Many years ago, a fellow Jesus-believer whom I loved and respected, handed me a typed, mimeographed manuscript he had recently written; he wanted me to read it and let him know what I thought of it. Upon reading his manuscript the first time, I rejected his ideas as being totally untrue and even wondered if he had fallen into some sort of cultish teaching. However, because I loved and respected him, I read his manuscript again and decided to check out his ideas, mostly to see if I could refute them from the Bible. I could not.
To make a very long story quite short, his manuscript caused me to begin to see many biblical truths I had not seen before; my spiritual eyes were opened to the biblical teaching that ultimately God will restore and reconcile all humanity to Himself.
Sadly, only a few months after he had handed me his manuscript, my friend jettisoned his own ideas in his manuscript, embracing instead, the teachings of a “latter day, end-time movement” that has proved to be extremely controversial; in my view, it is a non-biblical movement in a long line of such movements occurring periodically since the mid-1800’s. My friend died a few years ago; I am confident he is now in a place where He is once again seeing and embracing the understanding that God will ultimately restore and reconcile all humanity to Himself.
What you will read in this teaching is pretty much what my friend wrote many years ago; through the years his mimeographed manuscript was getting faded and worn, so I transferred his words to my computer and placed this teaching on our ministry web site a few years ago.
I have edited his manuscript, mostly for brevity and readability…and have added the headings throughout. My friend had a tendency to be redundant and use very long, complex sentences in his manuscript. I look forward to seeing him again in that Fair Land beyond the River of Death and discussing with him the ideas he wrote about in his manuscript.
Before our present era of instant communications, Mark Twain, the popular 19th century author and humorist, read an out-of-town newspaper report that he had died. Twain humorously responded, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!” The reports of the death you will read about in this teaching are not exaggerated…
What is death? More specifically, let’s begin by asking what is the second death? For years, I held the traditional view held by most Bible believers that the second death mentioned four times in the Book of Revelation (and only in Revelation) was the ultimate in spiritual death, i.e., eternal separation from God. Until recently I accepted that view merely because it was the traditional, orthodox view; I thought that was what the Bible taught, but I had never examined the subject for myself directly from the Bible, allowing the Bible to be its own commentary about the subject.
Then one day it occurred to me to study death and the second death directly from the
Bible. This teaching is a result of that study. Let’s begin our study by examining Revelation 20: 13 and 14: “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and death and hades surrendered the dead who were in them. People were judged according to their works. Then death and hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”
In that text, I began to see something different from what I had previously been taught and believed: the second death was merely the casting of death and hades into the lake of fire; that is what the reference said, but what did it mean?
Types of Death?
I was puzzled. How could the simple casting of death and hades into a lake of fire be a second death? Could there be such a phenomenon as death to death? One thing seemed a bit clearer: if the second death is merely the casting of death and hades into a lake of fire, then the second death (whatever it is) is not eternal separation from God. But this far in my study, I still had not unearthed any clear answer to the question: “What is the second death?” I saw what it is not, but not what it is.
So, my search continued. I realized in order to discover the meaning of second death, I needed to come to a point where I better understood the words “death,” “hades,” and “the lake of fire.”
(Note: At this point in your reading, you might want to read another teaching on our website entitled “Fire.” I encourage you to go to one of the links displayed on the home page of our website: www.tentmaker.org, where you will find more material than you could read in a lifetime about God’s ultimate reconciliation and restoration of all humanity to Himself. That website is maintained by a friend of mine, Gerry Beauchemin)
It seems clear from the expression second death in Revelation 20: 14, the prior mention of death in verses 13 and 14 must mean the first death. So now the question naturally arises, “What is the first death?” The Bible uses the word death in several ways: Death to spiritual deadness, i.e., death to a person’s old nature, death to self, death to the flesh, death to the “old person,” etc., as we read, for example, in Romans 6: 11: “Likewise you also, consider yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Jesus our Lord.” Spiritual Death. Ephesians 2: 1: “And you he made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.”
This is not death as we ordinarily think of it, of course, since we know that the human spirit—originating in, and a part of God who is pure Spirit—cannot die. Can we think of spiritual death then as the atrophy or withering of the human spirit, rather than death in the sense of the cessation of life?
Physical death. John 11: 14: “Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”
This is death in the commonly understood sense: the cessation—the expiration—of physical life.
In every instance where the Bible refers to death (hundreds of times, incidentally, as any good concordance will disclose), it is usually quite clear where death to spiritual deadness is meant. However, it is a far different matter when it comes to many of the biblical references about spiritual death and physical death.
Process Of Death
In many, many biblical passages referring to death, it can be understood as physical death, spiritual death, or both. Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation seems to be such a place. At this point I must ask several more questions. Is it possible that God sees no distinction between spiritual death and physical death, i.e., they are merely different aspects of one process called death?
Perhaps they can be thought of as being at different points on a continuum called death. After all, if words do have general meaning, such as the word death seems to have at times, and the context is not clear, perhaps we should see death as just that: one phenomenon with two aspects or parts called spiritual death and physical death.
In other words, if a biblical reference simply reads death, but the context does not reveal which of the two types is being referred to, should we read into the reference something which is not specific? The Holy Spirit (the Author of the Bible) generally makes biblical references quite clear if He intends them to be so.
