The second death – Revelation 20:14

Save us from the firePreviously: Death and Hades gave up their dead – Revelation 20:13

The scripture

Rev. 20:14 – Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. (HCSB)

The second death

Revelation uses the term “lake of fire” or “lake of burning sulfur” to describe the destiny of God’s enemies, who are:

  • The beast and the false prophet (Rev. 19:20)
  • The Devil (Rev. 20:10)
  • Death and Hades (Rev. 20:14)
  • Anyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life (Rev. 20:15)
  • Cowards, unbelievers, the vile, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars (Rev. 21:8)

Jesus refers to this place as gehenna – a term derived from the Valley of Hinnom, traditionally considered by the Jews the place of the final punishment of the ungodly. Located just south of Jerusalem, this valley is the scene of human sacrifices to the god Molech and is declared “the valley of slaughter” by Jeremiah.“ Whatever its historical and geographic meaning, its usage in the New Testament is clearly a reference to the everlasting state of the wicked, and this seems to be the thought in every instance,” writes John Walvoord in Four Views on Hell (p. 20).

Outer darkness

Jesus also refers to the lake of fire as “outer darkness” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In the story of the centurion’s faith, Jesus tells His listeners that “many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:11-12).

In the parable of the marriage feast for the king’s son, the king tells his servants to bind up the man without wedding clothes “and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13).

And in the parable of the talents, the master tells his servants to “throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30).

In each of these passages, Jesus alludes to final judgment and the separation of the wicked from intimate fellowship with their Creator. In the first passage, Jesus confronts the religious leaders of His day with the news that their self-righteousness – and particularly their rejection of Christ and His righteousness – is leading them exactly where they want to be: as far from the Son of God as possible.

In the second passage, the wedding guest cast into outer darkness has rejected the white linen robes kings offer their guests, and in so doing has despised the King and dishonored His Son.

In the third passage, the good-for-nothing slave has been exposed for his pretended loyalty and ends up like those who vainly argue their case before the Lord in Matt. 7:21-22: “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?” In reply, the Master announces to them, “I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!”

Literal fire?

But are we to take the lake of fire literally? Do the resurrected wicked spend eternity in physical torment, with their flesh melting and then reforming, their thirst unquenched, and the stench of burning sulfur filling their nostrils? Or are the descriptions the Bible gives us of hell to be understood figuratively? Are the torments of hell an unsatisfied spiritual thirst, an unshakeable sense of remorse, and an unfathomable loneliness?

Great people of God have disagreed about the nature of hell for centuries. Charles H. Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers,” taught that hell consists of literal flames. “Do not tell me that hell is metaphorical fire,” he said, “Who cares for that? If a man were to threaten to give me a metaphorical blow on the head, I should care very little about it; he would be welcome to give me as many as he pleased.” He went on to say there is “real fire in hell, as truly as you now have a real body – a fire exactly like that which we have on earth in everything except this – that it will not consume, though it will torture you” (“The Resurrection of the Dead,” sermon preached Feb. 17, 1856, quoted in AfterLife by Hank Hanegraaff, p. 59).

R.C.H. Lenski, the great Lutheran scholar, was persuaded in the opposite direction. “Do not ask what kind of fire caused the flame by which the rich man was anguished,” he wrote. “Physical fire as we know it on earth does not determine anything about the fire and the burning which are constantly predicated of hell beyond its power to produce the intensest pain. That fire torments the devils who have no bodies, the spirits of the damned before they are reunited with their earthly bodies, and finally also their bodies. Is that not effect enough without prying into the nature of that fire?” (Commentary on the New Testament, pp. 854-55).

In trying to decide, it may help to remind ourselves that the Bible uses fire metaphorically many times. For example, Daniel sees the throne of God in heaven as “flaming fire, its wheels … blazing fire” (Dan. 7:9). John sees seven fiery torches burning before the throne in heaven and then tells us they are “the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 4:5). James describes the tongue as an appendage that “sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). Further, the Bible uses the metaphor of fire to describe godly jealousy (Deut. 4:24), lust (Prov. 6:27), and unbridled passion (Hosea 7:6). In a similar way, scripture uses the metaphors of darkness and the imagery of gloomy dungeons to describe the unbeliever’s eternal separation from God.

Therefore, the Bible’s depiction of hell in such graphic terms may be God’s way of explaining an indescribable place in language we can understand. Whether literal or metaphorical, the fires of hell, the outer darkness, and the dungeon-like gloominess are to be avoided at all costs, and the blood of Jesus is to be pleaded for forgiveness of sins while there is yet time.

