the city and/or temple as opposed to outside may also reflect the language of exclusion exemplified in the outer darkness sayings of Jesus in which there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Such language, though often associated with the supposed torments of hell, rightly understood points to exclusion from the kingdom with no notion of temporary—let alone everlasting—torment.
To the church of Pergamum, the message is that unless she repents, Christ will come quickly and fight them with the sword of His mouth (Rev. 2:16). This “coming,” like that of Revelation 2:5, has a twofold application. First, it may refer to a temporal “coming,” a divine visitation upon Pergamum’s unrighteous conduct. In other words Christ would not allow the situation prevailing in the church to go unchecked. Second, in the broader, universal understanding of the messages to the seven churches, the coming can mean nothing less than the coming of Jesus in glory. Thus, the phrase “‘I am coming to you quickly,’” parallels closely the “I am coming quickly” of Revelation 22:7 and 12, clear references to the Second Coming. The two interpretations are not contradictory, since God’s interventions of judgment in history mirror His grander intervention at the end of the age.
At His coming, Jesus warns Pergamum that He will “‘“make war against them with the sword of [His] mouth”’” (Rev. 2:16). The sword coming out of the mouth looks back to the description of the heavenly Christ in Revelation 1:16 and, more importantly, ties the warning to Pergamum with the eschatological war of Revelation 19, in which the sword is mentioned twice (vss. 15, 21). The war of Revelation 19 is a representation of the Second Coming, and the sword signals the utter annihilation of the enemies of God (vs. 21). Military language is a common symbol for the Day of the Lord, and the result is always destruction.
The origin of manna is from the exodus of Israel from Egypt and shows how God lovingly and supernaturally provided sustenance for His people. Manna looked like white coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey (Ex. 16:31; Num. 11:7). God provided manna for 40 years (Ex. 16:35), until Israel crossed the Jordan (Joshua 5:12). It provided life in a barren wilderness, and without it, Israel may have perished (Ex. 16:3). The fact that it is called “angels’ food” (Ps. 78:25, NKJV) probably indicates that at least in part the fulfillment points to eternal life. Since some manna was kept in the ark of the covenant (Ex. 16:33) in the sanctuary/temple, its mention creates a link to the heavenly temple language of the promise to Philadelphia: Yhose who find themselves in the heavenly temple of God will partake of heavenly food.
Therefore, the eating from the hidden manna and the receiving of a stone with a new name can refer only to the reception of the gift of immortal life at Christ’s second coming. The giving of a new name refers to past Scripture references in which persons’ names were changed. Examples include that of Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah (Gen. 17:5, 15, 16), and Jacob to Israel (32:27, 28). A name often stands for character, and a new name would indicate a new character. Hence, in the promise of a “new name,” the Christian is being assured of a new and different character, patterned after that of God (Isa. 62:2; 65:15).
To the church of Sardis, the message is “‘“I will come like a thief.”’” This thief motif employs imagery elsewhere associated with the second coming of Christ (Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10; Rev. 16:15). Some see a possibility, however, that a more immediate visitation of judgment is described here. Thus, the failure to watch seems to be the reason that they will not know what hour Christ will come (Rev. 3:3) upon them, whereas, in the case of the second coming of Christ, even for those who are watching, He will come “‘at an hour you do not expect’” (Matt. 24:42, 44, ESV).
This caveat aside, the emphasis seems to be on preparedness and unpreparedness for the Second Coming. Thus, while believers are admonished to always be ready (Matt. 24:44; Luke 12:40), Sardis’ potential failure will mean that when Christ appears unannounced, she will not be ready to meet Him. There is also possibly a parallel to the saying of the thief who comes to steal and destroy (John 10:10). Thus, Jesus’ coming to the unrepentant in the eschatological judgment can only bring death. Furthermore, the effects of Christ coming quickly to Pergamum and His coming like a thief to Sardis are the same. To both He comes unexpectedly, at the time they are not looking for Him. To both He comes to potentially judge negatively.
Furthermore, overcomers are assured of the maintenance of their name in the book of life. The idea of erasure of a name from the book of life alludes to Moses’ intercession for the Israelites when God was contemplating the destruction of Israel (Ex. 32:32). The same notion can be seen in the experience of Paul, though he does not use the exact words (Rom. 9:2, 3).The motif of a book of life in which the names of the saved are written and the motif of the erasure of a person’s name from such a book nullifies the idea of once-saved-always-saved (Rev. 17:8).