It is generally our own biases and theological prejudices which read special meanings into words that generally say what they mean and mean what they say—if that is the author’s intent. Therefore, I am tentatively concluding for purposes of this teaching the following: when we come to the generalized word death and there is no clear contextual indication as to whether the word means spiritual or physical death, I am intellectually obligated to understand the word as being the generalized process called death, including both spiritual and physical death.
Another question: Isn’t it a fact that both physical and spiritual death have a common origin or source—sin? It seems a likely possibility that we have artificially separated physical and spiritual death at points where they are both just plain death; one part is primary, affecting our spirits, and the other part is secondary, affecting our bodies and minds (souls); isn’t God’s salvation from death only one salvation, a salvific process ultimately saving our spirits, minds, and bodies, in that order?
When the Bible does distinguish clearly between physical and spiritual death, it focuses upon spiritual death as being by far the more serious of the two. In many places the Bible portrays physical death as being little more than one of the “results” of spiritual death. Indeed, the Bible even goes so far as to call physical death “sleep,” as though it were really a comparatively minor phenomenon: Jesus said to them,”‘Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping.” (Matthew 9: 24)
Jesus also said, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I am going to awaken him.” (John 11: 11)
“But now Jesus is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15: 20)
I won’t ask any more questions for the moment, but let’s return to Revelation 20: 13 and 14. Since the “first” death is not clearly defined in this reference, perhaps it simply means just that: death—no more, no less. Perhaps it refers to the process begun by sin which “kills” the human spirit, mind, and body.
Furthermore, since no other clear biblical references nor the context itself makes any clear distinction in the type of death mentioned, I feel that we do not have the right—intellectually, theologically, or otherwise—to make such a distinction. Therefore, I am tentatively concluding that the “first” death mentioned in this text is just death—death that is primarily spiritual, having eventual effects on the mind and body.
Since the second death is clearly defined as such and since the other word “death” in this passage has no label, the unlabeled death can only be the “first” death. Can we go one step further and conclude that unless the word “death” is specifically labeled otherwise in the Bible, it is the “first” death, especially in view of the fact that only four references in the entire Bible refer to the “second” death?
Now, let’s press on with our investigation—dig a bit deeper, perhaps—and see more clearly why I have labored the matter of the distinction between the first and second deaths.
The first death first appeared—manifested itself—in Eden’s garden. Death to spirit, soul, and body first had its roots there, slaying Adam and Eve first in spirit (by that we mean their spirits immediately atrophied or withered—not ceased to exist), and then eventually in mind and body, as the process called death pursued its relentless course. If death “slayed” or “killed” Adam and Eve and subsequently all human beings except One, Jesus, can we tentatively conclude that the second death is the slaying or killing of something, too?
Revelation 20: 14 tells us that the second death slays, kills, or causes death and hades to be consumed in the lake of fire. This may not fit traditional teaching, but isn’t this an honest conclusion thus far? Doesn’t the second death slay, kill, consume, or destroy the first death? Can it possibly be that in God’s ultimate plans for all humanity, there is provision for the slaying of death and hades?
The term “hades” is easier to deal with than the term death. There is little question that it simply means the abode of the dead, or the state of death, or the grave, nothing more, nothing less. It is a “place” or “state of being” where the dead “reside” until their release to appear before the throne of Revelation 20: 11 and 12: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.”
When hades is translated as hell anywhere in the New Testament, that is an incorrect translation! Hades simply means the grave or the place where the dead go, nothing more, nothing less. Period!
Judgment and Sentencing
At this appearance before the throne of God, dead humans are raised for judgment and sentencing. After this judgment and sentencing ends (a subject I will not address herein—nor the drama of verse 10), these dead human beings are cast into the lake of fire. Are they spirit beings only? Or are they in physical bodies? Or both? You must decide for yourself.
Is this view claiming the second death slays the first death tenable with the rest of what the Bible teaches on the subject? There are only three other biblical references incorporating the expression “second death.” Let’s examine them one at a time, beginning with Revelation 21: 8: “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
I have already discussed how I believe Revelation 20: 14 tells us that the first death is eradicated, annihilated, done away with, or slain by the second death. If that is true, it is clear in Revelation 21: 8 that the first death (as manifested by cowardice, unbelief, murders, etc.) is again seen as slain by the lake of fire which is the second death.
If all these manifestations of death are “destroyed” or “consumed,” then we have reason to believe there will be a point in time and space when all these attributes of death shall have ceased to be, shall have been done away with, and all humanity will be made righteous in Jesus. All cowards will be made brave. All sexually immoral people will be made pure. All sorcerers will give up their sorceries, etc.
Fire and Brimstone
At this point I want to make an interesting parenthetical observation. From both Revelation 20: 14 and 21: 8 one can conclude that the lake of fire and the second death are one and the same. In Greek, the word for fire, “pur,” has the very same root meaning as the English word, “purge.”
Also note 21: 8 adds the additional word, brimstone, which is sulphur. Until only a few score years ago in recorded history, people used sulphur extensively as an internal purgative and for external purification of various skin diseases and eruptions. Thus, the lake of fire and brimstone is portrayed as a place of purification and cleansing, with the end result that death—spiritual, mental, and physical—is put to death.
