Friday, August 9, 2019

The Second Death (Part One)

Choosing among “worst-case scenarios”

“Become faithful until death, and I shall be giving you the wreath of life…The one who is conquering may under no circumstances be injured by the second death” (Revelation 2:10-11).

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” (Revelation 21:8).

Among those who affirm the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture (as I do), I think most would agree with the following: if there is a “worst-case scenario” described in Scripture, being “injured by the second death” would be it. It is undoubtedly the longest-lasting judicial consequence of sin that we find revealed in Scripture. Regardless of whatever else one may (or may not) believe concerning the nature of this future judgment, being “injured by the second death” is clearly meant to be understood as a negative outcome that is as proportionately bad and undesirable as the alternative destiny referred to in the first verse quoted above (i.e., receiving the “wreath of life”) is to be understood as good and desirable. Being the most negative possible outcome revealed in Scripture, the second death is a judgment that no sane person would willingly “sign up for.” But what, exactly, is the nature and purpose of this judgment?

The traditional Christian view is that this judgment will consist of being eternally banished to a hopeless, God-forsaken place of “eternal conscious torment.” Some Christians – despite believing that the second death will involve never-ending torment – are uncomfortable with the idea of God’s being actively involved in bringing about such a horrific and nightmarish state of affairs. In an attempt to make their belief more palatable to themselves and to others, it’s sometimes claimed that “God doesn’t send anyone to hell.” According to this view, “going to hell” is merely a self-chosen fate that God passively (and reluctantly) allows as a way of “honoring” the autonomy of his sinful creatures. Some Christians have gone so far as to say that any torment that the “damned” will suffer in hell is, in some sense, self-imposed. One of the most well-known proponents of this “softer” view of hell was C.S. Lewis, who wrote, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the gates of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, p. 127).

Perhaps it simply didn’t occur to Lewis that any “successful rebellion” accomplished by God’s creatures would necessarily constitute a failure for God (a fact which puts the scenario imagined by Lewis in complete opposition to the scriptural truth of divine sovereignty). In any case, Scripture doesn’t support Lewis’ view of a “self-imposed hell” that people will be rebelliously choosing for themselves; according to Revelation 20:11-15, those whose “part” will be in the lake of fire are going to be “thrown” or “cast” into this place. In other words, people are not going to be eagerly jumping into the lake of fire, and then stubbornly refusing to leave. No one is going to be willingly “injured by the second death.” There is nothing said concerning this judgment that in any way suggests that it will be “self-imposed.”

It must be emphasized that, regardless of how unpleasant the final state of the lost is thought to be by those who affirm the doctrine of “eternal conscious torment,” this position takes for granted that the condition of those “injured by the second death” will involve being alive and conscious in some location or state of existence. In other words, both the fate of the saved and that of the unsaved is understood by most Christians as involving “eternal life” in some place or condition (e.g., either on the new earth/in the new Jerusalem, or in the lake of fire). However, not all Christians hold to this position. 

In contrast with those holding to the "eternal conscious torment" view of hell, there are some Christians who deny that the unsaved will live forever. According to this view, immortality is a conditional blessing or privilege that will be bestowed upon the saved only. And rather than being a place of eternal conscious torment, the second death is thought to be a judgment that will involve the eternal death of those who are to be “injured” by it. Thus, rather than viewing the fate of the unsaved as involving an eternal, conscious existence in some greater or lesser degree of torment, it’s believed that the unsaved will be annihilated, or eternally erased from existence. 

Although this so-called “annihilationist” (or “conditionalist”) view is most commonly associated with certain groups and denominations that most mainline Christians would consider heretical and “outside the bounds” of Christian orthodoxy (such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians), there seems to be a growing number of otherwise mainstream Christians today who hold to this view as well (or who have at least become more open to its possibility). It’s also worth noting that this position was, arguably, more commonly held among Christians within the first few centuries of church history than it is today, and was apparently affirmed by a number of the so-called “early church fathers” (such as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius the Great and Arnobius of Sicca).[1]