Finally, rather than erase the name, Jesus promised to instead acknowledge one’s name before His father and His holy angels (Rev. 3:5). The term translated as “to confess” means “to make an emphatic assertion” (Matt. 7:23; 14:7; John 1:20; Acts 7:17; 24:14). In the Book of Revelation, the term is used only once. The idea of confessing one’s name before God and the angels is also found in Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels (Matt. 10:32; Luke 12:8). Here, too, as in Revelation, the idea comes in the context of eschatological judgment. So, those whose names are confessed are those judged as worthy for eternal life and fit to live with God and His angels.
The message to the church of Thyatira seems to be the climax of the messages to the seven churches. It is to this church that Christ reveals Himself as the Son of God and informs her that His eyes are like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass (Rev. 3:18). Both of these characteristics suggest impending judgment. Christ’s dealing with the church could be summed up as “penetrative judgment.”7 His piercing vision sees all, and His feet, with which He will tread upon the wicked in the winepress of God’s wrath (14:19; Isa. 63:1–4), are of irresistible strength. Jesus will judge the wicked in the church with that which none can prevent or defy. The message to Thyatira is, “‘“I will cast her upon a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence”’” (Rev. 2:22, 23). The language of judgment is very strong.
The noun translated here as “‘tribulation’” is used 40 times in the New Testament outside the Book of Revelation, while in Revelation it is used only five times (1:9; 2:9, 10, 22; 7:14), making a total of 45. It is used predominantly of the tribulations believers suffered either as a result of persecution or simply by living in a sinful world. Here is the only instance in which the cause of the tribulation appears to be Jesus. There is a question as to whether this tribulation is punitive or serves to bring Thyatira to repentance. It could be understood as punitive in the sense that it follows on 2:21 where Jesus declares that Jezebel did not repent. Conversely, the last clause of 2:22, which is a warning to repent, could be understood to imply that the tribulation is a last resort to move Thyatira to repent, in a similar vein to Hebrews 12:6, where “whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.”
The verb in Revelation 22:2 translated as “‘cast’” is often used in scenes of judgment in the Gospels. In such contexts it can have the idea of “casting” in fire (Matt. 3:10), or Gehenna (5:29), and “casting out” of the kingdom (vs. 13). Here, by contrast, those associating themselves with Jezebel will be thrown into a bed. Throwing one into a sickbed is seen as a Hebrew idiom that means “to cast upon a bed of illness,” thus punishing someone with various forms of sickness. The motif may also point back to Exodus 21:18 to 20, in which an injured or sick person falls in bed, contrasting thus the bed of fornication with the bed of affliction. While, however, in Exodus 21:18 to 20, there was likelihood for the injured person to recover, here the sure result will be death.
The burden of this passage was that any punishment would be commensurate to the offense. This might indeed be the concept here as well. Jezebel deserved death because of her idolatry (1 Kings 16:28–19:3) and received her due reward when Jehu destroyed her and those who followed her into Baal worship (2 Kings 9:30–37; 10:1–28). The idea of the punishment being commensurate to the offense is common in the New Testament in general (1 Cor. 3:8; 1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Tim. 4:14; Heb. 2:2; 2 John 1:8) and Revelation in particular (18:18; 22:12). The reference to Jezebel is clearly symbolic, and the casting of Jezebel on the sickbed of suffering depicts judgment that is connected with the coming of Jesus, thus eschatological.
Since the name Jezebel is used symbolically in the letter to Thyatira, the reference to “‘her children’” must also symbolically refer to believers who had followed after the false teachings of the symbolic Jezebel. The followers of Jezebel’s teachings were to be struck dead with a plague. Since children assume a future, their being killed denotes a lack of one. This seems to point to a complete extermination of all associated with Thyatira’s evil. So not only would Jezebel herself be punished; but her children as well, a sign of a complete destruction. There is finality in this language in terms of dealing with evil, once and for all.
Again, the question arises whether temporal or eschatological killing is in view. The fact that other churches come to know God’s justice (Rev. 2:23) as a result of the destruction of Jezebel’s followers may suggest a temporal context. It is more likely, however, that the final judgment is in view. Jesus declares that all the churches will come to know that Jesus will give each one “‘“according to your deeds”’” (vs. 23). This expression appears nine times in the New Testament predominantly in an eschatological context with a view to the Day of Judgment. As such, it is best understood in the same way here.