Revelation 20: 12-15 further discloses (in the light of many other similar references) that the judgment described therein leads to cleansing. For example, Matthew 12: 20 reveals that Jesus turns judgment into victory: “A bruised reed he will not break, and smoking flax he will not quench, thus bringing victory out of judgment; . . . ”
Isn’t there at least a possibility that judgment serves only to usher in righteousness?
Isaiah 26: 9: “With my soul I have desired you in the night, Yes, by my spirit within me I will seek you early; for when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.”
Please pay close attention to our next reference, Zephaniah 3: 8 and 9. Here we see a judgment from God of fierce wrath and fire which results in purity and holiness. Furthermore, this holiness is found in all, and all call upon the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord: “‘Therefore, wait for me,’ says the LORD, ‘until the day I rise up for plunder; my determination is to gather the nations to my assembly of kingdoms, to pour on them my indignation, all my fierce anger; all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealously. For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that all may call on the name of the LORD, to serve him with one accord.’”
In close connection with this reference in Zephaniah, who among us does not know the familiar Romans 10: 13 which promises salvation to any and all who call upon the name of the Lord?: “For whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”
Forced to Call on God?
Some who choose not to see such truths might reluctantly agree that—yes—all will call on the Lord and serve him, but will then go on to contend that the prebeliever will call only because God forces him or her to call; it is not something the caller chooses to do of his or her own free will; he or she is forced. I want to examine this contention at some length.
First, let’s look at Isaiah 45: 22 – 24: “Look to me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by myself; the word has gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. He shall say, ‘Surely in the LORD I have righteousness and strength. To him all persons shall come, and all shall be ashamed who are incensed against him. In the LORD all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory.’”
As already stated, there are those who contend that the bowing of the knee and the swearing of allegiance to God is not motivated by love, but by the result of sheer pressure from God, forcing all to be obedient. Romans 10: 13, 1 Corinthians 12: 3, and Ephesians 4: 13 all taken together absolutely forbid such a conclusion. Salvation is promised to everyone who calls on God. Also, recall from above what Zephaniah 3: 9 says.
There cannot be one accord if some call out of fear, pressure, and duress and others out of love. Incidentally, it’s the same expression “of one accord” as that referring to the followers of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2: 1! It can only be concluded that the judgment of fire in Zephaniah 3:8 and in Revelation 20:11-15 has the direct effect of causing people to change their minds and willingly turn to God, calling on his name so that even those who were once dead will be able to join as equals those who are alive. How else could all humanity call on God and serve him with one accord?
Isaiah 4: 4 and 5 furnishes ample verification, in principle, of the above conclusion: “When the LORD has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning, then the LORD will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a covering.”
Note the words purged, judgment, and burning all used in the same context. It seems clear from this reference—again, in principle only—that both judgment and burning work to cleanse away filth. Are not the deeds mentioned in Revelation 21: 8 “filth”? With the assistance of Isaiah 4: 4, we see that the lake of fire is specifically designed to put to death such things as cowardice, lying, sorcery, and the like. Zephaniah 3: 8 and 9 furnish additional information that the result of fiery judgment is eventually all humanity will call on the name of the Lord. Romans 10: 13 then promises all who call shall be saved. May God speedily deliver us from theological prejudices and biases which deny such clear biblical texts.
Revelation 20: 6 is the next (and third) of the three biblical references to the second death: “Blessed and holy are they having part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Jesus, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”
This reference dovetails perfectly with the view already presented from Revelation 20: 14 and 21: 8. Obviously, if one has “escaped” the first death by means of resurrection, the second death has no power over that person. Why? There is no need for slaying or putting to death something which has already been “killed” or nullified. The purpose of the second death is to nullify the first death by means of burning. If one has already nullified or overcome the first death by resurrection, then the second death has no hold or claim on that one’s life.
Revelation 2: 11 is the fourth (and last) biblical text containing the term second death: “Let the person who has ears hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The person who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”
Not a great deal more can be said about the second death in this teaching, but a few brief comments are in order. What is the “thing” overcome in this reference? Some may say “the world,” “sin,” “the spirit of antichrist,” etc. The context is not clear and likely all these are to be overcome, but, again, they may all be included in the term death in order to be consistent with the other three passages referring to the second death. One must overcome death to escape the second death.
Now let’s take some time to examine and put to the test the widely held view that “The second death is eternal punishment, eternal separation from God.” First of all, let’s look at such statements from a purely linguistic viewpoint. Linguistically, isn’t such a statement really saying something like this: “If one overcomes final separation from God, one will not be finally separated from God”? Examined purely from a basic grammatical standpoint, such a statement, of course, does not make sense.
But the widely held traditional and orthodox view not only has basic grammatical problems; there are others. If one holds that the second death is indeed spiritual death (“eternal separation from God,” it is said), then Revelation 2: 11 is saying that if one overcomes _______________?, one will not be hurt by spiritual death; this is in direct contradiction to many other clear, unequivocal references in that this view makes spiritual death merely the result of sin, rather than the cause of sin.
The traditional views would be forced by the inertia of that kind of logic to claim that Revelation 2: 11 says a person has only to stop sinning—only to overcome sin—and that person will no longer be spiritually dead. This is too much like the “turn over a new leaf” philosophy that is tragically not the answer to the sin problem which grips humanity. Over and over, God’s invitation to sinful people is to be born again (first in spirit, then in mind and body) and then one can overcome sin. The Bible is abundantly clear that people sin because they are sinful, i.e., spiritually dead. Romans 5: 12 sheds further light on this foundational issue: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all people, because all sinned.”
