Sunday, March 5, 2017

An articulation and defense of what I believe concerning the “second death” and “lake of fire”

The subject of the “second death” and “lake of fire” (as referred to in Rev. 2:11, 19:20, 20:6, 14, 15 and 21:8) has become something of a “hot topic” lately among some believers (which is largely due to the attention it has received in recent episodes of Martin Zender’s “Zender on Revelation” show). Whilst most within Christendom seem content believing that these verses of scripture (among others) reveal that the "final destiny" of most human beings will involve eternal pain and suffering outside of God's presence (in a place, or state, of either literal or figurative fire), those who've come to understand the character and power of God a little better know that these verses are perfectly consistent with the truth of the ultimate salvation of all and their reconciliation to God. For this latter category of people (among whom I count myself), the debate is not over whether or not the "second death" and "lake of fire" is consistent with the ultimate salvation of all, but rather whether these expressions should be understood literally or figuratively.  

Before the aforementioned controversy broke out, it had been a while since I’d really thought much about the subject, and reflected on why I believe what I do concerning it. But I’m glad it has come to the forefront lately - and in the rather controversial way that it has - as it has forced me to think more about it and reevaluate what I believe concerning it (which is always a good thing). Sometimes reassessing a doctrine leads me to realize that some or all of the reasons I had for coming to believe it were not quite as compelling or as sound as I thought they were at the time I came to believe it. On some occasions, the reassessment of a subject has led to a complete abandonment of what I used to believe concerning it (or at least a radical modification of it). Other times, I may simply find myself “refining” and “tweaking” my position a bit, making whatever adjustments necessary to incorporate other scriptural data that I may not have considered (or adequately understood) previously.

In the case of the subject under consideration, the “reassessment process” has proven to be a matter of “refining” rather than radically changing my view. Having spent some more time studying and reflecting on this subject, I cannot help but continue to believe that a literal interpretation of the expressions “second death” and “lake of fire” is to be preferred to the more figurative and symbolic views that are affirmed or suggested by some. Although there have been several objections raised against the “literal” understanding (by those who find the more plain and straightforward meaning of the expressions “second death” and “lake of fire” problematic), I have yet to come across an objection that, in my view, successfully undermines the literal interpretation. While some of these objections are, I believe, better than others, I think all of them can be met. Before I respond to these objections, however, I will first articulate what I believe concerning the second death and lake of fire (all scripture quotations will be from the Concordant Literal New Testament).

I believe scripture reveals that 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, a state of lifelessness. And in accord with this straightforward understanding of death – and the consistent application of the “literal if possible” principle of scripture interpretation - I believe that the “second death” is the second state of lifelessness into which everyone not found written in the “scroll of life” will enter after being judged at the “great white throne” (and in which they will remain until death is abolished at the "consummation," as referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:22-28). That is, I believe that the second death is simply the state or condition entered into by all who must die a second time after being judged.

I also believe the “lake of fire” (referred to in Rev. 19:20, 20:10, 14 and 15) should best be understood as a literal place that will exist in the future (if it doesn’t already exist somewhere now). It is a place that will be used for the quick execution (and incineration) of those not found written in the scroll of life, as well as the means by which certain “spiritual forces of wickedness” who will be playing a central role in the drama that is to unfold at the close of this eon will be chastised and incarcerated before the time comes for them to be reconciled to God (Rev. 19:20; 20:10).

We’re told in Rev. 20:5 that “the rest of the dead do not live until the thousand years should be finished,” and in Rev. 20:11-15 it’s revealed what will happen to the “rest of the dead” after they come back to life: they’re judged by God. We’re also told that the second death has no jurisdiction over those having a part in the “former resurrection” (v. 6). Why is this the case? Because, having been part of the former resurrection, they’ve been made immortal, and (therefore) cannot die anymore (Luke 20:34-36). The fact that this is true of those who will have 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, they are not raised immortal (or “vivified”) by Christ at this time. And for those in this category of humans who are not found in written in the “scroll of life,” the second death will have “jurisdiction over them.”

Notice the above contrast: if one is not in the scroll of life, the second death has jurisdiction over them. Is it not the case, then, that those written in this “scroll of life” are those who will be able to live on the new earth, eating from the “tree of life” and drinking from the spring of the “water of life?” I’m not sure how this can be denied. And would it not be reasonable to understand the “death” in view as the absence of the “life” in view? Again, I’m not sure how one could (or why one would want to) deny this. If being written in the scroll of life means that one gets to live on the new earth (and partake of that which will enable one to continue to live), then those who will not be found written in the scroll of life are those who will not be able to live on the new earth in the “paradise of God” (see Rev. 2:7; 3:5).

However, with regards to those who aren’t going to be cast into the lake of fire (those who, in Rev. 21:3, are referred to as God’s “peoples,” and with whom God will be “tabernacling”), we read that “death will be no more” (Rev. 21:4). Thus, those who will be found written in the scroll of life will get to live on the new earth in a state of happiness until death, the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26), is abolished at the consummation, when all will be vivified in Christ. At this time, the lake of fire (if it still exists) will cease to be the "second death," for there will no longer be anyone in a state of death.

