Friday, August 9, 2019

The Second Death (Part Two)

Injured by the second death

In light of everything said in the previous installment of this study, let’s now consider the first occurrence of the expression “second death.” In Revelation 2:10-11, we read the following:

Fear nothing that you are about to be suffering. Lo! the Adversary is about to be casting some of you into jail that you may be tried, and you will be having affliction ten days. Become faithful until death, and I shall be giving you the wreath of life. Who has an ear, let him hear what the spirit is saying to the ecclesias. The one who is conquering may under no circumstances be injured by the second death.

In this first reference to the second death, I believe we’re provided with enough information to come to an accurate understanding of what, exactly, the nature of this judgment will be. Notice the contrast being made in this passage: those who are faithful until death will be given the wreath of life, and will not be injured by the second death. I’ve placed in bold the key words that I believe reveal both what the second death is and what it isn’t. Death is a state or condition into which human beings and animals enter when their life ends, and in which they must remain until God restores them to a living existence (1 Cor. 15:54-55; Heb. 5:7; Acts 2:24). Death is, essentially, the absence of life, and to be dead is to be in a state or condition of lifelessness.

When the saints being addressed in this passage are told to be “faithful until death,” the death being referred to will be the first time these people’s lives will have ended. The “death” until which they are exhorted to be faithful will, in other words, be their first death. And when we let the first “death” referred to in this verse inform our understanding of what the “second death” is, it can be reasonably concluded that the second death is simply another (i.e., a second) occurrence of death. Understood in this way, the promise given to those who are faithful until death is that their first death will be their only death.

Concerning the expression “second death,” James Coram remarked as follows:

“It is the function of adjectives (e.g., “first,” or “second”) to limit or qualify the nouns of which they are adjuncts, not to change their essence. Thus, if the case allows for it, while any object or entity which is said to be the first, second, or some other number of its kind may be quite different than other such objects, the difference can never be one of essential nature but only of variety within kind. While in many respects second man can be very different from first man, even as second book can be very different from first book, second man must be of the same species as the first and second book must be printed or written volume; it cannot be an unpublished, spontaneous speech. Similarly, any reference to actual death, whether that death should be first, second, or otherwise enumerated one, is a reference to the absence of life, for this is what death is, by definition. If death is the absence of life, then the second death is just as much the absence of life as is the first death, and cannot possibly speak of second presence of life, that is, of second lifetime.”[1]

In a footnote for these remarks, Coram added:

“For example, while a second illness could be more or less severe than a first illness, it could not be a second experience of good health. This is because one cannot be both sick and well in the same way at the same time. Even as, literally speaking, there is no such thing as pleasurable agony, neither is there any such thing as a period of death in which those concerned therein are alive, be such a period a first death, second death, or seventeenth death. A second death, conceivably, could be of shorter or longer duration than a first death, but it could not be of a different, essential nature. A second death could no more be a period of life than a second drought could be a period of torrential rain.”

In the expression “the second death,” the word “second” simply emphasizes the fact that everyone who will be “injured” by it will have already died once before (i.e., at the end of their mortal lifetime on earth). Just as the expression “former resurrection” in Rev. 20:5-6 implies the occurrence of a “latter resurrection” (without suggesting that one resurrection is literal while the other is figurative), so “second death” implies a “first death.” And if the first death is a state that people are in after dying a first time, then the most natural, reasonable and straightforward meaning of “second death” is that it is the state that people will be in after they’ve died a second time. There is simply no good reason to understand the implied “first death” as literal death while understanding the “second death” as something figurative.

Some who believe the second death to be a figurative “death” appeal to Paul’s words in Romans 6:1-14 in defense of this view, and argue that the second death should be understood as a process of “spiritual purification” or “refinement” that results in – or is perhaps identical with – the “death of the carnal self.” However, when it comes to understanding what John meant by the expression “the second death,” I don’t think it’s at all necessary to appeal to a completely different context in a book that was written by a completely different author. The immediate contexts in which the expression “the second death” is found in Revelation are, I believe more than adequate to inform our understanding of what John most likely had in mind. Moreover, it’s evident that, in Romans 6:1-14, the “death” that Paul had in view cannot be equated with a “purification process” that involves becoming less “carnal” over time. Instead, what Paul referred to in these verses as being “dead to sin,” being “baptized into Christ’s death,” being “united with Christ in a death like his,” and being “dead with Christ” refers to the justified status of those who, having believed his evangel, have been placed into spiritual union with Christ (and who have thus received the same justified status that belongs to Christ). While Paul clearly expected the believer’s understanding of his union/identification with Christ to lead to righteous conduct and holiness, the righteous conduct or “walk” was not what Paul had in mind when he referred to believers as having “died with Christ.” Instead of referring to some sort of ongoing (or completed) process of spiritual growth or purification (in which one “dies to one’s flesh”), the “death” that Paul had in mind in this passage is something that takes place for believers before they even begin to “present [their] members as slaves to righteousness for holiness” (Rom. 6:15-19).