Romans 7: 15 further reveals that we sin because we enter this life as spiritually dead (atrophied or withered) beings: “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.”
Other texts clarifying this view are Matthew 15: 19; 1 Corinthians 15: 56; and James 4: 1. They should be examined at some depth if you are confused by this basic issue. It resolves itself to this: We sin because we are sinners! We do not become sinners by sinning. We need to understand very clearly that it is because we are spiritually dead by being born human that we sin; we do not become spiritually dead by sinning.
Thus, I readily take exception to the traditional view that the second death is spiritual death, meaning eternal separation from God. Overcoming sin would only correct a symptom of one’s having a “dead” spirit, for example. It would be much like “turning over a new leaf” and then finding that the old, dead nature immediately concocts a new way to sin. Do we not see clearly over and over again that humans cannot self-correct their sin problem by not sinning, but that they need reborn to a new life in order to truly overcome sin?
On the other hand, if we can now see tentatively that the second death is actually death to death, then Revelation 2: 11 now makes sense, and we see it saying, “If one overcomes spiritual, mental, and physical death by new birth and resurrection, then the second death—which is designed to slay the first death—has no authority over that person—because there is no need for the second death. The first death has already been overcome.”
Another salient point I want to leave with you now is that in all four references to the second death, never once is it stated directly or by implication that the lake of fire is the result of the second death. Rather, the lake of fire is the second death.
Stretch Your Mind
I’d like to ask you now to “stretch your mind” a bit. Dying to the “old person” or old nature is, in some respects equivalent to the second death, which is the lake of fire. How so? Do we agree that for believers in Jesus the “old person” is already dead? If the old person or the old nature is crucified (see Galatians 2: 20), this crucifying or putting to death is, in a sense, already the second death, or death to death.
The result of this type of second death is preparation for new spiritual, mental, and physical life rising out of the death of the old person —new life from its ashes, so to speak. So then, we are not only to be born twice, but we are to die twice: once to the old nature, and then, progressively, to all aspects of death.
Thus, the concept or principle of a second death is by no means limited to four passages in Revelation; indeed, it is seen in principle throughout the entire Bible. Revelation merely concludes, consummates, or sums up the principle. The second death can be the lake of fire, but in principle it can also occur as we identify ourselves with the death of Jesus on the cross, put to death the old nature, and rise to new life in him. Can it be said—again, in principle—that fire, including the lake of fire, serves merely as a motivator to turn a rebellious person to willfully identify with Jesus’ death on the cross?
Let’s now make some further observations as we slowly continue to gain some kernels of truth about the nature and purpose of death.
Important Biblical Principle
Throughout the Bible, we find a principle that the second is always better than the first. Consider, for example, the following list:
The second covenant is better than the first.
The “second” Adam (the last Adam, actually) is better than the first.
The second (new) person is better than the first (old).
The second veil of the tabernacle is better than the first.
The second priestly order is better than the first.
The second sacrifice is better than the first.
The second (new) world is better than the first (old) world.
The second birth is better than the first.
The second temple is better than the first.
The second heaven is better than the first.
The second life is better than the first, etc . . .
So, in principle, without our knowing all the details, could we not conclude that the second death is “better” than the first? What could be better than the death of death?!
Also, I’d like you to note in passing that none of the New Testament writers except John ever wrote of the dire, eternal consequences of a second death. If it really is final, irrevocable, ultimate separation from God, would not such a fearful prospect warrant a warning from other writers, especially from Paul who claimed that he “shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God”? (Acts 20: 27)
Throughout my entire life as a believer in Jesus, until I began this study there were always many passages in the Bible that simply did not seem to fit the traditional viewpoint I had learned. Some of those many references now seem to make sense to me. Consider as one example Matthew 18: 34 and 35 (I trust you will read the entire context, of course): “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So my Heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Note there is a definite implication in the phrase “until he should pay all,” i.e., that full payment of a debt is possible by some means. If it were not possible, why should it even be mentioned in such a key teaching passage by Jesus? Second, we should note that the heavenly Father will deal in exactly the same manner. If we set aside the traditional view for just a brief moment, could this passage possibly be saying that people might be able to pay their debts to God?
It is only a question, not a conclusion. Could we not see the possibility that people could conceivably pay their sin debts by being cast into the lake of fire and having their sin purged from them? Left in the fire long enough until they become convinced that Jesus is their full substitutionary payment for sin? Again, these are only questions, not answers.
What can we now conclude at this point in our study? First, we know the Bible teaches there is only one way to God. That way is that a person’s sins be paid for by Jesus. We have the opportunity to accept his substitute’s payment or to serve out our sentence, according to our deeds, in the lake of fire. I remind you that in human courts all death sentences are eventually paid for in full.
However, just as in human courts there exists the possibility of substitute payment (one person willingly serving the sentence for another; in our day and age a virtual rarity, indeed, but nevertheless legally possible), so there is the substitute of Jesus’ death on the cross for each of us. 1 Corinthians 15: 54 – 57 adds substantial verification to such a conclusion: “So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O Hades, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus.”