Objection 1: “After being told that those standing before the throne are to be judged in accord with their acts, we’re then told that death and the unseen (hades) were cast into the lake of fire. But how can intangible concepts (“death and the unseen”) be cast into a literal, physical place? If death and hades can’t literally be cast into a literal lake of fire, then wouldn’t this mean that the lake of fire is not a literal place?”

Response: 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 (“death and the unseen”) could be described as “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 humans are in view in this passage at all? For how could literal, physical human persons exist “in” two intangible concepts? And how can such intangible concepts then “give up” the literal, physical human persons who were “in” them?

The fact is that “death and the unseen” refers 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 the unseen” 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 of the unseen. In saying that he has the “keys of death and of the unseen,” Christ simply meant that he has the authority to release every person who is (or will be) in the condition from which he himself was released when he was resurrected by God (cf. Acts 2:24, 31-32).

Just as death and the unseen 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 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 or condition of those who have died. When we’re told that “death and the unseen give up the dead in them,” it simply means that those humans who are dead (and thus are in that state of lifelessness and invisibility referred to as “death and the unseen”) are being restored to a living, visible existence, and ceasing to be in the lifeless and unseen state they were formerly in, while dead.

To conclude that the lake of fire can’t be literal just because death and hades are represented as being “cast into” it would be like denying that those over whom death “reigns” are literal, physical people (Romans 5:14, 17, 21; 6:12). Consider the following objection, based on this type of reasoning: “An intangible, impersonal thing like ‘death’ can’t literally reign over literal people, so Paul must have had figurative people in view in these verses.” Do we have to understand either death or those who have died 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? No. What about in Romans 7:11, where we read that sin (after “getting an incentive through the precept”) deluded and killed Paul? 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.

When we’re told in Rev. 20:14 that death and the unseen were cast into the lake of fire, death and the unseen are being portrayed as having certain attributes or qualities that they don’t literally possess in order to convey a certain idea (just as they were in the previous verse, where we’re told that they “gave up” the dead who were in them). Instead of denying the literal nature of death and the unseen as being a literal condition/state - or denying the lake of fire as being a literal place - we should instead ask ourselves, “What truth was John trying to convey by means of this figurative imagery?”

Notice, first, what’s not said in Revelation 20:14. We’re not told that, by being cast into the lake of fire, death and the unseen 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 the unseen. But if that’s the case, then the implication is that the state or condition that “death and the unseen” refers to is to continue in the lake of fire. It means that casting those persons not written in the scroll of life into the lake of fire will be the means by which they are returned to the lifeless, unseen state they were in before death and the unseen “gave them up” to be judged. Again, “death and the unseen” refers to a state or condition that cannot be said to literally exist apart from that which is dead; thus, for death and the unseen 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 condition or state they entered into when they died the first time.

Thus, I submit that, in saying that death and the unseen were cast into the lake of fire, John was simply conveying the idea that the lake of fire is going to become the sole location where death and the unseen (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 the unseen will be confined until the consummation. This means 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).

Objection 2: “If the second death involves literal death (a state of lifelessness), why would it be called the “second death” rather than just “death?””

Response: Because it’s the second time that the people who are to be cast into the lake of fire will be entering into (and temporarily remaining in) a state of lifelessness or “death.” The word “second” simply emphasizes the fact that everyone who will be cast into the lake of fire will have already died (and been in a state of death) once before – i.e., at the end of their mortal lifetime on earth. In fact, the first death will have ended for them shortly before the time of judgment that concludes with their second death (since they are restored to life in order to stand before God for the purpose of judgment).

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.

Objection 3: “If the second death refers to people literally dying a second time, how can anyone be only “injured” by the second death (Rev. 2:11)?”

Response: Like the English word “injure,” the Greek word translated “injured” in Rev. 2:11 (adikeo) is a general term that refers 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 Rev. 6:6; 7:2; 9:4). Being a general and relative word, the type or degree of “injury” in view 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. The “injury” inflicted by the “second death” is, quite simply, death. When we keep in mind that the word “injure” is general and relative (and thus 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/lake of fire being literal.

Significantly, Paul referred to death as having a “sting,” which is sin (1 Corinthians 15:55-56). The word translated “sting” refers to a pointed instrument. The same word is found in Rev. 9:10 in reference to the supernatural locusts that will be released during the 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.

Objection 4: “The idea of God casting people into a literal lake of fire is unsettling, to say the least. For God to do this just seems cruel and barbaric - akin to the pagan practice of human sacrifice. How can we possibly reconcile the apparent cruel and merciless act of casting living people into a lake of fire with what we know of the loving and merciful character of our God and Father, or of his Son, Jesus Christ? And who, exactly, is casting them into the lake of fire? Is it Jesus, God, the angels, or believers? Would God tell those who believe in his mercy and grace to cast living humans into a literal lake of fire? “

Response: First, it needs to be kept in mind that we have no idea how, exactly, this event will unfold, since we aren’t given much detail. John provides his readers with just enough information for us 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, and that this (the lake of fire) “is the second death.” We don’t know if anyone will actually be conscious when they’re cast into the lake of fire; for all we know, God will cause them to lose consciousness sometime before they are cast in. We simply don’t know. What we do know is this: however this event is to unfold, God will be the one in control of the details.