Of course, advocates of the more traditional view have appealed to the early church fathers in defense of their position as well. However, the available data is not nearly as obvious and clear-cut as those appealing to these early writings would probably like it to be. Instead of appealing to early Christian writers to either support or undermine the validity of any doctrinal view (which is a rather dubious approach that can sometimes prove to be a double-edged sword), I believe we ought to just stick with Scripture alone. For although there is, of course, much disagreement among students of Scripture over what Scripture teaches on various subjects, appealing to Scripture at least means that we’re appealing to the inspired source rather than to the writings of men who were no more inspired than those living today.[2]

A Third Option

Although I believe both of the doctrinal positions considered above are fundamentally mistaken and contrary to the full scope of Scripture (as well as incompatible with the gospel heralded by Paul), I do think that a slightly better scriptural case could be made for the annihilationist position. In addition to being more consistent with those verses of scripture that reveal the mortal nature of man and which describe the fate of the wicked and unbelieving as one that will involve death, destruction and perishing, this view also has the advantage of being less inconsistent with what we find revealed concerning the character of God. For, although the annihilation of any personal being by God would still constitute an eternal tragedy, one could at least consider God merciful for choosing to annihilate those whom he ultimately could not (or would not) save. In contrast, for God to keep people in existence forever just so they could be eternally tormented would be the exact opposite of mercy. Such a decision on God’s part would be an expression of unparalleled cruelty and malevolence (and, insofar as this is the case, I believe the more popular view should be seen as misrepresenting God and slandering his character to a far greater extent than the annihilationist alternative).

Regardless of which “worst-case scenario” one may or may not believe is associated with the second death, it must be emphasized that both the eternal torment view and the annihilation view imply that God is either unable or unwilling to save all mankind. In contrast with both these two positions, I believe Scripture reveals that every human being who has ever lived (or ever will live) is ultimately going to be saved from the condemnation of which sin makes us deserving. The common Christian belief that God is the Savior of believers only (being either unable or unwilling to save unbelievers) is refuted by the fact that, according to Paul, God is “the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers”(1 Timothy 4:10). God would not be the Savior of believers “especially” if he was the Savior of believers exclusively. But since God is “the Savior of all mankind, especially of believers,” it logically follows that all mankind is, in fact, going to be saved by God. And since believers are simply those among “all mankind” who, by God's grace, come into a realization of the truth at some point in this lifetime, it follows that those among “all mankind” who die in unbelief are going to be saved, eventually. God is the Savior of believers “especially” because believers are being saved first, before the rest of mankind (for a fuller defense of this scriptural truth, see my three-part series on Christ’s ransoming work, as well as the very first blog article I posted).[3]

Now, since God is the Savior of all mankind, it follows that every future event involving God’s indignation or “wrath” will be temporary (rather than “eternal”), and that every divine judgment referred to in Scripture – no matter how fearful and severe it may seem to those being judged – is simply a means to an end, and completely compatible with the ultimate salvation of those judged. And this necessarily includes the future judgment that will involve certain people being cast into a lake of fire and injured by the second death. No matter how long-lasting this judgment (or judgment-based sentence) may end up being, the second death will not be the end of anyone’s story.

There are a number of ways that one could go about defending the position summarized above. The way in which I’m going to be defending it in this study could be summarized as follows:

1. Being “cast into the lake of fire” and “injured by the second death” is a future judgment that will consist in mortal human beings literally dying a second time, and remaining lifeless for the remainder of Christs future reign.
2. At the end of his reign, Christ is going to abolish death by vivifying all people and making them immortal.
3. Everyone who is going to be cast into the lake of fire and thus injured by the second death will eventually be saved from the second death.

Of the two premises of this argument, the first is undoubtedly the most controversial. For not only do most Christians deny the validity of this premise (they believe the second death is a judgment that will involve people living eternally in a state of torment), but there are some even among those who affirm the truth of the salvation of all who deny that the second death will involve literal death. Thus, the bulk of this study will consist of a scriptural defense of this premise, and a refutation of the view that the second death/lake of fire will involve something other than literal death. I’ll then conclude this study in part five with a defense of the second premise, and demonstrate that the annihilationist/eternal death view is incompatible with what the apostle Paul revealed concerning the ultimate destiny of all mankind.

“The law of sin and death”

In order to better understand why I think the judgment referred to in Revelation as the “second death” will involve literal death (as opposed to a so-called “spiritual death”), we need to have an adequate understanding and appreciation of the inseparable connection that (literal) death has to sin, and the important role that it plays in God’s judicial/retributive response to sin.