Death is swallowed up into victory. Death—not God—is victorious if there exist eternally in the lake of fire those who are still suffering eternal death. Hades would be victorious if it eternally contains dead people. No, these are swallowed up into victory. As things stand currently—according to the traditional view—Satan, hades, and death ultimately will claim far more people than God will. No battle, no athletic event, no contest of any kind can conceivably be called a victory if one loses 95% and wins 5%. This percentage, claim the traditionalists, will be the approximate final “score” between Satan and God, respectively.
No, God’s victory must be complete and total, for how else can God really be God if he does not emerge as complete victor? Furthermore, if the lake of fire should contain even one person “forever and ever,” it cannot be said that God will be final victor.
Remember Revelation 20: 14: Death and hades are cast into the lake of fire, rendering to death and hades complete defeat, and to God total victory as the fire eventually dies out from lack of “fuel.” Can God ever be less than complete victor? Can any enemy ever gain victory over God? No! God will be Victor through the finished work of Jesus on behalf of all humanity.
1 Corinthians 15: 26, taken in context, is very relevant: The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. Some have held that the death referred to here is merely physical death; it cannot be, for verse 20 calls such death “sleep.” No, this is all death, the entire process of death, the first and second deaths—and God has completely destroyed that ages-old enemy which has claimed every person—save One—from Adam until the last person to be born. It cannot be said that death is ever completely abolished and conquered if it ever holds even one person eternally in its fiery grip.
1 Corinthians 15: 22 is abundantly clear in this respect if we will only believe what it says, not what we think it means. It says that in Jesus all shall be made alive just as those same “all persons” died in Adam. Who died in Adam? All. Who are made alive in Jesus? All. “All” cannot and does not mean “some.” If only some were made alive, then only some died.
Let’s ponder 2 Timothy 1: 9 and 10: “[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given to us in Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Here we read the plain statement that Jesus abolished death—the first death and the second death. This clearly refers to his finished work on the cross. It is finished—complete in every aspect and in every respect. Nothing more needs to be done by God or people. Although Jesus’ work is finished and complete, yet to the individual human, it is provisional: the sentence upon death in the realm of individual time has not yet been executed. Death is still operative among humans, but not forever. Some day the sentence given to death by Jesus will be carried out; death shall lose all its power; it shall be abolished in fact as well as in potential.
Therefore, we can only conclude that if some people were to remain eternally in the fiery clutches of death—first or second—it will not have been truly abolished. In plain language we could then have to concede that death, not God, would be the victor. It cannot be so. Death has been abolished and we all await the final carrying out of the sentence. Praise God for both the cross and the lake of fire, both being God’s instruments to bring all humanity to him. Even the stubborn resistance of the last living person to remain in the lake of fire will be purged out so that every knee shall willingly bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord to the glory of God the Father!
“That at [in] the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2: 9 and 10) [See also 1 Corinthians 12: 3; Isaiah 45: 23; Romans 14: 11; Ephesians 3: 14; Psalm 22: 27-29]
“And every [created being] which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: ‘Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, for the ages of the ages’.” (Revelation 5: 13)
Let’s Keep Looking
Now let us leave these lofty heights of praise and victory and return to our ongoing quest for truth about this subject. Let’s continue by looking at John 12: 32: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross and in my ascension], will draw all humanity to myself [as a magnet inexorably draws metal to itself].”
The traditional view holds that the overwhelming majority of humankind will burn forever in an eternal hell. This view has no ready answer to John 12: 32 except to “water down” the words “all” and “draw.” But these words—in context—demand that we see that all people are drawn (literally “dragged as to a magnet”) by Jesus to himself, even though they may have to be dragged through the fire.
Additional study reveals many references which suggest all people shall be reconciled to God, all people shall be saved, all shall be purified: “That was the true Light which gives light to every person coming into the world.” (John 1: 9)
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to our own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53: 6)
“And by [Jesus] to reconcile all things to himself, by him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of the cross.” (Colossians 1: 20)
“That in the dispensation of the fulness of the times he might gather together in one all things in Jesus, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in him.” (Ephesians 1: 10)
Purging and Cleansing
I want us to take a further look now at the principle of purging—cleansing—through the means of fire. Consider the following references in view of all we have examined this far: “I will turn my hand against you, and thoroughly purge away your dross, and take away all your alloy.” (Isaiah 1: 25)
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, ‘He is coming,’ says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming. And who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like launderers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness.” (Malachi 3: 1-3)
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness, but is infinitely patient toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with a fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” (1 Peter 3: 9 and 10)
Romans 9: 22 speaks of vessels of God prepared for destruction: “What if God, wanting to show his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that he might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had prepared beforehand for glory, . . . ”
However, Jeremiah 18: 4 speaks of marred vessels which are “destroyed” and then refashioned: “And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.”
For a change of pace, I will digress a bit now and consider some philosophical considerations.
Have you ever asked yourself the seemingly forbidden question: “Why did God ever create humans in the first place if he knew full well that the majority of humans would burn in hell forever?” It is true that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, but are we not to be continually—more and more—putting on his mind and thinking his thoughts as we find them in the Bible?
How can it be said that God is just and fair when some people have hundreds—even thousands—of opportunities to hear the Good News about Jesus, yet millions, perhaps billions, never hear it even once? There is no problem with such justice or fairness, however, if we see that each person will pay only for sin actually committed during his or her lifetime here.
