Rev. 20:13 – Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. (HCSB)
Death and Hades gave up their dead
We should recall that the resurrected Jesus declares in Rev. 1:18, “I was dead, but look – I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Even before the cross, Jesus tells Peter that the forces of Hades will not overpower His Church” (Matt. 16:18).
Death is a reality that all people experience as a consequence of sin (Gen. 2:17). Hades is the abode of the dead. Therefore, Death and Hades are tied inextricably to sin. But Jesus, who added to His deity sinless humanity (John 1:14), tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). Through His finished work on the cross, He paid our sin debt and conquered the grave so that Death and Hades have no lasting grip on those who place their faith in Him.
The bottom line of John’s vision of Death and Hades giving up their dead is that ultimately every person will be physically resurrected and spend eternity either in the new heavens and earth or in the lake of fire. A time is coming when there is no longer physical death or an intermediate existence where people wait to put on resurrected bodies and stand in final judgment. Just as Jesus is Judge of all (John 5:22), He is Lord over sin, death, and the realm of the dead.
Types of death
It’s important to note that the Bible speaks of several kinds of death. Of course, there is physical death, which comes upon all people because all have sinned (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:22).
Secondly, there is spiritual death, the absence of God in the unbeliever’s human spirit; thus, Paul writes to Christians that once they were “dead in … trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). When the Holy Spirit regenerates a person, he or she is made spiritually alive, born again, or born from above (John 3:3-8; Titus 3:5).
Finally, there is the second death, or everlasting separation from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). All people experience the first two deaths – physical death and spiritual death – by nature of being sinners. But only those who trust in Jesus are made spiritually alive, receive glorified bodies at the resurrection, and escape the second death. Unbelievers die physically, spiritually, and everlastingly.
The sea, Death, and Hades
Now, let’s look a little more closely at the sea, Death, and Hades.
The sea. It’s curious that John notes the sea giving up its dead. Why not include the deserts, hills, and forests? Why is the sea distinguished from Death and Hades? David H. Stern offers this view: “There is no longer any need for Sh’ol [Sheol in Hebrew is the same as Hades in the Greek], where the dead are held for judgment, since this is the judgment. Nor is there need for death, the punishment for sin, since sin is now being banished from the universe … Likewise the sea, a biblical metaphor for death, destruction and turmoil, harboring fearsome, Satanic creatures such as Leviathan and the beast of [Rev.] 12:18 – 13:8 above, releases its dead for judgment, so that, having served its purpose, it too disappears” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 849).
Jurgen Roloff shares a different view of the sea: “The sea is portrayed here as a personified demonic power. The dead who are securely in its grasp are particularly far from the vicinity of life because there are not even visible graves for them. Ancient man, for whom burial had tremendous importance, therefore thought of those who perished in the sea with particular dread. When God sits in judgment, not even the sea can withhold from him those people to whom he as Lord and Creator lays claim” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, p. 232).
Of course, the sea could simply mean, well, the sea. The word “sea” appears 26 times in Revelation, oftentimes referring to a literal body of water (for example, Rev. 5:13; 7:1-3; 8:8-9; 14:7). Other times, however, “sea” is used figuratively. In Rev. 4:6, John sees something “like a sea of glass, similar to crystal” before the throne in heaven; likely, this depicts the radiance and purity of God’s glory. The beast in Rev. 13:1 rises “out of the sea,” perhaps a reference to the chaos and evil that is home to the Old Testament monster Leviathan or Rahab. Before the seven bowls of God’s wrath are poured out in Revelation 15-16, those who are victorious over the beast stand upon “something like a sea of glass mixed with fire” and sing the song of God’s servant Moses (Rev. 15:2-4). We see in Rev. 21:1 that in the new heaven and the new earth the sea no longer exists.
When all of this is considered, it seems likely that the “sea” of Rev. 20:13 does not refer to the earth’s bodies of water but to the realm of wickedness over which Satan has authority. As Satan is cast into the lake of fire, his influence over the visible and invisible world is relinquished, and those who are willingly enslaved in his kingdom of darkness must now face the harsh light of judgment. Just as Jesus defeats the demonic sea in Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 6:45-56, He now judges the powers of evil before destroying the evil realm altogether.
