HOUSMAIL HM#119 - Touchstones and Eternal Torment                                                                  27 December 2004

This all started with a need to understand the meaning of the phrase "tormented for ever and ever". (Rev 20:10)

It is an important topic. The mainstream Church has long used the threat of eternal torture, to control its members. And it regularly uses fear to reclaim "backsliders", or compel heathens to "convert". It has even used the concept to justify torture and murder, to gain conversions! e.g. The Spanish Inquisition. In my childhood it was common to hear of "Christian" parents who won reluctant obedience from their children, with threats of "hellfire". And wouldn‘t you know it? Throughout the history of the Church, this teaching has all too often been used as a tool to extract money from terrified sinners!

Of course those who KNOW that the doctrine of "eternal torment" is not supported elsewhere in the Scriptures, will want to look a bit more carefully at the meaning of this passage. How can it be read in harmony with the rest of the Bible, which clearly teaches that the dead are unconscious; and that the punishment of the wicked is everlasting DESTRUCTION?

Throughout the Bible it is clearly stated that the penalty of sin is death; and that death is the cessation of conscious existence. (Eccl 9:5) When applied as a penalty, it is the culmination of a judicial process which cuts short the life of the convicted sinner. Once the sinner is dead, the law is satisfied and punishment is complete. Paul says that they are "destroyed from the presence of God". (2 Thess 2:9) They are in a place where God does not go. And that can only mean non-existence in the most absolute sense!

The death of Jesus on the Cross, is the ultimate proof that the conscious experience of punishment for sin is of limited duration.. His resurrection confirms that it is not everlasting torture in "hell". If it is everlasting torture, then Jesus should still be in "hell" in torment. And if it is really "for ever and ever", the ransom price which is supposed to set us free from our own penalty, will never ever be paid in full! He would have to stay there suffering torture, for all eternity!

Praise God! It isn‘t like that at all. No sinner can ever be asked to pay more than Jesus has already done. Otherwise it would leave God open to accusation that His Son had paid a lesser "ransom" than was due.

So how should we understand that verse from Rev 20:10? The short answer is that English words translated from another language don‘t always adequately reflect what the writer meant to say. In the passage under consideration, it would seem likely that they indicate "tunnel vision" on the part of translators whose minds were conditioned by established theological tradition. To understand them better, we will have to dig a little deeper to find a meaning which does not conflict with the rest of Scripture.

And in this case it all revolves around an ancient metal testing tool called a "touchstone".

A touchstone is a small tablet of dark stone, such as quartz, or slate, or a type of basalt called basanite. When rubbed on the finely grained surface, soft metals leave a distinctive mark. The color of the mark made by a sample of known purity can be compared with that of the mark made by another sample, to determine its purity. It was commonly used to test the purity of gold and silver, as a protection against dishonest traders who often used counterfeits containing quantities of less expensive alloy metals such as lead or tin.

The method works particularly well for gold, and gold alloys. A trained eye can detect the presence of variations in purity of as little as one percent. It can also be used for other metals such as silver, but is much less reliable. The touchstone method is still used in some places today, for testing gold.

In the English language, the word "touchstone" has also become an idiom meaning "a standard or reference point, or benchmark, against which someone or something is measured, or tested, or compared". The phrase "To put to the touchstone" means to apply a test to check the truth of a matter, or the quality of something.

In the New Testament Greek text we find a family of Greek words, (basanos, basanismos, basanizo, basanistes) which have the same PRIMARY "touchstone" meaning as our English word. In fact our English words "basalt" and "basanite" have come into our language from the Greek "basanos".

In NT times, touchstones were in common use in the commercial world, and the primary meaning would have been universally known. And just as in English, there was a secondary idiomatic meaning, which is much the same as ours. People, or things, were compared or tested against a standard.

The Greeks had a few other idiomatic meanings which we do not have in English. They could be used about a ship being "tossed" by a violent storm, (Matt 14:24); or rowers in a boat "toiling" against impossible physical odds, (Mark 6:48); or Lot‘s "vexation" with the sins of Sodom, (2 Pet 2:8); or even the pains of childbirth. (Rev 12:2)

They were also sometimes used to describe what happened when people were tortured to extract important information, or "confessions" to a crime. In Greek, they were being "put to the touchstone" by torture, to "test" whether or not they were telling the truth. In Matt 18:34 the "tormentors" (RSV "jailers") are "touchstoners".

In Rev 20:10, it is unfortunate that the translators have completely ignored the logical application of the primary "touchstone" meaning, and have opted instead for the secondary meaning "torment". Sadly they have used it in a way which portrays God as an eternal torturer of those who reject Him. And this has caused great confusion about the nature of God‘s final judgement against sinners.

When John uses the Greek word "basanizo" to describe the fate of the wicked, he is actually saying that they are going to be "touchstoned day and night for ever and ever". But as we have just seen above, that doesn‘t have to mean "torment" or "torture". And in fact, to be consistent with the rest of Scripture, it shouldn‘t be used that way. NO ONE is going to be tortured "for ever and ever".

In the context of Judgement and punishment of sinners, it would be much more appropriate to use it in the sense of "put to the proof to show what they really are, compared with the genuine thing". But that does NOT mean that the wicked will be alive for ever, in the fire! We have to take other Scriptures into account, to learn what really happens when the wicked are " put to the touchstone" in the lake of fire.

Daniel 12:2, tells us that the result will be "shame and everlasting contempt". [Note that Daniel‘s " everlasting " has the same meaning as John‘s " for ever and ever "]  Isaiah 1:28, says that the wicked will be "consumed". Isaiah 66:24 (RSV) says that the bodies in the fire are dead. Malachi 4:1-3 says that they will be burnt up like stubble, until they are ashes under the feet of the righteous. John the Baptist tells us that after the wicked are separated from the righteous at the judgement, they are going to be burnt up like chaff, in unquenchable fire. (Matt 3:12) Paul says that the final end of the wicked is total destruction. (2 Thess 2:8) And Obadiah 16 says that the end of the wicked is to become "as though they had not been"!

What is everlasting about this fiery "touchstoning" in Rev 20:10?

Since we know that it cannot be torture, it must be something else. Our starting point must be the Scriptures which say that those in the fire are DEAD. (Isaiah 66:24 RSV) They will be consumed until they are as though they had never existed. (Obad 16)

It follows that it is this end result which is everlasting. The "mark" on the touchstone can never be changed for all eternity. Day and night, "for ever and ever", the ashes of the wicked, (Mal 4:3) will be the mark on the touchstone which declares that they do not measure up to the standard of purity which qualifies the righteous to inherit immortality.

Read that way, there is no conflict between Rev 20:10 and the rest of Scripture, which says plainly that the punishment of sin is NOT everlasting TORTURE, but DEATH.