According to some conclusions we have already reached, eventually all people ever created will have the same opportunity to respond to God’s Good News about Jesus. A person who does not come to God by way of the cross, will be resurrected, judged, sentenced, and cast into the lake of fire. If he or she is able immediately—or many ages later if persisting in stubbornness—to call upon Jesus for salvation, I do not know of any biblical texts that would forbid Jesus from immediately responding to that person’s pleas—because of the provisions He made through His life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and present ministry.
The “whosoever” of Romans 10:13 does not seem to set any space-time limitations or parameters as to when a person may call on the name of the Lord.
Considering the above point one step further, it can be concluded that God will ultimately be able to answer every prayer for salvation, either on one’s own behalf, or on the behalf of another, because all persons shall ultimately call on him and receive his full and complete salvation. God will literally—without its being explained away in any sense—fulfill His promise that every prayer prayed in Jesus’ Name shall be answered as we read in John 14: 13: “And whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
What answer can the traditional view of an everlasting hell offer when millions of people who have been prayed for die “without Christ” and then burn in hell forever? Is the promise of John 14: 13 and other similar references valid if people remain in the lake of fire forever? Of course, the traditionalist will answer that God tried, but the person who was prayed for was stubborn and would not yield to the vain, powerless pleadings of the Holy Spirit. Is our God really that weak or that feeble? Does He or does He not answer honest prayers prayed in the name of Jesus?
“Therefore [Jesus] is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7: 25)
Are we not able to begin seeing “through a glass darkly” why God told various Old Testament persons to literally kill all members of a certain tribe or group? “Why should God cause innocent women and children to be slain?!” has been the cry of many for ages. For too long we have been given the weak reply: “Well, God’s ways were different back in those days.” This conclusion utterly ignores certain references such as Malachi 3: 6 and Hebrews 13: 8: “For I am the LORD, I do not change; . . . ” “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and throughout the ages of time.”
But if we can at least begin to see in part that all of those people God ordered killed—including innocent women and children—might make no more progress toward him in this life—perhaps because of the influences of a depraved and degenerate society and culture—why not deliver them over to death and the grave, knowing full well that later, through the fiery motivation of the lake of fire, they will eventually call to God and be saved?
This same line of thought at least partially answers the question, “Why do some die so young?” Isn’t it at least a possibility that those who die young are actually, in a sense, being speeded on their way to accepting Jesus’ full and complete payment for their sins, while those who still live evidently will have opportunity—via a Christian friend, via an evangelist, via a missionary, or the like—to accept Jesus in this life. Both ways lead to Jesus. God who knows the thoughts of all people, knows which route will be speedier for a given individual.
The Nagging Questions
No doubt there is at least one large problem yet nagging the thoughts of some of my readers: “What about all those references in the Bible that specifically mention eternal punishment, eternal damnation, the everlasting torment of the wicked, and the like?” I will attempt to answer this question in a rather general manner.
The expressions “forever,” “forever and ever,” “everlasting,” and the like are all translations of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic words meaning generally “eon,” “age,” “enduring for the ages of time,” “for all time,” “generations after generations,” etc. ” The word “age” has to do with time, not with the state of being called eternity, standing outside of and beyond time. The problem generally lies with a very basic misunderstanding of the differences between time and eternity.
For example, one of the standard dictionary definitions of “eternity” is “never-ending time.” That’s an incorrect definition. Time will end; it is not never-ending or unending. Eternity is a state of absolute simultaneousness, not a state of unending time. There is no time in eternity. Time with all its component eons and ages is finite; the opposite is eternity, which is indefinite (in-de-finite).
Time was created. It has not always existed—it had a beginning and it will have an end. Eternity simply is; it has nothing to do with time. The two are diametric opposites. The Bible does not teach there is a never-ending hell; it merely states there is a lake of fire which shall burn for a number of ages of time, not in eternity.
Some may suggest at this point in our study that we have a “watered down” view of just how terrible sin really is, that it must be punished forever and ever in order to satisfy God’s holiness and justice. They claim that only never-ending punishment is suitable for one who is an unredeemed sinner. I do not detract one iota from the awfulness of sin. If it is terrible enough that God’s only begotten Son had to die for its eradication, then I can only conclude that none of us except God and the Son know how terrible it really is—terrible to the extreme!
But can it not logically follow that if God is powerful and loving enough to forgive such terrible sin for one who receives Jesus as one’s personal Savior, then God is also great enough to provide a lake of fire to burn out sin, motivating a sinner to see for himself or herself how awful is their sin, thus turning to Jesus for forgiveness and total cleansing. It is conceded that such a concept makes no rational sense, but then, neither does placing one’s faith in a Man who died on a cross in an obscure land over 2,000 years ago make sense. However, it seems to me that both views are equally biblical.
Hebrews 6: 4-6 and 10: 26 are difficult texts to understand. They describe a situation wherein people who were once believers and then chose to willfully and continually sin, reach a place where they have flaunted, and are no longer eligible for God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary. Note that 10: 30 states these are God’s people and then goes on to state they shall be judged. Here again we should note that Revelation 20: 11-15 teaches that the lake of fire is to judge people according to their works.
