47. The Second Death

The Unveiling of Jesus Christ

The Concordant Version

CHAPTER 20:14-15


PERHAPS few subjects have provoked so much speculation as the lake of fire. Is it literal? Is it only a figure? What is it? The answer of Scripture is plain and clear, and all that is necessary is a calm consideration of God's explanation, rather than some plan to mitigate its apparent awfulness. God is always more merciful than man and we may well leave this theme just as He has revealed it, with the full assurance that, in every detail, it is in accord with His gracious purpose.

The divine definition of the lake of fire is "the second death." The law of the lexicographer is this: the unknown must be put in terms of the known. No true definition should need defining. It may be necessary for us in these days of apostasy to define what death is, but this has been done long ere we reach these final scenes in human history. The earth has been corrupted with the carcasses of the dead for thousands of years. All men have made its intimate acquaintance in their brief lives. The Scriptures have fully defined its nature.

Death is a return. The body returns to the soil, the spirit to God, and the soul to the unseen. Those who will be cast into it will go back into the state from which they emerged at their resurrection. The lake of fire, then, is a return. The physical elements return to the inorganic realm of matter; the spirit returns to God; the soul to the imperceptible sphere.

The first death is accomplished in a variety of ways. Perhaps most of mankind die of disease, due to the ravages of sin. Some are drowned, others are burned to death. When God chose to purify the primeval earth he used water to wash His wayward creation off the ground. The deluge was a physical cleansing. The final purification of the earth will be more searching and severe. It will be a chemical change. Unredeemed mankind will be swept away by a besom of fire.


It is usually supposed that the second death must differ from the first. Indeed, few believe that it is a death at all. Yet the moment that we realize that the word death is chosen here as a definition of the lake of fire we are compelled to admit that it imperatively must have its ordinary meaning. If we look up the word "jet" in the dictionary, and find that it denotes black, we are not prepared to see it applied to all the colors of the rainbow. When a word is used as the principal factor in a definition it must retain its usual and accepted significance.

A long list of seconds could be given to substantiate this, but a few must suffice. We have the second day (Gen.1:8), the second river (Gen.2:13), a second son (Gen.30:7), the second month (2 Chron.30:2), the second pillar (Jer.52:22), etc. Indeed, it is generally translated another in our version. In the negative its force is clearly seen, as in Ecclesiastes 4:8: "There is one alone, and there is not a second."

In the case of our Lord, Who is the second man, we are tempted to magnify His superiority over Adam, yet we must remember that this phrase is concerned only with their points of likeness.

While we must maintain the essential similarity of the first and second deaths, they undoubtedly differ in scope and intention. With few exceptions, all men enter the first death, while only unbelievers partake of the second. The first is due to the operation of natural law and seizes saint and sinner alike. The second is due to the judicial action of God and no saint shall ever have any part in it.

When we are tempted to view the first death of a sinner as a judicial infliction of God, let us remember that the believer, who can never come into condemnation, shares the same fate. Moreover, we are then confronted with the glaring injustice of judging the sinner before his case has been brought before the great Judge. The first death can be no more to the sinner than the prison which holds him for trial. He cannot be judged before sentence has been passed.

This gives us a clue to the twofold office of the second death. Like the first, it is the means of holding over the creature until God's time arrives for his vivification. The first death envelopes the sinner in oblivion, so that, so far as his consciousness is concerned, he is ushered into judgment immediately after dying. The justice of this admirable provision is worthy of note. Among men, it is possible to suffer imprisonment before trial for a longer term than the ultimate sentence demands. In God's great assize, all are immediately brought before the bench. They do not suffer before they are sentenced. What but death could hold the sinner without violating the recognized right of all to be judged before enduring the penalty imposed?

The second death is likewise an admirable provision. To prolong the suffering and anguish of all for the immense space of the last eon would manifestly interfere with the infliction of various degrees of judgment. No sane man would consider it just to inflict a penalty for thousands of years for a life of as many days, especially in the case of some who were never called to account before a human bar and who were reckoned philanthropists by their fellow mortals.

Eonian life is only for the believer. Others cannot be vivified during the eons. What shall be done with them until the consummation? The second death is the answer. Just as the first death held them for judgment, so the second death will hold them for reconciliation.

The discipline which changes the unbeliever into a fit subject for reconciliation at the consummation is all included in his judgment between the first and second death. If such discipline or penalty could be endured in death then there would be no need for a resurrection. It is called a resurrection of judgment and is in contrast to the resurrection of life. These epithets, given by our Lord Himself, are in perfect correspondence with the teaching of Paul in the fifteenth of first Corinthians. There, in giving the three classes who are to be vivified, who are to have a resurrection of life, he entirely ignores the resurrection of judgment at the great white throne. There is no hint, in any passage of Scripture, that anyone will receive the gift of life except at the presence of Christ, during the day of Yahweh, and at the close of the eons.