Death. We looked a few paragraphs earlier at three different kinds of death noted in scripture. This reference to Death in this passage, however, seems to point to the graves, where physical bodies lie in various stages of corruption. While many deceased people are buried, some are cremated; others are mummified; still others, like those in Pompeii, are encased in ancient lava or fossilized in sedimentary rock. Many have been the victims of the desecration of their graves, the scattering of their bones, or the ravages of time and nature so that no apparent physical remnant may be found. Nevertheless, our sovereign God is able to restore their natural elements and reunite their departed souls with their now-resurrected bodies.
Apparently, unbelievers are the last to be physically resurrected, although many scholars point to passages such as John 5:28-29 to indicate a simultaneous resurrection of all people. Christ has defeated the “last enemy … death” (1 Cor. 15:26), so as all the unbelieving dead are summoned, there also is the reality that no human will ever die again. This is great comfort to believers, who have been conformed to the image of Christ. But it is tragic news to unbelievers, who face an endless existence in outer darkness where death may be sought but never found.
The reference to the sea, Death, and Hades does not mean that the bodies of the deceased are kept in three separate places. Rather, these names are metaphors illustrating that all the wicked dead are to be resurrected and summoned before the great white throne.
Hades. Hades is the Greek term for the abode of the dead, comparable to Sheol in Hebrew. Neither Hades nor Sheol refers to the eternal state of a person; rather these terms are used to describe the intermediate state between death and resurrection, which leads to final judgment. Even so, Hades, like Death, is a personified enemy of Christ and His church.
It is important to keep in mind that Hades is a temporary place of suffering for the wicked dead, as Jesus teaches in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Immediately upon breathing his last, the rich man awakens in torment in Hades, although his body likely has experienced an extravagant burial on earth. In Hades, the rich man retains his identity, recognizes Larazus and Abraham, remembers his life on earth and the five brothers he has left behind, and realizes he has no hope of escape. He expresses no remorse for his sin and offers no promise of repentance. Completely self-absorbed in life, he remains focused on his own desires in Hades, using his Jewish heritage as hopeful leverage with Abraham, whom he asks to send Lazarus to provide a brief respite from his suffering.
While the New Testament references to Hades describe punishing torment for the wicked, there are hints that Hades, like Sheol, offers a temporary place of rest for the righteous – although separated by a wide gulf. For example, Lazarus, in Jesus’ parable, is taken to Abraham’s side, where he is comforted. Samuel, in Old Testament times, is summoned briefly from his rest in Sheol to confront King Saul and the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28).
Some commentators argue that believers of all ages go directly into the presence of the Lord at death; certainly Paul reminds New Testament saints that to be out of the body (in death) is to be at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). However, it appears that Christ must pay our sin debt before we may be clothed in His righteousness and enter heaven.
Many commentators believe Sheol, or Hades, in Old Testament times is the abode of all the dead, both good and evil. Upon Jesus’ sacrificial and substitutionary death, the Old Testament saints are ushered into heaven while believers on this side of the cross go immediately into the presence of the Lord at death. This leaves the “torment” section of Hades still inhabited by the wicked as they await resurrection and final judgment. The righteous, however, enjoy the presence of the Lord, awaiting their resurrection and final judgment, resulting in life eternal with Christ in the new heavens and earth.
When Jesus declares that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His church, He is making it clear that His approaching death is not a defeat but the ultimate expression of God’s love, resulting in forgiveness of sin and everlasting life. Satan succeeds in bruising the heel of the Seed of Woman, but the promised Messiah – through His death, burial, and resurrection – crushes the head of the serpent.
What Satan perceives as his finest hour is in fact a cosmic reversal of fortune. The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world, and His resurrection defeats Satan, sin and death once and for all. Death and Hades cannot hold Jesus, nor can they claim His children. Meanwhile, the children of the evil one today are in torment in Hades awaiting the great white throne, where their lives are called into account, their names are found missing from the book of life, and their destinies are the lake of fire, to be joined by Satan, Death, and Hades.
Next: The second death – Revelation 20:14