But if the second death is a judgment (or sentence) that will involve people literally dying a second time, how can anyone only be “injured” by it (as we’re told will be the case in Rev. 2:11)? Like the English word “injure,” the Greek word translated “injured” in Rev. 2:11 (adikeo) is a general term that can refer to any kind or degree of damage or harm (and it should be emphasized that it need not involve the conscious experience of pain or suffering; see, for example, Rev. 6:6; 7:2; 9:4). The type or degree of injury being expressed by the term must be determined by the context. Since, in Rev. 2:11, the “injury” (damage or harm) in view is caused by the “second death,” the exact nature of the “injury” (damage or harm) should be understood accordingly. When we keep in mind that the word “injured” is able to refer to any kind or degree of damage or harm (depending on what’s in view), its use in Rev. 2:11 is perfectly consistent with the second death’s being literal. The “injury” inflicted by the “second death” is, quite simply, death.

Concerning this point, James Coram remarked as follows:

“Some have inferred inasmuch as the word “injured” is used instead of “killed,” that this fact is strong indication or perhaps even proof that the second death is not fatal. It is supposed that the second death must therefore somehow be reference to a second life time, albeit to a lifetime which for many will involve much “injury.” This supposition, however, is fallacious and gratuitous. 

“Injure” (adiked, un-just) is the verb of the noun “injustice” (adikia, UN-jusT-ness). The term “injury” speaks of “perceived injustice.” Whether an action, in higher sense, is actually unjust or not, is not in view. An “injury” speaks of an act of “injustice” merely from the standpoint of the one who is injured, with respect to the harm or damage which the injury entails. Thus any act which results in harm or damage constitutes an “injury.”

Whether the damage is trivial or tremendous, fleeting or fatal, where damage ensues, injury occurs. For example, while in one instance injuries sustained from an automobile accident may only be minor, in another they may well be fatal. Injury is sustained in both instances; indeed the fatal accident is far more injurious than the one involving only minor injuries.

While the “injury” sustained by those who are cast into the lake of fire (in Revelation 20:14,15) will be fatal (since to these the lake of fire is the second death), it will not be permanent. We may be certain that this is the case, for, at the consummation, death will be abolished and all will be vivified, that God may be All in all. God is the Saviour of all mankind, and this includes all who enter the second death.” 

Moreover (and as noted earlier), Paul referred to death as having a “sting,” which is sin (1 Cor. 15:55-56). The word translated “sting” (kentron) refers to a sharp pointed instrument. The same word is found in Rev. 9:10 in reference to the supernatural locusts that will be released during the approaching Day of the Lord: “And they have tails like scorpions, and stings, and their license is to injure mankind five months with their tails” (the same word for “injure” found in this verse is used in Rev. 2:11). Just as these locusts will have a “sting” (or pointed instrument) with which to injure mankind, so death is represented by Paul as having a “pointed instrument” (sin) by which it “injures” mankind (cf. Rom 6:7; James 1:15). And since to be “injured” by death is simply to die, to be “injured” by the “second death” is simply to die a second time.

Moreover, we’re told that those who are faithful until death will receive what’s called “the wreath (or “crown”) of life.” To what does this blessing refer? In Luke 20:34-36 we read the following concerning the category of believers who are “faithful until death”:

The sons of this eon are marrying and are taking out in marriage. Yet those deemed worthy to happen upon that eon and the resurrection from among the dead are neither marrying nor taking out in marriage. For neither can they still be dying, for they are equal to messengers, and are the sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.