With that said, let’s assume for the sake of argument that those cast into the lake of fire do not lose consciousness before being cast into it. Let’s assume, in other words, that those not found written in the scroll of life are (after being judged) brought to the lake “kicking and screaming,” and that they don’t lose consciousness until they die. Even if this is to be the case, I’m not sure how this could be considered somehow “out of character” for God. Was God “cruel” when he drowned nearly every living human being and animal on earth by means of a flood? Was God “cruel” when he destroyed the inhabitants of several cities by means of raining fire and sulfur upon them? Was God “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 involving both human suffering and the termination of human life be considered similar to the pagan practice of human sacrifice?

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), 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 casting them 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 as somehow akin to pagans trying to appease their gods by means of human sacrifice (a blasphemous charge to bring against God, for sure) – then why can’t the same 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 regards to humans, the purpose of the lake of fire is clearly to return them to a state of death (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 living taking place in this lake. That is, we have no reason to believe that any human 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 death (rather than keeping them alive for any length of time).

As far as the question of who will be responsible for casting people into the lake of fire, John doesn’t say. So, although we can speculate, we can’t know for sure. However, we do have scriptural precedent to believe that God’s holy angels/messengers could very well be the ones responsible for this task (there are numerous examples in scripture of angels/messengers functioning as “agents of judgment” on behalf of God; the following are just a few examples: Gen. 19:13; Psalm 78:49; Isaiah 37:36; Acts 12:22-23; Matt. 13:49-50; 2 Thess. 1:7).

Objection 5: “The oncoming eons will be a time when God’s grace is on display (Eph. 2:7). How can a time of such transcendent grace be consistent with anyone’s having to die a second time by being cast into a literal lake of fire?”

Response: Since Ephesians 2:7 is referenced in the objection, let’s take a look at it (I’ll include verses 4-6 for context):

“…yet God, being rich in mercy, because of His vast love with which He loves us (we also being dead to the offenses and the lusts), vivifies us together in Christ (in grace are you saved!) and rouses us together and seats us together among the celestials, in Christ Jesus, that, in the oncoming eons, He should be displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

According to Paul, God will be “displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to US in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s “us” in this verse is not a reference to every human or celestial being who has ever lived. Rather, Paul’s “us” is a reference to everyone who is to be vivified together in Christ and seated together “among the celestials, in Christ Jesus” – i.e., everyone who is a member of “the ecclesa which is [Christ’s] body, the complement of the One completing the all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). It is, therefore, God’s kindness to those in the body of Christ that will be putting the “transcendent riches of [God’s] grace” on display during the “oncoming eons.”

Does this mean that no one else will be receiving and enjoying, to some degree, God’s kindness and grace during these eons? 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 is that Paul did not have in mind Israel or humanity in general when he wrote Ephesians 2:7.

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 a plain, straight-forward reading of Revelation 20:15. Death - the “last enemy” - is not to be abolished until the consummation (1 Cor. 15:22-28). Only when all have been vivified in Christ, all have been reconciled to God and God becomes “all in all” will God’s grace become a universally enjoyed attribute.

Objection 6: “We’re told that three beings who are to be cast into the lake of fire (the dragon, the wild beast and the false prophet) are to be ‘tormented day and night for the eons of the eons’ (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). However, in Rev. 22:5 we read that “night shall be no more” during the final eon. How can the lake of fire be in existence (and the torment of these three entities be occurring) during the final eon if there will be no night during this time?”

Response: In Rev. 22:5 John is referring specifically to the conditions within the new Jerusalem (compare with Rev. 21:25). It is for those dwelling in the new Jerusalem that “night [a “daily period of darkness”] shall be no more,” and it is in this city that there shall be “no need of lamplight and sunlight.” John gives us the reason why this will be the case in 22:5: “the Lord God shall be illuminating” everyone who will be living in this city. This fact does not mean that day and night will not continue or be experienced by those living or travelling outside the walls of the city.

Moreover, we’re specifically told just three verses before (Rev. 22:2) that the “log of life” will be “producing twelve fruits, rendering its fruit in accord with each month.” “Each month” implies that day and night will continue during the final eon, since a “month” is a measure of time that corresponds to the period of the moon’s revolution (the CLNT Keyword Concordance defines “month” as “the period from one new moon to the next”). There will simply be no “daily period of darkness” (or “night”) in the new Jerusalem, since it will be continuously illuminated by the light radiating from God himself. However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of the earth (i.e., everywhere outside of the new Jerusalem) will be equally illuminated by God's glory.

Thus, what we read in Rev. 22:5 concerning the duration of the torment of Satan, the wild beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire is perfectly consistent with their torment occurring (and thus the lake of fire existing) during the last eon, and not terminating until the consummation (although it’s quite possible that one or more of these beings will be delivered from their state of torment in the lake of fire before the last eon concludes).

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