“A Lake of Fire and Brimstone, Which Is Endless Torment”

Brant Gardner

All three types that Nephi has described will meet to the same fate. By not following Yahweh’s way, they are necessarily following Satan’s and will share his fate. Yahweh’s righteous judgment will follow their works. In each example, the particular “works” are things that prevented them from repenting and following Yahweh. “Death and hell” echo Jacob’s terminology and concepts in his sermon. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 9:10–12.)

2 Nephi 9:10–12

10 O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.
11 And because of the way of deliverance of our God, the Holy One of Israel, this death, of which I have spoken, which is the temporal, shall deliver up its dead; which death is the grave.
12 And this death of which I have spoken, which is the spiritual death, shall deliver up its dead; which spiritual death is hell; wherefore, death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel.

Reference: The final judgment condemns these three classes of the unrighteous to “the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.” The Lord clarifies this “endless torment” in Doctrine and Covenants 19:4–12:

And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.
Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.
Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.
Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.
I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.
For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—
Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.
Endless punishment is God’s punishment.

Thus, “endless torment” is a synonym for Yahweh’s punishment, because he imposes it upon those who earn it. Similarly, the “lake of fire and brimstone” is a metaphor that is best interpreted through its modern application rather than its scriptural roots. In the Old Testament, Yahweh uses fire and brimstone to punish the wicked. For example, “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (Gen. 19:24). This same concept is universalized as Yahweh’s mode of punishing wicked human beings in Psalms 11:5–7: “The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth. Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup. For the righteous Lord loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright.”

These two examples show that the Old Testament equates “fire and brimstone” with Yahweh’s wrath. The association with the wrath of God and fire harkens to the earliest understandings and imagery of Yahweh. Walter Eichrodt explains the difference between Yahweh and other contemporaneous Near Eastern deities:

That God can without detriment to his majesty give visible evidence of his presence on earth is a conviction taken as much for granted by Israel as by other nations. Their sharing the common view on this point is shown by the fact that they regard it as perfectly possible for the deity to manifest himself both in the forces of Nature and in human form.
The Israelite view is, however, distinctive in this respect. In marked contrast to the Canaanite and Babylonian conceptions it is not those natural phenomena which are directly familiar to Man and welcomed by him as beneficent, such as sun and moon, springs and rivers, trees and woods, which are regarded as the visible expressions of the Godhead, but the natural forces which break out with startling suddenness to terrify men and to threaten them with destruction, such as the lightning-flash, the dark thunder-cloud or the raging storm—all of which are combined in the majestic phenomenon of the thunderstorm. Hence from the earliest to the latest times the God who hastens both to judgment and to succour is envisaged in the thunderstorm… shooting forth fire from heaven as his burning breath or tongue of flame.

However, in John’s use of the term in Revelation, the wrath of God is not inflicted upon wicked mortals but rather on the wicked in the next life. The image is the same, but the context is the afterlife.

And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand,
The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:
And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name. (Rev. 14:9–11)

Thus, “fire and brimstone” are the eternal fate of the wicked who “worship the beast” (follow Satan). Satan himself will receive the same punishment:

And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. (Rev. 19:20)
And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. (Rev. 20:10)

Joseph Smith was certainly familiar with the “lake of fire and brimstone” from his own Bible reading and from countless sermons of his day urging sinners to repent. Because the language in this translation of Nephi’s passage is more consistent with John’s imagery than with the Old Testament, not only in vocabulary but also in its post-judgment application, it seems likely that Joseph Smith used the phrasing that was familiar to him in shaping this passage. It is precisely because this punishment pertains to the afterlife that it is “endless.” As Revelation 14:11 predicts, “The smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever.” The Old Testament/New Testament distinction is likewise not a dramatic division, but rather an application of existing imagery to the post-judgment state of the unrighteous. Since Nephi’s context is also clearly the afterlife, applying the “fire and brimstone” imagery of Yahweh’s justice is only a very slight shift from the Old Testament usage.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2