At the very least, then, we can understand the blessing that is signified by the words “wreath of life” as one that will involve the gift of immortality (“for neither can they still be dying”). That this is, in fact, this blessing that will be given to those who are “faithful until death” (and thus “deemed worthy”) is confirmed in Revelation 20:4-6, where we read the following concerning the reward of those saints who are “faithful until death” (it should be noted that this passage also contains the second occurrence of the expression “second death”):

And I perceived thrones, and they are seated on them, and judgment was granted to them. And the souls of those executed because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who do not worship the wild beast or its image, and did not get the emblem on their forehead and on their hand – they also live and reign with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead do not live until the thousand years should be finished.) This is the former resurrection. Happy and holy is he who is having part in the former resurrection! Over these the second death has no jurisdiction, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will be reigning with Him the thousand years.

In this passage, it’s revealed that the destiny of those who are faithful until death will involve being resurrected and living and reigning with Christ a thousand years. In other words, their destiny will involve life (being alive for the thousand years referred to) rather than death (being dead for the thousand years referred to). Notice that their destiny – i.e., being resurrected and living/reigning with Christ during the thousand years – is contrasted with the fate of the “rest of the dead,” who, we’re told, “do not live until the thousand years should be finished.” That is, the rest of the dead who are in view here will simply remain dead during this time. And it is over this category of people (or at least certain members of this category of people) that the second death will have “jurisdiction.”

Just as we’re told in Rev. 2:11 that those who are faithful until death will not be injured by the second death, so, in Rev. 20:6, we’re told that the second death “has no jurisdiction” over them. The “former resurrection” of which they will be included is that which Christ referred to as “the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14), and will involve being made immortal. The fact that this will be true of those having a part in the “former resurrection” suggests that this will not be the case for “the rest of the dead” referred to in Rev. 20:5. That is, when the “rest of the dead” are resurrected, they will not be immortal. They’ll still be mortal. And this means that it will be possible for them to die a second time. But die a second time when? This question brings us to the third occurrence of the expression “second death.”

The Great White Throne Judgment

In Revelation 20:11-15 (NET) we read the following:

Then I saw a large white throne and the one who was seated on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened—the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death—the lake of fire. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.

The belief of most Christians is that no one involved in the judgment we find described in Rev. 20:11-15 – i.e., the “great white throne” judgment – will be “found written in the scroll of life.” It is commonly assumed that everyone being judged at this time will end up being “cast into the lake of fire.” However, there’s good reason to believe that the names of some – perhaps many – human beings WILL, in fact, be found written in the scroll of life. Consider, for example, the righteous Gentiles referred to in Scripture who lived before God brought the nation of Israel into existence (such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Job, etc.). Since these righteous people were not Israelites, they will not be among those raised by Christ at the “former resurrection” (Rev. 20:5) to enjoy an allotment in the land of Israel during the eon to come (i.e., the “millennial reign” of Christ). However, we have no scriptural reason to deny that they’ll be among those judged at the great white throne judgment. And since Hebrews 11 leaves us with little doubt that they will have an allotment on the new earth during the last and greatest eon, we can conclude that their names are, in fact, written in the “scroll of life.” The people in this category of people (i.e., righteous pre-Israelites) are not, therefore, going to be “injured by the second death.” And if that’s the case, then the same can be said for righteous non-Israelites living in subsequent time periods (including those alive today, who aren’t members of the body of Christ).

Now, by referring to those who are to be judged at the “great white throne” as “the dead,” John was identifying them with the category of people he’d previously referred to back in Rev. 20:5. Recall that, in this verse (the subject of which is the “former resurrection”), we were told that “the rest of the dead do not live until the thousand years should be finished.” When the judgment described in verses 11-15 takes place, the “thousand years” will have finished. It is at this time that “the rest of the dead” referred to in v. 5 are restored to life so that they can be judged at the great white throne. Moreover, the very fact that those who are to be judged at this time are depicted as being given up by “Death and Hades” (or “death and the unseen”) indicates that, when standing before the throne, these people are no longer dead. “Death” is a state of lifelessness, and “Hades” refers to the domain of those who are dead (or the “realm of the dead”). When we’re told that “Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them,” it simply means that those referred to as “the rest of the dead” in Rev. 20:5 are being restored to a living, conscious existence, and are ceasing to be in the lifeless state they were formerly in, while dead.