It needs no imagination to conceive the effectiveness of God's judgment. The earth is gone. The sinner is absolutely helpless. His judgment is not merely an aimless punishment for his sins, but a carefully designed discipline which will correct his errors, and, in correcting, acquaint him not only with his true self, but with God. Judgment, in the Scriptures, always has the essential thought of righting what is wrong. When God "judges" the widow He does not afflict her further, but avenges her wrongs, and restores her rights. When the time comes for the judgment of the dead of the first resurrection (Rev.11:18) they are not led forth for execution, but are given the awards which are rightly theirs in the kingdom. Only sinners need fear judgment, yet even to them, it brings the needed discipline that rights their relationship with God.

Unbelievers are raised and judged at the great white throne. They cannot be given eonian life, but they must be vivified when death is abolished, at the consummation. This presupposes their literal death in the lake of fire. If the lake of fire is not actual, physical death, then the abolition of death at the consummation is impossible, for there is no death to abolish. Christ was literally made alive, the saints will be actually vivified in His presence, hence the rest must be really given life at the consummation. This can only be if the lake of fire is literal death.

To understand the lake of fire aright we must grasp the fact that the preceding era is occupied with judging. The great white throne session is not confined to the trial and sentence of those who appear before it. During that era, the dead are dealt with according to their deserts. The pains and penalties are inflicted. All the tangled affairs of humanity are adjusted and set right. All who appear before it are sinners. During their previous lifetime, sin operated in them and caused their death. Is it not perfectly just that a judicial review of their acts should lead to the same sentence? The soul that sins shall die, is not merely a natural law operating in man. It is also the judicial decree of the great Throne Sitter. After suffering for their sins, all who appear before the great white throne are doomed to die again. The means for this is the lake of fire.

Let no one shrink with horror at this fact, as though it entailed excessive suffering and agony. A death by fire is not necessarily painful. God has allowed many to die the first death by means of fire. Some are unconscious before they have time to feel the flames. Others, especially His own witnesses, have suffered agonies at the stake. The lake of fire is not presented as a place of suffering, but a place of death, in connection with the great white throne judgment. Every court has some means of inflicting the extreme penalty, such as electrocution, or lethal injection. They use the least painful process. The lake of fire is the executioner of the great white throne. Death should be instantaneous and almost painless.

All other forms of death involve corruption and defilement. If all were hanged, what a mass of putrefying flesh would taint the scene! Even if they were drowned, as at the flood, the carcasses would corrupt the water and the air. But fire purifies. It accomplishes a chemical change. The disintegration produces no pestilence. It is a token that sinners shall no longer defile the universe. To make this appear as though the sinners themselves were cleansed by this fire is a most serious mistake. To suppose that it serves to purify them from sin is an enormous error. Christ alone can cope with sin. Their cleansing must come through Christ, not through the purgatorial pains of the burning lake.

Any attempt to apply figurative language concerning death to the lake of fire will not stand the test. In Romans 8:6 we read that "to be carnally minded is death." Better, "the disposition of the flesh is death." If this is the death which is the lake of fire, then all are in that lake now. All unbelievers have the flesh's disposition and all believers have a measure of it as well. Besides, the unbeliever before the great white throne has this disposition before he is cast into the lake of fire, hence the whole is reduced to meaningless words. There is no warrant for the thought that the lake will destroy or burn out the second death. It is the second death.

The lake of fire is closely associated with the last two of the four great catastrophes which mark the boundary between the five eons which comprise earth's history. Four times the earth passes through the throes of worldwide physical destruction, to emerge again into a new and different condition. Two of these are past and two are future.

In the past the agent of destruction was water. The disruption which we find at the very forefront of revelation leaves the earth, which was created without any seas, covered with a watery deep (Gen.1:2). The deluge once more washed it clean of its inhabitants.

In the future, the agent of destruction will be fire. In various forms, it will enter into the day of wrath which precedes the millennium, and after its close, the holocaust will dissolve the earth into its very elements.

It is a notable fact that the changes going on in the earth may nearly all be referred to these two media, water and fire. The first produces a physical, the second a chemical change. Fire is far more searching, than water. Its action is a thousand times more thorough. It completely transforms the very constitution of that which passes through its flames. This agrees with the fact that future judgments will be infinitely more effective than those of the past, and will lead to perfection.

Both Scripture and nature agree that the earth is a storehouse of fire. We may hesitate as to the exact thickness of its solid crust, but a little reflection will convince us that most of the earth's mass must be molten and liquified by the intense heat indicated but a short distance beneath its surface.

How frail and confined is puny man! He depends for sustenance on a thin film of soil on some of the earth's surface. The rocks will not feed him and the sand will not furnish food. Only where water and weather have oxidized the ground can he maintain his fragile life. Further down, if he could reach so far, is the storehouse of fire waiting for the day of judgment to engulf the world in flames unquenchable. Truly he is a prisoner in the universe, confined behind bars he cannot break.