The connection between sin and death that I have in mind is made almost immediately in the inspired historical narrative of Scripture. Not long after the first generation of human beings was created, God made it clear to mankind that death (rather than “eternal life in torment”) is the divinely-appointed judicial consequence for sin. In Genesis 2:16-17 we read that God declared the following to Adam: “From every tree of the garden you may eat, yea eat. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat from it; for on the day you eat from it, to die, you shall be dying. In accordance with this stated consequence for Adam’s disobedience, we read that, on the very day that Adam sinned, the death sentence was passed upon him (Gen. 3:19). And as a result of this sentence, both Adam and his wife – and well as all of their future posterity – were banished from the garden of Eden and denied access to the tree of life (vv. 22-24). Humanity was, in other word, excluded from the only means by which we could’ve lived indefinitely on the earth without the inevitability of death. 

From this single episode in mankind’s history, we learn that all mankind was condemned to die because of Adam’s sin. Because of Adam’s sin, every descendant of Adam and Eve comes into existence under the power and “reign” of death. That the condemnation of which sin makes us deserving is death is further confirmed from what Paul wrote in Romans 5:12-14: “Therefore, even as through one man sin entered into the world, and through sin death, and thus death passed through into all mankind, on which all sinned -- for until law sin was in the world, yet sin is not being taken into account when there is no law; nevertheless death reigns from Adam unto Moses, over those also who do not sin in the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him Who is about to be.”

In verse 12, Paul wrote that “death passed through into all mankind…” And then, in v. 18, death is referred to as the “condemnation” that “all mankind” came to be under “through one offense” (i.e., through the one offense of Adam). But it is not only because of Adam’s sin that death “reigns” over mankind. Although Adam’s sin affected the entire human race (which can be understood as demonstrating Adam’s representative relationship to the rest of mankind), what we read concerning Adam’s sin and condemnation reveals what the consequence of sin is for all of his sinful descendants, as well. This is evident from Romans 1:32, where – after listing a number of sins (among which most human beings could find at least one of which they’re guilty of committing) – Paul declared that “those committing such things are deserving of death.

Similarly, in Romans 6:22 Paul wrote that the “consummation” of the things that people do as “slaves of sin” is “death.” And in the next verse, Paul (personifying sin as if it were a human slave holder) adds that “the ration of Sin is death” – i.e., it is the “fixed portion” that Adam’s condemned descendants can expect to receive as the ultimate consequence of their sins. Thus, apart from a change in their condemned status (i.e., apart from being “justified”), all who are deserving of death because of their sins must die. That Paul had in mind literal death here is evident from the contrast made in v. 23. In this verse we read that “the ration of Sin is death, yet the gracious gift of God is life eonian, in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” Because eonian life involves being literally alive during the eons to come (i.e., the “oncoming eons” referred to by Paul in Eph. 2:7), so the alternative fate – i.e., death – involves being dead during these future periods of time.

Consider also Romans 8:1-2, where we read that, “Nothing, consequently, is now condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. Not according to flesh are they walking, but according to spirit, for the spirit's law of life in Christ Jesus frees you from the law of sin and death.” The “law of sin and death” refers to the fact that those who sin are deserving of death and thus condemned to die. Since “nothing, consequently, is now condemnation to those in Christ Jesus,” believers are not under this condemnation, and we are no more deserving of death than Christ himself was.

But what about what Paul wrote in v. 6? There, we read that, the disposition of the flesh is death, yet the disposition of the spirit is life and peace…” Some believe that Paul was referring to a figurative (or “spiritual”) death here. However, when Paul wrote that “the disposition of the flesh is death,” he likely meant that those who have this particular disposition are deserving of death. That is, the “disposition of the flesh” is the disposition of those who are under the condemnation of death. In support of this view, it’s evident from verses 7-9 that Paul was referring to unbelievers here (i.e., those in whom God’s spirit is not “making its home,” and who don’t have “Christ’s spirit”). When we understand the “death” of v. 6 as a reference to literal death, it becomes evident that, when Paul said that a certain disposition “is” death, he was speaking metaphorically (i.e., he was using a figure of speech according to which something is said to be identical with something that is closely associated with it).