Now, it’s my understanding that the “great white throne” judgment will, to a greater extent than has ever been seen, serve to make right much of what is now wrong. Although there is much that takes place in this world that seems to call God’s justice into question (e.g., the prospering of the wicked and the suffering/unfair treatment of the innocent), God’s justice will finally be fully vindicated through this judgment. As great and important as this judgment will be, however, I think it would be a mistake to believe that this judgment will involve bringing those judged to a state of spiritual maturity or perfection (or near-perfection). Although those who must take part in this judgment will undoubtedly learn some important lessons and fundamental truths about reality, the purpose of this judgment is not to bring those judged into a state of spiritual conformity with Jesus Christ, or to make anyone fit for an eternity with God. Its purpose is not to change anyone’s character so as to make them the kind of person who qualifies for the eonian blessing that those found written in the scroll of life will get to enjoy.

Unlike those in the body of Christ (to whom God will have already begun displaying the transcendent riches of his grace), those who are to be judged at the great white throne will not, at this time, be experiencing the full manifestation of God’s grace. Although this judgment will certainly be preparatory for the manifestation of divine grace that will be experienced by all at the consummation, the purpose of this judgment will not be to put God’s grace and kindness on display. In fact, insofar as we’re told that this judgment is going to be based on “deeds” (or “works”), the exact opposite could be said to be the case. It will be God’s justice – and not his transcendent grace – that will be on full display at this future time. Based solely on what we’re told in Rev. 20:11-15 (and the immediate context in which this passage is found), the main purpose of this judgment will simply be to determine who will (and who won’t) get to enjoy the eonian allotment that we find described in Rev. 21:1-7 (cf. v. 8). 

This is a point that needs to be emphasized. The purpose of the great white throne judgment is not to make anyone worthy of (or qualified for) any particular future blessing. Rather, its purpose will be to determine – and make manifest to all who will be present – who will get to enjoy the blessing of eonian life on the new earth, and who won’t get to enjoy this eonian blessing (and who must therefore come under the jurisdiction of the “second death”). Those whose names will be found written in the scroll of life (apparently by virtue of their overall good deeds, or overall lack of evil deeds) will receive the allotment referred to in Rev. 21:1-7. Those whose names aren’t found written in the scroll of life (apparently by virtue of their overall evil deeds) will, we’re told, be “cast into the lake of fire.” This sentence will not involve the torment of any mortal human who must undergo it; rather, it will simply involve the termination of their life (just as their life had previously been terminated when they died their FIRST death). Since those not found written in the scroll of life are those who won’t qualify for eonian life on the new earth – and since eonian life on the new earth will, of course, involve being alive during this future time period (and enjoying all of the blessings that the living will get to enjoy at this time) – it only makes sense that those not found written in the scroll of life would be sentenced to death. And the lake of fire is simply the means by which this sentence will be carried out.

I realize that some people – especially those among my believing brethren who affirm the truth of the salvation of all – may find it difficult to believe in a divine judgment that will involve living humans being cast into a literal lake of fire. For some, such a judgment just seems “out of character” for God. In response to this objection, it first needs to be kept in mind that we don’t know how, exactly, this event is going to unfold, since we haven’t been provided with much detail. For example, we’re not told who, exactly, is going to be casting people into the lake of fire (there is, however, scriptural precedent for believing that God’s holy messengers could very well be the ones responsible for this task, as there are numerous examples in scripture of these beings functioning as “agents of judgment” on behalf of God; see, for example, Gen. 19:13; Psalm 78:49; Isaiah 37:36; Acts 12:22-23; Matt. 13:49-50; 2 Thess. 1:7). We’re given just enough information to know that at least some who are to be judged at the great white throne will, AFTER being judged, be cast into the lake of fire. Among the particulars not specified in this passage is whether or not those who are to be cast into the lake of fire will be conscious as they’re being executed. For all we know, God will cause them to lose consciousness sometime before they’re cast in. We simply don’t know.

But let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that those cast into the lake of fire will not lose consciousness before they’re cast into it. Even if this is going to be the case, I’m not sure how this would somehow be inconsistent with what we know of God and the judgments he’s carried out in the past. Was God acting “out of character” when he drowned nearly every living human being (and land-dwelling animal) on earth by means of a flood? Was God acting “out of character” when he destroyed several cities and their inhabitants by means of raining literal fire and sulfur upon them? Was God being “cruel” when, after having already brought nine terrible plagues upon the inhabitants of Egypt, he killed the firstborn of Egypt? Should these (and numerous other) instances of divine judgment – which involved both human suffering and the termination of human life – be considered “cruel” and “out of character” for God?

