A lake of fire appears in both ancient Egyptian and Christian religion, as well as in Plato's Gorgias as a place of after-death punishment of the wicked. The phrase is used in five verses of the Book of Revelation. In the biblical context, the concept seems analogous to the Jewish Gehenna, or the more common concept of Hell. The image of the lake of fire was taken up by the early Christian Hippolytus of Rome in about the year 230 and has continued to be used by modern Christians. Prior to Christianity, Plato identified the lake with Tartarus, where the souls of the wicked are tormented until it is time for them to be reborn, and where some souls are left.
Richard H. Wilkinson has written:
According to the Coffin Texts and other works, the underworld contained fiery rivers and lakes as well as fire demons (identified by fire signs on their heads) which threatened the wicked. Representations of the fiery lakes of the fifth "hour" or "house" of the Amduat depict them in the form of the standard pool or lake hieroglyph, but with flame-red "water" lines, and surrounded on all four sides by fire signs which not only identify the blazing nature of the lakes, but also feed them through the graphic "dripping" of their flames. Some temple texts and modern books have said that the Lake of Fire in the Egyptian Religion is the lake that Ra would pass through in his daily journey in the Duat. He goes in the west gate and exit through the east gate and after that, it would say that the boat was renewed.
The scene shows four cynocephalous baboons sitting at the corners of a rectangular pool. On each side of this pool is a flaming brazier. The pool's red colour indicates that it is filled with a fiery liquid, reminding one of the "Lake of Fire" frequently mentioned in the Book of the Dead.
Mark 9:43 has Jesus himself use the image of a punishing unquenchable fire: "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire." (New American Bible, Revised Edition)
A commonly accepted and traditional interpretation is that the "lake of fire" and the "second death" are symbolic of eternal pain, pain of loss and perhaps pain of the senses, as punishment for wickedness.
Seventh-day Adventists believe in annihilation as well. They too believe that the lake of fire passage is referring to extinction, not to an eternal place of torment as understood in the mainstream Protestant interpretation.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other churches within the Latter Day Saint Movement read of a concept of the "lake of fire" in the Book of Mormon, in several passages of the record. The most descriptive instance of a "lake of fire" in the Book of Mormon occurs in Jacob 6:10, which reads, "Ye must go away into that lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever, which lake of fire and brimstone is endless torment." The Book of Mormon also refers to the lake of fire as a state of second death or spiritual death, where there is no hope for redemption or salvation.
Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) pictured Hades, the abode of the dead, as containing "a lake of unquenchable fire" at the edge of which the unrighteous "shudder in horror at the expectation of the future judgment, (as if they were) already feeling the power of their punishment".
The third-century writing explicitly pictures the "lake of unquenchable fire" as the eternal destiny of the unrighteous, who, while awaiting execution of the judgement upon them, are tortured in the abode of the dead (Hades) by the vision of their doom.
Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear.
Early Christian Universalists, most notably Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253), and Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395), understood the lake of fire as a symbolic purifying fire used to eliminate the dross from the gold, or a "refiner's crucible". Origen refers to the "lead of wickedness" that must be refined out of the gold. Origen obtained his Universalist views, known then as apocatastasis, from his mentor Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215), who was a student of Pantaenus.
In the view of Origen,
Our God is a 'consuming fire' in the sense in which we have taken the word; and thus he enters in as a 'refiner's fire' to refine the rational nature, which has been filled with the lead of wickedness, and to free it from the other impure materials which adulterate the natural gold or silver, so to speak, of the soul.
19th-century scholar Charles Bigg summarized Origen's view as, "Slowly yet certainly the blessed change must come, the purifying fire must eat up the dross and leave the pure gold. One by one we shall enter into rest, never to stray again. Then when death, the last enemy, is destroyed, when the tale of his children is complete, Christ will 'drink wine in the kingdom of his Father.' This is the end, when 'all shall be one, as Christ and the Father are one,' when 'God shall be all in all.'"
In the view of Gregory of Nyssa, "when death approaches to life, and darkness to light, and the corruptible to the incorruptible, the inferior is done away with and reduced to non-existence, and the thing purged is benefited, just as the dross is purged from gold by fire."
Further evidence corroborating their interpretation of the lake of fire as a "refiner's crucible" is that the Greek word commonly translated as "lake" also refers to something small, like a pond or a "pool", as translated in the Wycliffe and New American Bible (NABRE).
Also, the added detail of "sulfur" in the lake of fire is related to an ancient gold refining technique. Gold refining by sulphurization, also related to gold parting, is described in detail by ancient writers. When unwanted metals, such as lead and copper, are heated in the presence of sulfur, the chemical reaction reduces the unwanted metals into sulfides, such as lead(II) sulfide and copper(I) sulfide. Since sulfur is a much lighter element, atomic number 16 on periodic table, the new sulfide molecules easily float to the top of the crucible as dross. Sulfur is also part of the smelting process related to silver and gold and other metal ores and naturally occurs in these ores.