Joseph Seiss writes, “What that ‘lake of fire’ is I cannot tell, I do not know, and I pray God that I may never find out. That it is a place, everything said about it proves. People in corporeal life, as these condemned ones are, must needs have locality. That it is a place of woe, pain, and dreadful torment, is specifically stated, and is the chief idea in every image of the description…. If perchance it be not material fire, or the brimstone which feeds it be not the article which commerce handles, it still is fire of some sort, fed with its proper fuel – fire which can take hold on body and spirit – fire which preys on the whole being, whether clothed with corporeity or not – fire kindled and kept alive by almighty justice, and a great lake of it, commensurate with the infinite holiness of an infinite law” (The Apocalypse, pp. 480-81).

Three deaths?

Lastly in this section, why does John equate the lake of fire with “the second death?” And what does this phrase mean? It may help to say first of all that the second death is not annihilation, where the wicked may suffer for a period of time but then be totally consumed in flames, never to exist again. Those who hold this view argue that while the fire may be eternal, the body is not. Some add that it is unreasonable, or even unjust, of God to punish people eternally when their sins were committed during a relatively short period of time. They may add that ceasing to exist is a just punishment for those who have rejected eternal life in Jesus.

However, the scriptures are clear that those in hell remain there forever. The rich man in Jesus’ parable is offered no hope of escaping his punishment (Luke 16:19-31). The beast and the false prophet remain in the lake of fire 1,000 years (or at least some lengthy period of time) after they are cast into the flames (Rev. 20:10). But most convincing is the fact that Jesus uses the word “eternal” to describe life with Him and life apart from Him. For example, in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus uses the same word to describe the “eternal” state of the blessed and the damned: “And they (the wicked) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46). If eternal punishment for the wicked means annihilation, what hope do the righteous have of remaining with their Savior forever?

It is more biblically faithful to conclude that the second death is the final and irrevocable place of punishment for the wicked and for the consequences of sin. When Peter writes about the present heavens and earth being stored up for fire, the heavens passing away with a loud noise and the elements being burned and dissolved, and the heavens being on fire and dissolved and the elements melting with the heat (2 Peter 3:1-12), he is describing the manner in which Christ one day will purge this fallen world of sin and its unholy fruit. The result, Peter assures us, is “the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell” (2 Peter 3:13). In a sense, as Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire, that same fire sweeps away the debris that sin has left in God’s creation: sorrow, suffering, aging, and mortality.

But there is more. John makes several references to the second death in Revelation. In Rev. 2:11, he records the words of Jesus to the church in Smyrna: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.” This assures us that the second death in not intended for believers.

In Rev. 20:6, he continues the comforting words of Jesus as he writes: “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years.”

In Rev. 20:14-15, John tells us that “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Finally, in Rev. 21:7-8, we read of the different destinations for believers and unbelievers: “The victor will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son. But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars – their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

There is a sense in which unbelievers experience three deaths. First of all, they experience spiritual death as their sin keeps them separated from a holy God; they are alive in body and soul but spiritually dead (see Eph. 2:1). Believers experience spiritual death as well, but through regeneration the Holy Spirit makes them spiritually alive and the third Person of the Trinity takes up permanent residence in their human spirits, sealing them for eternal life, setting them apart for service, giving them spiritual gifts, and helping them understand scripture and discern spiritual matters.

Second, unbelievers experience physical death, as all people do. But at last, following the great white throne judgment, unbelievers experience a third, or final death, the second death, which followers of Jesus do not. In the second death, the wicked are forever spiritually dead; there is no evidence in scripture that hell produces believers or repenters; the wicked remain throughout eternity as they were on earth (Rev. 22:11). And because Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire with the unbelievers, there is no waiting day for judgment and no end to their existence. Perhaps this is why Jesus uses such graphically horrifying terms to describe hell. He desires that no one go there, and He gave His life that through faith in Him we might avoid it. But once a person passes through the portals of physical death, there is no second chance, nor do the wicked seek one.

Joseph Seiss writes, “Confirmed depravity cannot be cured where no means of grace are; neither can those cease to sin whose whole nature has been turned to sin. And if there can be no end of the sinning, how can there be an end of the suffering? Remorse cannot die out of a spirit ever conscious of its self-imposed damnation…. And Death and Hades, here viewed as if they were personal beings, share the same fate. They, of course, cease to be. There is nothing more of temporal death or of the place of departed spirits after this. They are not personal beings, hence their casting into ‘the lake of fire’ is the end of them; but, conceived as of persons, they are consigned to exactly the same eternal punishment with the other wicked. They are the products of sin, and they share the doom of what produced them. And thus, in an ever-burning Hell, from which there is no more deliverance, all the enemies of God and his Christ find themselves at last” (p. 481).

Next: Anyone not found – Revelation 20:15