And what about every “natural” disaster and death that has occurred throughout human history? If God “is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) – and he is! – then God is the one who is ultimately and absolutely responsible for each and every death that has already occurred (no matter the circumstances, or how young or old the person was when they died). In light of this fact, I’m not sure one could, with any consistency, argue that God’s having certain humans returned to a state of death by means of their being cast into a lake of fire is any more “cruel” (or less merciful) than everything God is ALREADY responsible for. If every human death that God is already ultimately responsible for shouldn’t be viewed by believers as cruel or out of character for God, then the same could be said for any future termination of human life as well.

Moreover, in contrast with Satan, the wild beast and the false prophet, there is no indication that God will be casting mortal humans into the lake of fire to torment them. With regard to the humans whose names will not be found written in the scroll of life, the purpose of the lake of fire will clearly be to return them to a second state of lifelessness (it is, after all, referred to as the “second death”). So we have good reason to believe that, as far as humans go, there won’t be any life or consciousness occurring for those who’ve been cast into the lake of fire. That is, we have no reason to believe that any human being cast into the lake of fire will remain alive (even for a few seconds) after being cast into it. Instead, we can reasonably infer that the lake of fire will “do its job” by instantly returning those mortals who are to be cast into it to a state of lifelessness (rather than keeping them alive for any length of time).

There are some who, on the basis of what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:7, may be inclined to object to this understanding of the great white throne judgment because of the lack of divine grace that this judgment would involve. However, this verse in no way contradicts the view that the judgment described in Rev. 20:11-15 is not intended to manifest God’s grace. Although the “oncoming eons” referred to in this verse will be a time when the “transcendent riches of God’s grace” will be on display, it will be through God’s kindness to those in the body of Christ that God will be displaying this grace. Since Paul was not saying that God will be displaying the transcendent riches of his grace in his kindness to all (or even most) human beings during the oncoming eons, there is simply no reason to think that Ephesians 2:7 is somehow inconsistent with what has been said concerning Rev. 20:11-15. Does this mean that no one else will be receiving and enjoying, to some degree, God’s kindness and grace during the eons to come? No. God’s grace will, to a much greater extent than in any past eon, be displayed in his kindness to the inhabitants of the earth during the oncoming eons as well. This will, of course, be especially true for Israel, but even the nations will be the recipients God’s kindness during this time (primarily during the last eon). But what needs to be emphasized here is that Paul did not have in mind Israel or humanity in general when he wrote Ephesians 2:7.

John’s use of personification and metaphor in Rev. 20:11-15

As already noted, death and hades refer to a literal state, or condition, that cannot be said to literally exist apart from something that has died. The first time the expression “death and hades” appears in Revelation is in 1:17-18: “And when I perceived Him, I fall at His feet as dead. And He places His right hand on me, saying, "Do not fear! I am the First and the Last, and the Living One: and I became dead, and lo! living am I for the eons of the eons. (Amen!) And I have the keys of death and hades. In saying that he has the “keys of death and hades,” Christ simply meant that he has the authority to release every person who is (or will be) in the lifeless condition from which he himself was saved when he was resurrected by his God and Father (cf. Acts 2:24, 31-32). And just as death and hades are figuratively represented as if they are the sort of things that can be “unlocked” with keys, a similar figure of speech is being used in Rev. 20:13 when they are described as “giving up” those who are in them. In both cases, a figure of speech is being used to convey a literal truth involving literal human beings who are (or will be) in the literal state of those who have died.

But what does it mean for death and hades to be “thrown into the lake of fire?” I’ve heard it objected that, since “death and hades” couldn’t literally be cast into a physical place, we ought to conclude that the lake of fire is not a literal place. Although I don't doubt the sincerity of those raising this sort of objection, I can’t help but question their consistency. On the one hand, they view as an insurmountable problem the idea that two intangibles could be described as being “cast into” a literal lake of fire. On the other hand, they don’t seem to have any problem at all with literal, physical human persons being “given up” by two intangibles and then figuratively “cast into” a figurative “lake of fire.” In accord with this sort of reasoning, why should we believe that any literal human beings are in view in this passage at all? For how could literal, physical human persons exist “in” two intangible concepts? And how could such intangible concepts then “give up” the literal, physical human persons who were “in” them?

