The question comes from the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 24:
The Sheep and the Goats
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 24: 31-46, NIV)
Evidently this is a parable that is in many senses not a parable at all, but a straightforward description of how Christ at his return will separate the people one from another with one descriptive comment; “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”. The people are not really depicted as sheep and goats beyond this simple illustration from daily life at the time. So in effect Jesus is simply retelling the picture of the judgment with the familiar Jewish image of Gehenna – the judgment fire of the Last Day, although the actual word “Gehenna” (literally the Valley of Hinnom outside the south-eastern wall of Jerusalem), paraphrased as “hell fire” in many English Bible versions, is not employed. Instead of the more common “Gehenna”, this is the only time Jesus uses “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.
Readers who have browsed other articles on this website will already know that the position taken by the authors here is that man is mortal, and that death is the end. If there is a literal fire in the Valley of Hinnom, then the result would be the same as it was in the Old Testament when the righteous king Josiah destroyed Topeth and killed and burned the bones of the priests of the idol Baaal; namely the idol worshippers were killed, and that was their end.
So far clear enough, but where does the idea of burning “the devil and his angels” come from?
Again readers who have read other articles on this website will already know that the position taken by the authors here is that the devil is a parable, developed in the New Testament from the two occurrences of Satan – a figure in the prologue of Job and the third night vision of Zechariah. Satan does not appear as a literal figure at all in the Old Testament, and the devil in the New Testament is consistent with that – except for the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4, which is either the only literal appearance of the devil in the Bible, or indicates that Matthew 4’s temptation is instead a symbolic way of Matthew (or Jesus himself) describing Christ’s 40 days of preparation for the temptations of his ministry.
The only other mention of the devil having his own angels is in the highly symbolic, and later, context of Revelation 12:
And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:9)
So, since it is not in the New Testament, where does the idea of an “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” come from?
Rabbinical apocalyptic legends
At this period when Jesus was preaching the Old Testament was not the only point of reference for his Jewish audience. A large body of other traditions existed in the period and these are preserved today in the category broadly known as ‘intertestamental literature’, or ‘Second Temple era literature’. This category includes the Apocrypha (familiar from Roman Catholic Bibles), the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and much more. Later Jewish works such as the Mishnah and Talmud also preserve many of these other traditions from Jesus’ day.
We do not find direct examples of “the devil” and “his angels” in these books as “the devil” is not a developed figure in Jewish traditions as there is no one single powerful personification of evil as there is in the New Testament. Satan does occur, but typically only with reference to the poetic Accuser figure in Job 1 and Zechariah 3. In the Septuagint Greek Old Testament the Job 1 and Zechariah 3 “Accuser” (Hebrew ha-Satan) is translated into Greek as “the Devil” (Greek ho-Diabolos, the Accuser). Outside this there is, surprisingly, little attempt to equate the Job 1/Zechariah 3 “Accuser with the “Serpent” in Genesis 3. The most clear tradition is probably the Testament of Adam myth where “Satan is transformed into an angel of light” and then plots together with the Serpent, a separate being.
So where is “the devil and his angels” coming from?
The nearest parallel tradition is probably that large body of apocalyptic material based on Genesis 6:2, the “sons of God and daughters of men” tradition. What this material really meant in its original context in Genesis – which many scholars consider is drawn from Jewish commentary on other Ancient Near East traditions, is another subject – but at the time of Christ there were two schools of thought. Some Jewish writers considered the sons of God to be priests of the One God who became corrupted, a much larger number of more popular sources considered the sons of God be angels who married. These legends can be found in books such as 1 Enoch (c.150 BCE), Jubilees and many other similar sources in a broad tradition of Enochite Jewish literature. The wide availability of the these books today on the Internet has produced a new enthusiasm for the story of the origin of demons as the offspring of angels and humans in many evangelical churches.
Nevertheless, Christ’s own view on these legends can be inferred from his comments in Matthew 22:30 and Luke 20:35–36 that angels do not marry, and the “sons of god” are actually to be believers in the resurrection. Some will argue that Jesus’ comment doesn’t rule out ‘the bad angels’ marrying, but this argument is akin to arguing that Hebrews 1:14 doesn’t mean “all” when it says “all angels”.
So if Christ doesn’t support the stories of angels marrying, why would he lend credence to “the devil and his angels”?
For better or worse we already know that the parables of Jesus, and even the short sayings of Jesus, frequently are “hard to understand”, and some of those that are hard to understand use symbols and ideas from Judaism that present challenges.
For example “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18), has caused many readers to conclude that (a) Satan really is an angel did literally fall from heaven, and (b) Jesus really was literally around in either Genesis 3 or Genesis 6 to watch this happen.
Let’s go back to the original context of the sheep and goats.
Message: So we can be messengers of the devil?
Let’s read the passage again, verses 31-46. Notice how Jesus’ main point is not about angels at all, but about hypocritical Christians. In Christ’s warning it is actually the Christians who fail to care for the weak and poor who are the ones heading for the “fire” prepared for the devil and his angels. The fact that the fire is “prepared” for the devil and his angels indicates that (contrary to some Jewish apocalyptic traditions) the devil and his angels are not already there before the false Christians enter. Do we then infer from this that that literal angels will join the false Christians later? Or should we infer that this is hyperbole – in fact it is these loveless and charity-less Christians who are the real angels (Greek “messengers”) of the real devil (Greek “accuser”)?
That this is the correct conclusion to draw from Matthew 25:41 is underlined by the parallel concluding verse 25:46, which makes no mention of angels, only false Christians:
25:46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
As a concluding comment we should probably add here that “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment” should not be misread as “eternal life in the flames”. That is an idea in Jewish apocalyptic literature for fallen angels and demons, but in the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, death is death. Simple, sudden, permanent, and total. Anyone who doubts this should follow back Jesus’ “worm does not die” quote from Mark 9:48 about Gehenna to the original context of the heap of corpses at the Last Battle in the final verse of Isaiah, 66:24. The worms may not die, but men do.
They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
Destruction here, in non-apocalyptic and non-parable language, is plain literal and simple. No one is to be tortured for ever.