As already observed, to the church of Thyatira, Christ identifies Himself clearly as the Son of God. In addition, He also mentions His judgment of death to this church when He says, “‘I will kill her children.’” Furthermore, it is only to this church that He clearly gives a warning that has a universal application; “‘“All the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds”’” (vs. 23). Here is seen that just as Jesus is the Son of God to all the churches, He will punish with death all that will not repent in any of the seven churches, which are actually symbolic of the Christian Church as a whole.
The promises to Thyatira also point to a contrast between life and death that we noticed in the other churches. Jesus promises overcomers that He will give them the morning star and power to rule the nations. The promise is primarily eschatological, offering believers the right to participate in the triumph of God’s rule over all the earth (Rev. 2:26–28). This means that believers were not to look forward to a time when they would sit down to rule in this present world, but rather looked forward to the world made anew (20:6; 21:1). They were to hold fast to what they had until Christ would come, so as to share in Christ’s messianic rule. In the Gospels, Jesus promised the disciples that they would one day sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30). The same idea is also attested by Paul (1 Cor. 6:2).
The eschatological theme of God’s judgment has the kingdom and its dominion as its climax (Dan. 7:14, 26, 27). Thus, the eschatological judgment looks forward to the rightful heirs of the kingdom of God taking their rightful place. The message to Thyatira assures the overcomers authority over the nations, which is the ultimate occupation of the saints with Jesus. Furthermore, though it is rightly understood that of the seven cities of Asia Minor mentioned in Revelation, Thyatira was the least significant, the church here received the longest letter.
Furthermore, closely tied to what the book is, a revelation of Jesus (Rev. 1:1), it is to this church that Jesus plainly reveals Himself as “‘the Son of God’” (2:18). This title, which attests to the divinity of Christ, is used 16 times in the New Testament.
Generations of believers have anticipated the Second Coming in their lifetime, right from the time of the apostolic age. Though the messages to the seven churches of Revelation had first been directed to the seven churches in Asia Minor and second have been understood to represent seven periods in the history of Christianity, nonetheless, each message has its own importance for believers of every age. The significance of the judgment language to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 is understood from the perspective of Jesus’ self-revelation in chapter 1. This He does by saying; “‘I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades’” (1:17, 18). Thus, depending on whether the churches respond to Him or not, life and death become inevitable, respectively.
In like manner, Smyrna, as the second church, corresponds with the sixth, Philadelphia. Both receive no threats, though they are implied in the promises given. Though those who remain faithful in Smyrna will not be hurt by the second death, those who hold on to what they have in Philadelphia will be made pillars in God’s temple. The second death was shown to mean the cessation of all life rather than everlasting torment. By contrast, those who are made pillars in God’s temple remain with Jesus and dwell with Him eternally.
Similarly, the effect of the message to the third church, Pergamum corresponds to that of Sardis, the fifth church. Though Christ is seen as coming quickly to Pergamum, to Sardis He comes as a thief. In both, the effects on the unprepared are the same. Furthermore, while Christ threatens to fight those who think they can live without Him, Christ’s coming like a thief to Sardis also points to the thief’s purpose for visiting any home. Just as fighting leads to destruction and death, a thief also seeks to destroy and kill. So, in both, death seems to be the ultimate goal.
As regards the promises, Pergamum is assured that it will eat from the hidden manna and to be given a white stone with a new name. These symbolize reception of immortality, exoneration, and admission into God’s kingdom. Similarly, Sardis will walk in white, and the names of the faithful will not be erased from the book of life. The whiteness of the stone and the white garments both point to the purity that is received from Christ’s righteousness. The new name written on a stone is similar to having one’s name maintained and confessed before the Father. At the end of the day, the message is that both are worthy to live with Jesus forever.
Last, Thyatira, the fourth church, forms the climax of the eschatological message to the seven churches. This is also signaled by the fact that though she seems least in significance, she receives the longest letter. Other signals are seen of how Jesus chooses to reveal Himself as the Son of God and the openness of His message to them; He searches all, and gives judgment in proportion to works done. Furthermore, in His judgment to Thyatira, He wants all the churches to listen.
The repeated references to life and death through a variety of motifs and language throughout the messages to the seven churches paint in stark colors what is at stake in the battle between good and evil and what will be the reward of the righteous and the destiny of the wicked: eternal life for the former, and the total and complete loss of all life for the latter. Nowhere does judgment entail eternal or even temporal torment. The concept simply does not enter the picture.
Kim Papaioannou, Ph.D., pastors in Cyprus.
Edward Moyo, Ph.D., is dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies, Rusangu University, Monze, Zambia.
NOTES AND REFERENCES