The simple fact is that death and hades are being personified in this passage (which is a known figure of speech), and thus being portrayed as having certain attributes or qualities that they don’t literally possess in order to convey a certain idea. To argue that the lake of fire can’t be literal just because death and hades are represented as being “cast into” it would be like arguing that the people over whom we’re told death “reigns” (Romans 5:14, 17, 21; 6:12) can’t be literal people (after all, an intangible, impersonal thing like death can’t literally “reign” over anyone). But of course, this would be an example of faulty reasoning. We don’t have to understand either death or those over whom death “reigns” in a non-literal sense (i.e., as signifying something else) in order to understand how death can figuratively be said to “reign” over them. Death – which is literally a lifeless condition – is simply being personified here. Or consider Romans 7:11, where we read that sin (after “getting an incentive through the precept”) deluded and killed Paul. As with death in Romans 5-6, sin is being personified here. But according to the reasoning of those who deny the literal nature of the second death/lake of fire, we should deny that Paul was a literal, physical human being (after all, an intangible and impersonal concept like sin can’t literally ”get an incentive through the precept” and then delude and kill a literal human being)! Numerous other scriptural examples like this could be given, but I hope my point is clear.

But if the lake of fire is an actual place into which actual persons can (and will) be cast, what truth was John trying to communicate by means of his figurative imagery in Rev. 20:14? Notice, first, what’s not said in this verse. We’re not told that, by being cast into the lake of fire, death and hades were destroyed, eradicated or expunged from the universe. That is, there’s no indication from the text that the lake of fire should be understood as putting an end to death and hades. But if that’s the case, then the implication is that the lifeless condition that “death and hades” refers to will continue in the lake of fire. It means that being cast into the lake of fire will be the means by which those whose names are not written in the scroll of life are returned to the lifeless state that they were in before death and hades “gave them up” to be judged. Again, “death and hades” refers to the lifeless condition that cannot be said to literally exist apart from that which is lifeless. Thus, for death and hades to be cast into the lake of fire means that the human beings who will be cast into the lake of fire will be returning to the lifeless condition they entered into when they died the first time.

Thus, in saying that death and the unseen were cast into the lake of fire, John was simply communicating the idea that the lake of fire is going to become the sole location where death and hades (the state of those who are dead) will be found during the final eon. That is, the lake of fire is to become the place where (and the means by which) those who must die a second time will be returning to the same state they were in before they were restored to life to be judged. According to this understanding, the lake of fire is where death and hades will be confined. Some have argued that, if the humans being cast into the lake of fire are going to be destroyed, then the casting of death and hades into the lake of fire should be understood as expressing the idea that death and hades will be destroyed at this time. However, this understanding is flawed, for “death and hades” are not living, mortal beings. Thus, the truth being expressed through the image of them being cast into the lake of fire is not that of destruction but rather of confinement. Death and hades can be described as being “destroyed” only when those in their power have been freed and introduced into a permanent state of life. However, for those mortals judged at the great white throne who are to be cast into the lake of fire, it will be the “second death.” And the “second death” is the exact opposite of a “second life.” 

But if the second death refers to the second occurrence of death for those not found written in the scroll of life, why is the lake of fire said to be the second death? Simply put, John was using a figure of speech known as metaphor. To better understand what John is communicating here, let’s consider a statement made by Christ during the “last supper.” When, after breaking the bread, Christ declared, This is my body, broken for your sakes,” it’s clear that he meant, “This [bread] represents my body, broken for your sakes.” Both the bread that Christ broke and his body were completely literal things. However, if neither the bread nor the body to which he was referring on this occasion had been literal, what Christ said would’ve been meaningless. Whenever one is speaking metaphorically in reference to something else (e.g., “This is my body”), that which is being represented has to be understood literally (i.e., in its normal, straight-forward sense). Does this mean that the thing which represents something else must be literal as well? Not at all; that which represents something else can, of course, be a symbol. But even when that which represents something else doesn’t actually exist, it must represent something literal (otherwise it’s not a symbol).

Keeping this important fact in mind, let’s now apply it to what we read in Rev. 20:14: This is the second death—the lake of fire.” Just as the (literal) bread broken by Christ represented his (literal) body, so the lake of fire represents the second death. But this means that, at the very least, the second death must be understood literally. That is, the second death must be understood as a reference to literal death. Consider the alternative: If both the second death and the lake of fire are to be understood figuratively/symbolically (with neither the “death” being literal death nor the “lake of fire” being a literal lake of fire), then we’d have John referring to one figurative thing (which represents something that isn’t mentioned in the context) as being representative of another figurative thing (which represents something else that isn’t mentioned in the context). But that’s absurd; if each figurative thing being referred to represents something else that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the context, then the metaphor (“this is that”) wouldn’t convey anything meaningful.