Could it be that the people involved in these scenarios in Hebrews 6 and 10 have shunned and refused God’s forgiveness—hence, cannot be forgiven—and need to be judged? It is a question, not an answer. If so, the end of the judgment is still complete reconciliation to God as we have already read in Colossians 1: 20 and Matthew 12: 20.
In John 14: 6, Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No person can come to the Father except through me.” This reference makes it clear that whatever else the lake of fire may or may not do, it eventually causes people to turn to and receive Jesus because he is the only way to the Father. John 12: 32 says that Jesus draws all humanity to himself. I have previously discussed other implications of this text, but now I invite you to see that there must be a way in which Jesus draws all people to himself.
(NOTE: For additional thoughts about the differences between time and eternity, you might want to read another of our teachings on this website titled Beyond The Far Shores Of Time.)
The Rich Man and Lazarus
We have seen that the lake of fire causes people to turn to Jesus since all reconciliation to God must be through Jesus alone as we have previously pointed out in Ephesians 1: 10 and John 14: 6, above. We get a further suggestion of the above conclusion in the familiar account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16: 19 –31:
“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and reveled and feasted every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs, which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
So it was that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’
But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you may not, nor may those from there pass to us.’
Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”
While alive, it seems that the rich man had no interest in matters of “religion,” or of faith, belief, or the like. He is now in anguish in flames and is crying out for help. Obviously, the fire has motivated him to do so. He now has concern for others, concern he seemingly did not have before he died. Isn’t this concern for others somewhat of an initial step in repentance? Isn’t it the beginning of a significant change of heart? Isn’t this the beginning of his self-centeredness and sin-centeredness being purged out of him?
Isn’t this a desperate man beginning to see the reality of matters beyond that which is merely material? This kind of inner change in direction certainly would not have gone unheeded while the rich man lived this life; why should it now make a difference simply because he had died? Is death all that final—from God’s perspective? If God is so desirous of wanting people changed into his image, so much so that his Son died for all people, why should the mere fact of mortal death forever bar God—who is not willing that any should perish—from reaching those who have died?
I’d like to leave this passage with just a seed kernel of thought about the “great gulf fixed” between the rich man and Lazarus. The passage merely says that dead humans cannot go from one place to the other. It does not say that Jesus (the God-Man who transcends all time and space limitations) cannot pass from one to the other. After sufficient repentance by the rich man, after sufficient purging, who is to say that Jesus cannot cross the gulf and go to the man’s succor, one for whom he died and made full payment for his sin? It is a question, not an answer.
Now let’s take a look at Isaiah 25: 8 and 9: “[God] will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces; the rebuke of his people He will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken.”
Doesn’t this passage say essentially the same thing we have seen in some other texts we have studied? Perhaps I can stress a few salient points. Notice again that death (first and second?) is swallowed up in victory. Furthermore, God takes away all rebuke (the rebuke of our own sin and sinful natures) from all the earth. He wipes away all tears from all faces. He wipes away the tears of mourning (for death, perhaps?) that is the fate of all mortal humanity.
Making Sense of Some Troublesome Matters
Again, I am now able to make some sense (even dimly) of several matters which have never before made sense to me (unless I rationalized them away as many do by saying, “Well, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.”
Can a few years of sin—80 or 100 or more—truly merit a never-ending punishment for sins committed during a life into which none of us asked to be born? Even human courts are more merciful than that. God says he does not hold his anger continually (Micah 7: 18). In fact, all of God’s wrath and anger against our sin was totally and completely—once and for all—poured out upon his Son on the cross of Calvary. God is no longer angry at sin or at sinners. His wrath against sin and sinners was totally dissipated at the cross of Calvary!
God commands us to freely forgive all who ask forgiveness of us—even to those who do not ask, for that matter. Will he do less than he asks of us? Will mere death thwart God’s forgiveness? If people in a lake of fire cry out for forgiveness, will God withhold it from them merely because they no longer live a mortal life on this plane of existence? Is not genuine repentance what God desires, regardless of what causes the repentance? What is wrong with having people motivated by fire to repent? Just questions . . .
God commands us to show mercy to others. Yet, would God be displaying mercy if he demands a never-ending hell as payment for 80 to 100 years of sin, sin caused by an inborn nature which one did not choose to possess?
The Laodicean Church of Revelation is severely rebuked for being blind (3: 17). I believe that its blindness, in part, is to the truth about God’s love, justice, power, and ultimate redemption for all humanity.
God’s Eternal Love For All Humanity
I now see that the first death, hades, and the second death, the lake of fire, are in fact further expressions of God’s eternal love, a love so strong that nothing can deter him from his relentless and inexorable pursuit to win all humanity to himself.
“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were ever stalk on earth a quill,
And everyone a scribe by trade—
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
O love of God, how rich and pure,
How measureless and strong.
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints and angels’ song!”
God is said to be the God and Father of all humankind, Father on the basis of both Creator and Redeemer, both purposed and finalized before the ages of time were created, purposed in awesome conference by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What father would punish either his created or redeemed children unendingly? On the other hand, what true father is not willing to punish, discipline, and correct his children as long as it takes for good to come from it?
Jonah is a good example of us human beings who are bent on following through with prophesied doom even though the people repented. Why do we do this? To “save face,” perhaps? Humans like to withhold mercy; it is the “serves-them-right,” “they-got-just-what-they-deserved” mentality that besets so many of the sons and daughters of humanity.
