Q&R: “What is the Second Death?” – Brad Jersak

Question:

How do you understand the second death mentioned in John’s Apocalypse?

Response:

Whatever it is, it sounds like serious business and something to avoid! The phrase only appears in the symbols of the Book of Revelation. Here are the relevant texts:

  • Revelation 2:11: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”
  • Revelation 20:6: “Blessed and holy are those who have a part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.”
  • Revelation 20:14-15: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Three Views:

So, what is the “second death.” There are three broad responses:

  • (1) Eternal Damnation: The “second death” in Revelation symbolizes eternal separation from God, depicting a state of everlasting punishment for those who reject divine salvation.
  • (2) Final Annihilation: Some interpret the “second death” as complete annihilation, suggesting that those who experience it cease to exist rather than enduring eternal suffering.
  • (3) Fiery Judgment for Redemption: The “second death” is viewed as a transformative, purifying process leading to redemption through a fiery judgment, emphasizing the potential for spiritual renewal and salvation.

I am most convinced by the final one, where the fire of judgment equates to purifying power of God’s infinite love (also described as “the Refiners’ fire” in Malachi 3), and which brings to death in us all that is not love and brings about ultimate redemption. But this is not to be taken lightly. The cleansing fire (described in 1 Corinthians 3) burns up the “wood, hay and stubble” of our false selves. Paul anticipates that some who pass through it with nothing to show for their lives. This may be why the Bible describes weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth… but also, Revelation adds that (1) death and hell will finally be thrown into the Lake of Fire, (2) that those who are listed there and again listed outside the city in the New Jerusalem in the following chapters, (3) that the gates are always open and the invitation to healing and life is perpetually given, (4) that they enter through the cleansing blood of the Lamb, and (5) that finally, every tear is wiped from their eyes.

So while I hold to the hope of final redemption, the means by which we enter sounds miserable indeed for the defiant. Whatever it is, the “second death” is not something we want to experience.

Historical Backstory:

I do find it fascinating to dig into the historical backstory of our common “hell” words (in this case, gehenna, the “Lake of Fire,” and the “second death”). We know and read that the bodies of those who were slain in the seiges of Jerusalem (both by Babylon and Rome) were deposited en masse into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom (Gk. Gehenna) outside of the walls of Jerusalem, so that valley became a symbol of destruction. ‘Hell’ is a mistranslation for Gehenna… or maybe it’s a good translation of ‘hell on earth.’ There, outside the walls, their corpses remained (see the last verse of Isaiah) and were eventually consumed in flames (horrifying to Jewish practice). Then, when the spring floods came, their ashes would be washed down ‘the ravine of fire’ into the Dead Sea, also known as ‘The Lake of Fire’ because of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the bitumen there. There, they would sink into that lake and in that sense, die a second death.

Symbols of Judgment:

All of this historical backstory would eventually become symbolic, especially when the Rabbis in exile appropriated aspects of Babylonian or Greek mythology to think about divine judgment (don’t assume that engagement is negative). But it is also not the last word. Under the new covenant, Ezekiel foresees the renewal of the Dead Sea, fresh water, and fishers drawing an abundant harvest of fish (Ezekiel 47:8-12). And the valley of Gehenna (and the entire Kidron Valley of which it is part) would restored (Jeremiah 31:38-40). In fact, today it is a beautiful garden that, ironically, has a “No Fires” sign displayed where corpses once smoldered.

Promises of Victory:

To be fair, it is difficult to know how to interpret all the symbolism, generated over centuries by multiple authors in diverse situations… and whether they are reflecting on the past, describing the present, prophesying an immediate or distant future, or speaking in archetypes that are always true. But what we know is that there are these promises in each of the “second death” passages:

  • Those who overcome [by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony – Revelation 12] cannot be harmed by the second death.
  • The second death has no power over them; instead, they shall take a lead role in God’s reign.
  • Even the second death will be swallowed up in the victory of Christ.

For much more detail on these matters, I’ll refer you to my book, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook formats.

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