Thus, it makes far more sense to understand that which is being represented by the lake of fire (the second death) as being literal. In other words, the “second death” is just as much a literal reference to death as “the former resurrection” of Rev. 20:5-6 is a literal reference to resurrection. But what about the lake of fire? Is it to be understood literally (like the literal bread that represented Christ’s body)? Or should it be understood as merely a symbol for the second death? I believe that it, too, should best be understood literally. In fact, understanding it literally best accounts for why it can be appropriately referred to as “the second death.” A literal lake that is burning with fire and sulfur would, of course, result in the death of any mortal being cast into it. Thus, what makes the lake of fire a fitting representation of the second death is the fact that it is the location and cause of the second death. The lake of fire is, in other words, both where the second death takes place and the means by which the second death is brought about.

A natural, straight-forward reading of Rev. 20:10-15 thus reveals the lake of fire to be the place in which those not found written in the scroll of life (and who will not be allowed to live on the new earth during the final eon of Christ’s reign) are executed. And since the lake of fire will be where death is confined during the final eon of Christ’s reign, it follows that, for those on the new earth (those with whom we’re told God will be “tabernacling”), “death will be no more” (Rev. 21:4). And this point leads us to the next and final reference to the second death. In Revelation 21:7-8, we read, “He who is conquering shall be enjoying this allotment, and I shall be a God to him and he shall be a son to Me. Yet the timid, and unbelievers, and the abominable, and murderers, and paramours, and enchanters, and idolaters, and all the false – their part is in the lake burning with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Notice the above contrast: if one is not in the scroll of life, the second death has jurisdiction over them. That there will, in fact, be people who are found written in this scroll is evident from what we read elsewhere in Revelation. For example, in Rev. 3:5, Christ promised the following to those comprising the ecclesia in Sardis: ”The one who is conquering, he shall be clothed in white garments, and under no circumstances will I be erasing his name from the scroll of life, and I will be avowing his name in front of My Father and before His messengers.” And in those verses in which we’re told of the people whose names aren’t written in the scroll of life (Rev. 13:8; 17:8), the implication is that some people’s names have been written in the scroll of life (and who would remain written in the scroll if they remained faithful).

Concerning the “allotment” of those who will be found written in the scroll of life, we read the following in Rev. 21:1-8:

And I perceived a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth pass away, and the sea is no more. And I perceived the holy city, new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I hear a loud voice out of the throne saying, “Lo! the tabernacle of God is with mankind, and He will be tabernacling with them, and they will be His peoples, and God Himself will be with them. And He will be brushing away every tear from their eyes. And death will be no more, nor mourning, nor clamor, nor misery; they will be no more, for the former things passed away.” And He Who is sitting on the throne said, “Lo! New am I making all!” And He is saying, “Write, for these sayings are faithful and true." And He said to me, “I have become the Alpha and the Omega, the Origin and the Consummation. To him who is thirsting I shall be giving of the spring of the water of life gratuitously. He who is conquering shall be enjoying this allotment, and I shall be a God to him and he shall be a son to Me.”

In Rev. 21:27 – after being provided a detailed description of the “new Jerusalem” - we’re told that it is ”those written in the Lambkin's scroll of life”[4] who will be able to enter the city. We’re then provided a brief description of certain blessings that will be available within the city (notice how both are associated with life): “And he shows me a river of water of life, resplendent as crystal, issuing out of the throne of God and the Lambkin. In the center of its square, and on either side of the river, is the log of life, producing twelve fruits, rendering its fruit in accord with each month. And the leaves of the log are for the cure of the nations” (Rev. 22:1-2).

We go on to read in verses 14-15 and 19:

“Happy are those who are rinsing their robes, that it will be their license to the log of life, and they may be entering the portals into the city. Outside are curs, and enchanters, and paramours, and murderers, and idolaters, and everyone fabricating and fondling falsehood…And if ever anyone should be eliminating from the words of the scroll of this prophecy, God shall be eliminating his part from the log of life, and out of the holy city, that is written in this scroll.”