Further support for this understanding of the condemnation of which sin makes people deserving is found in 1 Corinthians 15. In 1 Cor. 15:17-19, those who haven’t yet been saved from their sins are described by Paul as follows: “Now if Christ has not been roused, vain is your faith – you are still in your sins! Consequently those also, who are put to repose in Christ, perished.For anyone to still be “in [their] sins” means that God is still reckoning their sins/offenses to them (cf. Rom. 4:8; 2 Cor. 5:19), and that they remain under the condemnation of which their sins have made them deserving (cf. John 8:24). That this is the case is evident from the fact that, in v. 18, it’s implied those who have died while still being “in their sins” have “perished.” The word translated “perished” in v. 18 (apollumi) does not simply mean “died,” for the saints to whom Paul was referring in this verse were already dead at the time he was writing. For someone who has died to have “perished” means that they remain under the condemnation of which their sins made them deserving. We can therefore conclude that being “still in your sins” simply means remaining in a state of condemnation. And as argued earlier, the condemnation of which our sins make us deserving is death.

After referring to the miraculous change that both the dead and the living saints in the body of Christ will undergo at the time of the snatching away (1 Cor. 15:50-53; cf. 1 Thess. 4:15-17), Paul declared, “Now, whenever this corruptible should be putting on incorruption and this mortal should be putting on immortality, then shall come to pass the word which is written, Swallowed up was Death by Victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting? Now the sting of Death is sin, yet the power of sin is the law. Now thanks be to God, Who is giving us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54-57).

When Paul stated that the “sting of death is sin,” he was essentially saying that sin is what gives death the power to injure us. Apart from sin, death would have no power over us. Sin is the cause, and death is the effect. It is, in fact, the judicial consequence of sin that is common to all people. 

[1] See, for example, the article, “History of Hell | Hell before Augustine” by Glenn Peoples (

[2] Some seem to think that the closer a Christian in antiquity lived to the time of the apostles, the purer his doctrine most likely was. However, the fact is that we have no good reason to think that the doctrinal views of any Christians who lived during the first few centuries of “church history” are more likely to be any more correct than those living during any subsequent generation. Even during the lifetime of Paul, major doctrinal errors had already begun to enter into the various ecclesias of that day (and had Paul not been around to intervene and “nip it in the bud,” this problem would’ve likely been far more detrimental to the body of Christ than it was, and resulted in far more believers being led astray). And we have absolutely no reason to think that the threat of deception and doctrinal heresy entering – and then spreading among – the ecclesias ended after Paul’s death.

If anything, the death of Paul and the other apostles would’ve made it far easier for doctrinal error to infiltrate and take root within communities of believers. Rather than thinking that doctrinal purity would improve – or at least stay the same – after his death, Paul seemed to believe just the opposite (see, for example, Acts 20:29-31; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 2:15-18; 3:13-15; 4:2-4). We also read that, during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, all in the province of Asia turned away from him, being ashamed of his chain (2 Tim. 1:15-16). If anyone was more likely to become deceived by false doctrines and led astray from the distinctive truths that Paul had labored to bring the nations during his apostolic ministry, it was those believers who turned away from Paul at this time (it’s also worth pointing out that two “early church fathers” – i.e., Polycarp and Irenaeus – grew up in the very province in which Paul said “all” had turned away from him during his imprisonment).

[3] Many Christians who oppose the truth of the salvation of all seem to believe that, according to this view, God can simply “overlook” the sins of those who are going to be saved (as if sin were but a trivial, inconsequential matter to God), or that the doctrine of universal salvation is based entirely on the scriptural truth of the love of God. But that’s not the case at all. As important and necessary as the love of God is to the realization of the salvation of all, it is not, in itself, a sufficient explanation for why all are going to be saved. Sin is not a small thing to God, and the procuring of the salvation of all required that the problem of sin be fully dealt with. What must be included in any defense of the truth of universal salvation is the fact that Jesus Christ died for our sins. It was by means of this historical event that God dealt decisively with the problem of sin, and secured the reconciliation of all to himself (and, of course, the death of Christ for our sins – in conjunction with the fact that he was subsequently roused from among the dead by God – is essential in the gospel of our salvation).

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