The past is always a help in understanding the present and the future. No one wonders whether the deluge was a literal infliction or a figurative visitation. Its effects on the earth's surface is apparent in some places to this very day. It has found a place in almost all the early legends of mankind. The account is so specific and circumstantial that we are involved in inextricable difficulties the moment we seek to reduce it to a figure.

Those who believe God concerning the ultimate reconciliation of the universe are concerned to find some place and some measure by which this is effected in the case of those who are judged before the great white throne. This arises from the fact that they have not sufficiently considered the character of that judgment and its sufficiency to effect the work of reconciliation, without any further aid, such as the lake of fire might afford.

It has been pressed that the lake of fire is a purging process, a disinfecting agency, calculated to rid the sinner of his sin and make him fit for God's presence. This, of course, is the purgatory of Roman Catholicism, with little modification. Its great fault lies in that it provides a substitute for the sufferings of Christ. Let us be clear on this: no sufferings of the sinner can purge his sins. That is accomplished solely by the sacrifice of Christ. Besides the sinner has been judged at the great white throne, so why continue the infliction for the whole of that tremendous eon?

The word theion, brimstone, sulphur, has been seized and given its literal signification, divine, to support the thought of a figurative lake of fire. But the word is always used as a noun in Scripture, and we are not warranted in the rendering divine fire. Literally, it is of fire and divine, which makes no intelligible sense. The fact is that sulphur got its name from the religious use made of it in heathen lustrations. Fire and sulphur was supposed to be a purifying agent. Indeed, it is a good disinfectant and is so used today.

Needless to say, the idolaters did not purify by plunging the person into fire and sulphur, nor did they even apply it to their bodies. Only one who has been burned by sulphur knows how malignant such a sore is. It seems to defy healing. The ancients assuredly did not purify by any such means. Their method was rather to sprinkle sulphur on a torch and carry the flame thrice around the place or person to be purified. Hence they called sulphur by the name divine. But no such thought is ever attached to it in the Scriptures. Sodom and Gomorrah were not purified by sulphur. They were condemned. We should never allow ourselves to be driven to such exigencies even if it be to support a precious doctrine. The truth needs no prop.

The vast amount of confusion on the subject of death results, in large measure, from failure to distinguish its figurative use. We make bold to say that, literally speaking, the sinner is not dead in life. Yet he is so oblivious of God that the relation between them is most aptly illustrated by comparing it to death. In the language of the simile, he is like one who is dead, toward God. In the stronger language of the metaphor, he is dead to God. This should not be called "spiritual" death, for his spirit is not dead. All the meaning and force of the figure comes from its likeness to literal death.

Death is always oblivion. The saints ought to have nothing to do with sin. They should be entirely oblivious of its presence. This is also expressed by calling them dead to sin. In the judgment, the sinner will not be oblivious of either God or sin. He will be acutely conscious of the presence of God and his sins. This will cease in the second death, for he will be oblivious to everything. He will be literally dead.

The fact that this is not a vivification is further impressed upon us by the studious avoidance of any reference to the spirit. At death, the body returns to the soil, the soul to the unseen, the spirit to God. As a matter of fact, there could be no resurrection unless God "gives up" the spirits also which had returned to Him. This, we repeat, is intentionally suppressed, because the spirit does not play the principal part, as it does in the resurrection of life. Instead, the unseen "gives up" their souls and the sea and death "give up" their bodies (Rev.20:13). "Sea" seems quite literal here. But "death," in addition to the sea, can mean nothing else but the places of sepulcher on the land, the graves, the tombs, wherever the remains of men may be. Their bodies come from their earthly tenements, their souls return from the imperceptible. No mention is made of the spirit, which alone can bring them back to such life as they have, because this is not the resurrection of life.

In their return to death, the action is reversed. Instead of death and the unseen giving up the dead, these are cast into the lake of fire. The new earth will not have a single cemetery. All death in the universe will be segregated in the devouring lake. It will be the only mausoleum in the world. Nowhere, in all creation, will the corrupting flesh of humankind taint the air or offend the ground. Nowhere else will be the need of cremating the corpses of the dead. "Death will be no more" on the new earth. All will live until death is finally abolished. Only in this fiery lake will death make its final stand, the last enemy of mankind. Therefore, it is the second death.

In the last eon, death is segregated. In the consummation, it is abolished. The first death cannot be the last enemy. It is the second death which has this distinction. Hence it must continue throughout the last eon. One of the special characteristics of the new earth will be the absence of death, for no one will die, and those who are dead will all be confined to the fiery lake. But when the consummation comes, when all the other foes of God and man have been subdued, then will death--—the second death--—yield to the life-giving power of the Christ of Golgotha. As, in Adam, all had died, so, in Christ, shall all be made alive.

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