God made it clear to Jonah that, although Jonah would still have liked to have had God destroy Nineveh even after its inhabitants had repented, this was not God’s way of mercy. God honored repentance even after “damnation” had been made known and prophesied. Has God changed since then? Why do we so strongly insist on sinners getting “what’s coming to them” in an ever-burning hell? Is not the real truth of the matter that we have the “spirit of Jonah” deeply rooted in our hearts? We seek mercy for ourselves, but to see it extended to others simply because they have died seems for some reason to be repulsive to us.
We wondered about what views on this subject may have been held by the early Christians. Did they believe in and teach a never-ending hell or did they view the lake of fire as being primarily for cleansing and purging? A very brief bit of research in any theological library will reveal that many of them held essentially the same viewpoint as I have presented in this article. In fact, my own “studied guess” is that the early “heretics” were the ones who did not hold this view. Did you know, too, that even Dante’s 13th–century fantasy “The Inferno” (from where we get many of our traditional views about hell) taught that the fires were not ever-burning?
I discovered that I had totally misunderstood many familiar biblical texts, one being Matthew 16: 18: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hades shall not hold out against it.”
Most traditionalists perceive the Church in this passage as being stationary. They see the gates of hades as growing legs and marching against the Church in an onslaught of wickedness. How ridiculous! No. What this passage is obviously teaching is when the Church completes its march against hades, even hade’s gates will have to open to the Church’s onslaught and deliver up all who have been imprisoned there—until it is completely emptied.
Hades would love to keep it’s gates forever locked and proclaim victory. But God—not hades—shall be the one to proclaim victory. Hades has opened its gates to the Church (comprised of both Jesus the Head and people the body) and the Church has led captivity captive. Jesus shall save to the uttermost. He will draw all people to Himself. He has revivified all and has made them live again. (1 Corinthians 15: 22)
He has the key to hades and shall unlock even death itself: “I am he who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am the One Who lives through the ages of the ages and beyond into eternity. Amen. And I have the keys of hades and of Death.” (Revelation 1: 18)
How meaningless to view Jesus and his followers using the keys to lock the gates of death and hades—as if death and hades would let people escape! Hades (the grave) and death want to keep people forever in their clutches, but Jesus wants them out. Just as Lazarus had no choice but to come forth from his tomb when Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out of there!,” even so people will have no choice but to erupt forth from death and hades when Jesus orders them to come out. That is why He died, and since He has the keys, He has prevailed against those locked gates and emptied death and hades to their final and utter destruction (Revelation 20: 14). Is this not a majestic portrayal of a loving, almighty, victorious Jesus and his Kingdom followers?!
Nothing in the views presented in this article detract from the urgency of sharing the Good News about Jesus. People will burn in the lake of fire unless they hear the Good News, receive it, and are born again. But perhaps this view will prevent some Christians from being overanxious and bearing witness “in the flesh” instead of “in the Spirit.”
In Romans 9: 3 Paul says: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Jesus for my brethren . . . ”
Until I came to understand and embrace the viewpoints presented in this teaching, I believed the traditionalists who taught that Paul was exaggerating in order to stress a point. If the curse truly meant complete, eternal separation from God, I had difficulty accepting the position that Paul fully meant what he said. If he did not really mean what he said, then I had grave problems regarding the inspiration of the Bible as being God’s true and accurate Word. However, it is now conceivable that Paul was willing to pay the price of judgmental, cleansing fire on behalf of his kinsmen if he knew that his judgment would eventually end.
A final comment! The central theme and focus of the entire Bible is Jesus: his birth, his earthly life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his present ministry, and his return and reign for the ages of time and then into eternity.
Many other truths were taught, discussed, and preached in the New Testament Churches and that is where the views we have presented in this article fit best. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find these views presented directly to those who were not God’s children and followers. Some truths seem designed by God to be held and understood primarily by his own family members—to be digested by those persons therein—and then presented with clarity and wisdom and in a loving manner to those outside God’s family as the Holy Spirit directs them. It seems to me that the views presented in this teaching fall largely into that category of understanding and dissemination.
On the other hand, I have seen the Holy Spirit use these truths, properly presented in a loving systematic, and clear manner, to literally melt Gospel-hardened people. I have seen people vehemently deny the very existence of God and then moments later open their heart’s door wide to the incoming Jesus when they hear of God’s fairness, justice, and love as presented in the Bible. Obviously, only the Holy Spirit can properly guide us in presenting the truths we have shared with you in this teaching.
We are at a point in time when God’s people are beginning to understand much truth that has been hidden and obscured for centuries by human tradition; our understanding and comprehension are accelerating. Our knowledge is increasing by quantum leaps as the Holy Spirit seems to be doing a quick work in many people. The views we have presented in this teaching are not new; they are merely a part of the whole that God is restoring to his people—a small part, but, nonetheless, a part of the whole.
I hope this teaching has helped you better understand death for what it is, will help you not to fear death, will help you to accept Jesus’ overcoming of death, and will cause you to look forward eagerly to when He Who is the fullness of LIFE personified will be All in all, everything to everyone—in me, in you, and in all others!
Life Enrichment Services, Inc.
Updated and Revised October 2020