This corresponds to what Christ had promised those in the ecclesia in Ephesus: ”To the one who is conquering, to him will I be granting to be eating of the log of life which is in the center of the paradise of God.” Thus, those who “conquer” (by not “disowning [Christ’s] faith” and by “keeping [Christ’s] acts until the consummation”) will be able to enter “the portals into the city,” and will be able to eat the fruit that will be growing from the “log of life” (fruit which – like that which grew from the “tree of life” which God planted in the Garden of Eden - will apparently have supernatural, life-sustaining properties).[1] In addition to being able to eat the fruit from the “log of life,” it’s also clear that those with whom God will be tabernacling will be able to drink from “the spring of the water of life gratuitously” (Rev. 21:6; cf. 22:1, 17).

[2] One of the beliefs that seems to underpin this popular view is that the standard by which God will be judging people at this time is God’s absolute righteousness – i.e., the righteousness that is “through Jesus Christ’s faith,” and which is “for all, and on all who are believing” (Rom. 3:21-22). If that were the case, then clearly no one – apart from those who have already been justified – would “measure up” and qualify for life on the new earth. However, I see no good reason to assume that God’s absolute righteousness will be the standard by which anyone will be judged at this time. Instead, the standard by which people will be judged at the great white throne will, I believe, be the same relative standard according to which those who lack God’s absolute righteousness could still be referred to as “just” or “righteous” in Scripture. David, for example, described a righteous man as “he who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend…” (Ps. 15:1-3). Solomon had this relative standard of righteousness in view when he wrote, “There is no righteous human in the earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).

According to this relative sense, those said to be righteous, just, blameless, upright (etc.) are those who, generally or comparatively speaking, conform to what God requires of human beings, both in heart and in conduct. Although by no means sinless and righteous in an absolute sense, a person who is righteous according to this relative sense is one whose overall conduct distinguishes them from those who are usually described in Scripture as “wicked” (Gen. 18:23; Ex. 23:7; 2 Sam. 4:11; 1 Kings 8:32; Job 35:8; Psalm 1:1-6; 7:8-9; 11:5; 34:21; 37:16-17, 21; Eccl. 8:14; Ez. 13:22; etc.). For more on this topic, see part two of my study on justification:

[3] Interestingly, Paul also wrote of certain “fellow workers” of his whose “names are in the scroll of life” (Phil. 4:3). This is likely a reference to those believers who were part of the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), and who’d been called through “the evangel of the Circumcision” (Gal. 2:7).

[4] In fact, it’s quite possible that the “log of life” referred to in Revelation will actually be the supernaturally-preserved remains of the original “tree of life” that was planted by God in Eden, given new life by God and the ability to bear fruit once again.


  1. Hi Aaron, thanks so much for this great article. It’s always such a pleasure to read your your work. I’ve had a question about Rev 20:11 for years and wonder if you have any thoughts. I’ve wondered and tried to to find in the scriptures if there is any significance to “the sea” and “death and hades” being referred to separately as those giving up the dead. Do you see what I mean? Why is the sea specifically nominated in this passage? I’m interested to know what, if anything, you may have learned about this. Thanks!

    Laura Johnston

    1. Hi Laura,

      That’s a great question. I’m not 100% sure why a distinction is made between “the sea” giving up the dead in it and “death and hades” giving up the dead in them. Some think that the dead who are given up by “the sea” should be understood as a reference to those who perished in the worldwide flood of Noah’s day. This judgment was, of course, the judgment that brought the last (and second) eon to an end. Perhaps it’s mentioned here to emphasize the fact that no unbelievers will be excluded from the last great judgment involving humanity (the great white throne judgment) – not even those who perished in the first worldwide judgment involving humanity.

      Another view (and which I’m most inclined to accept) could be summarized as follows: In Scripture, “death and hades” are commonly associated with entombment/burial/the earth. When we think of the “domain of the dead” – which is what I think “hades” (or “the unseen”) basically means – we think of the earthly locations where we know the dead reside, and have been “laid to rest.” So perhaps the mention of “the sea” is simply meant to emphasize the “universality” of this judgment (in other words, the dead from every possible location – whether it’s earthly or not – will be included). Understood in this way, the mention of “the sea” in addition to “death and hades” serves a similar purpose as the expression “under the earth” in Phil. 2:10 (cf. Col. 1:20, where only heaven and earth are mentioned).

      There are other views as well (see, for example, the view defended on the “GoedBericht” blog: However, I think most students of Scripture would agree that “the sea” is specified in Rev. 20:13 for the sake of completeness, and as a way of emphasizing the fact that no one will be left out or forgotten at this future time.